Introducing Nilgais

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Female nilgais await our male's arrival.

Last summer, a trailer with two very interesting-looking antelope arrived at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. They appeared to be a combination of different animals! They have long necks, the female is tan with unusual stripes, and the male is a beautiful blue-gray color. Their names are Fred and Helen, and they are Indian nilgais. We already had two female nilgais on exhibit, but it’s been quite some time since we’ve had such a strapping young male, often referred to as a blue bull, as part of our collection. The nilgai’s unique appearance, resembling a combination of many animals, is reflected in its name, Boselaphus tragocamelus: bos (Latin for ox), elaphus (Greek for deer), tragos (Greek for he-goat), and kamelos (camel).

Fred and Helen’s arrival to the Safari Park’s Asian Savanna field enclosure went rather smoothly. They were placed in the Savanna’s side yard, which we call a boma, where they had a chance to check out the exhibit. After a few days of acclimation, we released them into the field, where they promptly met up with the other two females. Fred was bold, strutting around the exhibit and showing off his beautiful, shiny coat to those girls. Even at just two years of age, those instincts kicked in, and something seemed to tell him that San Diego is the place for him!

Helen was a little more reserved, hanging out alone while Fred got to know the other females. Within weeks, the four were often seen hanging out as a group, and they would even approach the keepers for carrots. It’s so fascinating to see the subtle changes in social dynamics through the introduction of new animals to the group.

The little nilgai stays where her mom "tucked" her!

Fred didn’t waste any time here; he was brought in to sire some calves, and before we knew it, the females began to look pregnant. A nilgai has a 60-percent chance of giving birth to twins. After the eight-month gestation period, a single female calf was born just a few weeks ago! The interesting thing about nilgai calves is that they are altricial, meaning they requires Mom’s care until they develop a little more. Keepers call these altricial youngsters tuckers, because they are usually tucked away in a really good hiding spot at all times. The mom comes over or calls the calf to feed her but spends the rest of the day away from her calf. This strategy is great for the calf but tough for us keepers, as we often have a hard time finding the baby!

A very basic, yet critical part of our daily routine, is to a get a full count on all of our animals, which means every single animal in the field exhibit is accounted for and observed every day. It sounds simple, but I can’t tell you how many afternoons are spent with multiple keepers hiking the rocky terrain, searching for that last animal, such as a well-tucked nilgai calf. Fortunately, this calf is pretty big, about 30 pounds (14 kilograms) at birth, so she’s pretty easy to find. She has been tucked away at the base of a tree just off the road we keepers use. Many of our Caravan Safari guests have been lucky enough to see her in this hiding spot.

Jonnie Capiro is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Preparing for a Rhino Debut.