The sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii) is a semi-aquatic tropical antelope similar (in appearance) and closely related to the bushbuck. The sitatunga male is larger than the female with a shaggier coat, both sexes are striped, and it has uniquely splayed hooves adapted to its favoured habitat of papyrus, wetlands and associated ecosystems.
The sitatunga lives in suitable habitats throughout six of Uganda’s national parks. On safari, you’re likely to see it only in the Katonga Wildlife Reserve.
It’s currently endangered throughout its African range. The major threats to the sitatunga’s existence are wetland reclamation, hunting and unsustainable harvesting of the plant species that constitute its food. In addition, the species has low resilience to these threats.
The sitatunga exhibits excellent elongation of the hooves, which have a wide splay and naked padlike pattern. They possess unique flexibility of the joints at the feet, representing structural adaptations for walking on boggy and marshy ground.
Colouration varies geographically and individually. Males are grey-brown to chocolate-brown, females are brown to bright chestnut, and calves are bright rufous-red, woolly coated, spotted, and striped. Adults have long coatings with whiteish marks on the face, ears, cheeks, body, legs, and feet.
Males are considerably larger than females (100 cm tall vs 75-90 cm tall). Males possess horns ranging in length from 508-924 mm, characterized by two twists, and are ivory tipped.
The sitatunga is semi-social, nonterritorial, and sedentary. Swamps are its productive ecosystems, and the antelope can live at 55 square kilometres or higher densities. Females tend to form herds, and males associate together or with females until sub-adult. As adults, males avoid one another.
The semi-aquatic antelope moves through the swamp along established pathways and has numerous side branches leading to feeding grounds and neighbouring riverine forests. It’s diurnally and nocturnally active and may move into marshy land at night.
They typically feed at any hour in areas where they are protected and also lie on platforms of vegetation that each animal prepares for itself by repeated circling and trampling. They also stand and ruminate in the water.
Sitatungas are slow and clumsy land runners, but their plunging run works well in water. Their broad and splayed hooves keep them from sinking in soft ground as deeply as other ungulates. They are usually slow and inconspicuous and are good swimmers.
Males often bark at night, sometimes as an alarm signal or perhaps as a way of announcing their location. Females have a single higher-pitched bark, and a male following a female in a low stretch may utter a suppressed roar.
Breeding in sitatunga occurs throughout the year. Males are polygynous, and females produce a single young at an average interval of 11.6 months. The mean gestation period is 247 days, and sexual maturity is attained at approximately one year by females and 1.5 years by males.
During copulation, a male will approach a female in a low stretch posture while the female may back away slowly. When the male comes within a few inches of the female, she may suddenly bound away, causing a considerable commotion in the swamp. The male will persistently follow but always stays behind.
Females hide their calves on platforms in secluded dry reeds growing in deep water. Calves cannot move slowly and deliberately through the swamp like adults and follow their mothers closely for several months.
A mother feeds near the calf’s hiding spot, finishes, and walks up to the calf. It licks the young’s snout and then moves away. The calf gets up and follows the mother, leading it to a protected place where it can suckle.
How to see the sitatunga in Uganda
You’ll see sitatunga and many other related antelope at Katonga Wildlife Reserve in western Uganda, along the Katonga River banks.
The 211 square kilometres (81 sq mi) reserve, 200 kilometres west of Kampala, protects many plant and animal species unique to its wetland environment.
Basing your visits from Ibanda or Kamwenge towns, you can explore the reserve at a comfortable pace. The towns have decent accommodation for a budget traveller. Also, UWA runs a camping site with guides and a restaurant within the reserve.
You can only explore Katonga Wildlife reserve by walking or canoeing. The reserve hosts over forty animal species and over 150 bird species. Apart from the sitatunga, on a walk, you’re most likely to come across reedbuck, waterbuck, warthog, bushbuck, colobus monkey, elephant, and otter.