The storied African savanna is a biome packed with wildlife, despite its relatively dry climate. Some animals may find the terrain vast and inhospitable. Antelope, on the other hand,  is one category of animal that seems to have adapted well to the open grasslands.

Among these, the majestic roan antelope is a survivor. Over the years, roan numbers have declined to frightening levels due to hunting and poaching. Thankfully, efforts to protect the species seem to be making an impact.

Roans are significantly less elegant than their close cousin, the sable. Yet their striking black and white faces and sheer size make them a formidable force on the African plains. Let’s take a closer look at this beautiful antelope.

General Roan Antelope Animal Facts

Like most antelope, roan are beautiful and amazing to observe in the wild. Here’s how you tell a roan from other bovids.

They are huge

Rare roan antelope portrait in its natural habitat, South Africa

The roan antelope is a large beast! It presents a powerful figure, standing tall with a thick, muscular neck. It has a rigid-looking mane and a facial marking that makes it look somewhat fierce. Add to that a pair of impressive horns and a stocky, dense body, and you have a formidable animal contender.

In fact, the roan antelope is one of the largest bovids in Africa. Only the eland, bongo, some very large kudu and African buffalo can claim to be bigger. An adult roan can weigh as much as 220 kg, and be as long as 1,2 meters from head to the tip of the tail.

They resemble clowns

The white facial markings of the roan are distinctive. It looks like a playful clown mask to go with a  mainly brown and gray body. The long, tasseled ears are another way to identify roan. You may also notice that its legs tend to be darker than its body.

Ringed horns

Subadult roan antelope close up portrait, featuring its ringed horns

The best way to identify a roan animal is by its horns, which curve backward from the top of the head. They seem sickle-shaped from certain angles. Seen from the front, they tend to form a slight V protruding from the top of the head. They are also ringed or “ribbed”, creating an impression of a molded sculpture.

These horns are useful as weapons in fights over territory – or more accurately, over female harems.

They can reach up to a meter in length in males. Female horns are shorter, though no less effective if used in defense. Unfortunately, their impressive size also means that trophy hunters covet the antelopes for their horns.

Side fact: Antelope is different from deer because of its horns. Antelope have horns and do not shed them. Deer have branched antlers and shed them occasionally.

Roan antelope sounds

They typically make a high-pitched whistling sound or a snort. When in distress, they may also hiss, especially when wounded.

Roans use a snorting sound to alarm danger. This is quite different from the loud barks that are common in many antelope.

Roan Antelope Scientific Name

Herd of roan antelope in its natural habitat, South Africa

A quick note on the scientific name for the roan antelope: Hippotragus equinus. There are three species classified in the Hippotragus genus – The roan, and its cousins, so to speak:

  • The sable antelope – an impressive antelope with even larger curved horns and a white underbelly.
  • Blue antelope (or bluebuck) – now extinct, the bluebuck was slightly smaller and lived in southern Africa. They were so named for their bluish hue.

Roan Compared to Other Savanna Antelope

We’ve mentioned that roan are large bovids. They are actually the fifth largest antelope species in Africa.

They may not be the fastest antelope in Africa, although they compare fairly well. The fastest antelope on record are:

  1. Tsessebe – 90 km/h
  2. Springbok: 88 km/h
  3. Blue wildebeest / Thomson’s gazelle / Impala: 80 km/h
  4. Grant’s gazelle / Black wildebeest: 75 km/h

By comparison, a roan can move quickly at around 57 km/h, which isn’t bad for such a large animal. That said, it is less likely to run from danger for long, often choosing to turn and face it head-on!

The Roan Antelope Habitat

Rare roan antelope on the Nyika Plateau, Malawi

Sadly, the roan antelope’s habitat has declined significantly due to human settlement expansion, hunting, and poaching. These days, you’re more likely to see a roan antelope in West and Central Africa. They are not as common in Southern Africa anymore (only a few reside in the Kruger National Park).

You can find them in the wild between the southern regions of the Sahara, as far south as Botswana. They frequent the woodlands and grasslands and are equally at home in heavily wooded areas or wide-open spaces with few trees.

Social Behavior

Roan antelope are not geographically territorial. However, males do exile other males from their female herds by as much as 800 km. A male encountering another male usually results in a fight for dominance, horns aloft! The herd itself  – up to 20 females and juveniles or more – may move around, though.

Another interesting aspect of herd life is a loose family structure. The herd won’t always be tight-knit, and various females and young will move off from time to time, only to rejoin the group later. That said, most of the females will stay in the general vicinity, known as a maternal home range.

Roan Antelope Lifespan

Young roan antelope feeding from his mother

Roan live up to 17 years in the wild. But to get there they have to survive their first few weeks. The mortality rate among roan calves is extremely high – up to 80% of them will not survive past seven weeks.

Calves weigh around 15-20 kg at birth and reach sexual maturity at around two years.

Many roans die of natural causes, however, they are also susceptible to predators such as wild dogs, hyenas, lions, and crocodiles. Leopards and jackals also pose a threat to calves.

An adult roan is a much more difficult proposition for a predator. Unlike many other antelope or deer, they often stand and fight, rather than run in fear. The horns can be deadly even for the largest of predators, as many big cats have found to their detriment.

Roan Antelope Diet

Roans love grass, especially medium length grass. They graze the tops of much of the grasslands across the regions where they roam, actually preferring the open fields over the heavily wooded areas.

They also sometimes feed on woodier species of plants like acacia tree pods or even herbaceous shrubs. Outside of these, they seldom wander from good grazing ground. They also need to be close to water most of the time, as they tend to drink lots!

More Roan Antelope Facts

Roan antelope courtship

Here are a few more random yet fascinating facts about the roan animal:

  • The roan antelope gestation period is 260-280 days or around 40 weeks.
  • There is no fixed breeding season. Pregnancy and birth can happen at any time.
  • Only one calf is born to a female at a time.
  • Anywhere from 5-20 females can form a herd with one dominant male.
  • Young male roan will separate and form a distinct group when of age. These “bachelor groups” will wait for a dominant to emerge. This dominant will then go on to form its own herd.
  • Although roan fight for dominance, serious injury is rare.
  • A newborn calf will often be born and remain separate from the herd and in hiding. The mother will leave it out of sight and join the herd for the day. Later, she will return to the calf for the night. The calf will only join the herd when it is strong enough to run from predators.
  • Hunting of roan is now mostly illegal, due to declining numbers.
  • As mentioned, they can be aggressive animals when threatened, and there have been cases reported of roans killing lions in self-defense.

Roan and Conservation

Roans are beautiful and impressive additions to the family of antelope, though they present a few conservation challenges. An estimated 60 000 roan remain on the African continent.

They generally do not compete well with other antelope for grazing land, so it’s a delicate balance to consider when introducing them to a region.

Destruction of these grasslands due to human expansion also pose a significant threat, especially in western Africa.

Conservationists are also split on the question of whether to breed subspecies in order to diversify the gene pool of the roan in Africa.

The Future for the Majestic Roan

Roan antelope in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Despite the challenges, many believe the future of the roan antelope is positive. Efforts to intervene in the sharp decline of its population are gaining momentum.

Whatever the future, it would indeed be a shame to lose such a majestic and charismatic species from our planet. It may well be worth planning your next safari with this in mind.