Bluebucks (also known as blue antelopes) are mythical-like creatures; some people have entirely doubted their existence. However, fossils and skeletal remains confirm that such an animal once did roam South Africa’s coastal regions.
The Caledon River Valley Bushmen even believed the animal possessed supernatural abilities. They created rock paintings depicting bluebucks, which are assumed to have been inspired by shamanic trance. These paintings show 6 bluebucks facing a man — the man is believed to be entering a tunnel into a spirit world.
The bluebuck’s rare appearance gives it this sense of magic, both to the people of ancient and modern times.
As the name suggests, bluebucks wore a coat of blue — well, it was more of a grey-blue hue. Still, it was like none other. This coloration was consistent throughout the animal’s furry coat, except for its white underbelly.
Two black, ridged horns pointed upwards and back from the bluebuck’s head. Beside them were two long and pointed ears.
It grew to about 10 feet long and 4 feet tall (at the shoulders), weighing about 300-400 lbs. Contrary to many illustrations of the bluebuck, it had a thick neck — much like its closest living relative, the roan antelope.
When Europeans discovered the animal, its habitat was restricted to the southwestern Cape of Africa. However, rock paintings and fossil evidence suggest that its range was much more expansive in earlier days. It’s possible that the animal roamed at least 4,300 square kilometers along Africa’s southern coast.
The habitat in which bluebucks thrived was open grassy fields, marshes, and hillside scrubs. They sometimes also wandered to higher elevations of 2,400 meters above sea level. It was likely that bluebucks were nomadic (like their closest relatives). In other words, they would have traveled from place to place instead of making a home in one static location.
The bluebuck was a grazer and mostly dined on local grasses and shrubs. In addition, the animal may have snacked on the occasional dicot — a flowering plant with two seed leaves. This is suggested by the presence of its long premolars (teeth between canines and molars).
Bluebucks were social animals — it was common for them to form groups of up to 30 individuals. Male bluebucks were equipped with horns, which they used to exhibit behaviors of aggression and dominance. Complex hierarchies formed within bluebuck communities based on each animal’s age and sex.
On the other hand, mother bluebucks were documented exhibiting “neglectful” behavior towards their young. They would leave their calves alone, only returning to feed them. It seems the mothers’ intentions in this were to keep their young hidden in a safe place. This way, there would be less exposure and vulnerability to predators.
The bluebuck population peaked a few thousand years after the last ice age. It wasn’t until about 3,000 years ago when it began to decline — being entirely due to human interference.
For one, bluebucks had an exceptionally specialized diet. The grassy lands upon which it grazed were quickly reduced and occupied as humans introduced new agriculture. As the livestock overgrazed the grassy landscapes, bluebucks went into starvation.
On top of this, bluebucks were hunted for their pelts and meat — first by Africa’s indigenous people. This is a bit ironic considering that these same people worshiped the creature at an almost deity level.
By the time European settlers arrived, the bluebuck population was already struggling. Regardless, the new colonists adored the blue hues of the animal’s pelt, and bluebuck hunting sharply intensified.
The last confirmed sighting was in 1800 when a hunter killed the last bluebuck in Cape Province. This made bluebucks the first large African mammal to go extinct in historical times (followed by the quagga in 1883).
You can still visit 4 museums that hold bluebuck skins in Leiden, Stockholm, Vienna, and Paris. Unfortunately, the skins don’t exhibit the vibrant blue they once did. The color was brightest on the live animal, and the pelts tend to fade over time.
However, if you get the chance to view these specimens, try to imagine a time when a magical, blue antelope roamed our wondrous planet.