The internet sure loves a touching tale of animal friendship. You can barely gulp down your morning coffee before scrolling across an article about Fred the Labrador and his best buddy Dennis the Duckling. So when a video surfaced last month of a wildebeest in South Africa's Marloth Park desperately nudging another in an apparent attempt to revive his fallen comrade, a decidedly anthropomorphic slant emerged: this was wildebeest kinship at play, a testament to the unbreakable bonds of gregarious grazers. Was it, though?
Thanks to some colourful headlines – "The wildebeest who wouldn't give up! Huge beast refuses to leave a dying friend and miraculously nudges him back to its feet with its horns" – the story struck a chord, and viewers were suitably astonished. So was Bradley Ballantyne, the tourist who captured the intriguing footage. "I have been visiting Marloth Park for 30 years, [I've] seen lions and elephants in the park and many interesting animal behaviours but nothing like this," he explained to Latest Sightings.
It clearly is a fascinating snippet of animal behaviour. A dark lump lies lifeless on the roadside. Kneeling over it, a wildebeest pushes at the limp body with its horns. For a full minute, you're certain that the downed beast has chewed his final cud, until the lame form suddenly surges to life. A final flick of the horns from the second wildebeest hoists the animal to its feet and the two trot off as though nothing has happened.
Except that something did happen. Something that ultimately resulted in the "resurrected" wildebeest suffering injuries so severe that park officials were forced to euthanise the animal later that day. As is so often the case in the natural world, it turns out that this interaction was not a friendly one. In fact, it was the exact opposite.
"What we're looking at is a fight between two territorial wildebeest bulls, in which one has passed out," explains the "Guru of Gnu" Dr Richard Estes, a leading expert on wildebeest behaviour. Estes describes the video as "some of the most unusual wildebeest footage" he's ever come across, and although he's confident the protagonists were foes not friends, this is the first time he's seen a bull knocked out in a territorial battle. "All the subsequent fighting behaviour is simply the efforts of the aggressor to engage his rival. But the real shock is that the one that was down ... suddenly comes to life and runs away," he says.
This is echoed by Jim Thompson, a director at Jejane Private Nature Reserve who has decades of experience working with wild animals. "There is no doubt in my mind that this was a territorial dispute," he explains. "Normally the vanquished male will retreat from the conflict, in most cases chased out of the winner's territory. In this case, the loser, because of his injuries, could not readily do so and his aggressor continued to butt his opponent in an effort to persuade him to leave."
Male wildebeest are so territorial that in migratory populations – like the million-strong megaherd that traverses East Africa's Serengeti every year – some males have trouble letting go of their turf, and will remain in their temporary territories for days or even weeks after the rest of the herd has moved on. Bulls start to get picky about their personal space at around three to five years of age, and that's when they begin to clash with rivals.
“The impact of two fully mature bulls bashing heads can be so forceful as to punch a hole in the skull.”
Once a wildebeest bull has claimed a patch of turf, it becomes vital to assert authority, ensuring no rival males sneak in to fraternise with his ladybeests. Bulls will initiate elaborate "challenge rituals" – like the wildebeest version of the All Blacks' Haka. Each one lasts around seven minutes and can involve dozens of different actions, from horn sweeping and tail swishing to snorting, cavorting (rising up on two legs) and urine sniffing (it's not that weird if you're a wildebeest).
Fortunately for the bull on the receiving end of such a ritual, the dominance behaviour is mostly just for show, designed to intimidate rivals. In most cases, it doesn't actually end in full-blown head smashing. In fact, the aggressor will sometimes lose his way completely, forget what he was doing, and end up lying beside his rival for a spot of peaceful ruminating.
If a fight does break out, however, things can get pretty vicious: the contestants drop to their knees, lower their heads and push at each other with their horns until one of them backs out or topples over. "The impact of two fully mature bulls bashing heads can be so forceful as to punch a hole in the skull," Estes points out.
It's this type of scenario that we're likely seeing in the video. "I think that the two animals were sparring or having a serious fight and one of the headbutts had knocked the other one out," says retired conservation biologist Dick Carr. Carr, who is now a sheep farmer, has witnessed similar fighting behaviour in Dorper rams. "[It's] all part of the dominance hierarchy, especially amongst adolescent rams, and it can become very aggressive at times. On more than one occasion I have witnessed such a contest where one ram will collapse as a result of a head-to-head blow and remain motionless for minutes."
Experienced wildebeest farmer Barry York agrees. "We have had numerous fatalities through bulls fighting as well as weaker animals, including females, being evicted from the herd by bulls or stronger cows," he notes. "In many cases the weak are hammered and either killed or injured by the stronger animals, making them more susceptible to predation."
The bull's proximity to the road has also raised the possibility that the animal was struck by a car and just happened to land, unconscious, in another male's territory (and you thought you were having a rough day). It does seem more likely that the injury was sustained in a fight, however.
Either way, it looks like these wildebeests were not best buddies. Sorry, internet.
But before you lash out at us for ruining a perfectly good tale of "Friendship Animalia", let's acknowledge some gregarious herbivores that do help their fellow herd members. We only have to look to the wildebeest's chunkier cousin, the Cape buffalo, for heroic displays of teamwork. There are several records of these formidable animals charging down predators like lions in order to extract a fallen buffalo soldier. The most viral of viral animal videos is a perfect example.
See? We love animal friendships. This just wasn't one of them. These guys were trying to puncture each other's skulls.
Header image: C. E. Timothy Paine