Roan: Africa’s Matriarchal Antelope

Roan are aggressive when fighting or wounded. Dominant cows have been documented leading the advance toward any oncoming threat. High shoulders, powerful necks and  upstanding manes make roan formidable when defending their calves from attacks by spotted hyenas, leopards and wild dogs. With their backward curving, heavily ridged horns, they even threaten and deter lions.

RoanThe herd structure is matriarchal. Six to 20 females and young roan are led by a dominant cow who seeks grazing and resting places in regions with a low predator density. Young bulls stay in the herd for up to three years, then join and remain in bachelor herds until mature at age six, after which they walk alone and seek to breed.

Female roan share a traditional home range averaging 239 hectares that includes the territories of several different bulls. At very low density in substandard habitats, as in the Kruger National Park, females may roam areas as large as 60 to 100 square kilometres and be accompanied by the same bull, that, in the absence of resistance from territorial neighbours, defends a movable space of between 300 to 500 metres around his own private harem.

Herd composition changes daily and seasonally. Members disperse in small groups during the rains and concentrate in larger groups on the best available pastures near water in the dry season. The most cohesive groups are maintained by young roan of assorted ages, clustered around the youngest calf, often lagging behind the herd.

Roan breed year-round, with minimum calving intervals of about 10 months. Females conceive at two years and the gestation period lasts for 270 days, after which one calf is born. A cow rejoins the herd five days after calving, but stays within 450 metres of her calf’s hiding place where she retrieves and suckles it in early mornings and once or twice at night during the two-week period in which the calf hides itself. After six months, the calf is weaned.

RoanGrazing takes place in the mornings and late afternoons. During the afternoon activity peak, roan herds feed intensively until dark, then move some distance before settling down to ruminate for several hours. Roan rise later than other antelope, especially on cool mornings and in dew-wet pastures. Daily ranging seldom exceeds two to four kilometres.   

Roan tolerate more open savannah and taller grass than sable. They are also more at home on floodplains and at higher elevations of up to 2 400 metres. Predominantly water-dependent grazers adapted to subsist on tufted perennial grasses growing on infertile soils, roan will only occasionally browse.

An estimated 4 500 roan are privately owned in South Africa. Dr Deon Furstenburg of the Agricultural Research Council, now involved at Geo Wild, says roan will be in demand for at least the next seven years. But Furstenburg warns that farmers should take special care when breeding with this unique antelope. “Roan should be nurtured. They do not adapt easily to habitats for which they are not suited. If farmers take this into consideration, these beautiful antelope will have a great future in the South African wildlife industry.”    

Some interesting facts and details:

  • Mass: 230 – 280 kilograms
  • Shoulder Height: 1,3 – 1,5 metres
  • Life Expectancy: 19 years
  • Rowland Ward
    • Minimum: 27”
    • Record: 39”
  • Safari Club International
    • Minimum: 67 points
    • Record: 73 points
  • Expect to See and Hear
    • Territorial Advertising – Ritualized defecation without pawing
    • Submission – Appeasement ceremony. A very assertive bull aims downward blow at subordinate’s rump as it passes
    • Danger Warning: Utters a blowing snort


Estes, R.D. 1999. The Safari Companion. Russel Friedman Books: South Africa.

Walker, C. 1993. Signs of the Wild. Struik Publishers: Cape Town.

Stuart, C & Stuart, T. 1994. Fotogids tot die Soogdiere van Suider-, Sentraal-, en Oos-Afrika. Struik Uitgewers: Kaapstad.

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