The Super-Spooky Nilgai Antelope

What looks like a cross between a horse, a camel and a goat? If you guessed the exotic Nilgai antelope, you’d be right. A nilgai bull can get as tall as 5 feet at the shoulder and as long as 7 feet, and they can weigh over 650 pounds, so if you ever encountered one of these animals, it likely made an impression.

What Is a Nilgai?

A nilgai is an antelope that’s native to the Indian subcontinent. It’s the largest Asian antelope and one of the wild animals you’d see most often on a trip through Northern India and Eastern Pakistan. Most nilgai roam in northwest India on lowlands in the Himalayan foothills, but they also travel southward into central India.

The Look of a Nilgai

When you think of an antelope, an African antelope probably comes to mind, svelte and graceful, running and jumping about in a scene from the Lion King. The hulking adult bull nilgai looks nothing like its African antelope cousin.

The scientific name for nilgai — Boselaphus tragocamelus — embodies the strange and exotic look of the animal: Bos is Latin for an ox; elaphos is Greek for a deer; Tragos is Greek for a he-goat, and kamelos is Greek for a camel.

A male nilgai has a thick bull neck, a horse-like body but with a smaller head and a camel-like hump area on broad shoulders. The males have small goat-like horns that can grow to 6 or 7 inches long, and they develop a blue-gray coat with black-and-white markings on the legs, throat and mane.

Unlike other antelope, female nilgai look completely different from the males at adulthood. Female nilgai are smaller and typically sport a light brown coat.

The Life and Habits of a Nilgai

Nilgai prefer flat, rolling, dry grasslands and avoid densely wooded areas. They’re herbivores with a diet that includes grasses, acacias and other trees, leaves of small bushes, flowers, herbs and fruits. They roam during the day, even in the hottest weather, seeking shade only for a midday rest.

Herds of around 10 or fewer are the norm, consisting of mostly females or bachelors and one mature bull. The mating period typically runs from December to March, but calves are born regularly in almost every month. It’s common for nilgai to bear twins.

Though large and imposing, nilgai are usually silent. However, when alarmed, they can make a roaring-like noise. Tigers are their natural predators, but leopards, hyenas, wolves, lions and feral dogs also prey on these animals.

The Nilgai in Pop Culture

A young nilgai antelope had a role in The Jungle Book (2016), though the credits incorrectly list the character as a neelgai deer.

Nilgai and American Hunting Culture

Introduced as a non-native species by the King Ranch in the 1920s and 30s, nilgai now number over 15,000 (and some claim there’s more than 50,000) wandering the Texas grasslands between Raymondville and Kingsville and in the vicinity of Highway 77, significantly more than the approximately 10,000 that live in their native lands. With their alarming look, these antelope have generated an industry in Texas around safari-style, free-roaming hunts.

While these antelope are not considered endangered, their population is on the decline in their native habitat. It’s ironic that more nilgai are found on Texas game ranches than on the Indian subcontinent from where the species sprung. Habitat loss and hunting for food, hides and sport have depleted the population, but the nilgai remains one of the most visually arresting creatures you can encounter in the wild.