The bushbuck has been considered the most widespread of all African antelopes. Recent genetic findings, however, have resulted in the bushbuck being split into two separate species; the kéwel (Tragelaphus scriptus) and the imbabala (Tragelaphus sylvaticus), and the two species are more closely related to other species than to each other. The kéwel is smaller than the imbabala and is found in west Africa from Senegal to east towards Ethiopia and Eritrea, and south to Angola and southern DRC. The imbabala is the most studied species and is found from the Cape in South Africa up to Angola in the west and up through the east side of the continent towards Ethiopia and Somalia.
The kéwel has the most prominent markings on its body and has a clear horizontal line, as well as spots and vertical stripes. It is closely related to the nyala (Nyala angasii). The imbabala is a lot more varied in coloration throughout its range. Only the genetically oldest populations of imbabala has clear markings, but none have the distinct horizontal line which is instead broken up into spots. Some imbabala populations have very few markings at all. Imbabala is closely related to the sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii) and the bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus). Both bushbuck species are sexually dimorphic, and only the male has horns. Male and female kéwel have similar coats, whereas imbabala is more dimorphic, with the males often being dark to greyish brown while the females are more reddish-brown. Both sexes are born similar, but males change as they mature and markings often fade some with age.
An imbabala can stand up to 90 cm (36 in) to its shoulder and weigh 45-80 kg (100-175 lb). Size depends on the sex, and males are generally larger. Horns can reach about half a meter in length, and there is only one twist on a mature adult male. Horns will sprout at the age of 10 months and a male will reach maturity upon gaining his first twist. All bushbucks have many white patches on the body, in addition to the possible spots and stripes. Prominent ones are on their legs and neck.
Bushbucks are generally solitary animals, but they can live in pairs. They have small home ranges, which they often share with other individuals. Males will avoid areas belonging to rivalling males. The older males are seen as more dominant and disputes between males are often sorted by ritual displays similar to that of the nyala. If they end up fighting, it can potentially end with death or severe injury. When a female is in heat a male will guard the area from intruding males. After a gestation period of six months she will normally give birth to a single calf. To avoid predator detection the female will eat the dung of her own calf and will keep it hidden for the first four months.
Bushbucks are known to be very shy and will spend most of their time in thick vegetation. They are mostly active in the late evening and into the night as well as very early morning. In places with increased human presence and disturbance bushbucks readily turn exclusively nocturnal. They are mainly browsers and eat mostly leaves from low branches and bushes, though they do include other plant matter in their diet.
The bushbuck is found in a wide variety of habitats, including rain forests, montane forests, savanna and woodland. They will always prefer areas with good cover for protection and hiding, as they are known to be clumsy runners. It is preyed on by all of the large carnivores, and it is one of the prefered prey species of leopard. When attacked, a bushbuck will try to stand its ground, and a male can turn very dangerous if injured. Amongst hunters the male bushbuck is known as the “poor man’s buffalo” because of its tendency to stay and fight rather than try to escape. Indeed, some hunters have actually been killed by bushbuck.
The divide into two separate species is quite recent and the bushbuck is only considered as one species on the IUCN Red List. Both species are quite widespread and common throughout their range. The bushbuck is listed as least concern at the moment, and there are no reasons to believe both the kéwel and the imbabala should be listed differently.