Lifespan: +/- 12 years
Height: 70 to 100 cm
Weight: 40 to 80 kg
Scientific Name: Aepyceros melampus
Let’s face it; we all love to go in search of the Big 5 on safari, but if we are honest, seeing any these animals is a rare treat and you should consider yourself lucky if you’ve managed to spot some of them. So generally your game drive will consist mostly out of encountering some of the more common species of animals in the bush, namely antelope.
As you round a bend and spot something standing in the bush, someone might shout, “over there! Look!”, and then that usually follows with, “Ahh it’s just an antelope, never mind”. This is a commonly encountered reaction shared by most safari-goers, especially if it’s not your first time out. And usually the “just an antelope” they are referring to is the graceful Impala. Many of you might be familiar with the Impala antelope if you’ve been on a safari before, as it is one of our most abundant antelope species found here in our game reserves in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal.
It is often because of its common appearance, virtually ‘around every corner’ that this beautiful antelope is overlooked. Being one of our most successful antelope species in southeastern Africa it has to get some recognition. The Impala or Aepyceros melampus, has a very special evolutionary significance as it has been surviving virtually unchanged for the past 5 million years, which suggest it is a superbly adaptable species. It is believed that Impalas are the sole survivor of an ‘enlarged dwarf’ lineage of antelopes that eventually gave rise to several other large-bodied antelope lineages that include antelopes such as Gnus, Hartebeest, Roan and Sable to name a few.
Impalas are usually encountered in ecotone regions or transitional zones between two habitats such as grassland and woodland. Impala females and their young live in breeding herds or ‘clans’ throughout the year ranging in numbers of 30-120 animals. Male offspring share their mothers’ home range but begin to wander more widely as they mature. Bachelor associations are common for safety purposes but males become fiercely intolerant of one another in the presence of estrous females during the ‘rut’, defending small territories through direct challenges and vocal roaring and snorting sounds directed at nearby males.
Safety in numbers is an important factor for Impalas as they are often preyed upon by a host of predators. They can often be seen associating with many other animals including Zebras, Warthogs, even Baboons. These associations are often as a result of a shared food source but they do benefit from shared vigilance and warning in these groups. Impalas have excellent senses, with large ears detecting sounds easily and large eyes positioned on the side of the head for good peripheral vision. If danger is detected they will give off a loud alarm snort to warn others nearby.
They are a very athletic antelope able to execute jumps of 2 m high and 10 m in distance. Which suites their wooded environment, as they can easily clear shrubs and bushes in flight, sometimes employ a ‘rocking horse gait’.Rocking their body backward and forwards while jumping to supposedly display health and fitness to their pursuer in an effort to dissuade a further pursuit from a predator. As mentioned, group cohesion is very important as it decreases an individual’s chances of being eaten.
As such Impalas have clear contrasting black and white markings on their rear end which is easy to focus on while running, allowing for the group to stay together in flight. They also have scent glands on their lower rear legs. Unique to Impalas these glands are said to release scent trails as the animal runs or moves, enabling lost individuals to find the company or to aid regrouping after a scare.
Impalas are fastidious groomers and spend a large amount of time on their personal hygiene which is evident by their shiny coats. Allo-grooming or reciprocal grooming of one another is also practiced in the herds. They are also the smallest antelope that will allow the Oxpecker birds to assist in grooming. The reason for all the fuss their habitat preference of ecotones as these transitional areas usually see high animal traffic which results in high parasite loads on those living in these areas.
Impalas are mixed feeders that feed on whatever food source is best seasonally. This gives them a huge advantage over other antelopes that either just grazes on grass or just browses leaves. In the summers usually, a higher percentage of green grass is eaten as it is more protein-rich with less secondary compounds to digest, and in winter months a higher percentage of browsing is done, usually with a preference to Vachellea (previously known as Acacia) trees.
One of the Impalas most successful strategies to remain numerous is its breeding strategy. The shorter day, at the start of autumn, triggers a testosterone rise in the bodies of mature male Impalas. They separate from their group associations and rigorously compete with one another to set up territories with access to good recourses being a priority. Vocal ‘rutting’ spaces males from one another and direct challenges and horn clashes establish dominance.
Females are often herded into these territories by males who circle the groups in a ‘sheepdog herding’ style. All this behavior will induce the adult females into estrous, where mating follows. Males only hold a territory with females for a short period of time as they weaken from the constant territorial behavior and lack of feeding.
This ensures a good spread of genes amongst the groups as only the strongest get to mate. In Early summer females give birth to young lambs after 6, 5-month gestation. The synchronized lambing sees such a sudden influx of young Impalas that the predators simply cannot eat them all, and allows for many to survive and to add to the population.
Every animal has its place in the bush, no matter how common or scarce, as they all perform vital roles in our ecosystems. So don’t overlook the common animals like Impalas next time you’re out on safari, as they might provide you with much enjoyment, that is, only if you take the time to observe them. Spending quality time with even the most common things is when the true enjoyment of the bush will find you