Although you aren’t always guaranteed to come across all the animals on your “Must-see” List, you can be 100% certain about seeing an impala while driving in the Kruger National Park.
They might be the most common animal species to see, but they have some amazing characteristics that most people often overlook.
When it is not mating season (mating occurs in the dry season from May to June), a lot of herds come together and forage, with no apparent territories present. When these herds become bigger, it makes an individual impala’s chance of being targeted by a predator like a lion (Panthera leo), leopard (Panthera pardus), hyena (Crocuta crocuta) or wild dog (Lycaon pictus), much less. This is called a dilution effect.
Impala will also, on occasion, associate with herds of wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) and zebra (Equus Burchelli) - what better way to “hide behind other animals” than by spending time with larger prey species? It is natural instinct for prey species like this to be situated in the middle of the herd, putting other species at a more vulnerable spot. These are known as selfish herds.
But, in the same sense, the more ears and eyes around, the better chance for survival.
Impala, like most antelope species, have loose bottom incisor teeth in their sockets that are used as a comb when grooming. Other species like kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) also groom, but impala are particular about grooming and will spend more time doing it than any other antelope species. They also groom each other (allo-grooming) to get rid of ticks in areas where the individual can’t reach. With these loose incisors, ticks and parasites are trapped between the teeth.
Red-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) and Yellow-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus africanus) also aid this grooming process and will often be found on impala - they are, after all, the smallest antelope species that allow oxpeckers to land on them and assist with parasite control.
A study done on impala during the rutting season, showed something remarkable - during this period, the rams are so busy fighting and chasing the ewes around that the grooming period get a little neglected. So, to assist the antelopes during this period, they have observed an incline in the presence of oxpeckers during an impala’s mating season, to help with parasite control. An interesting theory, right?
The next time you spot a herd of impala next to the road, on a Kruger safari, be sure to lookout for this - they almost seem “shiny” compared to other species due to their spotless coats.
Impala are the only known antelope species in Africa to have metatarsal glands (have a look at the back legs). There is a black tuft at the bottom, back side just above the hooves. This is a hairless patch of skin that is surrounded by black hair.
Although there are some theories as to why they have these glands, there is no established conclusion. Some theories suggests that if the herd scatters when being chased by a predator, they release a scent from these glands in order for the herd to find each other again.
If you get the chance to explore Kruger Park during the dry season, and you happen to find a herd of impala, why not switch your engine off and listen?
Chances are high that you might hear the rutting call of the males. If you didn’t know that it was an impala at the time, it is very possible to have confused it with an angry predator crossed with a wild pig or something like that! Yes, it’s hard to believe that this horrible grunting growl has actually come from such a beautiful antelope. Impalas are also known to be one of the most vocal antelope species.
These roaring sounds are usually accompanied by very loud snorting sounds as well.
The dominant male usually runs around chasing any rivals and also herding his females, using these sounds. This would be done with an outstretched neck and a raised tail.
For an impala ram, this is not the best time of his life - with all the mating, fighting and protecting going on over the next couple of weeks, the majority of them are either dethroned or killed. A lot of rams, will also deteriorate in condition. The continued effort to spread their genes, keep the females in check and compete with other males, does not leave a lot of room for eating properly.
Thus, if you ever wondered if there was a chance of inbreeding with so many impalas around, the answer is no. A ram can basically only keep his reign for a couple of days in one mating season before being dethroned.
The fights amongst the males can be pretty serious. A fight to the death is not uncommon and even if it isn’t the fight that kills them, exhaustion in the summer heat, can take its toll very quickly.
Research has shown, that even though a dominant male might have, for example, 20 or 30 females in his herd, up to 60% (if not more) of the females will be impregnated by other males!
The bigger his herd, the bigger the chance that the offspring born will not be his. This is due to the fact that the poor ram needs to fight intruders coming in from one side, while other intruders are busy mating with his females on the other side - a mounted thrush that might take up to 10 seconds at a time.
Strangely enough, it has also been revealed that the denning season of the African wild dog falls over the same period as the rutting season for impala - another way of nature controlling the balance of the populations in the bush. Exhausted males and males too focussed on the competition don’t really look out for danger and thus become very easy targets for wild dogs and other predators, during this period.
You might have heard stories of impala being able to withhold the birth of the lambs until the rains come? Sometimes up to a month? This is simply not true - no mammal species on earth can hold a newborn foetus longer than it’s meant to be - the capacity of a female’s womb can only withstand so much of the baby growing inside her. Take a human for example - yes, there are sometimes delays, but when it comes to the danger that comes with a baby not being born within a certain time frame, the doctor will call for a C-section.
So why do impalas sometimes give birth at different times to others? Research over the years, has shown something remarkable - impala have a natural sense of whether the rainy season will be early or late!
This will determine when rutting season starts, as ewes will start dropping their young with the first rains of summer, in order to get the most favourable nutrition.
In cases where some lambs are born a month or so later than the rest of the lambs, it’s simply an indication of late mating and not because the ewe ‘held the pregnancy back’.
These antelopes have incredibly impressive athletic skills - they are able to clear a 3m high and 12m long jump without any effort!
Sometimes, you may also see some members of a herd running around and portraying an almost “playful” gesture where they run at nearly full speed, and suddenly change into a jumping and rocking movement of the body.
They would make a movement where all four legs are off the ground, and then, while their front legs are touching the ground, their backs arch forward and curve with their hind legs stretched out into the air. The hind legs will then touch the ground briefly and with a kick up, repeat the process of arching the back while the front legs are grounded. This is called a high-leg gait or rocking high-jump.
The reason for this - nobody really knows! A lot of theories have been mentioned, but there has not been any real conclusion on this behaviour. One theory simply suggests that it is some kind of exercise to help when jumping and running away from predators.
Another theory suggests that is a display of the condition of the antelope - if there are predators in the area scouting for an easy target, this bouncing effect might show that the antelope is capable of being active and healthy and thus not an easy target.
Impala are mixed feeders - meaning they browse and graze. This is a huge advantage for them as they are able to find nutrition in the wet and dry seasons easier than other species who only browse or graze.
Impala are also very water-dependant and won’t travel too far from a water source. If water is available, they will drink numerous times a day.
Rainy season is one of the best times to be on a Kruger Park safari. Everything is green, the water sources are filled up and… it’s baby season!
Although most prey species like the Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer), sable antelope (Hippotragus niger niger) and kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) don’t have a fixed calving season, a lot of them do tend to peak during the wet season, to ensure that there is plenty of nutrition available for the mom and little ones.
Impala, having a synchronised lambing season, will form creches once the female returns to the rest of the herd with the lamb. One or two females will act as caretakers for the little ones while the rest of the females continue to feed. They will take turns looking after the youngsters. The majority of the time, this duty doesn’t seem like too much of an effort, compared to human babies, at a creche as the lambs will be laying down in the grass most of the time or running around and playing in close proximity to the herd and caretakers.
The females, that are busy feeding away from the creche, will return on a regular base to suckle their young before returning to forage again.
Previously, we mentioned the vocalisation of the males during the rut… now it’s time for the females. To contact the young, they produce a sound that can only be described as a kind of burp! The youngsters will answer in a more softer version of this sound.
This is truly one of the most precious times to see impala - all these little lambs together, and the overwhelming cuteness of their big ears and big eyes looking back at you!
A lot of mammal species can use a technique called pilo-erecting - which means to make the hair on their body stand up.
Warthogs (Phacochoerus aethiopicus) will use this technique to make themselves appear bigger by raising the hair on their back or on the face.
You might have even seen your domesticated dog or cat do this at home - raising the hair on their necks when feeling threatened.
With impala, since they have such a smooth coat, it is easier to see than with other antelope species. Especially on colder mornings, you will notice that the ‘shiny’ impala looks a little duller.
When they use this technique, it traps a layer of air between the body and where the hair is now standing up. The body heat of the animal will help to warm up this air.
This is a very vigilant species, and very skittish sometimes when looking out for danger. The smallest suspicious movement can trigger an alarm call from one of its members in the herd. Impala respond to alarm calls of other species around them - whether it is a bird, vervet monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops) or zebra. But, in contrast, not all species react to their alarm calls.
It has been proven that impala will make an alarm call for the smallest thing, even if it's something that just seems out of place - grass moving in the wind, a branch falling off a tree or the movement of a warthog through tall grass.
The rest of the herd might respond to this alarm call and join in on making snorting sounds to enhance the alarm but, soon after, will stop and continue foraging.
Other prey species have learned this - if there is only an impala alarm calling without them really seeing the threat or danger, they don’t really adhere to the warning. They might show some interest in the area where the alarm is pointed at, but if the impala are looking all over the show and don’t really have ‘proof’ of what they sounded the alarm for, they will just continue with what they were doing before.
However, when you do find a herd making their alarm, and all focussed in one direction and walking forward in a curious yet alert manner, spend some time watching them and try and see if you can spot the danger. If the threat is real, you will most likely have vervet monkeys and tree squirrels (Paraxerus cepapi) also joining in on the warning signals.
Impala might be the most common antelope species you’ll find while on a Kruger safari, but each season provides its own special and unique moments with them.
The dry season, with all the fighting, chasing and rutting sounds, and the wet season, which starts with all the pregnant females and their soon-to-be-born lambs in creches. It’s a fantastic experience being able to watch the little ones grow bigger and eventually start developing their horns (males) while the other young males start to play-fight, to prepare for their future rivalries.
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