Big 5 fever is an ailment that has spread its tentacles into every corner of the guiding industry, especially in the terms of advertising and marketing. Within the competitive world of the lodge environment, the lure of quality big 5 sightings is splashed across brochures and websites with gusto. Guests flock to marquis lodges with huge expectations and are often not disappointed. As guides though, it is our job to try and dispel some of these expectations and replace them with an appreciation of the bigger picture. If all we did was talk about 5 animals during a three night stay, guests would leave their respective lodges rather unfulfilled I wager. These animals may well be the main attraction but without their supporting cast, none of their existences would be possible. Perhaps the animal most often overlooked on safari is that of the humble impala.
Impala litter the landscape like ticker tape at a Mardi Gras festival and are often treated as such. I myself am equally at fault having driven past many a herd on my way to larger profile animals. I do pride myself however in spending time with these oft ignored delicate antelope. As far as I’m concerned, if a species is present in such monumental numbers, there must be a good reason. If one delves beneath the surface of these beautiful creatures, a myriad of behavioural and physiological adaptations can be uncovered which help to explain their phenomenal success.
|2 young males spar with each other, honing their skills for crucial battles to come|
The impala population has two great peaks in activity during the year. The first is known as the ‘rut’. For 4-6 weeks each year, usually beginning around May, the males of the species engage in territorial battles to secure seasonal breeding rights. Many encounters are settled merely by intimidation and confidence but often, rams come to blows using their horns as effective weapons. Injuries are rare and these confrontations more commonly manifest in tests of strength as they lock horns to gauge each other’s resilience. The strongest of the rams are rewarded with the prime grounds with which to woo their respective females.
|2 males battle for suprmacy as another watches from the sidelines|
This harem dynamic may sound like Christmas to some but the male impalas are constantly defending their interests and trying to herd their females together. Hugh Hefner, regardless of all his countless years of experience with members of the opposite sex, would be out on his feet in no time! Impalas produce one of the most out of character noises during this time and their growls and snorts echo across the African savanna at all hours. To the uneducated, these growls are often misinterpreted as predators and cause much fear and excitement. The snorting of the impala is synonymous with their alarm call and is thus thought to scare the ewes into staying together. Genius!
|A male attempts to herd a fleeing female|
During this breeding period, the male spend most of his energy mating, defending and herding and therefore loses condition quickly. This allows other rams in the area the chance to overthrow him. This is very common phenomenon and during a 6 week period, it is usual for a group of females to see at least 4 suitors. This is nature’s way of ensuring a greater genetic diversity, especially when one considers that impala ewes have a 98% conception rate!
A specific breeding season leads to a specific lambing season and come November/December time, the bush comes alive with a flood of unstable, perfect miniatures. This saturation effect is perhaps the impala’s best defense mechanism against predation – safety in numbers. The youngsters form delightful crèches and frolic across the lush tall grass. This is now the height of the rainy season and the nature’s blood has brought with it sufficient food, water and shelter: the perfect place to raise vulnerable offspring.
|A group of small impala fascinated by something....|
Although often disregarded, the impala is perhaps one of the most beautiful animals to grace the African bush. Finding a poorly conditioned impala is like looking for a girl that doesn’t rate Dirty Dancing as a fine film… (Don’t even get me started on that one!!) Their 3 toned coats radiate health and cleanliness and this is vital to staying in shape and possessing the ability to evade predators. They are not privy to some miracle product to keep their hair shining like a L’Oreal model but have a couple of wonderfully simple evolutionary traits that enable them to keep so well groomed.
First, the teeth in the lower jaw have a slight gap between them and have a small amount of give in their sockets. These teeth can then be passed through the fur like a comb to facilitate the removal of all animals’ nemeses: ticks. A healthy impala may only posses around 500 ticks. This may make some of you cringe and start itching uncontrollably at the thought, but spare a thought for the old buffalo bulls who can easily house over 100,000! Not only do they groom themselves, but they also engage on what we call allo-grooming, whereby members of a group will partake in mutual grooming, rather like monkeys. This is highly unusual in antelope species.
|2 female members of a harem groom each|
There are, however, areas that an impala cannot reach and none of their friends seem willing to reach either: the anus and groin. It is here that many ticks congregate due to the moist, softer skin and therefore pose a problem for the bashful impala. Nature as always though has come up with a very novel method of removal. The impala have a black ‘M’ emblazoned on their rumps (which has given rise to the rather unfortunate nickname of ‘The MacDonald’s of the Bush’). If one was to watch impala for any length of time, one would also see that they swish their tail from side to side every few seconds. It takes a few moments for ticks to attach to the skin and thus, the swiping tail bats them to one side and the ticks invariably end up on the black stripes either side of the rump. Black fur absorbs heat and therefore makes an uncomfortable environment for the tick, forcing them to move further round on the flanks to avoid the relentless tail, and this puts them within range of the impala’s comb. This is of course only a theory but it makes perfect sense!
Good conditioning means for speedy escapes and this enables the impalas to reach 80km/h flat out and cements their place as one of the most prolific jumpers in the mammalian kingdom. They are capable of covering 12m in a single bound and can reach heights of over 3m! The list of adaptations is beginning to add up now but one must also take into account that impalas are mixed feeders and are equally happy eating grass or leaves. This means that food supply is never really an issue and when a species is prevented with near unlimited resources, they will always flourish.
|The boldest female takes to air to clear a water hazard|
These adaptations all contribute to the phenomenal success of the impala and allow predator numbers to flourish as they constitute the staple diet for many of them. They are the carnivore’s equivalent of grass. In fact, if left unchecked, the impala population is estimated to increase 40% each year!! The fact that their numbers within the Kruger area remain relatively constant shows you just how many are sacrificed to facilitate the biodiversity of the predators present.
|Impala stare out over the bush searching for danger|
The success of the species had seen numbers in the area rise to somewhere in excess of 150,000 but this massive influx comes at an environmental price. One single impala eats more than 3 times more than the average elephant compared to their body weight. Add to this that impalas are selective feeders and one can quickly see that availability of food for other species is in jeopardy. Take the graceful kudu as an example. They are able to browse on leaves up to around 2m in height but in an area plagued by impala, they perhaps only have only 30cm left to choose from after the impala have eaten their fill. Their overgrazing can also lead to bush encroachment and thus less diversity of plant life and less animals that can profit from it. The best method of control seems to be a natural one as culling in simply too expensive and time consuming. In the past few years, Kruger national park has closed multiple artificial water points with the hope that the water dependant impala will suffer. Without sufficient resources at their disposal, their condition will diminish and therefore make them more susceptible to predation. The strategy seems to be working and the latest census sees impala populations at a mere 100,000.
|A kudu females cleans her nose|
Although not given due credit by guests and guides alike, the impala is an integral member of the natural kingdom. They are the foundation stone upon which the higher profile animals are able to build and because of that, any guide that drives past impala without stopping to explain their crucial role within the ecosystem or at least to appreciate their beauty is not doing his or her job properly. The biodiversity of the bush is made possible by many elements all coming together in perfect harmony and the impala are the carbon that binds the veld together and therefore should demand huge levels of respect. Carbon may be the most common and overlooked element on the planet but lets not forget that if the molecules are rearranged, you get a diamond….