As we pass by herds of impala out on game drive, guests will often remark how these poor antelope must be the most permanently terrified species of all that walk the earth. There is this belief that they must be constantly debilitated by fear. Melman from Madagascar characters if you will. Now of course we cannot ask the impala and so I will never really know for sure but from watching these animals over time I have come to believe that they actually have it all figured out. They’re not really all “about to die of heart attack” as everyone presumes. Here’s why…

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A herd of impala feed in the early morning light. As one animals puts its head up to feed, another member of the herd glancing up to check its surroundings.

When you watch a leopard stalk a herd of impala, you will notice the impala wandering about, feeding with their heads lowered to the ground but at any one time there will be an impala with its head up scanning the surroundings. It’s not a frantic, frenzied scanning, rather a lazy sort of awareness. If an impala spots a hungry predator it alarm calls, alerting the rest of the herd to the imminent danger. Based on this new knowledge, the impala become all consumed by the threat. It is only in this moment that they actually appear to stress.

They stop feeding, all stand dead still, eyes focused on the animal and wait. If the lion or leopard gets closer they run back a few meters to a safe distance, turn and face the threat again. Usually at this point the predator realises it has been bust and its chances of catching something are seriously slim and it wanders off in another direction to try its luck elsewhere. Within a few minutes of this the impala go back to feeding, rutting, or lazily ruminating as if they have totally forgotten that they had nearly lost one of their friends to a hungry lion. In fact, sometimes a predator may wait a while and attempt to re-stalk the same herd, knowing how these animals tend to relax again.

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The Nanga female stalks a herd of impala, attempting to use the long grass as cover.

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A group of impala stand to attention upon one of them spotting a leopard. It is only at this point that the impala become intensely focused and fearful and will keep running a few meters back and then turning to face the threat once more.

Although this may seem silly if you want to survive in the wild, it is in fact rather smart. What they are doing is living simply. They pay attention to the detail of every moment and they deal with the current crisis. As humans, we spend the vast majority of our time in a thought bubble (or at least I do), quite oblivious to what is happening around us. And quite often this is when the real threat of the present moment arrives and we’re too preoccupied to deal with it adequately or to even see it coming. We don’t stress when we need to, we seem to stress always. Impala deal with their direct surroundings and immediate needs and are therefore so much more aware of what is happening around them. I’m certainly not saying they don’t get it wrong because we all know that impala get eaten but if they were too busy day dreaming about tomorrow’s supposed concerns, then a whole lot more of them would be sitting in the fork of the tree in the jaws of a leopard. This is particularly obvious now during the rutting season when all the males are preoccupied with mating and chasing females around all the while looking over their shoulder to check for a fellow male competitor. During this time, the vast majority of kills you find are impala rams because they are so busy racing around fussing and pre-occupied.

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Two impala rams clash during a rut. For about a month or two, impala will do this incessantly. The aim is to establish a territory, chase away opposing males and mate with a harem of females.

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A female leopard feeds on an impala that she has hoisted into the safe branches of a marula tree. During the rut, a vast majority of the impala caught by predators are the distracted males.

What I have learnt from watching these animals as they go about living is not that we should stop planning for the future, being aware of possible dangers or learning from our mistakes, but just that we shouldn’t spend so much time contemplating what has been and stressing about what is to come that we forget to live altogether. Because from where I stand, impala have this all figured out and the belief that impala are permanently terrified and stressed may just be our own human projection.

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Amy Attenborough

Media Team

Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

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6 Comments

on What You Can Learn From a Rutting Impala
    Jill Larone says:

    Great write-up Amy, and yes, I have pondered that exact thought when watching Impala…how stressed their lives must be. I guess, as humans, we often tend to project our emotions and thoughts onto animals…maybe in an attempt to know and understand better what they are feeling and thinking.

    Amy Attenborough says:

    Absolutely Jill!

    Dianne Christie says:

    Oh th lessons we could learn from the animals.

    Virginia says:

    Amazing!

    Jill Larone says:

    And I forgot to add Amy, that your pictures are gorgeous! I especially love the herd of Impala in the morning light…so beautiful, and also a great one of the Nanga female — she’s such a stunning Leopard and is looking very healthy, so nice to see.

    Sue Geery says:

    Animals seem to be able to live in the moment better than humans! Well done Amy and James!!!!

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