It’s usually the subtle differences that let you know something funny is going on. Things look right, but yet they don’t.
Hear the ambient bird calls of the common species for a few years then hear something slightly odd, and you perk up your ears because there’s probably a rarity hopping around. Or drive past the same marula tree for months and suddenly notice a branch drooping where there was none before; it might be a leopard with its kill in the tree.
So when we drove past a small bachelor herd of impalas recently with one of them chasing a ewe, everything looked normal… until it didn’t.
The female being chased (female impalas don’t have horns…usually) somehow looked wrong.
Impalas are by far the most numerous antelope in the reserve (I think the last game count had their numbers at close to 20 000, if my memory serves me right), so one gets fairly used to encountering them continuously when on game drive. And over time, the image of what an impala ewe looks like gets firmly embedded in your mind. This one being chased did not fit that profile. Its neck was too thick, and apart from the obvious lack of horns, it looked exactly like all the other rams in the herd.
Getting out the binoculars and looking a bit more closely, we could see that it was, in fact, a male impala, and he’d lost both his horns.
Males with only a single horn are fairly common; the big rut in May sees a number of them getting snapped off close the base, and unfortunately those males are destined to be consigned to the impala knacker’s yard from there on out. They don’t really have much chance of competing with rivals for mating rights.
Losing two horns during the rut (I assume it was during the rut) is not something I’ve encountered before, or at least not that I remember. Either this impala was in a fight that went spectacularly badly wrong, or it broke a horn then still went back into the fray for another round.
Either way, this is almost certainly the end of its genetic road. A male that has lost his horns stands virtually no chance of competing for a harem. Our hope for him is that his horns got broken after he had successfully mated and passed on his genes.
Since that is ultimately the goal for any animal – from a dung beetle to a lion – once its happened I doubt they’re too worried about their own aesthetics…