Why is it that the more we get of something the less enjoyment we get from it? Well, without going too far down a neuroscience rabbit hole, it is linked with the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter) in our brains. The first time we experience something there is a greater release of dopamine and the more often we experience it the dopamine levels gradually decrease and it becomes less and less interesting. This is possibly the reason why animals that we see very often tend to be driven past and simply just acknowledged. My objective today is to make you realize on your next safari why animals, particularly impala, that fit into this category shouldn’t be overlooked.
Any person that has been on safari in southern Africa will be able to recognize an impala. They are by far the most abundant mammal found here at Londolozi. But there is more than meets the eye with these close-to-perfect antelope. Let’s delve into the reasons I say this.
More often than not the first mammal that a first-time safari goer will see is a herd of impala. This always allows me to see them for ‘the first time’ through the eyes of my guests. Their striking rufous coats that meticulously blend to fawn along their sides and pure white below; strategic black and white markings on their rump; long powerful legs that allow them to jump a staggering distance and height; ever watchful eyes and the male’s lyrate-shaped horns make them a stunning sight to see. Having no close relatives the impala has been placed in a tribe of its own. Fossil evidence has revealed that the impala, unlike most other antelope found here, has barely evolved for the past 6.5 million years. This puts their design into the same conversation as the Nile Crocodile which essentially dictates that there is not much room for improvement.
If we had to measure success based on sheer numbers then the impala has pulled a Usain Bolt on the rest of the field with a clear victory. But why are they so successful? Impalas prefer a protein-rich diet of palatable grazing when it is available. But they are not shy to switch to a browsing diet when the grasses start to lose condition in the drier months of the year. This ability, however, of being a mixed feeder allows them the luxury of a diversity of habitat. Roughly 250 000 impalas have been relocated from the Kruger to other reserves within South Africa over the past 40 years. This combined with their increase in population within the Kruger itself has resulted in the impala being the only indigenous mammal to increase its population and broadened its range within Southern Africa in the past 100 years.
Further to this their breeding strategy of synchronized births ensures that predators are basically swamped with too many vulnerable impala lambs to have a significant impact on the population. So they’ve essentially hit the sweet spot in both diet and reproduction strategies.
Ranger Robyn Morrison wrote about how elephants are ecological engineers. This is quite noticeable when spending just a short amount of time with a herd of elephants as they move through the bushveld pushing over trees and ploughing their way through even the thickest brush. But if we look at the sheer numbers of impala then surely they, themselves, are ecological engineers in their own right? When impala browse they are doing so by feeding on trees less than a meter high. This means that they have a significant impact on the growth rate of any of these trees and their saplings, the sheer numbers also return a lot of minerals and plant matter to the ground, and they make up the majority of the prey species caught by predators. This demonstrates the importance of not only one of Africa’s giants on the vegetation and landscape but also one of the smaller mammals.
The word antelope is derived from a Greek word for “bright eyes” and impala not only have a set of bright eyes but also eagle eyes. They are the primary prey species of most predators, however, they are able to spot them from a great distance away and for all but the African Wild Dog, they will ‘sound the alarm’ by alarm-snorting and foot-stamping. This is to let the predator know that they have lost the element of surprise. Wild Dogs, with their incredible speed and endurance, make the impala adopt a different strategy of fleeing with a stiff-legged athletic leap essentially trying to display their astonishing fitness to hopefully deter the predator and cast its attention to a different impala or prey. These behaviours are essential clues for Londolozi’s Rangers and Trackers to assist in finding predators and without them would make our jobs tremendously more difficult.
These are just a handful of reasons why the next time you are on safari and have driven past several herds of impala perhaps stop to marvel at these perfect antelope. A personal favourite of mine is to keep deathly quiet while a herd run through the grass. The combination of movement of many animals and the sound of them running through the grass is simply breathtaking. And who knows you may just get lucky and find there has been a predator waiting in ambush. But if not you’ve at least had a small release of dopamine while viewing the indomitable impala that decorates and in their own way dominates the African bushveld.
Filed under General Nature Photography Safari experience Wildlife
Well Barry, you hit the nail on the head with this blog. It is so true that seeing dozens, or perhaps a hundred or two of Impala in the course of a game drive can become somewhat monotonous, especially if they are simply browsing. But, on a drive in November a few years ago , I witnessed the birth of an Impala lamb and watched as it struggled to its feet, it’s mother waiting patiently, and my mind changed about this beautiful animal completely. Thereafter watching them leap, as balletic as well-trained dancers, is mesmerizing. Their snorting, when the scent of a predator passes their nostrils can be almost comical, but also is a sign of what could happen if a big cat is nearby. So thank you Barry for reminding us that each animal is an important part of the total safari experience.
Hi Barry, your story on the impala’s is something to take note of. It is true, even riding in your car in the Kruger you tend to ride past the impala herd. But just takeca look closer at those enormous eyes and beautiful coloring of their skin, makes you look a few times longer at them. We have impala’s here on the reserve where we stay, they feed a few meters from my house and walk in between the houses with such grace and dominance. I love them and I loved it when they come and eat their lusern, pellets and block, that we put out for them
Barry, thank you for the information on the impalas. They are a case of volume vs uniqueness for sure.
Such a lovely read, thank you Barry. I always enjoy watching Impala, such beautiful antelopes.
Intersting insight into the most common species. One incredible evening, we were rushing back to camp in the midst of a rainstorm. An extremely large herd of impala rushed alongside us and kept us company for a short period.
Such a lovely blog Barry! I have searched for deeper info and documentaries on impala for years but it’s not so easy, they are underrated by documentarists. I watched one about African trees and there were impala among the most important guests and dispersers of seeds. Another one was really cute, about the life of an impala ram from his birth to his adulthood, it kept me on the edge with so many predators around! The are so beautiful animals and must have their hidden sides still to be discovered!
Great article on Impalas, Barry
Every time I read a blog post, I want to come back to Londolozi. Great article, Barry Bath. Next safari, I’ll view the impala in a new light. Not just #AFI.
Nice blog Barry. Love their ears, but guess most times they save them from being dinner. Thanks for sharing.
I love this post Barry! Such a fascinating subject, and a wonderful gleaning of interesting factoids on your part. I particularly enjoyed the different strategies the Impala use to deter predators, and especially the African wild dogs!!
Great blog post. Time should be taken to savour each moment and animal, but all too quickly we can get lost in seeing what is next. Perhaps an Impala can be the am ambassador of being in the moment.
Nothing prettier than a group of impala females standing looking at you with their lovely markings and ears. Just beautiful.