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.