Running on inspiration from the book ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers’ by Robert Sapolsky, I thought I would address a topic that is brought up by guests repeatedly.
As we pass by herds of impala out on a 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 flooded by fear. 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 are not really “all about to die of a heart attack” as everyone presumes. Here’s why.
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, but rather a lazy sort of awareness. If an impala spots a predator it alarm calls, alerting the rest of the herd to the imminent danger. Based on this new knowledge, the impala becomes all consumed by the threat. It is only at this moment that they actually appear to stress.
They stop feeding, and 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 busted 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 impalas 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.
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. Impalas 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 impalas get eaten but if they were too busy daydreaming 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 preoccupied.
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, impalas have this all figured out and the belief that impalas are permanently terrified and stressed may just be our own human projection.