As beautiful as they are, impala (Aepyceros melampus), tend to be overlooked by tourists to large game parks, such as the Kruger National Park and others – mainly because they are on the constant lookout for ‘more exciting animals’. This is likely so because impala are the most common antelope of the bushveld regions of South Africa. One sees them everywhere and so it came as no surprise when our guide on a night drive through a section of the Kruger National Park declined to stop after we’d spotted a herd or two, laughingly dismissing them as ‘the MacDonalds of the bush’ because they are preyed upon by most predators. Here is a herd of impala ewes lying in the dry winter grass with a few waterbuck doing the same in the background.
I think they are rather elegant animals which deserve a closer look. You will notice that a narrow black line runs along the middle of the lower back to the tail, and a vertical black stripe appears on the back of each thigh.
Males (rams) and females (ewes) look similar, although only the rams have horns. It is intriguing to see that these animals mostly seem to keep their tail tucked down between their hind legs.
Those dark, brush-like tufts just above the heel on each hind leg cover important scent glands. These apparently release scent trails as the animal runs which enable lost individuals to regroup after the herd has scattered if they have been alarmed. The contrasting black and white markings mentioned earlier make an easy target to focus on while running, allowing for the herd to stay together in flight. Gathering in herds offer protection from predators, such as lions. An alert impala will bark out an alarm that puts the entire herd to flight. We have often seen flocks of Red-billed Oxpeckers alighting on the backs of impala to comb through their fur for ticks and other parasites.
During the rainy season, when food is plentiful, impala may gather in large herds of several hundred animals to browse on grasses and herbs, bushes, shrubs, pods, and shoots. On the other hand, we have seen them more scattered during prolonged drought periods. Even then, impala remain fairly close to a permanent water supply.
The breeding season for impala begins in March and continues during the early winter months. During this time the coat of the males darkens and they acquire a musky odour. Rutting occurs during early winter months. We found the unfamiliar snorting sound of rutting males quite scary one night while we were camping in the Moremi Game Reserve many years ago – we thought some leopards were nearby!
The dominant ram focuses on keeping his harem of ewes together, constantly herding them together by walking around them and even chasing straying females back to the group by emitting loud snorting and roaring sounds.