Sleek and graceful – Impala

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The antelope are a common part of the African scene because of the grasses and shrubbery of the African plains. The vegetation drives (allows) all sorts of things to survive by providing nourishment and moisture. Unlike the Giant Panda and Koala who eat almost valueless food stuffs, the African grasslands provide food rich in carbohydrates, minerals, and protein – it isn’t always easy to get at. But, a great percentage of the savannah biomass is in ruminants (ungulates). These animals are even-toed and utilize a four-chambered stomach. They are cud-chewers for the most part. Of course the vegetation is quite seasonal, in many places, and requires either periods of hunger or a migration for animals to make it through the year.

Despite this sort of generalized introduction, the existing antelope vary greatly in size, habitat, shape, and behavior. Some are singular in life style while others group together and seem to need company. There are about 78 members of the Bovid family in Africa. These are the Duikers, Dik-dik, Steenbok, Klipspringer, Gazelles, Reedbuck, Rhebok, Waterbuck, Lechwe, Puku, Hartebeest, Topi, Wildebeest, Impala, Bushbuck, Kudu, Eland, Cape Buffalo, and Giraffe.

This grouping consists (again) of cud-chewing, four-chamber stomach, even-toed animals that look like antelope or cows or giraffes. The sweetest looking and probably the second-most abundant, behind the Wildebeest, is the Impala. This is a sleek animal weighing about 150 pounds for males and 100 pounds for a female. The males have horns that are sweepingly wide, ridged, and up to a yard long (36-37 inches or 90 cm). They are two-toned brown with white bellies, rump, and facial marks. The Impala is an animal of the brushy edges. It can be seen in light woodlands and grassy plains.

Impala are largely browsers taking pods, buds, fresh twigs, and new foliage from grassy woodlands (mostly during the drier seasons) but will graze heavily on fresh grasses during the wet season. They are often seen in rather large groups with 30 to 120 females in a rather stable group and males in bachelor herds for the most part. Males will compete for dominance and then try to hold a group of 5-20 females on a territory for breeding. The male-male competition continues throughout the breeding season. The dominant males do get to breed the most, but they also forgo feeding to shepherd females and chase intruding males. Few males have the stamina to hold both females and territory throughout the breeding season.

Impala numbers are quite patchy. They are very common in good habitat and uncommon in less suitable locations. There are scattered populations from Kenya on south into South Africa. There is a small population of the “Black-faced Impala” in southern Angola and northern Namibia. This form is usually lumped under the same specific name as the other populations.

Males will test each other and measure themselves within the bachelor herd. The winner, the strongest usually, will move out from the boys club and try to create and hold a group of females on a territory during the breeding season. Mating, herding, chasing other males (from the females and the territory) and all the related stresses will wear the males down and they are often usurped by a stronger fresher male. The defeated male will return to the bachelor herd and regain strength and (perhaps) try his luck again later in the season.
Young males will begin to sort themselves out long before they are sexually mature. Notice here the two-toned brown body with a mostly white belly. There are two black rump stripes with a third one on the tail. Males will leave their mothers and join bachelor herds at about 8 months of age.
Female Impala do not carry horns. The horns are mostly hollow and are not shed annually like the deer family (White-tailed Deer, Moose, Elk, Reindeer/Caribou). This is probably a good time to mention that deer and antelope are not too closely related. The deer are Cervidae (47 species) and the antelope are Bovidae (135 species of cattle goats and antelope). And further along the taxonomic line it should be noted that Impala have no close relatives within the Bovid/Ungulate/Ruminant group. They are rather unique; following their own evolutionary line. The group that they are in also has the similar Hirola, as well as the much less similar Topi, Bontebok, Kongoni (Hartebeest), and Wildebeest, a rather unlikely assortment of animals.
The female impala are sleek and rather elegant looking. They are always in some sort of group. When startled the group will bolt and animals will leap and bound in long mammalian flights as they escape from the danger. They can leap 10 feet (3m) in height and 30+ feet (10m) in length with ease. It is quite a scene when a group of thirty of forty or more animals depart in a hurry, scattering in all directions; like mammalian fireworks. The youngsters often chase and leap for exercise, practice, and seemingly, the fun of it.
Female Impala will bear their first young when they are about a year and a half old. One or two young is normal. The young can be left out for a few days but are soon brought into the group where they form creches with other youngsters. They nurse from their mothers but generally hang with the other kids. Males won’t breed until they are at least four years old and can hold a group of females and a bit of territory.
Impala carry scent glands in black tufts of hair on the rear legs. Males will also exude scent from glands on the forehead to mark territory and announce their presence. The chemistry is just now being unraveled and the real intent of the glands is not yet nailed down. It is surmised that the scent glands inform other group members as to where the animal is located; but how transmission occurs is not well understood. It was thought that the scent was a “follow-me” scent but that requires immediate dispersal in all directions. It may be more likely that the scent is a steady-state odor that informs regarding health and reproductive status (an olfactory Face-Book page). These scent-emitting black leg tufts are found only on Impala and not on any other antelope or gazelle. Many other species have scent-emitting glands but not on the lower part of the rear legs.
Impala will drink daily if they can. They will also forgo drinking when new grasses or other foods provide enough moisture. You might notice that the second animal in from the left is a bit bigger and has horns just visible under the female on the very left that second-in Impala is a male.
One of the dangers in being a common herbivore is that you taste good and are available. Predators will eat herbivores throughout the year. Lions often need larger prey than Impala but a smallish group of lions will take iImpala on occasion. Leopards find Impala just right and often seek them out. Hyenas and Wild Dogs will hunt Impala and Cheetah will take youngsters and occasionally full grown animals as well. The Impala in the tree (above) is a cached leopard kill.

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