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The Incredible Impala

Updated: Jan 14

Out here it is three more months before the formal hunting season starts. Many folks are returning home from the National Reserves or private properties that accept tourists, having spent quality time in nature and of course viewed the new prodigy that had appeared all over during December: baby impala, wildebeest, zebra, eland, giraffe, etc. All those are in abundance. Impala particularly is the one animal species that is typifying of Southern Africa's Christmas time game abundance. Here is why:

They occur in large numbers. It is the only mammal (at least in Africa and possibly in the world) which has for 20 million years remained virtually unchanged. This is a direct result of them displaying the best survival statistics of all mammals on earth. Literally the only thing that has changed - and only recently - is the design of its teeth: since the introduction of ticks when domestic cattle arrived in Southern Africa the impala's teeth have evolved to allow the animal to "comb" its skin in order to rid it of ticks. For the very same reason they can be seen standing in the shade of trees on hot days and groom one another.

Above is a newborn impala lamb, still wobbly on its spindly legs. Ewes go into dense bush to drop their young, often with one previous year's young ewe present. In this case a three year old ram accompanies the two back into the herd.

They will browse as wel as graze whatever is available under the stress of prolonged drought. This possibly is the main reason for their long survival. Another reason for successful procreation is their ability to hold back birth for a month, awaiting the rains - which in Africa for millions of years my arrive on time, or unpredictably stay away. In fact female impala collectively time the birthing to coincide with the new grass sprouts to be just right when the lambs are weaned.

They also have the unique ability to, just before the head of the lamb has protruded and in case of a predator attack to halt the birthing process right there and run away. Impala are the best drought forecasters in Africa as when, for whatever reason there may be a season of no rainahead they will abort en masse months before the time of the failing rains.

Taking it slowly when viewing the large, combined herds of smaller family groups as they congegrate during and after the two weeks of dropping their lambs - all within days - and before weaning, studying individual animals, the visitor will come to appreciate the beauty of this creature. This patient observation also may coincide with seeing the increased predator-impala activity: Leopard, hyena, painted wolf, jackal - and then the predator-predator interactions invariably taking place as well.

New arrivals are being looked after by the previous season's young females in a créche.

A Rowland Ward++ impala ram. Most PHs will not allow such a ram - which plainly is in the prime of its breeding age - to be shot. The horns show it is 6-7 years old and still in control of his ewes. That genetic source is simply too valuable in the bigger scheme of things to remove.

Impala must be the number one favourite antelope to be going after by South African meat hunters - mainly because of its excellent meat - but also because it will test the hunter's walking and stalking and shooting skills to the utmost. In the area where I live their main predator is leopard and these are in abundance. Family groups are forever on the lookout, about half them not grazing but with heads facing in all directions while others are grazing. "Make lookout your outlook on life" seems to be a cultural dogma in their communities.

For a hunter to successfuly see a group without having been seen first already is a feather in his hat. To then successfully stalk them and get a clear shot on an individual animal of his choice needs experience and skill. The hunter's best tactic is to know the daily migration pattern of each family group around a property and then approach a hopeful congregational area with a low morning sun directly behind him - or sit in ambush near a grassy clearance in the bush where they are known to congregate during the midday heat or late afternoon.

Regarding conservation management actions by ranchers: The diversity of good genetic material as always is the key for conservation of good bloodlines and stability of the species. Inbreeding favours weaker genes. This is a dichotomy where a genetically very strong male may in fact become an inherent threat for genetic diversity. Because he physically can, he will fight lesser males and add their females to his growing herd. He will successfully beat off any ram that wishes to challenge him for his harem and territory. That is his ability to add and ensure his good genes for as long and as wide as possible. Eventually this task of continually patrolling the fringes of his domain in order to force females with a gypsy mind back in line - and to fight off the many rams that try to elope with a few gypsy-girl types of his harem becomes an occupational hazard with a number of unintended consequences.

Most important - he now has no time on his hands to service the females in oestrus and the herd becomes unproductive. His genetically endowed physical strength and fighting skills are wasted on fighting and the females become frustrated and try to break out, demanding more control. In areas where the African painted wolf (Lycaon pictus - also called "African wild dog") occur this is exactly their niche in nature's beautifully arranged links of survival of the species. The pack attacks an impala herd with cunning and a massive shock effect which causes great trauma and which makes the animals scatter far and wide. This allows other impala males to herd a few females together and so the genetic diverity is ensured.

Sadly, my forbears out of northern Europe arrived here in Africa (and in the Americas!) with an ingrained, unspoken - but unfounded fear of wolves. Painted wolves were shot on sight. It is only since the 1960s that their critically important function in nature has been understood. They only survive in national reserves and also can only sustain and expand their numbers when large herds of impala are present. (In northern USA the grey wolf was decimated by humans due to the persistent to this day hidden fear of wolves and for no other other real reason).

So, on private properties in South Africa where there are no wild dogs or cheetah - what exists to prevent the very dominant impala males from becoming too protective? Hunting does that. Through his close interaction with the bush the clever wildlife manager on a property will know how many of each species, and how many males and females of each, and how many in age groups MUST be removed every season. Without the predation of well managed hunting there would not have been the extraordinary survival and increase in game numbers and quality of the genetic material in South Africa since early 1960.

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