Colours of Wildlife: Impala

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours ... but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"


This is a watercolour painting of a Black–faced Impala, Aepyceros melampus petersii. While the Impala is a common and widespread species in Southern and East Africa, the black–faced subspecies is rare and confined to northwestern Namibia and southwestern Angola. It mainly differs from the common subspecies in having a black blaze down its face, and generally being a bit darker and duller in colour. It has suffered from the wars in Angola and Namibia, during which massive poaching of wildlife took place. In the rest of this article, I will speak of Impalas inclusively rather than just about the Black–faced variety.

The Impala is without a doubt the most ubiquitous and easily seen antelope in almost all the game reserves of South Africa. This reaches a point where tourists become bored with them: "oh no, not Impalas again! When do we see something cool, like elephants or lions?" And yet, this is a truly beautiful antelope. Also, despite its abundance, it is unusual in many ways and today it is still not clear what its closest relatives are.

In Afrikaans this species is called 'Rooibok' which means 'red antelope'. Its rich orange–reddish coat is indeed quite distinctive. To some degree it blends in with the reddish–brown dirt and dry grass and leaves which characterizes much of its habitat, but in truth impalas aren't particularly well camouflaged and they are easy to spot. They also usually live in herds, numbering from a few animals to more than a hundred. Only the males have horns. These are formed into a distinctive 'lyre'–shape, and are ridged along the lower half, with sharp, thin tips. Other distinctive features, shared by both sexes, include black tips to the ears, black patches on the 'heels' or fetlocks of the hind legs, and black vertical stripes on the buttocks. The tail is short and usually tucked between the buttocks and also has a black stripe along its midline. The reddish colour is darkest on the back, then abruptly becomes lighter on the sides, and finally lighter still, creamy–white, on the belly. The area around the nose and mouth is also white, as are the inner linings of the ears (in between the black patches). All of the dark–and–light contrast areas are used for signaling, and to allow animals to maintain visual contact.

Impalas are very graceful and elegant of appearance and in all their movements. As antelopes go they are medium–sized, the males reaching about a metre/yard at the shoulder and a weight of 80 kg/175 lbs. An average male is about 60 kg/130 lbs, an average female 40 kg/90 lbs. They are incredible leapers for their size – or for any size for that matter. Leaps clearing a distance of up to 12 m/40 ft have been claimed for them. If something should scare a herd, they will set off running and leaping. The leaps are done in an exaggerated way: the forelegs are lifted and stretched forward and the hindlegs backward at the height of the leap, giving the impression that the animal is flying. This is very similar to the technique of ballerinas and dancers that extend their legs straight forward and backward during leaps to make it seem as if they are 'hanging' in the air for a longer period than physics would allow. In the case of impalas this is to impress upon predators just how fit they are, to discourage them from the chase.

Though many people may get the impression that impalas are everywhere in South Africa, such is not the case. They are mainly restricted to the northwestern corner of the country. Actually there are probably more of them now in South Africa than ever before, because they adapt so easily to disturbed habitats, and because many of them have been translocated and introduced to game reserves in areas where previously they did not occur. They can live in very small reserves. Here in Polokwane a small herd lives on the grounds of the Bird Sanctuary, and there are also impalas in one of our residential areas, Broadlands. There are many in our municipal game reserve. Impalas thrive in habitats where there are transitions between different kinds of vegetation, and so are able to utilize areas impacted by humans and cattle better than other antelopes. They eat grass and also browse on leaves, twigs and herbs, and will eat nutritious pods, fruit and seeds as well. In nature their preferred habitat is open woodland or savannah with both lots of grass as well as trees and bushes. They also need shade, shelter and access to water. They have been favoured by the creation of many artificial lakes, ponds and drinking holes.

Apart from South Africa, impalas also occur in all our neighbour countries, and further northward up till the southern edge of the rainforest belt, but in East Africa as far as Kenya.

As I've said, impalas live in herds, finding safety in numbers. They use scents to a great extent for communication and marking their territories. They have glands in the black tufts on the fetlocks of their hind legs that secrete odours as far as they go. By these any member that became separated from the herd can find its way back to them. The high kicking behaviour during leaps also wafts puffs of these scents into the air when a herd is spooked, again helping scattered members get back together when the danger is past. Also, the entire forehead is glandular and secretes a musky odour, especially in the males in the breeding season. Their societies go through changes based on the breeding cycle. Young males, after leaving their mothers, will group themselves into bachelor herds. They start breeding themselves by the age of four, starting to leave the bachelor herds in late Summer. In Autumn, they start establishing territories. They rub their forehead glands against branches and bushes to stake their claims. Strangely enough, unlike many other antelopes, like Dik–diks they do not have glands in the corners of their eyes, but fossils seem to suggest that their ancestors did. But like the dik–diks they defecate in middens spaced through their territories.

The rutting season begins (in South Africa) in May, which here is just before the Winter. The rams now get thick necks and the glands on their foreheads become more active, the oily secretions darkening their heads and backs. Rutting rams will roar and snort ferociously all through the day and night. This can be a very unexpected experience for a tourist, hearing these terrifying roars and then discovering its source to be a mere impala! A lot of the competition ends at the roaring phase, when one ram can intimidate another merely by the power of his voice. Should a rival actually not fall for this, the next phase is physical combat. They will joust and wrestle with their horns. It is incredible how powerful antelopes like these can be. I've once seen a Springbok, a smaller relative of the impala, toss its rival high into the air with a casual flick of its neck. Fights are usually brief and rarely lead to serious injury or death.

Successful rams will mate, but once the rut is over, their aggression fades away and they rejoin the bachelor herds or become part of the bigger breeding herds. The lambs are born after seven months, in early Summer, a single lamb to an ewe. Impala lambs are incredibly cute, with very long and slender legs, small bodies, small faces with big eyes and ears. They bleat like little sheep or goat lambs. I still remember a wonderful occasion when our family, on holiday in the Kruger National Park, came upon a tiny impala lamb that clearly was lost and alone. It was bleating most mournfully. We were really worried about it...a little lamb alone like that is extremely vulnerable. But then, after a long time while we were watching it, at last there was a rustle in the bushes – and its mom came frantically running up to it, and when it heard her it ran up to her as well, and there was so much visible joy in their expressions, in their faces and in their whole bodies, when they were reunited!

A strange phenomenon is that there is a 'secondary rut' in early Spring, with a consequent batch of young being born 'out of season' in Autumn.

Impalas do not seem to be very closely related to any other species of antelope. In their appearance they are reminiscent of gazelles, though being somewhat bigger. They also have features that in the view of Jonathan Kingdon (author of 'The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals') seem to link them to the much larger 'long–faced antelopes', the Alcelaphini, which include the Wildebeests. Fossils seem to indicate that the impala is in shape and lifestyle close to the ancestors of the long–faced antelopes, maybe representing a link between them and the gazelles. Other experts consider them to be closer to the Reduncini, the Waterbucks, Kobs, Pukus, Lechwes and Reedbucks.

Whatever their relationships, impalas have been established in their present form and range for at least four million years. As generalists they have been very successful and therefore not in need of change. The impala at present can be regarded as very secure.

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