April is a magical time of year in the bush. The last of the summer rains have normally passed so the bush starts to turn a beautiful golden brown. The short bush Autumn starts to take place so the days are still warm but the nights are starting to cool, perfect for sitting around the fire or snuggling down into your sleeping bag. The days start to get a bit shorter and the nights longer, giving us more time to admire the beauty of the cosmos.
When you come to the beautiful continent of Africa what animals are on on the top of your list to see? Elegant Cheetahs, gigantic Elephants, magnificent Lions, prehistoric Rhinos and maybe the curious Giraffe and stripy Zebra, they probably all made the list. There is one species of animal that is commonly overlooked on a game drive, an animal that is probably one of the most numerous animals that you will see in the African bush, an animal that when the initial excitement of seeing it has worn off, it tends to get ignored.
I’m talking about an antelope, specifically the beautiful and elegant reddish-brown Impala. I can understand why people take them for granted after all it’s pretty rare to go on a game drive and not see them, which means that it’s all too easy for people to take them for granted, brushing them off as ‘’oh its just another herd of Impala’’, rather than marvelling in the magnitude of these animals. The Impala is one of the most successful, perfectly adapted species in Africa, in fact, they are so perfectly designed that as a species their form has barely changed in the last 5 million years.
So, what is the difference between an antelope and a deer that you might find at home? A male deer will shed and regrow his horns every year, while an antelope’s horns are permanent. Many a time I have been on game drives and seen antelope with broken horns, more than likely lost in battle with another male. Deer also have branched horns and antelope don’t.
Let’s address one popular misunderstanding about Impalas. Its has long been a rumour that female Impalas can delay the birth of their young by up to a month if the conditions aren’t right. This rumour may prove to be more myth than fact. Impalas are synchronised breeders, the rutting season normally starts in May resulting in lots of baby Impalas being born in November and December, when the first rains start to replenish the African bush, resulting in plenty of food for the lactating mother. But what happens when the rains are late, and conditions aren’t right for the baby Impalas to survive? The birth canal of an Impala is only so big, so in order to delay the birth of a foetus, she would also need to be able to stop it from growing, which is highly unlikely. What is more likely that any babies born early are the ones that were conceived first when the rutting season started, if the rains are late and there is no food about then these calves will simply die before we even know that they exist and the ones that are born a week or two later are the ones that survive. It is also possible for a female, early in the pregnancy to reabsorb the foetus or later to abort the foetus if the conditions aren’t favourable.
Due to environmental conditions and the fact that baby Impalas are a tasty snack for any predator, it is thought that only half the newborn Impalas will survive. This might sound harsh, but the rule of nature is one of survival of the fittest and because there are so many born in such a short space of time half of them survive. To Impalas safety in numbers and a high birth rate is an important survival strategy that has served them well for thousands of years.
Impalas have beautiful glossy coats. This is the result of them spending large amounts of time attending to their personal grooming. They have modified teeth, their lower incisors are slightly loose and can splay open, turning their teeth into a comb that can effectively get rid of parasites and dirt. They are also allo-groomers which means that Impala will help each other clean those harder to reach places.
Just like us, Impalas feel the cold and when they get cold, the hair on their bodies stands up. This helps them trap a layer of air close to their skin, which helps insulate them against the cold. It’s not unusual on a winter’s morning to see the Impalas gleaming coats take on a darker, fluffier and duller appearance. Do you know what the erection of hair is called? Drop us a comment below and let us know.
When you are a prey species it is important that you can blend into the background and that stand a chance of outrunning any animal that will try to make you its dinner. The colouring of an Impala helps make them appear two dimensional to predators. When you look at an impala, you will notice that their stomachs are white, their flanks are light brown and their backs are a darker shade brown. This is called countershading and it helps to break up their form enabling them to blend into the background. They are also incredibly agile, when they need to, they can jump 3m high and up to 12m long and they can run up to 80kmp.
These are just some of the amazing facts about these elegant animals. Next time you see them please don’t just drive by them, rather stop and spend some time marvelling and observing these magnificent animals. After all the African bush comprises of more than the Big 5 and in our ecosystem, every animal is important.
As part of the EcoTraining Trails Guide Course the students get the opportunity of sleeping out under the vast African sky.
With a sleeping bag and a cooler box of food, they get to experience what it is like to be outside in the wild from sunset to sunrise.
While there is the possibility of animals wandering past, the silence of the bush and the vastness of the African sky is what created an immersive experience that was unforgettable.
Finding a campsite proved to be harder to agree on than actually setting up camp for the night.
After much discussion, a suitable spot was eventually decided on and the task of unpacking the vehicle was dealt with in quick time.
The first task was the collection of firewood to heat water for coffee and tea.
But not just any wood. No, it had to come from places around the site where the use of the wood would not have any impact on the ecosystem.
Sleeping bags were then laid out and tasks were assigned.
The backup guide, Aagia, had brought her guitar along and in the silence of the bush, her chords were clean and sweet, not loud and intrusive, but calming and quieting (Aagia playing guitar). It was now time to start a fire.
With the fire roaring in a purposely dug hole, it was time for toasting marshmallows and sharing stories.
The pasta that the camp kitchen staff had prepared for us was enjoyed with gusto. And the container of biscuits was most welcomed by those on duty in the early hours of the morning.
Ever used a bush loo? It’ very simple, find a nice bush with a good view, dig a hole and there you go!
The ever-changing flames of the ‘bush TV’ were hypnotic and despite the early hour, we were all ready to creep into our sleeping bags and settle down for the night.
But before the final good nights were exchanged a duty roster was worked out as there had to be someone awake at all times to keep an eye open for animals that might take an interest in our sleeping forms.
There were enough people for us to have to only do an hour each between 21h00 to 05h00.
It was soon discovered that all that was required during this on duty time was to keep the fire going and the water in the kettle boiling!
The bush does not sleep and although you might believe it is quiet there is a constant stream of noises that are sometimes difficult to identify.
The lions that walked past our sleeping forms were the easiest to identify. Their guttural vocalizations left no doubt as to whom they were and what they were capable of doing.
The crashing of branches close by signaled the fact that there was at least one feeding elephant in the vicinity.
Warm in our thermal sleeping bags we lay in silence, allowing all these sounds to envelop us without the need for discussion (That would take place over coffee in the morning).
Although the ground was hard and unforgiving, sleep did eventually come. And with it a deep, contented almost childlike sleep.
As the dawn broke and faces began to appear out of bedding it was time to share our impressions about our night and to repack the vehicle before heading off back to camp.
Just as we had set up camp the night before, we had to return it to as pristine a condition as we could before we headed off.
The campfire had to be doused and the ashes scattered.
The wood had to be replaced back into the tree line.
And the area swept with branches to eradicate as much of the traces of our stay as possible.
Personally, I believe that no one who spends a night under the vast African sky can return without a change of some sort.
It might not be a huge ‘Eureka’ moment, but deep in the psyche of each of those present, a change had occurred.
In contrast to our silence during our stay, we drove away in high spirits. Chatting loudly about our experience…and enquiring as to when we could do it again!