The Red Buck!!- Article by Gareth Jones
The Red Buck – Impala Of Nairobi!
One fine afternoon, I drove in the area of the Kingfisher picnic site, looking over the valley below at the splendor before me. The park is looking like a beautiful garden after the good rains with lush green grasses & many wildflowers, but many of the plain’s species have already moved south onto the Kitengela Plains and even further on their annual migration. It is a small miracle that somehow still happens every year even with the huge obstacles outside the protected area.
Then suddenly right next to the road, I saw a fine herd of Impala, their rusty red colours shone in the afternoon sun. A dominant male chased a few possible contenders away, while other males stood guarding the rest of the herd, as tiny ‘bambi like’ lambs suckled on their mothers. A truly wonderful scene to absorb, as just a few hundred metres away two large male lions sat watching ‘their’ kingdom.
Impala are found over a large area covering Southern and Eastern Africa. The first attested English name, in 1802, was palla or pallah, from the Tswana phala “red antelope”, the name impala also spelled impalla or mpala, is first attested in 1875. Its Afrikaans name, rooibok “red buck”, is a name given by the early dutch settlers due to their deep rusty red appearance. Even the city of Kampala is named after the Impala from the phrase in luganda “ka-mpala” meaning (place of the Impala).
The glossy coat of the impala shows predominantly two-tone colouration – the reddish-brown back and the tan flanks, in sharp contrast to the white underbelly. Black streaks run from the buttocks to the upper hind legs. Facial features include white rings around the eyes and a light chin and snout. The long ears are tipped with black. The bushy white tail features a solid black stripe along the midline. The impala’s colours are very similar to the gerenuk, which has shorter horns and lacks the black thigh stripes of the impala. It is also interesting to note that impala are symbiotically related to oxpeckers, which feed on ticks from those parts of the antelope’s body which the animal cannot access by itself (such as the ears, neck, eyelids, forehead and underbelly). The impala is the smallest ungulate with which oxpeckers are associated.
In a number of places in the Nairobi National Park, certain species including Impala can be seen licking and even swallowing small stones. So why do they go through the effort to do this? Simply speaking, they need mineral nutrition, and in places where the plant food they eat is lacking minerals various species of animals seek out places where they can get minerals. A mineral lick (also known as a salt lick) is a place where animals can go to lick essential mineral nutrients from a deposit of salts and other minerals. Mineral licks can be naturally occurring (natural licks) or artificial (such as blocks of salt that farmers place in pastures for livestock to lick). Natural licks provide the biometals (sodium, calcium, iron, phosphorus, zinc, and trace elements) required for bone, muscle, and other growth in wildlife, such as elephants and many herbivore species. Such licks are especially important in ecosystems with the poor general availability of nutrients. It is thought that certain fauna can detect calcium in salt licks. Mankind is mostly spoilt as we just need to go to a store (like a supermarket) to buy our Salt and minerals, spices, but animals seem to sense where the “natural” stores are and can walk long distances at times to benefit from nutrients. So, while we all need water for life, there are also times when animals need to “Lick for life”! So next time you see animals seemingly “drinking the earth”, you will know they are actually “Licking for Life”.
Impala tend to gather in herds comprising of predominantly females (ewes), with a dominant ram. The rams can get quite aggressive during the rutting season when competing to ensure that the strongest genes are passed on to the next generation. Rams, therefore, challenge each other using their horns, until one of them surrenders. Rutting normally takes place in the dry season, thus allowing time for the gestation period to be at full term when the rains have come. This then provides succulent feeding for the mothers with newborn calves “bambis” who require nutritious mother’s milk daily.
Impala are antelopes and they are very agile and fast, They can jump up to 3 metres, over vegetation and even other impalas, covering distances of up to 10 metres. They can also leap in different directions, probably to confuse predators. On a number of occasions, I have observed impala being very energetic as they run around and leap high in the air, almost like they are “jumping for joy”, or perhaps it is more likely that they are toning their muscles and reflexes to be able to respond rapidly to the next predator threat. They are commonly preyed upon by leopards, cheetahs, and at times lions.
Next time when visiting the park, it is worth sitting next to a herd of Impala and just watching events happen at nature’s pace. Yes, the “red buck” are beautiful and can be very interesting to watch!