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If you sit next to an impala, in the larger national parks, with a lens pointed out the window it’s never long before a queue of cars forms; the occupants anxiously looking deep into the bush, eyes directed everywhere except at the lowly impala.
Sometimes I see people get their binoculars out to scan, vainly looking for the hidden leopard, lion or cheetah that must have claimed my attention.
In these situations, even with my lens ostentatiously pointed at the ground or into the sky, many refuse to accept the obvious; that I am watching an impala.
Many times, I’ve thought about getting a sign made; saying something like “Birdwatcher” or “Plant photographer” (I cause chaos when photographing trees too!).
Although, thinking back to when my brother and I made a sign saying “Broken down please HELP!” No one gave it a second glance or offered to help - perhaps because we were parked next to a huge male lion with his head buried in a dead giraffe!
So, instead of signs indicating why people should drive on or pass us by, I am going to try to change minds. To tell why impalas are worth watching and photographing, in fact, why they are some of the most glorious animals in the bush.
The odds are very firm that driving into a major national park the first animal you will see is the impala.
One of the best things about it, is that it is common. It’s so common, that when the sun is sinking fast and the light is glorious and golden, you don’t have to waste it searching for subjects. Just pull up to your closest bunch of impala and take some time to enjoy their immaculate coats and big, innocent eyes.
Impala’s are medium-sized antelope prevalent in the eastern half of South Africa. They come in two basic flavours, the smaller ‘common’ impala found in the Kruger national park amongst other places and the larger Black-faced impala, found, for example in Namibia.
They are actually pretty big antelope, the biggest ones weighing roughly the same as two German shepherds and standing a metre tall at the shoulder. The males’ beautifully de-curved horns can reach another metre above their heads.
Finding a perfectly posed male impala, with quizzically cocked ears and buttery background should be on every photographers’ southern African bucket list. It’s a search that can last many years as you try to beat your previous shots.
The happy thing, I find, about this searching, is that the bush almost always reveals more than you expect. Wait a little and see what it offers. The last time I waited with a male impala, an African civet cat decided to join us, in daylight!
The female impala is just as beautiful as the male, although smaller, more dainty and without any horns. Their eyes seem more luminous and the their markings very precise.
Females gather in larger groups, which will make for a different photographic dynamic. There is something to be said for quantity in an image. Large herds of females make for wonderful pictures, it becomes hard to tell where one impala stops and the next begins. Quivering ears, soulful eyes, fluttering tails, softly breathing noses and exquisite black and gold markings bleed into a whole.
Female herds are one of the major social structures in the impala world. The younger Batchelor males also gather in herds, although these are usually much smaller.
Rutting season lasts three weeks and is at the end of the wet season (usually May). This too is a wonderful time to visit for impala. Not only do we get to witness the battles for dominance amongst the ruling males, we also stand the chance of seeing hunts and kills.
The, often exhausted, males become more and more battered. Unkempt and less aware of their surroundings, they fall prey to predators. Staying close to the food, is certainly one useful strategy when in the bush!
Gestation falls over the long, dry winter. The grass is short and the leaves too high. There are no clouds in the sky and the long cold nights are a dangerous time. The heavy females, each bearing a single lamb, are vulnerable, especially to wild dog.
This dusty time, is made for beautiful photography. The sun hangs low in the northern sky, never able to heave itself far above the horizon. The cool mornings unfold over a golden land, sometimes thick with frost. Finding an impala, early in the day is pretty easy. I like to take advantage of that, the light is sublime and I hate to waste any of it.
At the end of the dry season, the clouds threaten rain. Thick, grey bellies rush overhead and eventually spill their water. This is the time that impala drop their lambs; six months after the rut.
Impala are special in that they can delay the births by up to a month, waiting for the rainfall to ensure the survival of their young.
The impala drop is a natural spectacle because the females all drop lambs over the same few weeks. Suddenly the bush is filled with naive little youngsters with legs too long and ears too big.
Their play is beautiful to see, sprinting in groups around their mothers, happy in the abundant summer grasses. Of course, it is a happy time for predators too, the young make very easy meals.
The annual impala drop is one of the best times to visit. The rain is falling, the predators are out hunting, the lambs are young and the summer birds have started to arrive. The ubiquitous call of the woodland kingfisher blends with the snorts and stamps of the impala herds while everywhere the cicadas play.