The impala rut
By Jon Jon van Zyl

As winter approaches and the days become shorter it means one thing for an often-overlooked species, impala rams have started to rut. When saying impala are often overlooked, I need to explain that being such a successful species they sometimes seem to be around every corner. Most safari goers that have visited Southern Africa can attest to that.

There are several reasons for this and one of the main reasons revolves around the rut. The shorter days trigger an increase in testosterone levels and, boys being boys, it is time to fight for the females’ attention. From May to June of each year sexually mature males will engage in extreme physical battles (sometimes to the death) for the chance to mate with a herd of ewes. This drive is just like in any other species as they exist ultimately for one reason, to reproduce.

During other times of the year rams are generally very tolerant of one another and live in large bachelor groups varying in age. Out of the rutting season you may see slight altercations but nothing very intense and if you are not watching very carefully, many of these small interactions can often go unnoticed.

When the rutting season begins, however, the altercations certainly do not go unnoticed! Males will hold their heads low to the ground and joust with their horns. They have grooved rings on the horns to reduce the chance of their horns slipping against one another and help to reduce the number of males that are impaled. There’s no use in killing one another and decreasing the gene pool. Another adaptation is during the rutting season male’s dermal growth (skin) thickens around the vital face and neck area, brought on by the increase in testosterone. A good example is of male lions, who have manes as a protective area around the neck.

During the rut, males are heard making a distinct snorting sound stemming from the nasal cavity, similar to the alarm call they make when they see predators. An experienced ear can differentiate between the two, but we are all guilty of stopping to listen for what we thought were alarm calls. As a mini ranger visiting game reserves with my grandparents, I remember lying awake at night hearing impala rams making the territorial call which usually entails running and making a low extended growl like sound, and I was sure it was a lion coming to get me!

It is quite comical when seeing a lone male running in the open making this noise without another impala in sight. Between all the fighting, mating, corralling of females and maintaining territorial dung piles, males lose condition rather quickly. It is said that the tick population on a male can double during the rut leading to loss of condition and can make them easier targets for predators. There is, however, a method to natures perceived madness as this then allows a different male to take over mating rights thus diversifying the gene pool.

Males will typically only mate with a female once and then after about 6 months, the females will give birth to one lamb. It really is a numbers game, please excuse the slang, but they “flood the market”. Despite mortality rates being extremely high in areas of predators, with so many young born within a short period a good percentage of young will survive.

Being prone to most carnivores can also be a blessing in disguise for impala. When an individual is chased by a cheetah, for example, the herd tends to run with the group splitting up and leads them to be in other areas, not by choice but by necessity. During the rut, females may move into a different male’s territory and lead to a diverse gene pool.

So, when visiting Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, no matter what time of the year, keep your ears open as you may hear an impala before seeing an impala.