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25 May, 2023

The impala rutting season has arrived at Royal Malewane

Royal Malewane

Who dares to challenge me?

As winter begins, the guttural calls of rutting impalas can be heard in the chilly morning air as another mating cycle begins. Every April/May, male impalas start to strut their stuff, engaging in fierce battles for dominance and the right to mate with females in their herd – or take over the herd belonging to another male. It’s a contest that sets the fittest apart from the rest, and causes tensions to run high within the usually peaceful browsing herds. The rutting season lasts until June, and is fascinating to watch. Females and young members of the herd scatter as they run from the pursuing males, white tail tufts twitching as they leap between – and often over – the bushes.

All about the competition

Impala rams engage in aggressive displays to signify their power and underscore their mating prowess. The stronger, dominant males have to constantly fend off interlopers as younger males take their chance. The goal is to gather as large a ‘harem’ as possible so that they can pass on their genes. Dominant males spend so much of their time chasing and fighting with rivals that they scarcely get time to eat, and rapidly begin to lose condition during the rutting season.

As a result, their reigns typically only last about ten days at this time of year. Their usually glossy fur becomes uncharacteristically dull as they neglect to rid themselves of ticks and other parasites, and horns can break in the ferocious head-on clashes with their opponents. Rutting male impalas give off a distinctive scent at this time of year, and seem all-consumed by fighting and pursuit. The dominant males face a dilemma in that while they are chasing away one rival, another might sneak in and mate with at least some of the females in his herd. In fact, genetic studies have shown that at least 10% of the impala lambs born into a herd were not sired by the herd male.

When the ram roars...

One of the most fascinating aspects of the rut is the sound that rings out in the dusk, darkness, and dawn. Whilst trying to intimidate their rivals, male impalas make remarkable noises that you might not associate with an antelope, including bellowing, snorting and roaring.

The rutting season can be relentless for the usually graceful and well-groomed impalas. Females become frazzled from being chased by the persistent males. The competing males become weary and distracted, making them easy targets for predators. Depleted of energy and distracted by the pressures of having to constantly perform, impala rams in particular make much easier targets during the rut.

Mating rights

As with all competitive processes in the natural world, the rut is ultimately about ensuring that the strongest and fittest genes are passed on. Hierarchies are established, with younger, weaker males are pushed together into bachelor herds on the peripheries of the main breeding herds, each of which now ‘belongs’ to one victorious dominant male. He has earned his mating rights and will retain his status for as long as we he can, mating with as many ewes as he can. Meanwhile, males from the bachelor herds try and re-enter the competition before the mating season comes to an end.

By the end of the season, the fittest and strongest impala males will have mated with almost all mature females in his harem (never mating with one more than once). With all mating happening within a two- week period, the births are similarly concentrated once the rains arrive in summer. This is a second key part of the impalas’ survival strategy – the young may be vulnerable, but with so many of them being born at the same time, some are certain to survive. This tactic is known as ‘predator swamping’ and is an example of ‘safety in numbers’.

If you visit Royal Malewane during the impala rutting season, you’ll be able to witness this fascinating behaviour for yourself.

Extraordinary encounters

For visitors to South Africa, the impala rutting season can be a thrilling and memorable experience. At Royal Malewane, expert Guides and Trackers provide insights into impala behavior and help guests observe these impressive displays of dominance and aggression in a safe and responsible manner.

The impala rutting season is a reminder of the complex and fascinating dynamics of the African bush, and a testament to the resilience and adaptability of its inhabitants.

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