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Impala and wildebeest: iconic African antelope

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

In this blog, Bushwise students Daisy Gleeson and Tyler Delhougne talk about two of their favourite African antelope species. Often overlooked on game drives, antelope are found across the world and play an essential role in the ecosystem. Let’s learn more…

4 min read

Antelope of the African bushveld

An impala ram standing next to a dam near the Bushwise Greater Kruger campus.

There are about 91 different species of antelope on Earth, all of which have formed special adaptations and characteristics. 74 of these can be found in Africa, living in a number of biomes from the plains to  forests and jungles. 

These animals are expertly adapted and are masters of camouflage and avoiding being caught. In this blog, we are going to go into more detail about the main antelope species that can be found in South Africa.

The plentiful impala

A small herd of  impalas standing in an opening between trees. The impalas are all looking in different directions, this level of observation is one of the ways they protect themselves from danger.

We’ll start with the most common antelope found in southern Africa: the impala. There are roughly around 100,000 in the Kruger National Park alone. Fossil evidence from 6.5 million years ago suggests that the impala we see today have hardly changed; this is a testament to the fact that they are perfectly adapted to survive and thrive in the wild. 

They use a camouflage tactic known as countershading, which is when an animal – in this case the impala –  is darker on the top than on the bottom. This works to their advantage as they appear two-dimensional to predators, which allows them to blend into the landscape. 

An image showing the countershading on an impala ewe, standing next to her lamb. Impala are darker on the top than on the bottom, which helps with camouflage.

Perhaps their most effective tactic in ensuring their survival is their successful breeding strategy. Whilst impalas are not territorial by nature, as they enter the rutting (breeding) season in May, male impalas will begin rounding up females to be part of their harem. He will then attempt to mate with each female, whilst simultaneously trying to defend his territory and fight off opposition males. 

The rutting season lasts for about a month, by which time most of the female impalas will be pregnant. The gestation period is 6.5 months, which means that by November there is a huge flood of new-born impalas. Unfortunately, this will provide food for predators, but because there are so many new impala a large proportion of the babies will survive. Thus increasing the impala population, which is why it is one of the most successful African antelope.

The unusual wildebeest

A blue wildebeest looks towards the camera from behind a tree.

Another common African antelope are blue wildebeest, which gather in open grassland areas, usually close to a water supply. They are easily identified thanks to their silvery-blue coat and curved horns, which both the male and female wildebeests have. 

A black wildebeest is blackish-brown in colour and smaller in size, which is how you can tell the two apart. Unfortunately, the black wildebeest population was nearly made extinct in the 19th century as they were seen as pests and were hunted and killed for their hides and meat. Their numbers are gradually increasing,  but 80% of black wildebeest can only be found in private game reserves. 

As wildebeest are migratory animals, their body is specially adapted to allow them to run for long distances. Their backs are slanted downwards, with the shoulders situated fairly high on their body. 

A wildebeest walks across the frame. It is surrounded by dry bush as the image was taken in the winter.

Similar to the impala, they also have a fixed breeding season which takes place in winter, meaning that there is an influx of babies born between November and December. Being born at this time of year is beneficial as this is when the grasses are at their greenest which provides the calves with the best possible chances of survival.

Because African antelope have adapted so well across the continent, keeping population numbers in check has proved to be a challenge. Sometimes game reserves lack the appropriate number of predators needed to keep the antelope herds low enough for the environment to support. Because of this, many game reserves have to be strategic with population management.

On a game drive, you can never be guaranteed to see any of the big 5. However, you can count on the fact that you will come across an abundance of various different antelope species, and hopefully you will now look at them in a new light.

Learn more about all the different animals that make up a functioning ecosystem, including African antelope. Apply today to join a Bushwise course.


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