As you could probably tell from the health of all those beautiful predators in the last two posts, Tanzania is teeming with ample prey as well. Animals on the dinner menu often come in the four-legged grazing variety, and we sure saw a lot to choose from during our safari.
The most abundant prey group throughout the Tanaznian parks are the many species of antelope. Commonly reffered to as “DLAs” (Deer-Like Animals), antelopes are actually in a different family as they do not shed and regrow their horns as deer do. Hard to remember when you see herds of impala, primarily the females, who look so similar to the white-tailed deer I grew up seeing in northern New Hampshire.
Like many of the large antelope species, impala live in herds with many female and a dominant male. You can always spot one set of those long spiral horns in the crowd…or sometimes actively herding the crowd!
Group mentality is a critical survival technique for many prey animals in wild. If you keep enough individuals around you, the chances that YOU are the one to get eaten are lower.
Many of the herds we saw during our safari were composed of mixed antelope - like impala, the Thomson’s gazelles discussed in a previous post, and the Grant’s gazelles who often graze with them.
We also saw some impressively large groups of African buffalo.
This herd of at least 300 animals stretched out on both sides of the dirt road. The sheer mass of these animals sets them apart from the antelope. When they are hunted, it takes a group of predators working together and will feed them for a while. Well, not ALL of the buffalo are huge.
But if you want the little one, you’ve got to stare down the horns of the mom, and the 300+ adults running around with them!
However, these are not the largest herds of animals in the Serengeti. That distinction belongs to a pretty famous group - the massive migration of wildebeest involves literally millions of individuals and covers vast distances between Tanzania and Kenya. As we visited the Serengeti in the dry season, the main herd had migrated to the northwest corridor of the park on its way to the Maasai Mara in Kenya and was too far off for us to witness. However, we still saw great numbers of wildebeest in all three parks we visited, and their migratory “follow-the-leader” instincts were on display.
We often found the wildebeest with their frequent travel companions and fellow herd species, the zebra.
Zebra also migrate to seek out the rain and more abundant food sources, and in turn also have a tendency to stay in line when traveling.
We learned some interesting zebra tid-bits from our guide, Mansour. In a herd, zebra tend to look like a big mass of stripes, thus confusing predators. But this can be confusing for the zebra as well. In order to identify individual animals, zebra look to the stripe pattern on the hind-quarters, where it varies the most dramatically. This group here is basically giving us a “Hello, my name is ____” greeting.
When a baby zebra foal is born, to prevent them from wandering off with the wrong female, the mom will separate herself and her foal from the group for the first week or two until the young one learns the particular stripe pattern for their mother and will know who to follow. So interesting!
Mansour taught us quite a few interesting factiods throughout our safari. For example the antelope species called the waterbuck is usually found in much smaller groups than their cousins, partially due to their lower ranking on menu. Waterbuck sweatglands produce a waterproof secretion that smells and tastes rather foul. So, they are not the prey of choice, and have the luxury of a slightly less dangerous lifestyle. Below is a solo male in Tarangire National Park, with an iconic baobab tree in the background.
Smaller prey are less likely to live in large herds as well. They are better off living in small groups and hiding from predators instead. We looked right at this rabbit for some time before seeing it was there…a much harder thing to do in a large group.
The same tactic, of course, would not work for large antelope, like these Hart beasts.
But hiding is the best strategy for the smallest of the antelopes, the dik-dik.
So, dik-dik live in monogamous pairs as opposed to large herds. We learned that when one of a pair of dik-diks dies, the other partner typically does not take a new mate, as territory and individuals are scarce. Instead, the widowed partner often dies, essentially of despair. Some even “commit suicide” by placing themselves in mortal peril, or consuming poisonous vegetation.
And on that heartbreaking note I will conclude this story of the prey animals of our safari experience! Next up will be the winged inhabitants of the Tanzanian parks, where more tales of success and heartbreak await…