Icky Impala

Don Shook

© Copyright 2022 by Don Shook

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Serengeti spans 12,000 square miles, hosting the world’s largest mammal migration.

Icky hit the ground with a thud. Dazed, he opened his eyes, blinked, then moved his legs. Covered with a sticky film, he tried rolling to his feet and was immediately coated in dirt. Nearby, hidden in the tall grass, two young impala stood watching. “That’s icky!” one exclaimed. The other snorted, nodding in agreement, then both turned and strode away. Thus Icky Impala was greeted onto the Serengeti Plain of East Africa birthed, named and covered in dirt.

Icky struggled to stand, some instinct telling him getting up was important. His mother, although exhausted from the labor, lent encouragement by nudging him with her nose as she licked him clean. Soon, Icky was wobbling on slender legs, trying to make sense of his surroundings. He blinked several more times, eyes focusing on the startlingly bright environment.

Most noticeable was the brilliance of the veldt, a vast, open country dotted with bushes and trees. After being nestled in darkness for over half a year, the shock of sunlight bathing a flat, grass-covered, plain was overwhelming. He seemed to be at the edge of an endless field covered by a sprawl of many other creatures, some resembling his mother. He pushed against her legs and bawled as he sought his first meal.

After feeding, nourished and growing stronger by the minute, Icky followed his mother to the same grassy knoll where the young impalas had witnessed his birth. She moved with a slow, cautious grace as he tested his spindly legs, attempting short jumps and awkward lunges while trying to keep up. Several times he toppled to the ground, only to have his mother nudge him up again. He was beginning to enjoy this new world, one in which he was now aware of abundant life whirling all around. Bees, gnats, flies, mosquitoes, and an array of other insects darted about while attempting to avoid countless rampaging birds and small reptiles; still, the insects found time to pester the grazers.

A studied glance revealed other impalas stretching to the horizon. Intermingled were various creatures not looking at all like his mother. Some were taller and stout, with black and white stripes covering their bodies and long jaws. Ridiculous ears stood alertly atop their heads as they occasionally swung about seeking better pickings in the lush grass. Others resembled his mother but were slightly smaller. Swishing at flies with their short tails, they casually munched the abundant sprigs of green. Still, the most numerous creatures were huge, with thick-horned heads and hair hanging from their chins. Icky thought they were really funny looking. He almost laughed out loud. But his mother nudged him and he remained silent. Evidently, laughing, even at his tender age, would have been rude and, some instinct told him, dangerous. Somehow he knew that his mother knew best. And his mother represented everything to him…

To Icky, she was beautiful. Not quite three feet tall at the shoulder, her redish-brown coat was highlighted with white patches over each eye and on her chin, throat and underbelly. A vertical black stripe ran along each thigh converging into black tufts of fur on her fetlocks above the heels of slender, muscular hind legs. Concealed beneath the tufts were scent glands, used to maintain contact with the other impalas…especially in times of stress requiring quick, and often erratic, movement. During such times, the powerful males could run with the wind…as fast as fifty miles per hour, cutting on a dime or exploding eight or nine feet into the air while covering thirty feet of ground. Icky was sure his mother was also capable of such feats. After all, she was his mother…his world.

Once on the knoll, Icky got a better view of the African panorama. Even at the tender age of a few hours, he was impressed. For as far as he could see there was a sea of green grass covered with grazing animals. Behind and above them was a bright baby-blue sky, cloudless and glowing splendidly from the drenching of an overnight rain. The air was fresh, whipped clean by a gentle west wind. The world glistened.

His eyes widened and his small, pointed ears turned forward at the sudden sound of one of the male impalas voicing a mating call. Although at least one hundred yards away, the call echoed across the veldt and to Icky, had he known enough to know, sounded like a combination of a dog’s bark and a roar. Icky shivered, not sure what to think. But, when his mother rubbed up against him, he again felt secure and comforted.

As he grew older, he would learn that terrifying sound was common among impalas during the mating season, when the rains were plentiful and the grass was tall and thick. During these times, the strongest males staked out territories (areas of ground they designated as a domain). Here, their loud calls invited females interested in powerful males who could hold onto these territories. The young and weaker were usually relegated to “bachelor groups”, living at the edge of the herd after having been driven out of the main body by the dominant males. They formed a sub-herd which they left only after they were older and felt strong enough to challenge rivals. And the challenges could sometimes be violent.

Each male was equipped with a pair of ringed, lyre-shaped horns used as weapons when battling other males for territory. Pointed and sharp, along with hard, cloven hoofs, these could inflict serious wounds on an opponent; though they seldom used them, as most of the battles were standoffs highlighted by mock charges. Still, the lethal-looking horns were of little use against the predators that roamed the Serengeti.

It was the big cats: lions, leopards, and cheetahs that presented the biggest threats; although, hyenas, baboons and the Fear were also constant dangers to the herd. Against these adversaries, impalas had to depend on speed and vigilance. As long as they knew where their enemies were, they could usually escape…usually. Sometimes however, the very young, the very old, or the very weak, the stragglers didn’t make it.

Icky’s mother decided the grassy knoll was an excellent hiding place for the young impala and urged him down with one word, “Stay.” Completely hidden by the tall grass, Icky felt secure until his mother turned and moved away. He started to cry out but, again, something told him this was a bad idea. So he simply lay very still as his mother began grazing toward the rest of the herd. Confused, but exhausted from the effort of the walk, Icky quickly fell asleep. Nearby, his mother grazed while keeping a close eye on the knoll.

Far across the savannah, on the barren edge of the grassland, a small lion pride lolled lazily in the shade of a huge baobab tree, gorged and satisfied after feasting on a fallen Gnu. Like most lions, their daytime activities centered around eating and sleeping, while ignoring a multitude of flies buzzing about. Occasionally, the three small cubs in the group tried to entice their elders into play, but generally had to settle for some rousting with the pride’s half-grown males. These ventures usually ended with the cubs scampering to their mother’s side, enjoying the rough-housing only up to a painful point.

The pride consisted of vagabonds, displaced individuals who, for one reason or another, had lost contact with their former prides and so formed a new alliance. An older, heavily-scarred male whose last harem now belonged to a younger, stronger leader, led this new group, consisting of two lionesses, the three cubs, and the two half-grown males. If the pride managed to hold together, within the next six months, the old lion would run these two away. As with all lion prides, there was room for only one breeding male, one King of Beasts.

The lionesses had downed the injured Gnu only recently after nearly a week of empty hunting and missed kills. A few lizards and some ostrich eggs had sustained the pride during this time and, naturally, the lions’ share of this had gone to the leader and the alpha female. Then they accidentally stumbled upon their meal, hobbled and separated from its herd by a broken leg suffered during a river crossing.

The Gnu kill was made quickly and almost effortlessly. Even when not injured, these cow-like antelope were not too difficult to catch, lacking the agility and maneuvering ability of gazelles and impalas. However, they were not easy to bring down. Large, ugly creatures, Gnu’s are fairly fast and possess a set of sharp, heavy horns atop huge heads. Weighing as much as six-hundred pounds and standing four to five feet tall, when circling their young, they present a formidable challenge for any predator, even the Lords of the Veldt. Many a big cat suffered mortal wounds after foolishly charging dead ahead into the ring of protection. Only by cutting out a weakened or young one from the herd and employing group tactics would the pride succeed.

And succeed they had. The entire pride had eaten their fill until only bones and scraps remained. Then they had settled into their naps. Slumber came easily for the big cats, sometimes taking up most of the twenty-four hour day. But one Gnu feeding an entire pride was only a temporary fill. In a day or two, hunger would again rouse them to action. Then the process would begin anew: the hunt, the kill, the gorge. But for now, their bellies full, they slept like lambs.

A great distance across the savannah, many peaceful grazing days passed and Icky grew stronger. He had left the knoll and, when not being nursed by his mother, was munching tender shoots of grass. Following her lead, they mingled with the vast herd, constantly seeking food and water. The ponds and rivers were overflowing and the grass was tall. Like most living creatures on the planet, their objectives were simple: eat, drink, reproduce, and stay alive.

Icky had made friends with some of the other young impalas, and much of his time was spent playing with them. They would run and jump, their bounding becoming more and more accomplished with experience. Icky soon discovered he was somewhat larger and stronger than his playmates. This was impressive, but also contributed to his inability to leap up into the air and jump across spaces with the agility and grace of the other young impalas.

Watch this!” they would cry, springing into the air with a youthful zest. When Icky tried the same thing he usually fell far short…that is, when he wasn’t stumbling and landing awkwardly sprawled upon the ground. He soon became almost afraid to jump. An impala that doesn’t jump? His mother began to worry.

One day his playmates found a large, but shrinking, water hole they began to leap across for fun. Fully twenty feet wide, they found that with a running start they could clear the muddy water with ease. When Icky’s turn came, with enthusiastic determination, he ran to the edge of the water and jumped. Three feet from the other side, he landed in the turbid pond, splashing and floundering about…covered with mud. For a moment he stood, blinking and dripping under a coat of slime-covered gook. “How Icky!” one of his playmates yelled as the others joined in, all laughing and yelling his name. “Icky, Icky…look how sticky! Icky, Icky you can’t jump!” They screamed. Icky was totally embarrassed. He wandered off by himself, head hung low, crest-fallen and ashamed.

His mother, who had been watching from a nearby outcropping, walked over to the distraught young impala. “That’s all right. Practice. Keep at it!” his mother encouraged, secretly fearful of his lack of leaping abilities. She knew, although as he grew his strength would serve him well, that he would also need to twist, turn and leap with agility if the Fear was near. Some of his playmates would not last the year… simply being too young, weak and vulnerable to escape the crushing jaws of the predators…of the Fear. She didn’t want Icky’s bulk and awkwardness dooming him to the same fate.

Icky had heard the Fear mentioned by other animals, always with trembling and wide-eyed wonder. His mother told him that as long as he was strong and watchful the Fear shouldn’t be a concern. Still, each time he thought about it, Icky felt a pit-of-the-stomach tingling. He wanted to know more about the Fear and why so many kept telling him to stay alert. Surely, if it was something he should watch for, he should know “watch for what?”

Spring passed and the savannah grasses began to brown. What had once been long, flowing seas of green were, seemingly overnight, brittle stubbles of tasteless fodder. With the rains gone and the sun growing hotter, it was time.

Icky, now approaching his mother in size, and certainly larger than his playmates, felt the restlessness of all the herds on the veldt. He too yielded to the urge to move to greener pastures. The Migration began.

Almost on signal, the impalas, gnus, gazelles, zebra, and other grazing creatures began to assemble. It was an urge, an instinct not understood but readily yielded to, resulting in a vast mass of animals beginning a relentless journey. Food and water lay beyond the horizon; and that would be their direction. Generally staying close to his mother, who was close to dropping another young one, Icky milled about with the others. In a few days, his sibling arrived only shortly before the herds moved out in earnest.

Not far behind, the lion pride felt a similar urge. But this motivation was spurred by an age-old certainty that if they were to survive they must follow the herds. They fed on occasional kills of the old, the weak, and the injured, sometimes even the newborn. This seemed cruel but, not only was it necessary for the pride to survive, it weeded out those whose fate was tentative at best. No savannah creature ever died of old age. No predator ever survived without eating prey. Hunger drove them all.

The old King still ruled, but his domain was being seriously challenged by the two young males who were now rivaling him in size and strength. On several occasions he had come close to running them off but, for the sake of the hunt, had let them remain past their time. Normally, the dominate male tolerates no other males. But lions hunt as a group, game being driven by one or two while the others wait in ambush. This small pride required numbers to bring down enough food for all to adequately feed. So the old King endured their increasing discontent with their places in the hierarchy. His toleration was aided somewhat by their intense battles with one another. Each bore scars from these encounters, which also diverted their attention from status in the pride. The old King knew that while focused on fighting they could be handled, but he also knew that a showdown day would come. In the meantime, one of the three cubs was male and he and his sisters were now half-grown. He too would have to be dealt with down the line. Heavy is the head that bears the crown.

Even farther back, but gaining ground was the Fear. Savage, unrelenting and close to twenty strong, these African Wild Dogs were also ravaging stragglers left behind during the migration. The chirping, squeaking, yapping pack swept across the plain like a hand of terror, working in tandem to bring down any creature in its path.

Each day their prey possibilities dwindled however, since the lion pride stood between them and the main body of the herds. Consequently, many of the pack’s meals consisted of lion leftovers, picked practically clean by the tiny pride, a diet supplemented by birds and rodents…or any other live creature unfortunate enough to be in their way.

Ordinarily pack hunters, like the lions, they employed group tactics. Ravenous and tenacious, the Fear targeted prey, primarily weak and wounded, and literally wore it out by long, persistent chases. Then one eighty-pound alpha dog would grab the prey’s nose, another its tail, while still others disemboweled the unlucky victim; savaging everything from impalas to one-ton giant elands. Their hunger was driving a relentless rampage which would only be abated by full bellies.

At the same time this carnage trailed the migration, fresh grass and water lay ahead. Rains had been heavy. The rivers were running deep and the lakes and water-holes lapped over their banks. This drove thousands of herbivores, instinctively moving toward new feeding grounds…lured to a veldt that spread wide and inviting in the shadow of the distant mountains.

Icky reveled in the air of excitement abounding throughout the herds. It was great fun interacting with the other creatures, running and darting about, finding new places to explore, new challenges to accept. Icky especially liked the small streams and tributaries feeding the large rivers. He tried with all his might to leap them. He’d do this away from the others though, so as not to embarrass himself. But usually the result was the same…leaving Icky short of his goal, his bulk crashing into the muddy shallows, leaving him drenched and disheartened. Solving the knack of leaping still escaped him. But, at his mother’s insistence, he kept trying. “You can do it!” she told him. “You can do it!” he told himself. But Icky simply couldn’t jump. Soon he became too terrified to even try.

Unlike Icky, most of the other young impalas were content to simply keep up with the herds, conserving energy for the long trek, stopping to feed only when necessary; knowing as surely as the feast lay ahead…danger loomed behind. This danger finally confronted Icky on a sunny day, only miles short of the lush savannah that spread below the snow-capped peaks.

Icky had wandered beside the swirling waters of a mountain stream, swollen by melting snow and rushing toward the river some two miles downstream. The air bore aromas of sweet spring grass and he was charged with energy, ready to test his athletic skills, yet reluctant to try. When he came upon the sparkling waters, he couldn’t contain the urge to leap its width. Although the stream was at least thirty feet across and roared with a frothing current, he wanted to jump! He had to jump! Impalas must jump! Yes, he was an impala. He was Icky Impala and he could jump, he would jump. Facing the widest part of the stream, he backed away, pawed the ground, took a running start forward and…suddenly, he pulled up, stopped by an overwhelming fear that he would not make it, that he would plunge into the icy waters and be washed downstream.

Icky stood in his own shame. He was a failure. He was big and strong, and energetic…but he was afraid to jump. For several minutes he stood at the edge of the stream watching the water erode a crumbling bank. Again, he lowered his head and started off…wondering what to…then, suddenly a downstream commotion stopped him. There was a terrible ruckus. He ran around a stand of small bushes and saw the source of the horrifying sound…Icky stopped dead in his tracks…

The Fear had followed the herds and finally caught up with the pride sequestered in a brushy wood, snoozing out of the morning heat. Casting aside their normal reluctance to engage the three-inch fangs and ripping claws of the five-hundred pound lion, the twenty-dog pack sensed the small size of the pride and moved ahead, determined to send the King, the females and cubs scampering for their lives. With the lions out of

the way, their fortunes would improve. Their large round ears constantly tested the wind as they began the stalk on their long, thin legs. They would surround the lions and rip them to pieces.

When they first appeared, the old lion decided to fight. But the young males were away hunting in the brush, leaving him, the females and cubs badly out-numbered. So, instead of charging into the fray, he abandoned his fighting instinct and opted for retreat.

Sensing the Fear’s maneuvers, the King quickly assembled the pride and sent the females and cubs sneaking away through heavy brush covering.

Moving the opposite direction, he intended to lure the Fear into a thicket where he thought the two young male lions would be hunting. Surely three large male lions would be enough for any pack of dogs. Resolutely, and in no hurry, he rumbled through the brush, growing softly, feeling the pack slowly tracking his path as they moved to encircle him. He quickened his pace, leaving tufts of mane on the thorny brush. His growling began to intensify. He increased his stride. The Fear grew closer. Then he was tearing through the brush. The dogs began chirping and squeaking excitedly. Their prey was running and they were immediately in swift pursuit.

Unexpectedly, the King ran out of thicket and into a clearing leading down to a roaring stream. At his flank, the Fear’s chirping squeaks became growls and high shrieks. The King pulled up and turned to face the pack. Now the dogs began to break through the brush. First one, then two, then six, eight, thirteen…until nearly all twenty dogs stood at the edge of the clearing, yapping, growling fiercely at the King…keeping their distance while slowly, methodically moving ever closer.

The King confronted a semi-circle of glistening ivory incisors and raised hackles…all inching toward him. He roared his disapproval, hoping to frighten them as he had so many creatures of the veldt. Earnestly hoping to see his rivals break into the clearing and help him scatter the Fear, he roared louder for his fellow lions. But none of the canines broke rank. Again, he roared. The dogs began yapping, fiercely yap, yap, yapping…it had become an almost happy sound. Surely they would savage the King. They would reap revenge for the many kills lions had snatched from them, for all their brethren the lions had mauled and slaughtered.

The old lion began backing away, roaring constantly, displaying his worn, but still lethal fangs, pawing the air with four-inch claws. The Fear kept coming. The roaring increased, the yapping grew louder. The King backed to the edge of the stream and stopped. His tail twitched back and forth, slapping the water at his back.

Lions have an unnatural fear of water. They drink at watering holes, but don’t wade in too deeply. They swim if forced to, but only under duress. So the King faced a conundrum. He was tottering on the edge of the collapsing bank. He had a choice: leap into the raging waters of the stream or into jaws of the Fear. The commotion increased. The Fear drew closer…

Fifty yards away, as he stepped around the bush stand, Icky saw the wild dogs at the exact moment their leader saw him. At the sight, the dog yapped above the din. All attention turned away from the Old King and toward Icky. It was as if a signal flashed, “Hey, here’s new meat. Let’s not fight the lion and get hurt, let’s eat the impala.” Icky, his youth notwithstanding, understood the signal. At the same time, the Fear abandoned their stalk of the lion and turned toward this new, less formidable prey.

For a fleeting second Icky stood paralyzed. The Fear surged toward him chirping and squeaking in anticipation. A terrible confusion engulfed the terrified youngster. Then his instincts kicked in. “Fight or flight.” And he certainly wasn’t going to fight. He whirled around to sprint away when another dog, fangs bared, appeared from behind the bushes between Icky and escape. Icky quickly looked over his shoulder. The pack had covered most of the ground that separated them! The young impala had but one option. Without hesitation, he pivoted toward the stream and leapt!

The Old King rose from his defensive crouch as the pack tore away. Fifty yards upstream, a brown’n white streak lifted off the ground and arched high above the waters. Below, on the bank, the pack of wild dogs snapped at empty air where Icky had been. They yapped excitedly as Icky cleared the raging waters and, with a thud, landed on the far side. The Fear went crazy! Several of them plunged in after the impala, only to be smacked by the surging current and instantly swept downstream. Others yapped insanely while feigning pursuit

A lion can cover one-hundred yards in less than four seconds. In half that time, the Old King had sprung, charged, and plowed into the Fear, sending half the wild dogs into the stream and the other half scattering as he ripped two of them to shreds. Taken totally by surprise, several others leapt into the water, avoiding massacre but inviting a perilous battle with a torrent quickly carrying them away.

Fascinated, Icky stood on the opposite bank and watched as the lion dispatched several others, sending the Fear into the brush howling in pain. Finally, when all the wild dogs had cleared, the Old King roared triumphantly. Icky tingled in excitement and fear; never having heard such a sound. Then, breathing heavily, the lion glared across the stream at him. Never had the young impala seen such depth of ferocity in a creature’s eyes.

The lion could clear the stream easily. One powerful jump would catapult him to where Icky was standing. Instead, he only stood and stared, his tail slowly twitching. And Icky recognized something unexpected. Something that said, “Thank you.” Immediately Icky realized that by simply being there, by overcoming his fear and jumping across the stream, he had not only saved himself but the Old King as well. Without another thought, he turned and bounded away.

In the brush, a decimated Fear, bleeding and dragging broken pieces, scurried out of the lions’ territory, away from the Migration. They would live to hunt again, but only when healed and reorganized, greatly reduced in number, remembering their terrible defeat.

The old lion rejoined his pride. Later that day, when the young lions returned, he ran them off. From that day forward they would have to fend for themselves. He singled out the half-grown male cub and cuffed him soundly, making sure he knew his place. The lionesses rubbed up against him and young females sought his favor. He was in charge, he was King.

Miles away, Icky’s mother saw him at a distance. His approach was different. He was moving with a grace, an athletic agility. When he finally reached her standing by her young one, they rubbed noses. Then, he pulled back, bawled once, and joined the other young bucks leaping about in mock battle and frolic.

He’s growing horns.” She thought. And as Icky bounded through the soft, spring grasses of the never-ending savannah, she also thought, “And he can jump!”

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