When being chased at full speed across the plains of Africa by a cheetah the fastest animal on land, the chances of becoming a meal are quite high. For an impala there is not much it can do.
So for impala, antelopes and gazelles, the trick is to make sure that the cheetah does not chase you to begin with.
Cheetah’s like all predators like to come as close to their prey without being seen. This is known as stalking and the purpose of stalking is to ensure that they catch their prey by surprise or sprint in the shortest distance possible hence avoiding long distance chases.
For predators the prey often has a head start, so different predators have developed different hunting techniques.
The cheetah is not built for long distant running, and the cheetahs heart is small hence if it cannot catch it’s prey within a short time off achieving top speed it will burn out. If it’s to make a kill, the cheetah must get within about 50 yd (45m) of it’s prey.
They also tend to focus on the weakest, injured or youngest animals in a herd.
So for these antelopes, portraying any of these characteristics could easily land you on the cheetah’s menu. The chances of becoming lunch given this animals capability are good.
These animals therefore have developed a curious behaviour, known as pronking, which studies show they use to intimidate or confuse a predator. They jump vertically into the air and appear to bounce along stiff legs, all four legs hitting the ground at the same time. It tells the predator it has been seen, so the chase will be hard.
The animal demonstrates that it is in full control of the situation and that the predator would be wasting time and energy in chasing it.
Pronking is infectious. First one or two animals will start, and soon the rest of the herd will join in. But who can blame them, no one wants to get left behind when everybody is demonstrating their fitness it would be like telling the predator, pick me!
The springbok of southern Africa is the grandmaster when it comes to pronking. As it leaps, the fan or crest of white hairs on the back are erected, and the head is bent forward and down almost to the feet. The hooves are kept together and the back is arched. At the moment it touches the ground, it springs back up again, sometimes jumping straight up, other times leaping forwards or jigging sharply to one side. Then, it lowers its fans, raises its head and races away at full speed.
As the predator nears and the chase begins, springbok warns the other antelopes by leaping straight-legged, up to 10ft high, into the air and releasing a scent from glands on its hindquarters.
This startling leap, the strong warning scent and the animal’s zigzag course together spell out an urgent message to the rest of the herd — run as fast as you can!
The airborne scent acts as a trail, by the front-runners, keeping close together — if all the impalas ran in different directions the heard would fragment, and each individual would be more vulnerable to the hunter. Should a few animals become separated from the main herd, they can follow the scent trail to find their way back. The plains of Africa, the masai mara game reserve included are mostly short grass and scattered trees mainly acacia.