Africa's animal kingdom Matira Magazin

Tough beauties

Topis are remarkable colorful, standing out from the usually dull coloration of most African ungulates. They are very effective “watchdogs” for predators and their alarm snorts have saved many a live in the savannah. Not only grazers benefit from that: Tourist guides, too, are routinely checking the body language of topis, when looking for big cats. Topi social organization is very flexible, giving them access to different habitat types. Remarkable antelopes in many ways, indeed!

Topis: tough beauties

Reinhard Radkes column on African wildlife

Visiting the Maasai Mara you can’t miss the topis. Handsome animals with – for an antelope – astonishingly colorful glossy coats. Their shiny dark red and brown shimmering body, with purple quarters and bright yellow legs is not really “camouflaged”. They like to stay on top of termite mounts, where they look like watchman, checking the surroundings for danger (they do so not only in the heat of the day to cool down, but also in the cold wind already at sunrise). In fact, they are guides for tourist guides when it comes to look for predators. They are much better than us to spot the big cats and their body language indicates clearly where danger might lure. Analyses of prey numbers showed, that they – alert and fast – are less often hunted than other antelopes. And a cheetah will face tough resistance, particularly if it tries to go for the young ones. Mother topi will be very uncompromising when it comes to defend her calf!

Uncompromising: A topi mother defending her calf against a cheethah (Malaika), which has the young already in the deadly throat bite. With horn blows and trampling hooves the cat is fiercely attacked.
Close escape: After a seemingly endless battle (of about 30 seconds) Malaika gives up. And she is very lucky indeed to get away without any visible injuries. After the fight, the young topi got up and followed its mother – shaken but healthy.

Beyond that, topis have many extraordinary traits. Generally adapted to areas with medium high grass in flat lowlands, they are able to utilize different habitats by changing their behavior and their social system. In many regions, they simply have medium sized feeding territories, enough for just a couple of females and a male, who defends that area against all other topis (sometimes even females engage in defending their area!). That territory offers them enough food and water to get along the whole year. The male in control of such a territory has the breeding right with the females in his area.

Disco feeling: A topi lek in Maasai Mara. Here several males established themselves on small territories, trying to impress females with their show of dominance. Females in breeding condition are attracted to the leks and particularly favor males in center territories, which are especially hard fought for. In other regions of their distribution, topis have more “conventionel” breeding territories.

Other populations migrate seasonally between dry and wet season habitats. In the Queen Elizabeth Park in Uganda on rich pastures big herds of 2000 animals move together all year round. In such areas (like the Maasai Mara, too) they have a different social organization: Males attach themselves to small mating territories, which are placed close to each other. Such arenas (also called “leks”) attract females in breeding condition. The center territories are most hard fought for and that is why males holding center territories are particularly attractive to the females. In Uganda, with the population always on the move, such arenas are formed in a very short time, when the herd settles for some days.

Mind boggling: Fighting topi get to “their knees” to withstand the heavy blows. Fights between established neighboring males are usually fairly short, but when it comes to conquer a territory, such contest might go for hours until both are completely exhausted.


Displaying: With exaggerated  and highly ritualized movements a breeding territorial bull shows his status. The bulls have to convince incoming females of their high rank, to be considered a mating partner.


Successful: After endless battles and displays of his status, this bull finally reaches his goal: Reproduction.

The different organization shows even in the breeding system: In some populations, the young are hiders – evolutionary the early way of bringing up young. In areas like Queen Elizabeth Park and partly in the Mara, too, the young are followers, like the well-known example of the wildebeest, which follow their mother minutes after birth.


Caring: Topi mothers are devoted to defend their young, sometimes even with high risks on their own. In Maasai Mara they have in some places “kindergardens”, where some mothers look for the young of several females, thus giving all of them more opportunities to utilize good grazing places.

Topis are members of the tribe Alcelaphini, with various hartebeeste, blesbok and wildbeest as close relatives. Amongst them, topis have the biggest distribution area, covering most of the Sahel zone, and regions in eastern and southwestern Africa.


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