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!
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.
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.
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.
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.