At a bend along Kruger National Park’s Sweni River, a Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) lies in wait, hidden beneath the placid surface of the shallower-than-usual water. It’s the spring of 2016, and the park’s herbivores are suffering through the worst drought since official record-keeping began in 1904. Kruger’s predators aren’t having any trouble finding food, however. Emaciated, easy-to-catch prey abound, and the haggard animals are forced to congregate around the park’s few remaining watering holes. It’s with these circumstances in mind that photographer John Mullineux has trained his camera on the river bend, waiting with anticipation as a group of impala (Aepyceros melampus) approach to drink.
A seasoned predator, the crocodile waits patiently until the antelope are within striking distance. Then, in a sudden explosion of water and teeth, it lunges. Beleaguered as they may be, the impala are well adapted to such an attack: With the speed and seemingly haphazard power of as many tightly coiled springs suddenly released, they shoot into the air in every direction, easily clearing the reach of the crocodile’s snapping jaws. Safe, at least for now.
Impala are well known for their impressive leaping abilities. Arguably the best mammalian jumpers in the world, the antelope can leap at least 3 meters (10 feet) high and cover a distance of 11 meters (36 feet) in a single bound. Considering that a large impala can weigh 65 kilograms (165 pounds), roughly the weight of an adult human, the feat is especially remarkable.
These spectacular jumps can obviously help the impala avoid imminent capture by ambush predators, but their airtime prowess confers other benefits as well. “The ability to leap helps impala avoid getting tripped up in vegetation and makes their movements less predictable” to predators in pursuit, says Adam T. Ford, a scientist from the University of British Columbia who has studied impala predation in Kenya. “This unpredictability is exaggerated because many impala live in clans of 10 to 40 females. When the group starts running, with dozens of individuals bouncing this way and that way, it is very hard to track what is happening.” These athletic maneuvers might also help the animals avoid a chase altogether. “Energetic leaping may be an honest signal to a predator that the animal is fit and hard to catch,” says behavioral ecologist Blair Costelloe from the Max Planck Institute, noting that similar leaping displays in gazelles and springbok can deter predators from engaging in what would surely be energetically costly pursuits.
Although their leaping ability can get impala out of many dangerous situations, it can’t help the animals escape every threat they face. Climate models predict that if global carbon emissions aren’t mitigated, the Kruger region will become significantly hotter and drier through 2050 and beyond, making extreme drought events like the one in 2016 increasingly common. Fortunately, there’s still time to reverse this trend. While the animals and plants of Kruger’s iconic landscape stand to suffer the effects of climate change more greatly than those in many other ecosystems, they would also benefit significantly from global efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Stabilizing our collective emissions would cut the projected warming here in half and reduce the risk of extreme drought events—allowing the high drama of the South African plains to continue playing out for decades to come.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
While John Mullineux has always enjoyed art, especially performing and graphic art, he has found himself drawn to photography, with a focus on wildlife and landscapes. Mullineux is an engineer by training and a production manager by trade, but he says his heart yearns for the next pretty picture, always.