Thursday, 29 March 2012

Cold blooded killers

For the first 2 weeks or so life here with the meerkats ticked over in a regular way, but this past week has seen a number of events here, both for the meerkats we are here to film, and for ourselves as well.

As the others blogged previously, Cleo gave birth at the Sour Grass burrow and for one reason or another the pups died and the Gosa Meerkat gang hasn't returned to that burrow since. Obviously it was a sad few days for us as we were really looking forward to seeing the gang expand, and showing you the pups when they first emerged from the burrow. But life is full of perils for such small creatures and danger is lurking everywhere, for us as well.

Part of what we hope to achieve while we are here is to use the LIVE webcast as a way to describe the daily lives and struggles of our little group of meerkats, as we film them as we make a TV series in 3D. I am starting to get the impression that we will see the many happy and playful moments of life the meerkats have, balanced by the hard truth that life is tough here and everyday could be your last.

Our main 3D camera underwent some adjustments this week as the final preparations for broadcasting live, so this gave us a chance to try and collect footage of the other animals and creatures the meerkats share their territory with. first on the list were reptiles that prey on meerkats (rock monitors & snakes).
Rock monitor in our back garden
On my first sighting of a rock monitor lizard I immediately thought they were beautiful creatures. They can get surprising large and have interesting camouflage patterns across their backs, big clawed feet and a long tail - ok not everyones idea of beautiful, but I like the look of them. Unfortunately they can be the end to many a meerkat, and a neighbouring meerkat group has lost a few of its pups to rock monitors. Luckily we have come across a few of them in the open so we have managed to get some footage of them with out having the fear of death getting too close, snakes however is a different matter…

Having never seen a snake in the wild before coming here, and what I reason as a healthy fear of death, just the word gives me a cold feeling up my spine, and in that I am sure I am not alone. They are of course misunderstood and feared and hated in general mostly out of ignorance (10 times more people die from being struck by lightening than snake bites in SA), but it doesn't change the fact the danger is real.

The most common deadly venomous snakes here in this part of the Kalahari are the Cape Cobra and Puff Adder. Puff Adders account for most of the fatal snake bites in South Africa because they lay on tracks and paths waiting to ambush their prey and they bite in defence if people stand on them. Cape Cobra's are described as nervously aggressive snakes and will raise up and open their hood and hiss at a territory invader to warn them off. A warning well heeded as their venom is super potent delivering 100-200mgs per bite 10-15mg is fatal in humans.
From what I have read and seen meerkats will often "mob" a snake that they come across to try and scare it away. The group will surround a snake but leave an open space for it to leave by, the meerkats make aggressive spitting barks while they bob their heads to confuse and scare the snake. We hope to see and film such an event during the course of filming but initially the plan was to film a snake in the open. We hadn't seen a snake while on foot in the last 2 weeks so the chances were slim - which I admit I was very happy about, and then this week happened..

First it started with Rob sighting 2 different cape cobras attacking birds nests, from what I have been told, as winter draws in cape cobras will change in colour from pure yellow to a spotted black on yellow colour, and will start to hunt birds nest more actively before the last chicks leave the nest. Sociable weaver birds are amazing builders constructing huge communal nests in large trees, but this makes them a very attractive target for a snake.

Snake in the box
A few days later I watched with adrenaline pumping as our neighbour captured a cape cobra that had found its way into an empty accommodation block in our housing complex, and then released it out into the bush using our food order box. The snakes were definitely around, and they were hungry.


The following night Garth and I were driving on the way to find which burrow the meerkats went down in yesterday evening as we passed a large sociable weavers nest. The birds squawking was a bit strange and as we stopped and looked up, just a few meters away from our heads was a 2m long cape cobra making its way through the branches towards the nests. We couldn't believe our luck, we got the camera out and onto a pole as long as it could reach and filmed the entire event unfold. It was truly incredible, the snake searched through the nests looking for chicks, and in a flash a young feathered chick was snatched as the helpless mother had to fly away. The cobra pumped venom into the chick, and once dead dropped it onto the ground and later slipped out of the tree onto the ground as well, then picked up the chick and slithered away into a nearby bush. It all happened a few meters from us and all from the safety of the land drover. It was one of the most amazing animal experiences I have ever had, and afterwards I have to say the cape cobra is also a beautiful creature, but still said with a shiver down my spine.
The cape cobra envenomating a sociable weaver chick
We hope to film some more action over the coming weeks (from a non life threatening distance of course), and once the rig is all repaired we hope you will log in and check it out online.

- Paul

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