Saturday, 28 July 2012

The fall of Gandalf, and the rise of Malaki

The fall of any powerful leader always creates ripples across the pond, and nature is no different.

As you know, yesterday marked five weeks since Gandalf disappeared from the Gosa meerkat gang. Without warning, without a trace, he just vanished. Did he leave? Was he kicked out? Was he taken by a hawk? Or a Jackal? Bitten by a snake? We have no way of knowing. Day after day the crew counted and recounted the Gosa gang, hoping that we were simply missing the tell-tale markings we use to identify him. But those markings were never seen again, and Cleopatra and the family seemed to drop into a state of worry and confusion.

The loss of an alpha male in any society opens up a few avenues which, if explored, can change the entire direction of the family group. We saw this too in our very own Gosa gang. With Gandalf now gone, there was no dominant male. Impressively, Starsky was first to step up. Starsky? The clown? Yes! The one and only! No ore shenanigans, no ore wrestling, it’s time to grow up. Starsky has now started sharing sentry duty with Matimba and Cleo, and seems to have a very good eye for danger. Hutch too has started acting a little more responsible, but sees to allow starsky to take the lead in most things. The other males in the group (Brutus, Napoleon and Dingaan) don’t seem interested in any form of leadership. They still move with Delilah and prefer to keep their heads below the radar when it comes to leading the group.

And what of Cleo? A Queen without a King. Strictly speaking, she will choose another mate when one presents himself. But that’s the biologist in me. Many times over during my academic career greyed haired scientists with ink stained fingers and opaque lab coats warned me about anthropomorphising any event concerning animals. And yet, over these past few weeks of watching Cleo sit on sentry duty, I cannot help but notice that sense of longing, the sense of emptiness that Cleo has displayed in her behaviour. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s unmistakable. And yet, she has a family to look after and protect and needs an alpha male by her side.

That’s when Malaki arrived.

Dark, broad-headed and solid to the core, Malaki (Mal-ak-eye) arrived on the scene as mysteriously as Gandalf left. At first we assumed he was from a neighbouring gang, but none of the neighbouring meerkat groups are missing any members and so he is officially branded “origin unknown”. We first noticed him about a week and a half ago, snooping around the edge of the group and showing a lot of interest in Cleo. In the days following that encounter, Malaki was able to get close to Cleo and began to forage with her and groom her. The rest of the gang slowly accepted him, until one evening at Northern Burrow the whole family was seen grooming together outside one of the sleeping chambers. A quick succession, but a necessary one for the group to succeed. The next few months will be a testing one for our new alpha male.

And so, we bid a sad farewell to Gandalf, the leader who we lost to the sunset of the Kalahari.

…or did we…

Last night one of the rangers presented me with a photo he took of a very habituated meerkat at Birds Nest burrow. I’m not 100% sure, but it does look like the man himself, Gandalf. If it is him, we will have to wait and see what transpires. He is now alone, and caught between three large meerkat groups.

Time will tell


Rob’s song for the day: Coyotes – Richard Thompson

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Snow, meerkats and Balloons in the Kalahari

The Kalahari is one of those places that is no-holds-barred when it comes to the weather and early Winter here definitely kicked off with a bang.  Slowly but surely it started getting colder, the meerkats started coming out a bit later, and the WildEarth film crew started drinking more coffee than Coca-Cola. That was to be expected, so all was well, yes?


A cold front the likes of which are very rare hit South Africa like a slap on a bull’s backside, and that’s when things went awry. First we were hit by icy winds, which brought the temperature straight down to -1ᵒC on Friday afternoon. That night the winds picked up, the temperature slowly dropped, and by 06h30 the next morning we were at -4ᵒC with slight rain and high winds. Needless to say, the meerkats stayed below ground, and the crew stayed behind closed doors. Then a peculiar thing happened. The crew and I went outside to see what the weather was doing, and we were met with a frigid Kalahari and a grey haze of soft sleet. Suddenly the sleet stopped falling and started floating around. That’s weird! The three of us must have looked like Martians in a toy store with the quizzical expressions painted blatantly on our faces. And then, the light bulb flickered on, and we realised it was snowing! As we stood amongst this euphoria of floating ice in the Kalahari we just burst out laughing! We’d never seen snow before, and here we were in the Kalahari of all places and it was simply drifting down right in front of us. Magical!

Photo by Tiara Walters

Unfortunately it only snowed for around 2mins and then turned back into sleet, forcing the crew and I back under cover.

Two days later the weather had cleared up and we were back with the Gosa meerkat gang while they foraged out near their Northern burrow. The weather was clear and some old friends of mine arrived as some guests had booked a balloon safari with them. Marc is a highly experienced balloon pilot (or bubble jockey as he calls it) and the reserve often uses him for the balloon safaris over the Kalahari. As usual, Marc and I were chatting away by the fire-side and he (as usual) agreed to let me slap our 3D cameras to the side of the balloon basket to get some great landscape footage from up high. The next morning while the crew went out to film the meerkats, I went with Marc and his ground crew to help set up the balloon. Wow those things are massive up close! Pressurizing the envelope (the balloon), hitting the burners to heat up the air in the envelope, and getting everything ready for take-off was just fascinating to watch. The guests arrived and hopped in the basket, and then Marc turned to me and said “Rob, you wanna join us?”. What a question!! I’ve never been up close to a balloon before, let alone been in one. In one swift, fluid, Kalahari-ninja-like move I grabbed my camera and was into the basket with everybody, lens prepped, teeth gleaming from cheek to cheek.

Balloon Kalahari Safari
A few blast from the burner *PWAAP*-*POP*-*POP* and we were off like a feather, over the trees and bye-bye terra firma! Absolutely amazing! The world really is a different place when you’re a few feet higher than usual. Down below springbok wound their way through the bushes, and trees turned into small fluffy green flowers as we climbed higher and higher. I could see the dunes off to the West, the low mountain range as it meandered its way South, and the warm, crisp sun as we created our very own sunrise climbing through the shadow of the mountains.

It put things in perspective for me. Here we were filming 1ft high meerkats occupying an area roughly 6kms2 and that is everything to them. Their lives, their burrows, their food, everything. Yet they were part of a much, much bigger system and an integral part of a chain that impacts so many other animals in so many ways. Including humans, through our media.

It was the ripple effect theory, and I was staring at the pond.

From that extraordinary height it just made me feel very small. Like a bigger meerkat (and more scruffy looking) in a larger territory, but yet still having areas around me I have yet to explore. That fire for exploration will always burn inside me, and it is projects such as Kalahari Meerkats 3D that, like the burners on the hot air balloon, provide those little fiery blasts of energy that keep that adventurous spirit afloat, and it makes me smile.

Don’t forget to tune into my crew and I Live as we move through the Gosa gang territory filming their daily lives in 3D.


Rob’s song for the day: The Great Heart - Johnny Clegg