Saturday, 31 March 2012

Prickly situations in the night


I sometimes think that I’m just too adventurous for my own good! First it was encounters with snakes, but now I have upgraded to close encounters of the prickly kind!

My first attempt to get a shot of the night sky
spinning above us
The other night I walked out into the Kalahari to take some long exposure shots of the night sky. Not bad for my first time, but I reckon I can do a lot better when we have a new moon again. Anyways, there I was standing out in the dark watching the camera blink away during the photo. Now as you may or may not know, many animals in the Kalahari are nocturnal such as the Springhare, Aardvark, Pangolin* and Porcupine, and while I was staring out into the darkness the latter walked right by me. Now, that’s not very scary. In fact it was quite thrilling to see such a large healthy porcupine bumbling its way through the bush. Very few people actually get to see one out in the wild, let alone have one so close. My golden bush rule is They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them and sure enough the porcupine simply walked past me about 3m away as I stood still in the darkness. FANTASTIC! I was so excited you could have seen my grin in the dark! After a while, I packed up my gear and headed back.

The next night I was too tired to go out and try again so I climbed into bed and caught up on lost hours.

Now in our current sleeping arrangements, our room is split in two by a very low wall. Two beds are on one side, and on the other side is the kitchen area and my bed. At 1am I heard someone rustling around in the kitchen. I thought “It’s probably Paul getting some water” and left it. But the rustling seemed a bit…random, which made me think “Paul’s probably sleep walking”.  I sat up and groped around for my torch...hmmm, no torch. Ok, a cellphone should do the trick. I pushed some buttons randomly and shone the screen's light towards the kitchen, and SHIKKA-SHIKKA-SHIKKA-SHIKKA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! A large porcupine spun around right in front of me and flared up all its quills! 

Oh Rob, seriously where do we go from here. I’m in the back section of a room split in two by a low wall, the door is on the other side and the small walkway between the two rooms is right near my bed. I have a porcupine 1m away from me who is HIGHLY irritated and if he goes the wrong way he’ll end up cornered in the bathroom. Crikey. I may end up becoming a Kalahari Kebab. HEY! SHOOOO MAN!! SKRRRIK! HEY HEY HEY I shouted! Paul, who had been asleep all this time, woke up and said “What’s going on??”. “Paul, there’s a freaking porcupine next to me, stay there!!”. Luckily, the large prickly invader decided I wasn’t worth the effort and he high-tailed it into the next room, past Paul and out through the door. Crisis over? I think not. Before our spiny friend made his getaway, he made sure no-one followed him and sprayed a potent mixture from his rump back in our direction. Well that finished me off! I was coughing and sneezing as if I’d been hit by a more natural form of pepper-spray. It was such a choking stench that we didn’t recover for a good few minutes! After I’d stopped feigning my own death in the entrance, and with my body still pumping with adrenaline, Paul and I simply burst out laughing! Did that really just happen? Yes! HAHA! No one is going to believe us!!

After we’d settled down, we realised that our door had been blown slightly ajar by the wind and our nosey fortress-like rodent friend had simply pushed his way in and headed straight for the sweet smell of potatoes. 


*On the topic of Pangolin, I thought you'd like to know that I am also on the committee of the African Pangolin Working Group who are recognized by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and are concerned with the conservation of Africa's endangered pangolins. Check it out at http://pangolin.org.za/

Rob’s song for the day: Night Fever - The Bee Gees

Keep in touch via Facebook or Twitter 

Rob



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

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Meet the Gosa Meerkat Gang.


Spending a large chunk of the past 25 days with the Gosa meerkat gang has been a very enjoyable, and at the same time, fascinating experience.  Observing each individual meerkat go about their daily business of survival, against the magnificent backdrop of the Southern Kalahari, has made it impossible for us not project our human attitudes and emotions onto each of these little yet, larger than life, characters.

Here follows a brief description of each of the ten meerkats that make up the Gosa gang based on our observations thus far.

Cleopatra: 
The alpha female of the Gosa gang, she is a serene presence.  From the start, she has been totally unfazed by the presence of the crew and our gear.  Her calm demeanour seems to have rubbed off on most of the other members, enabling us to gain their trust and film them without interrupting their natural activities.  Sadly, and quite surprisingly, she has been unable to rear any pups, and it is now clear that her most recent litter also succumbed.  Whether she is a strong enough character to maintain her status as the alpha female and hold the gang together remains to be seen.  Big challenges lie ahead for Cleo.
 
Gandalf:
Regally grey in the hair around his face, his status as the alpha male remains undisputed at this point.  He is something of a workaholic, and takes his job as head of security very seriously indeed.  He is inevitably the one who takes on the responsibility of sentry duty, risking life and limb to get as high as possible to scan for both aerial and ground predators.  His motto: “No tree too high, no bush too thorny.”  How he manages to eat enough in between performing his duties, I’m not quite sure, but he still seems to be in pretty good shape.

Delilah:
An extremely nervous, bordering on paranoiac, beta female, she seems quite distant from the alpha pair.   Her slightly larger than usual belly suggests that, she has either been enjoying the beetle larvae buffet a little too much, or she has broken the meerkat gang code and gotten herself pregnant.  I suspect it to be the latter, which could signal serious trouble for her and the pups down the line. 

Dingaan:
A prominent beta male in the gang, he is Gandalf’s right hand….um…..meerkat.  Equally adept at scaling impossibly high and flimsy sentry posts, he performs sentry duty when Gandalf allows himself a breather and a chance to protein-load.  He has exceptional eyesight, but seems to lack a little bit of judgement as he has often sounded the alarm for something quite innocuous.  It seems that the rest of the gang have mastered the art of knowing when he is ‘crying wolf’.   He is a strong and good-looking meerkat, and no doubt he will have designs on becoming an alpha male someday.  Whether he will have the gumption to challenge Gandalf, or whether he will choose to seek greener pastures, only time will tell.

Brutus and Napoleon:
Two beta males that, as with Delilah, are not part of the inner circle of the Gosa gang and that we don’t know much about.  We have often noticed them sneaking off, quite rapidly mind you, from the burrow in the early morning, resulting in a split in the gang for the day’s foraging.  They do not always spend the night in the same burrow as the rest of the gang either.   It is possible, even likely, that one of them is responsible for impregnating Delilah.  It will be very interesting to see how it all plays out should those pups arrive.

Starsky:
The youngest member of the gang, he is a real character; full of life, extremely curious and rather mischievous.  From the start he has shown a keen interest in us and our various accessories.  He seems to have a thing for the old aqua show curtain and always quite fancies the look of his reflection in the camera housing.  Despite the fact that he is quite old enough and perfectly capable of finding his own food, he has somehow managed to convince a few of the others to hand over their hard-earned grubs every once in a while.  He has also recently discovered the power of his anal gland, which is used for scent marking, and has been marking anything he can lift his leg up to, including the other gang members.  The smart money says he will be the first to perform this display of ownership on the camera rig or one of the crew.  Indeed, it seems that there are great things written in his stars.

Hutch:
Older than Starsky, but not quite at full maturity, he has displayed a level-headedness beyond his years and is a born leader.  He has not been shy to perform sentry duty when the other older males have not been around and his tree-climbing skills are on the up and up.  Never shy to let his hair down, he is also Starsky’s sparring partner when it’s time for fun and games at the burrow.  He has, however, also made it clear that he is higher up the chain of command than Starsky and the two younger females, and has never hesitated to put any of them in their place should they ever get a little too cheeky. 

Matimba:
She is one of the two younger females in the group and even at her tender age, she shows signs of having a real maternal and caring nature.  She seems to have a soft spot for Starsky, and has been seen giving him some of the juiciest morsels she digs up.  She is often in the company of Cleopatra, seemingly trying to learn from her and win her favour. 

Priscilla:
As her name suggests she is a bit of a princess, both in her behaviour and her appearance.  She has almost symmetrically perfect markings on her coat, and her general frosty demeanour and attitude of indifference are typical of teenagers brought up in the Britney Spears/Paris Hilton generation.  She likes to team up with Matimba and then gang up on Starsky when it’s time for the late afternoon ‘roll in the sand’.   How she copes with the onset of adulthood and potential responsibilities that come with it will be interesting to observe.

Stay tuned as we continue to bring you the unfolding stories of these characters that make up the Gosa meerkat gang.

Garth

Friday, 23 March 2012

the Gosa gang story before WE arrived

Nick took over as the meerkat habituator at Tswalu in early August 2011. The Gosa meerkat gang were known as the Gosa ground dam group at this time (named after the Gosa ground dam in the middle of their territory) and were 22 meerkats strong. Cleopatra was the alpha female, but Nick suspects that she was relatively inexperienced. (WE will be contacting previous habituators for further history soon.)


Some time in August 2011 Cleo gave birth to four pups, but during their first move, in early September 2011, two of the four pups got lost and were never seen again.


In November 2011 the group became unsettled with the numbers fluctuating from 22 to 18 then back to 20, down to 18 and back to 22. Nick thinks that this could have been due to the fact that some of the males were out 'visiting' other groups, but during this time there was definitely some instability. Also during November Cleo fell pregnant, but so did one of the other females. A subordinate female. 


Then in early january 2012 Cleo gave birth in the Northern burrow, and Nick knows this because she suddenly went from very pregnant to very thin and also because her fur was very red as a result of the Kalahari red sand sticking to the fluids on her fur from the birth.


The rest of the gang moved to the Camel Thorn Burrow almost immediately and soon Cleo joined them with no pups!! Its believed that the other pregnant female killed Cleo's pups, although we will never know for sure. 


What we do know is that those pups were never seen again and the group split at this time. The 10 meerkats that remain behind led by Cleo are the Gosa gang and the other 12, along with the other pregnant female, have disappeared. They may have joined with two groups to the south (the Rockstars and the Wombles), but we don't know.

Collision with a cobra!


It was inevitable that on my wanderings through the Kalahari I would come across a cobra. However I never imagined it would be two separate incidents with two separate cobras about 20 minutes apart!!

Picture the scene; its sunset, the meerkats are heading towards their burrow at Gosa Dam, and I am bumbling along behind them not really too bothered about keeping up with the group as I know exactly where they are heading. Nearing the dam, I heard an incredible commotion coming from a nearby Sociable Weaver’s nest (http://blog.wildearth.tv/2012/03/kalahari-social-life.html). Naturally I knew something was wrong as a noise like that is only really produced by the weavers when there is a predator hanging around. I jogged over to the tree in which the nest was in and arrived just in time to see a large Cape Cobra (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_Cobra) making its way down from the large nest. I moved in closer to have a good look and the Cobra froze and turned to face me. At this stage we were about 4m apart. I dared another meter and instantly the Cobra rose up, displaying its wide hood and remaining in its ‘frozen’ posture. Instantly my primeval instinct kicked in and all the hairs on my arms and head stood upright and my body started shouting “RUN YOU FOOL!” But I knew what I was doing and knew the reaction was only a natural one. However, erring on the side of caution, I backed away after having a good look at it and allowed the massive cobra to go and find a nice spot to digest all the chicks it had probably just gorged on.
And that was not the end of my cobra experience for the day!

Still reeling with adrenaline, I reached the Gosa Dam burrow where our Gosa gang of meerkats were getting ready to bed down for the night. I was about to sit down when a different Sociable Weaver’s nest across the dam just exploded with angry weavers. I looked over in total disbelief and said “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Could it really be another cobra attack? This is insane! I felt like I was in some sort of Kalahari Jurassic Park! My feet had started moving at light speed towards the nest before I even realised it! After bolting over the meerkats, down the embankment and around the bushes I found myself standing under the tree in which this new drama was taking place. There, 3m above me was yet another cobra raiding a nest. Two different cobras, two different nests, within around 15-20mins of each other!? Where is Spielberg when you need him! The cobra had wedged itself into a few of the holes in the nest and was buried deep inside one of them, obviously feeding on chicks. Quick as a flash I whipped back over to the dam and grabbed the cameras and once again bolted over the meerkats, down the embankment, round the bushes and up to the tree!

However, what happened next was the last thing I expected. It all happened as fast as lightning but I remember ever detail as if it were a slow-motion picture.

In the time it had taken me to get the cameras and make it back to the tree, the cobra had finished feeding and was now trying to get down from the nest. Unfortunately the cobra had gotten itself into a position where it was too far under the nest to turn around and get back to a branch. As I raced around the bush and came up on the cobra and the nest, the cobra lost its grip and fell. That’s when all hell broke loose. WHAP! The cobra landed in front of me! I started backpedalling in mid-air as my body launched itself upwards and away from the flying reptile. The snake seemed stunned from the fall as I came back down to earth only a few feet away. My body was buzzing, I could have leapt over the tree I had so much adrenaline! Had I been there but a few seconds earlier it would have fallen right on top of me! I was still in my earth-landing position as the snake moved slightly towards me. It was a Mexican stand-off, snake vs. Rob, neither knowing what was supposed to happen now. As the snake regained consciousness, and I regained my breath, we both slowly backed off from each other. When a suitable distance had emerged between us, I followed the snake (WAS I INSANE!?) to a bush where it simply curled up and lay there. Slowly and jerkily I turned from the bush and started head towards the meerkats. Disbelief, shock, excitement, adrenaline, boy oh boy I had it all!

I sat on the bank of the dam laughing and shaking my head at the late-afternoon’s events. As the crew came to fetch me, they looked at me and said “What’s up?” I simply replied “Boys, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you”. 

Don't forget you can follow all my adventures on my fan page at facebook.com/robbruyns or on twitter @robbruyns.

Rob’s song for the day: Ghostbusters - Ray Parker Jr.

Keep in touch

Rob

The Loss of Cleo’s Pups


Over the past few weeks, you have been with us as we followed the progress of our Alpha female Cleopatra and her journey towards motherhood. The WildEarth crew too have eagerly been awaiting the birth of her pups and the addition of 3-5 new little meerkat faces all belonging to our proud Cleo. That day finally arrived on Saturday the 15th of this month, and the WildEarth crew rejoiced as Cleo emerged from the Sour grass burrow that morning with all the signs of giving birth; a flat stomach, birth fluids around her groin area, and dark, damp sand clinging to her fur. But that was the last time we celebrated.

That morning, all ten Gosa gang members left the burrow very quickly and seemed to be very tense. The WildEarth crew followed them but lost the group soon after that. Starsky and Gandalf returned to the burrow after a while but soon also disappeared off into the tall grass. All that day I sat outside the Sour grass burrow, waiting for the group to come back. But they never did. All that time my mind was racing. I knew we would only see the pups in around 2 weeks’ time, but meerkats usually leave a baby-sitter with the pups while the group goes off to forage. Where is the baby-sitter? Where is the group? What about the pups? “No” I told myself, “it’s going to be ok”.

I was wrong. Horribly wrong.

We lost the Gosa gang completely after that morning. They never returned to Sour grass burrow and simply vanished into thin air. I felt sick, what was going on? Where are the pups? Where is the group? The atmosphere at Gosa camp was thick with worry as all the crew seemed to be absorbed with this total turn of events. On Monday morning we found all ten meerkats at their Eastern most burrow: Gosa Dam. We knew they had not been back to where the pups had been born as we had checked the burrow for fresh prints and there were none.  A lump grew in my throat as I realised something that I had tried to put in the back of my mind; the group had not been back to Sour grass burrow, therefore the pups have not been moved from there, and the entire group is now at the Gosa dam burrow. I sat down slowly, and as I did so, I subconsciously whispered “They’re dead”. All the hours spent filming Cleo’s growing belly, watching her dig a small hole to lie down flat and cool herself in those days leading up to the arrival of the pups, and even seeing the tiny movements coming from within her womb when we were close enough to see them, all of that faded together with the sun as it disappeared behind the dunes.

For the past few nights the Gosa gang have slept at the Gosa Dam burrow except for Wednesday night when they moved to the Camelthorn burrow in the South. And, as if to drive the message home, when they moved there were no pups with them. That Wednesday afternoon I sat in the fading light, inches away from Cleopatra and her family. As we both stared out into the surrounding bush, a number of things went through my mind while I tried to piece together the puzzle of the loss of the pups. This morning Garth and I went back to Sour grass burrow and the only track we saw leading in and out of the burrow hole in which Cleo came out that fateful morning was that of a large puffadder.

We will never actually know how the pups met their unfortunate fate. Were they killed by a predator? Were they stillborn? Killed by a family member? Or abandoned? And if the answer lies in one of the last three scenarios, did the large puffadder pick up on their scent and feed on them?  Any one of these is possible, and maybe we’re not supposed to know at all? Maybe nature needs to still keep her secrets from us? And although we do not know what happened, we know for certain that Cleo has lost her pups, and she knows more than we do as she has not lead the group near Sour grass burrow since it happened.

In this week of sadness and uncertainty, however, there is one thing that I am certain of; Cleopatra has still managed to keep the Gosa gang together, even after this terrible loss, and seems to still have enough energy to fight on and face the days ahead.

A remarkable young Alpha female in a world full of peril.




Rob

Friday, 16 March 2012

A Big Day


As I peeled myself away from the comfort of my bed on Monday morning, a stiff easterly wind causing the slightly ajar windows to rattle noisily, I had a little inkling in the pit of my stomach that it was going to be a big day.  The Ouma rusks(I miss your rusks Mom), generously dunked in my piping hot cup of Five Roses tea, along with the memory of the previous night’s chicken potjie(a stew, cooked over 5 hours in a three-legged cast iron pot over the coals), provided me with the sustenance I needed for the challenge ahead. The start of my third week here in the Kalahari and it was my turn once more to try and stay with and follow the Gosa gang around for the whole day.   

I was dropped at the Gosa gang’s Bird’s Nest burrow by my wingman for the morning shift, Rob who still needed to get some diesel for the Ganda.  This was the first time, since we have been observing them, that these meerkats had spent the night at this particular burrow, so I was very curious to see how they would behave at this slightly more exposed area. 

By 7h30 the stiff breeze had abated just enough for Gandalf to emerge from the comfort of the burrow, seemingly well-rested, and scan for any sign of danger.  Thankfully my presence was not considered any reason for alarm and he gave the all-clear for the other nine members of the gang to begin their days sunning their bellies.  It was not particularly long before the slightly more nervous members of the gang decided it was time to move and all eleven of us headed south, them in search of food, and me in search of answers.  Before I really had much of a chance to assess who was where and doing what, I realised that 6 meerkats had disappeared into the long grass and I was left with 4 in my immediate vicinity; Cleopatra, her trusted beau Gandalf, a female ‘teenager’ full of attitude and Hutch, a fearless young, sub-adult male with that ‘ready for action’ look in his eyes.

A pleasant couple of hours were spent in the general vicinity of Bird’s Nest burrow, the four ravenous meerkats gorging themselves on beetle larvae, while I worked on my ‘Meerkat’ pronunciation, trying in vain to imitate their different calls.  I also did a little digging of my own to try and further my cause for acceptance, only for them to briefly glance up with a look of utter indifference. 

Having returned to the burrow for a quick site inspection, the foraging continued and as I watched Gandalf standing on the largest of the mounds of dirt dotted around the burrow, he suddenly, as if he had somehow just remembered a very important meeting that he was late for, took off in a blur of legs, tail and dust.  Unconcerned, the remaining three continued with their serious business of protein consumption while I pondered the curious dynamics at play in this gang. 

The start of the 11am to 3pm murder shift arrived and Cleopatra and her two minions thankfully felt that the exertion of the morning’s foraging coupled with the severity of the midday sun justified some downtime and retired underground.  This allowed me the opportunity to spread out the old aqua shower curtain and enjoy, in the horizontal position, the small shady patch provided by a nearby Camel Thorn tree, not before I learned a valuable lesson that the old aqua shower curtain does not provide adequate protection from the vicious nature of the enormous thorns of said tree.  Despite these little luxuries, when 5 flies have decided that the orbit around your head is the perfect distance for a racetrack and escape from the heat is nothing more than a pipedream, the murder shift out here can potentially hasten the onset of delirium. 

Fortunately however, I was spared the curse of insanity as the three fearless little creatures were soon out of their burrows and rushed over to investigate the old aqua shower curtain.  Some more cooling time in the shade, and then the five of us, including Paul who had since relieved Rob, were off on another foraging adventure, heading south towards Gosa dam.  It was very interesting to observe the general modus operandi of this little group.  Hutch, in the absence of Gandalf and the other more senior members of the gang, did an outstanding job as the sentry, showing off is ever-improving tree-climbing skills, while Cleopatra, ever alert, seemed to be responsible for the timing and directions of the sprints across open areas to the next bit of bush cover. 

By roughly 4pm we had made our way to the Gosa dam and the burrow on the dam wall that forms part of the gang’s network.  Although we haven’t seen them spend the night at this burrow, we have encountered them a few times in the late afternoon, seemingly enjoying the view of different herds of antelope coming to drink on the opposite side of the dam.  The relative peace and calm of the situation was briefly disturbed as Hutch suddenly took off down the dam wall and into the great beyond.  He can hardly be blamed for the rash behaviour.  He had after all been spending all day with two females, one extremely pregnant, the other a moody ‘teenager’.  And then there were two.

With the quality girl time at the dam over, Cleopatra and her younger companion headed west and it wasn’t too long before we spotted a familiar figure surveying the landscape from his elevated position up a tree.  It was Gandalf, and there was immediately a stream of chatter between him and Cleopatra.  What was said only they will ever know, but the two female meerkats did a u-turn and started heading back in the direction of the dam, with Paul in hot pursuit.  I stayed with Gandalf, who zigzagged his way through the long grass, heading first west, then south, then east, until finally he met up with Cleopatra and all the other remaining members of the Gosa gang as they bolted towards Camel Thorn burrow.  Amazing!

A leisurely hour went by at the burrow, and as the shadows began to lengthen, we naturally assumed that the meerkats had decided on their resting place for the evening.  Assumptions are dangerous in this job.  In a matter of seconds I went from sitting on a mound of dirt at the burrow, staring admiringly at a nearby Sociable Weavers’ nest, to a near sprint through the long grass trying to keep up with ten meerkats seemingly hell-bent on testing the level of my desire to stay with them all day.  Ultimately it would be two disgruntled warthogs, which literally stopped me in my tracks as they came charging noisily out of a thicket much too close to where I was running, that would cause me to fall agonisingly short of a full sunrise to sunset day with the meerkats. 

Any hopes of driving to one of the other nearby burrows to see them go down for the evening were dashed when we discovered that the Ganda’s front right tire had lost its desire to continue holding air. 

A big day.  A long day.  A very interesting day.  No doubt there will be many more to come.

Garth

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Pete to fly across the Pond

While others are working hard in the Kalahari heat to get the meerkat broadcast up and running, I will be leaving (on a jet plane) to a much cooler US of A this weekend. Why, you ask?

Well, there's another project WE've been working on for quite some time now... LIVE broadcasts from inside wolf dens! And the USA, in this case the state of New York, is where those wolves are!

We will be working together with the Wolf Conservation Center, located a couple of hours drive north of the Big Apple, to install cameras in no less than 4 wolf dens. And, while nothing in nature is ever guaranteed, we hope and expect that at least one of these (hopefully more than one) will allow you and others around the globe to first follow the build-up to and then to witness the birth of a litter of wolf pups. And of course to keep following their progress. To make this possible we'll also be installing cameras outside the dens that can be remotely controlled to follow them around as they bravely venture out to explore their surroundings. (And yes, we will be looking for zoomies for this! More on that in a future blog.)

The people at the WCC are already working on the preparations so that next week we can complete and test the full installation. If all goes as planned we should be ready to go LIVE towards the end of next week. With pups expected to be born sometime in May this should give us all enough time follow the pregnancies and become arm-chair wolf experts well before the pups are born.

I'm very excited about seeing wolves and eager to learn more about these iconic animals. Wolves, probably more than any other species, have long been an important part of (Native) American history and culture (from well before the day Leif Erikson and his band of Norsemen landed on what is now Newfoundland) but have in the last couple of centuries unfortunately been hunted (some would say persecuted) to the point of extinction.

The Wolf Conservation Center breeds red wolves as well as Mexican gray wolves, both of which were declared extinct in the wild in the 1980s. It is only through the careful breeding and re-introduction from small captive populations at centers like the WCC that wolf numbers are slowly growing again, and that current and future generations have regained the chance of seeing these wonderful creatures in the wild.

WE hope that by working with the WCC, through these LIVE broadcasts, we can do our bit towards creating more awareness about wolves and their plight. And that, by countering the many misconceptions that still exist, we can help make people see and appreciate the wolves' true nature.

More information will follow over the next days and we'll keep everyone updated on how things go once I'm out there. Until then please like the Wolf Conservation Center's Facebook page and check out their website which has tons of information on wolves and the Center's activities.

Peter

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

A behind the scenes look at Gosa HQ


What do we do when we’re not following the Gosa gang through the Kalahari? Well, we do manly things such as cook, clean, do laundry and sweep out all the Kalahari sand that makes its way into our room! I invite you to sit back, relax, and let me take you on a virtual tour of the Gosa Crew HQ.

Our headquarters is a large room split in two by a low wall and contained within in a staff compound about 15mins from the nearest lodge. One side of the room is used as the general bedroom where all manner of sounds and smells are produced over the course of the night. The other side of the room is houses our tech storage area, work desk, and kitchen area; an odd combination, but one that allows you to clean the dishes whilst hopping around to a few songs by The Beetles. The room is big enough for the three of us and none of us feel as if we need more space. The bathroom leads off from the kitchen where the fridges are placed but this needs no real description as it’s just a bathroom and is nothing short of a dull topic.

Most of our cooking is done inside but every now and then we’ll light a fire and cook some meat or chicken in the outdoor cooking area known as the Boma (Bow-ma). This is a delightful little area where scorpions abound and one can sit back with an ice-cold beer and watch the meat sizzle away to the tune of conversations over meerkats, land rovers, meerkats, stars and other meerkat related subjects.

Our laundry room is located around the back of the compound and is very spacious indeed…mainly because it has one washing machine shoved into the far corner of the room. Are they worried that someone is going to have a claustrophobic attack while trying to find their missing sock? Seriously, you could park two Minis side-by-side in this room and still be able to fit in a small squad of belly-dancers. Why such a big room has been given to a single token-driven top-loading washing machine which takes ages to complete one load is far, far beyond my own level of cognisance.  The laundry room and washing line area also play host to a family of Ground squirrels and a young rock monitor who can often be seen hanging on the wall sunning himself in the mornings.

Ah! Now we come to the backyard. A small jungle in its own right, this is a mish-mash of Kalahari plants and Uncle Pete’s orchard. Random fig trees and orange trees sprout up here and there with the centre of attraction being a medium-sized reservoir whose purpose is currently unknown. Hundreds of whirlygigs cruise the surface of the reservoir like crazed powerboats at a booze-up in the Cannes while mosquitoes breed in its dark green waters. Luckily management has been smart enough to ‘install’ a small school of Kilifish to curb the level of mosquito larvae residing under the surface, although I have evidence proving that a few mosquitoes still make it out alive.

Last but not least there is the Garage. The Ganda cave. Obviously this is the area where all vehicles are parked and the Ganda often shares the company of a few service vehicles or game drive cruisers belonging to other staff members residing in our compound. The garage is not very impressive or interesting save for one or two psychological NO-GO areas. These are places or back rooms which are ideal for snakes as they are cool and have a lot of old rubbish in which a cobra could easily move into to keep out of the Kalahari heat. No thanks, I want to see my 26th birthday!

And that’s it. That’s my home away from home for the next few months. Nothing special, but I have all I need and as an added bonus I’ve got 360ᵒ of pure Kalahari bush containing all manner of 2, 4 and 6 legged creatures to keep me on my toes!

Rob’s song for the day: Everybody’s got something to hide except me and my monkey – The Beatles

Keep in touch
Rob

Monday, 12 March 2012

Avoiding death in the desert


Gandalf’s lip curled as he steadied himself against the sky. With the sun behind it, wings tucked and talons locked forward, the hawk sped downward towards the Alpha male at an alarming rate. Its silhouette shadowing the fearless meerkat in an ominous grey vale that shrank rapidly across the Kalahari sand as the hawk closed the distance between them. Time stood still as hawk and meerkat locked eyes.  In one fluid motion, and as if he were looking through the bird itself, Gandalf drew his pistol and pointed it directly toward the sun; firing two rounds in quick succession. Gandalf’s hat was blown clear off as the hawk spiralled past him on his sentry post and crashed into the ground below in an explosion of sand and feathers. Still defiantly aiming at the sun, Gandalf slowly lowered his pistol and slipped it back into its holster, eyeing the hawk below as he did so.

Now if every predator/prey interaction played out like an old spaghetti Western, it would be an absolute warzone out there! However, life is not easy in the Kalahari. Especially if you are a meerkat. Think about how we avoid danger: We camouflage ourselves, we keep a lookout, we build shelters, we stick together, we move around, and if we do get into trouble we call our friends for backup. Meerkats do EXACTLY the same! Sure they don’t pull out a cellphone and call Big Bubba to come sort out the trouble makers, but who needs a cellphone when help is just around the next bush! Let’s unpack a few of these survival strategies used by meerkats.

Blend In: Who has ever seen a purple meerkat? Nobody? Exactly! That’s because purple meerkats in the Kalahari would stick out like a whale at a sardine convention. Camouflage is derived from the French word Camouflet which means to Blow smoke in someone’s face as a joke. Now meerkats aren’t really the smoking type, but their coats do allow them to pull the wool over a predator’s eyes. Tawny brown with short, dark patches on the back, their colouring fits in perfectly with the surroundings of the Kalahari and also helps break their outline when they are in the shade.

Deploy Lookouts: You’ll never see an enemy if you aren’t looking for one! Meerkats stand on their hind legs to get a better view of their surroundings and will often try finding a vantage point from which to do this. In the mornings, usually the Alpha male or female will come out first, have a look around and check that the coast is clear, and then call the rest up to the top for breakfast. While they forage, the adults will take turns to be on sentry duty; often climbing an anthill, bush or tree to gain a height advantage whilst on the lookout for danger.

Use Shelters: Yes we all know that meerkats have burrows, but what happens when danger strikes and they are far from home? This is where the gang will make use of a “bolt hole” which is similar to a burrow except much smaller and with fewer entrances. Each meerkat family will have many bolt holes scattered throughout their territory in case of an emergency. These sites are similar to a WWII bomb shelter in that they are always nearby and provide good protection from any nearby danger or even a large thunderstorm.  
Stick together: Yes it’s the usual Safety in Numbers story. More comrades in a group means more eyes on the lookout. Whether you’re looking to pick up danger or looking to pick up a date, this strategy is a universal winner.

Move around: When the first little piggy had his house blown down by the big bad wolf, did he hang around to see what would happen next? No! He ran to another Piglet Protection Structure! Meerkats also move house every now and then to make sure that predators don’t pick up on their routines or their regular presence in a given area. There are also two other reasons for moving to a new burrow every few days. Firstly it stops the burrow from becoming loaded with parasites which may cause disease etc. Secondly, visiting other burrows helps the group maintain their territory by checking that no one else has moved in and by the Alpha pair renewing their scent markings in the area.   

Call for backup: What’s more intimidating than having one aggressor in front of you? Having ten aggressors in front of you! If a group of meerkats come across a Puffadder or Cape Cobra or even rival meerkats, they will gang up together and see the attacker(s) off. Strength in numbers and all that jazz! The instigator(s) will rather live to fight another day than be beaten up by a bunch of grub eating Gosa gang members!

So at the end of the day there’s nothing too complicated about these rules, and yet sometimes the dung hits the fan and things go wrong. This in itself is still a natural occurrence and is inevitable out here in the bush. But the where, when, who and how of those situations will remain a mystery until they’ve already happened.

Rob’s song for the day: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Hugo Montenegro

Stay alert!
Rob

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Gosa gang politics


Over the past few weeks we’ve been walking with the meerkats and learning their mannerisms and individual characters. But all is not as smooth as it seems, and like any community in nature the Meerkat groups also undergo shifts and splits.

Let’s quickly focus on the neighbours of the Gosa gang who are known as the Jaco (pronounced Yuk-oo) Dune group. They lost one pup to a rock monitor and the group vanished the next day. For 10 days they disappeared, more than likely to a burrow site which no-one knows about, until they re-appeared this morning at their main burrow. What they did, why they did it, no one knows. But they lost another pup over that period and their alpha female is now down to 2 pups. We don’t know much about the Jaco Dune group, but we expect that Cleopatra and Gandalf are well aware of them as they often strongly scent-mark in the areas bordering the two territories.

Now we turn to the Gosa gang. Well where should I start? With Solo the female who was kicked out a few weeks ago? With Delilah who we suspect is pregnant? Or with the daily split in the group during foraging times? Well I guess let’s start at the very beginning.

Solo has been on her own for some weeks now, and is doing surprisingly well. She is not used to us as yet and so we’ve only had fleeting shots of her entering and leaving other burrows away from the main group. A few days ago she tried to come into the Camelthorn burrow where the Gosa gang were settling down for the night. Cleopatra immediately followed her into the burrow and both were underground for a few minutes. Suddenly, Solo flew out of the burrow and dashed off into bush at top speed. Cleopatra calmly came out a second or two later, covered in dirt and sporting a ruffled coat. The two had obviously had a small scuffle down below with Cleopatra reasserting her dominance and refusing to allow Solo back into the group. We haven’t seen solo since then.

Why why why Delilah! Her and her other two companions, a male and female we have yet to properly identify, slept at Sour grass burrow while the rest of the group slept at Camelthorn burrow. Why? Who knows. Yet the following night the entire group all slept at Camelthorn again? Is there perhaps a split happening here? That Delilah would risk splitting off from the Gosa gang together with another two members to ensure her pups’ safety is not impossible, but it is a risky move and not one that has not often been recorded. We shall have to wait and see how this plays out.

 While we stick with the theme of the group splitting up, we have noticed from the very beginning that the Gasa gang almost always split into two groups when they go foraging. Not a very smart move as they OBVIOUSLY did not read Chapter 3 in the Meerkats for Dummies Handbook: There is safety in numbers. It is more advantageous for a group to stick together while foraging as the group benefits from having more ‘eyes on the skies’ to detect predators. Splitting the group lessens this factor and also allows for predators to more easily focus on a single individual than to try single out its next potential meal from a larger group; a larger group of meerkats diving for cover will more easily confuse a predator than just two or three doing the same thing. And yet every morning Cleopatra, Gandalf, Starsky and two others head off in one direction, and the rest head off in another direction a few minutes later.  This split could be for a number of reasons, but this and the Delilah issue have one common denominator; Cleopatra. By meerkat standards she is a young Alpha female and although she does assert her dominance with individuals such as Solo, her leadership skills need a lot of work. As Alpha female she is responsible for the group, and a group that works together under one leader is inherently stronger and safer than one that splits when foraging or sleeps in separate burrows on occasion. Now I’m not saying this is abnormal or self-destructive, it could very well be just a phase and things may level out in the next few weeks. But if they don’t, we have an exceptional story on our hands, and we will watch and learn as it plays out before our very eyes.

All things said and done, Cleopatra is doing an exceptional job and I will watch this little Queen rise and rise again with great anticipation.

Rob’s song for the day: The Cave – Mumford and Sons

Keep smiling
Rob

Friday, 9 March 2012

Into Africa

This is my first post as part of the WildEarth team, and it is also my first time in South Africa, so I thought I should introduce myself, and write about my initial experiences here so far.

I grew up on a coastal farm in Central Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, so a love of the outdoors was in my blood from birth. I have joined the WE team coming from a media and television post production background recently working in London.
Tsessebe
I am an African bush rookie, so it is great to be with such knowledgeable guys such as Rob and Garth as I have a million and one questions about the different animals and birds we come across each day, and at the end of the day my head is normally buried in a field guide book. I think I can distinguish a Tsessebe from a Red Hartebeest now, so I feel like I am getting somewhere slowly.

Arriving into the Tswalu game reserve on the first day was worth the trip from Europe alone. Flying from Johannesburg to the Kalahari the land looked to be mostly flat farmland, but suddenly as we neared Tswalu the beautiful ranges came into view, and I was surprised to see so much green. There had been recent heavy rains which is a blessing for the animals and will be a bit of a curse for us trying to find 12 inch Meerkats amongst the long grass.

Coming into the Tswalu in style on a private plane was pretty special and the boys Rob and Garth were there to meet me. The 30 minute drive on the back of the open top land drover "ganda" - (which looks like a guerilla combat vehicle) was the best airport pickup I have ever had. We passed warthogs, springbok, kudu, roan, red hartebeest, eland and gemsbok - (whose beautiful markings and incredible straight horns make it my favourite antelope so far). Just as I thought the new surprises for the drive were over, a giant head appeared over a tree and suddenly we were next to a herd of giraffe, their towering stature and graceful elegance is something I don't think will ever fail to impress me. Seeing them grazing in their own habitat is a thousand times better than all of my zoo experiences put together.

Me watching the lovely and very round Cleo
My first afternoon spent with the Gosa meerkats the family dynamic is immediately apparent, with Cleo the alpha female heavily pregnant and her trust companion Gandalf(as he has a grey face and neck) taking charge and doing most of the work checking for danger, a group of sub adults - one who looks suspiciously like being pregnant also, and 3 cheeky juveniles who just want to play. It is easy to get lost just admiring the way they go about their social lives and I think it will make for great viewing live.

A king cricket in our room

Working at ground level with the Meerkats is giving me an appreciation for life in the shadow of giants, and in a place like Africa it is very easy to feel pretty small. Each day in the bush there always seems to be a new surprise or memorable experience if you keep your eyes out for the little things - from adorable bat eared foxes at night time, to a desert tortoise making its way from shade to shade, even the insects are full of colour and character.

Having come from living in the Spanish island of Fuerteventura for a year, I am very familiar with a siesta way of life, and the Meerkats here are no different. Regular breaks are taken during the heat of the day, and when they head for their burrows we head for the nearest shade. If you can stay awake despite the heat, it is a great way to have unique close encounters where both man and beast share a few moments each with a surprised stare. Luckily for us Tswalu has 2 separate areas of the reserve and we are not in the lion section - as I hope to avoid close encounters with large fangs of any kind :)

Some of the Gosa Meerkat gang sunning themselves
Day by day I am getting more familiar with the Kalahari, and luckily the same is true for the Gosa meerkats becoming more familiar to us. I was lucky enough to be part of the first successful full day following the group foraging, and as we spend more time with them I am setting myself the task to try visually identify as many of the group as I can by their markings and colourings. Yesterdays success was noting a unique square/star shaped mark on the right hip of one of the young male juveniles, so we have named him "Starsky".

I will try and blog again soon, - Paul

Counting My Blessings


The beer is finished!  This is the cold, harsh reality we are now faced with.  Until we can find a willing soul to bring in another shipment of this sanity-preserving liquid, we will have to appreciate the twilight hours at Base Camp in the company of a plastic cup of Oros.  However, despite this minor setback and along with the many other technical, logistical and environmental challenges that we will face over the coming months, I have decided to focus this post on the wide range of things that we have to be grateful for.  Instead of the somewhat clichéd and over-used “Top 10 List”, I have decided to go with the far more dynamic “Special 13”. Here, in no particular order, are my reasons for optimism as we draw ever closer to going LIVE.

1.        We have a pool at Base Camp.  After several hours of chasing meerkats, my skin invariably has an extra sticky layer thanks to three unavoidable factors; the sun, my reaction to its extreme heat and the fine red Kalahari sand.  The feeling of diving into this perfectly cooled bit of aquatic heaven, as that sticky layer is washed away and my tired feet get their just reward, is simply indescribable.

2.       The Ganda is working.  Working well. (I am stretching my toe to try and touch the wooden door as I type this).  Waiting at the workshop earlier this week, as the very helpful men there went beyond the call of duty trying to get it back in working order, were some of the longest hours of my life. 

3.       There is a small, but telling black spot on the left side of Gandalf’s neck.  This is huge (no, not the black spot, this fact).  He is now easily identifiable, and as he is the alpha male of the Gosa gang and an important part of this story, our lives have been made a lot easier by this discovery.

4.       Clouds.  They have been providing momentary relief from the harsh desert sun.  A clump of cumulonimbus shifting into just the right position when the sun is at its peak can certainly help to reinvigorate one for rest of the day.

5.       Neither Rob nor Paul snores (although, according to Paul, Rob did try and imitate a lion briefly the other night). The importance of this fact cannot be over-emphasised.  With the physical and mental demands of this project, a good night’s sleep is a non-negotiable. 

6.       My shoes are comfortable.  Despite their propensity to collect sand faster than a tornado whipping through the desert, they remain pleasing to my feet and blisters have thankfully been kept at bay.

7.       I have a very understanding wife.  3 months away from home……enough said.

8.       Birds, the feathered variety that is.  Taking nothing away from the stars of our show, it is such a pleasure to be up at sparrow (if you’ll excuse the pun) and take in the symphony that is the morning chorus.  As an avid, but amateur birder, there is plenty to be enthused over.  From the phenomenon of the sociable weavers’ monstrous nests to the delicate but deadly pygmy falcon, from the striking colour of the crimson breasted shrike to the impossibly high-flying predators of the sky, there is plenty for me to aim my binoculars at when the Gosa gang have decided to take refuge from the elements and retreat back into one of their burrows.

9.       I am not a beetle in the Kalahari.  I am very thankful that I am significantly further up the food chain when I see the ferocity with which these meerkats attack their prey, first with their vicious claws and then with their razor sharp teeth.

10.   Paul discovered an old aqua-coloured shower curtain that we now use as a groundsheet to lie on under the Camel Thorn tree when the Gosa gang decide it’s siesta time.  It is more comfortable than lying in the dirt and it saves on washing.

11.   Nurse Betsy has very kindly provided us with a constant supply of anti-histamine pills to help ward off the debilitating effects of hay fever.  Without these pills delirium would set in quickly and I would not even be able to enjoy seeing one of our Gosa gang members tackle a scorpion if the only thing that was occupying my mind were my itchy eyes and the thought that gouging them out with an Acacia thorn would provide some relief.

12.   I have not been scent-marked by Gandalf yet.  I was curiously observing this behaviour for the first time earlier this week as Gandalf performed his alpha male duties on a nearby tree when…… it hit me.  The smell.  Not since Standard 7 science class, some 20 years ago, has an odour penetrated my nostrils with such intent.  I will continue to try and avoid being scent-marked by Gandalf.  My wife may become a little less understanding should I return home with any remnants of that pungent smell still attached to my clothes.

13.   You, our audience.  Without trying to sound too soppy, thank you for your positive comments and good vibes.  It makes it even more worthwhile knowing people out there are excited to know what is going to happen to our stars in the making, the Gosa meerkat gang.

Stay tuned for more updates from the WildEarth crew.

Chat soon.
Garth

The rebirth of the Kalahari


Young Wildebeest at play

And they call this a desert! We have experienced so much rain here that I am very tempted to swap the Ganda for a hovercraft! Truth be told though, the amount of rainfall here has been way above average. With the rain comes new life and the Kalahari is as green as a golf course with bunkers to match.

I firmly believe that the Baby Stork Company has been running at full capacity this past week as there are plenty of new arrivals everywhere you look! The warthogs have a few little piglets running behind them, days-old baby springbok hide in the grass as I drive by and the young wildebeest calves seem to be able to run before they can walk. Our Cleopatra too is bursting with the promise of life as she walks around the Gosa territory with her tennis ball-sized stomach. Yet the wind carries the smell of a dastardly deed that may grace our presence, and I am not referring to the WildEarth crew.

Our suspicions that another female named Delilah may be pregnant are slowly being proven true. We lost sight of her two nights ago when her and two other family members slept in the Sour Grass burrow while Cleo and the rest of the family slept in the Camelthorn burrow. We are not 100% sure she is pregnant, but her belly is a bit more “bulgy looking” than the other females and her move to split away from Cleopatra may be a way of Delilah protecting her pups from the very likely situation of Cleopatra ascerting her dominance and killing Delilah’s pups to secure the survival of her own litter. But who knows! These things are so incredibly hard to predict and I stand to be corrected on my theories surrounding the situation. Oooh it’s like Dallas or Days of Our Lives but with a much better set and more natural expressions!

Admittedly, in terms of family unity, a lot can still go wrong with our Gosa gang. Cleopatra is slightly young to be an Alpha female and so my suspicions are that her dominance is not quite at the level of assertiveness that it should be. In time we may see a more prominent Cleopatra rise above her pyramidal pile of dirt at the entrance to her burrow and stare down any competition that crosses her path.

Until then, we shall watch and wait and allow this saga to unfold in front of us in the months to come.

Rob’s song for the day: My baby just cares for me – Nina Simone

Keep in touch
Rob

The Neanderthal vs. The knowledgeable Neanderthal


During my earlier days of working in the bush, I was crazy-mad about everything. I had to see it, smell it, track it, touch it and possibly engage with it for no reason other than the fact that I could. One thing was missing though. Through my adventures (both on land and underwater) in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe etc., I never took the time to understand the organism in question. I was generally there with a huge grin on my face due to the fact that I was close to some or other creepy crawly, and after basking in my own ego I would simply walk or swim away and mission off to find my next subject.
Not too long ago I had thick long hair! Taken in Namaqualand
A few years down the line, aided by the ecological knowledge I gained at university, I see everything in a different perspective and a different context too. It’s not just a cool snake, it’s a python shedding its skin. It’s not just a pile of dung, it’s a rhino midden used to mark territory. It’s not just a mosquito bite, it’s a potential malaria hazard that could land you in hospital. So naïve was I. And once again nature has sat me down, looked me dead in the eye and said “Sit down, shut up and learn”. Such is my experience with the meerkats.

Had I encountered Cleopatra and the Gosa gang a few years earlier, I would have immediately tried to get up close and personal with the group and admittedly possibly even feed them.  However, my new found understanding of the rhythm of Africa has lead me to know better. Instead of going in, guns blazing and swinging tasty scorpions around above my head, I simply sat and watched. Allowing the group to become comfortable to my presence is the most crucial aspect to working in close proximity to any animal. As we have seen over these past days, the group has slowly allowed us to get closer and closer which means that we are able to observe them better and that we are gaining their confidence in a totally natural manner without the use of such devious notions of feeding them or any other highly influential and unethical behaviour.

This slow progression has allowed me to start understanding the meerkats and realise that their behaviours are intentional, that they too have priorities at different times of the day and even more importantly that they exist not to be viewed on occasion by a trigger happy cameraman, but that they are the current product of an incredible timescale that has taken place both in an evolutionary sense and during their own lifetime. In essence, this means that each individual has his or her own character which is essentially the end product of both a genetic history and the events that have happened during their current lives. Seeing a meerkat burrow down 1ft deep to get to a large grub is definitely worthy of a description such as “That’s cool”. An evolutionary process combined with the teachings from fellow family members has allowed that meerkat to be at the level where he/she can smell or hear that grub and burrow down to it with pinpoint accuracy! That’s not cool, that is insanely amazing!!

So, the next time you are lucky enough to view an animal first-hand, think about all these little things that collectively define the beautiful beastie that you see before you. I think you will be surprised.

Rob’s song for the day: Wild thing – The Troggs

Keep in touch
Rob

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

As they say in Italy: You padda da familia now eh?


Working with the meerkats is like courting a young lass; you need  to gently sidle up to them, ease into their life and treat them with a lot of respect, otherwise they’ll bolt into the sunset leaving you in a cloud of dust and having to start all over again the next day!  Meerkats have their own routines and nuances and up till now the Gosa gang have only really allowed us to get close to them when they’re around their burrow, after that they disappear into the long Kalahari grass to go foraging.

But we’ve broken into their inner circle. And we’re now padda da familia (part of the family)!! Amazingly, our positions went from ‘burrow stalkers’ to ‘fellow forager’ literally overnight and the Gosa gang allowed us, for the first time ever, to follow them for a FULL DAY and finally have a glimpse at their daily lives. The feeling was absolutely amazing! To walk with the meerkats as they foraged, played, groomed and slept is something one has to experience in their own right to really be able to explain it. It would probably be the same feeling of wonder if your cat had suddenly allowed you to come with it as it strolls through the neighbourhood and marks its territory on your neighbours couch.


Very quickly I noticed that our heavily pregnant alpha female Cleopatra does an EXCEPTIONAL amount of work! Even though her stomach is about as shiny and ripe as a prune in its prime! She is the first one to pop her head out of the burrow in the morning and often does sentry duty to look out for predators while the others forage. She also leads the Gosa gang to different foraging areas and commands respect from the others who duly give it to her. At around noon the entire group finds a nice shady spot to rest up and by this time the crew and I were exhausted. A combination of running around with meerkats and the Kalahari heat had totally finished us off and we too lay in the shade together with the Gosa group. Now I urge you to picture the scene; meerkats and men, nodding off in the shade together, out in the middle of the Kalahari. A unique 'Lion and the Lamb' moment that I will never forget.

Another interesting thing we noticed was that the group is almost in constant communication with each other. While resting, foraging or on sentry duty, you can clearly hear their prooooop prrrr prrroooop proooopp hmmmmmmm prrrrr prrrooop prrrrooops going on! Now, don’t laugh at us, but the crew also started imitating the sounds of the group. Yes, there we were, walking with the meerkats and prrrooop prooooping like the rest of them. It seemed to make them a little more relaxed which is really interesting. Maybe they just pitied us? Poor humans trying to speak an age old language like Meerkat, what ARE they thinking?
Well, at least we’re padda da familia now.

Rob’s song for the day: Scatterlings of Africa – Johnny Clegg

Keep in touch

Rob