Aardvark holes protect diversity

Few people ever see the shy, nocturnal aardvark – let alone in broad daylight.
Issue Date 16 May 2008

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Few people ever see the shy, nocturnal aardvark – let alone in broad daylight. This one was ambling along a dirt road in the Karoo. When a farmer tried to overtake it the shaken animal picked up speed and tried to outpace the bakkie. The picture was taken when both were travelling at about 30km/hour. Note the dust kicked up by the aardvark’s strong hind claws. Probably because its front claws closely resemble hands, folklore has it that the aardvark was once human. But after committing a terrible sin it was banished to the bowels of the earth and allowed to come up only after dark. The result is that in deep rural areas hunters have no qualms about spearing the tasty creature. Even commercial farmers who are well aware that the aardvark is an ecosystem engineer are often in two minds about protecting this powerful animal, which digs holes in roads and through dam walls and irrigation furrows, and unwittingly helps black-backed jackal as they shelter in its burrows.

Research in Botswana has shown that aardvark burrows are used by a wide variety of creatures from birds and reptiles to 17 species of mammals ranging in size from the pouched mouse through to leopard. But Gareth Whittington-Jones, of the Wildlife and Reserve Management Research Group at the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Rhodes University, thinks more intensive study will uncover an even greater selection of animals and insects depending on aardvark burrows for refuge. “Other research has shown that many areas which have heavy grass losses, due to ants and termites, are also areas where the aardvark and other ant- and termite-eating birds and mammals such as the aardwolf have been heavily persecuted,” said Whittington-Jones. “The aardvark’s slow reproductive rate (gestation period is about seven months and they only give birth to a single baby) makes it very vulnerable to local extinction.” – Roelof Bezuidenhout