The diggersx of the Kalahari

While on a film-shoot in the Kalahari, Abré J Steyn discovers there are more adventures associated with filming mongoose than merely recording their interesting lives.
Issue date : 21 November 2008

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I took the curve too fast and almost landed in the sand bank beside the road. The door of the little kitchen cupboard flew open and its contents tumbled noisily to the floor. A plastic sugar bag burst open when it landed amongst the tinned food behind my seat. I had no chance of keeping up with the small, low-flying plane I was chasing through the Kalahari in my VW Auto Villa motor home and had to stop to clear up the mess. It had all began early that morning, about 60km north of Nossob near the extreme northern tip of the Gemsbok National Park.

We were working on a TV documentary, recording the life of a free living but habituated suricate family in the dry bed of the Nossob River. I was commissioned to simulate predation scenes with my trained tawny eagle, because no wild eagle would ever come near while a cameraman on foot was in the vicinity of its prey. All documentaries of close-up eagle hunting scenes are done with trained birds and I had worked on similar documentaries in which my eagle had to catch and eat yellow mongoose and ground squirrels. That was easy, but this time the camerawork was done by a pregnant lady who had grown very attached to the suricates after working with them for over a year. I only had to make it appear as if the eagle was hunting them, but I had to prevent it from actually catching one, making it very difficult.

That morning the eagle’s flight was from a very short distance, but we were working in another film group’s territory and just couldn’t get it right. T he lady, who was an extreme perfectionist, became so upset she had a miscarriage on the spot. It was a serious situation as she bled profusely. We urgently had to airlift her to a hospital in Upington, more than 500km away. However, the nearest airfield was at Twee Rivieren Camp 220km from where we were. Being a Saturday the only pilot we could locate was a farmer at Onseepkans on the extreme southern border of Namibia.

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He agreed to fetch her at Twee Rivieren and with my wife she was rushed there by car over a rough, sandy road, while I followed in the Auto Villa. The plane, which was extremely small and not very fast, had only one seat. lady had to lie on what little floor there was, with my wife beside her. Although it was very turbulent, they had to fly very low because as soon as the plane gained altitude and the pressure decreased, the bleeding increased. Foolishly, I tried to keep up with the aircraft, misjudged a bend and spilt the sugar and the beans. lady recovered completely, but sadly of course the baby was lost.

Eat or be eaten It happened during the same time the footage for the never-ending series of Meerkat Manor on DSTV was shot and I was amazed at the amount of rivalry and animosity between film crews from different companies, competing for the same results. In the end I was relieved to get out of there. he same kind of rivalry exists and tragedies happen in the lives of suricates and other mongoose. Although predators, they all live very dangerously and always have to be on the lookout for large raptors. Studies have revealed less than half of all pups make it through the first year. Mongoose and meerkats belong to the family Viverridae, which includes civets and genets. Although they all have anal glands producing a pungent odour, they aren’t to be confused with black and white polecats or the similarly coloured skunks of the northern hemisphere to which they aren’t related.

These stinkers belong to the family Mustelidae and are related to honey badgers and otters. There’s actually no difference between meerkats and mongoose and often the common names are interchangeable, such as the yellow mongoose or rooimeerkat. In Southern Africa there are 12 species and as a group contains some of the smallest carnivores in the world, like our diminutive dwarf mongoose. They can nevertheless give a good account of themselves and many species are ferocious snake killers. Although a few species include a small amount of fruit in their diet, they’re all very useful and active little predators feeding mostly on insect larvae and pupae as well as other invertebrates such as scorpions.

For this reason almost all of them are tremendous diggers, for which purpose they only have very long and unusually straight claws on both front and hind paws and they can even close their ears to prevent soil getting in. Although most species dig their own burrows or modify burrows dug by other animals, some live in natural tree holes or rock crevices – except the water mongoose, a non-digging species that takes refuge in thick vegetation.

Relating to mongoose
Most mongoose species live solitary lives of which we know little. Most are nocturnal and seldom seen, but the slender mongoose with its black-tipped tail is diurnal and a familiar sight often seen dashing across roads, even near urban areas. However, the few species that are highly social are very successful at proving there’s merit in both lifestyles, which perhaps has more to do with protection against predators than anything else. A solitary animal attracts less attention, while larger groups have many eyes to spot danger. The best-known and most studied are species living together in extended families or intimately bonded groups supporting and caring for each other.

Although their social behaviour is very interesting, people seem to see it as a mirror image of themselves, making TV soapies about them international hits. In South Africa we have four species of social mongoose, namely the suricate, the banded, the yellow and the dwarf mongoose and it’s especially their anti-predator vigilance and guard duty I find most fascinating. Although large owls, like the Cape and the giant eagle owls pose a threat to nocturnal mongoose, the most important predators of all social mongoose species foraging by day are diurnal birds of prey, especially large eagles.

The most important of these are the martial, tawny, Wahlberg’s and the African hawk eagle, although black and crowned eagles also prey on mongoose occurring in their specialised habitats. Not all eagles prey on mongoose though. Snakes and fish eagles and those that specialise in birds, pose no threat and are usually ignored by mongoose. Mongoose have excellent eyesight and are good ornithologists. I’ve found they can distinguish dangerous eagles as mere specks in the sky. Pale chanting goshawks are often portrayed in TV documentaries in situations suggesting predation on mongoose, but scientific studies have not verified this. As a social species foraging by day, they often disappear with their heads and half their bodies into holes, leaving them very vulnerable.

The suricate and dwarf mongoose have developed elaborate and highly effective coordinated systems of sentry-guards, while the group is outside the safety out of its warrens. As suricates forage they always send at least one sentinel ahead to scout the area in the direction the group is moving in. The scouts climb into bushes, fallen trees or onto other high vantage points and stand guard, propped up by their tails in that familiar upright stance for up to an hour, until the group catches up. Then a new scout is sent ahead. The dwarf mongoose use a quite different strategy. Here the sentinel stays behind and watches the rear. About every four seconds it gives a short “peep” all-clear call, assuring the one who is on watch ahead that all is safe behind.

The further they move away the louder the calls, until they can’t hear him any more. Then they put up another sentry and when the first one sees this, he abandons his post and joins the others foraging. This is just one aspect of their fascinating behaviour and it works with such military precision one can hardly believe it’s mere instinct and not learned behaviour passed down generations. Even if I lived another hundred years, I would only learn a fraction of nature’s secrets. Next time you see a mongoose, watch it. You may discover we’re not the only clever creatures. – Abré J Steyn Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected] |fw