Tag Archives: meerkats

The Meerkats of the Kalahari

Who hasn’t seen the delightful TV documentary series “Meerkat Manor” put on by Animal Planet about seven years ago and wanted to see these funny smiley little mammals in the flesh?  We camped recently on the farm Terra Rouge on the Namibian side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, and were amused to see that the owners named the campsite area “Meerkat Manor”because of the abundance of suricates.  They claimed to have many clans living on the farm, but although there was evidence of their burrows, they were nowhere to be seen until we drove out of the farm gate and found some watching the world go by on the main road to Mata Mata!

A clan of meerkats on the road to Mata Mata

The sandy terrain of the Kalahari is the ideal habitat for meerkats or suricates (Suricata suricatta) as they live underground in shallow communicated burrows accessed by a network of tunnels.  These living quarters are often shared with ground squirrels and mongooses and the odd snake that preys on their young!  They emerge from these burrows during the day to warm themselves after a cold Kalahari night and to forage for food in the form of insects, birds eggs, bulbs and small invertebrates.   They are perfectly adapted for burrowing and foraging as they have long claws on the ends of their toes.

Typical pose of sentries

Because of all the hazards of living in an environment where others want to eat them, meerkats have to be on guard all the time to protect themselves.  They never stray far from their burrows whilst socializing or hunting.  Sentries are strategically posted and by standing upright on two legs, supported by their strong tails, they keep a look out for predators and warn the clan with a series of alarm calls.  The clan then hides underground until the sentries give them the all-clear to resurface.  Sentry duty lasts for about an hour at a time.

A lone meerkat on sentry duty

Gangs comprise of up to thirty members (sometimes more), mostly all related to the alpha male and female of the group who scent-mark them to establish authority and territory.  They can breed up to four times a year, having between three and five babies at a time.  The young surface from the burrows at about three weeks of age and are then afforded protection by the others in the clan.  Females without young are able to lactate to assist with the rearing of the pups.

Wondering if humans posed a danger

Suricates are sociable creatures that spend a lot of time grooming and licking each other.  They also spend much of their day teaching pups how to hunt and forage for food, and they like to play with each other.  In spite of their obvious bonding in clans, they can also be quite vicious towards each other, killing off unwanted family members at certain times.  They can live up to seven years in the wild and much longer in captivity.

A lone meerkat on sentry duty

Meerkats are members of the mongoose family.

Weekend at Arnhem Cave

We’re always scouting for camping venues close to home, and have discovered a great farm about 140 km east of Windhoek.  Not only does it have campsites and chalets, but Namibia’s largest cave system is situated on the property as well.  As an added bonus, the farm is serviced by a quiet dirt road, which makes it ideal for Rob to cycle to without having to worry about traffic.  So we headed off to Arnhem Cave for an adventure weekend.

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We left early to ensure that Rob rode mostly in the cool of the day and by doing so we were assured of abundant wildlife on the lonely road.  I drove a short way ahead and waited for Rob at various points along the way.  We both saw loads of kudu, hartebeest, warthogs, black-backed jackals and shy little buck in the early morning light.  As the day warmed up the meerkats peeped curiously out of their burrows, keen to see what we were doing when we stopped to watch them.

Suricate (meerkat) checks us out

If we made the slightest movement, or grabbed a camera, they dashed back into their holes and popped up a few meters further along!  It was lovely traveling like that, as the journey itself became as pleasurable as the destination and Rob had a good workout on those hills!

Arnhem Cave campsite

Our campsite, under enormous acacia trees, was really nice and we had an ablution block to ourselves, complete with resident bat that eyed us every time we ventured in.

Bat in the bathroom

The birdlife around the camp was also good so we knew we’d be fully occupied the whole weekend with walking, caving and photographing the birds and animals.

Southern yellow-billed hornbill

We booked a tour to visit the caves and were soon being led deep into the bowels of the earth.  The caves stretch for 4,5 kms underground and are well worth a visit if you aren’t scared of bats, because they host the largest bat population in Africa with five different varieties being found there. It’s a bit disconcerting having bats flying past your face in their dozens, but their radar is excellent and they never actually touch you (don’t believe that myth about bats going for your hair – it isn’t true!)

The five varieties of bats found there are:
1.    Giant leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros commersoni)
2.    Long-fingered bat (Miniopterus schrelbersi)
3.    Leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros caffer)
4.    Egyptian slit-faced bat (Nycteris thebalca)
5.    Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus denti)

We learned that more than 100 000 tonnes of bat guano was mined there during the Second World War  Apparently bird guano is rich in mineral nitrates and was used for the manufacture of both explosives and fertilizer.  When, during the war, the use of bird guano collected at the coast was curtailed, the farmers turned to bat guano as an alternative organic fertilizer as it wasn’t subject to the same restrictions, and Arnhem Cave came into its own as a large scale guano producer.

The grotesque remains of a porcupine from the 1930’s is also on display in the cave.  It was very hot and dusty down there and I was relieved to leave at the end of an interesting tour.

The remains of a long-dead porcupine

There are pleasant walks on the farm and at the end of the day it was wonderful to sit under the stars with a crackling fire and a cold beer reliving the experiences that we felt so privileged to have had.