“I feel used!” I said whilst sitting down on the red Kalahari sands of Northern Cape’s Kurman Reserve.
And I had been….
Zaphod, a famous meerkat from the international hit television series “Meerkat Manor” had just bounded off from the top of my head and had recommenced digging up the desert in search of juicy grubs.
“There’s always at least one meerkat on sentinel duty” said Dave Bell, the assistant project manager. “And its their job to watch out for trouble like eagles or snakes whilst the others are busy feeding. In this case, your head was the highest and most convenient vantage point in the area. That’s why he was standing on it for so long”
And there I was thinking that the little fellow liked me.
All about us on the ground were lilliputian mongooses digging and tussling and rolling around. They were like dust devils down there amongst the grass roots; little whirlwinds of activity that scurried and twittered and dug at the earth.
“Ooh look. Zaphods’ got a scorpion” announced Dave excitedly, and sure enough, there he was, a cute little ball of fluff, tugging for all his worth on the tail of the biggest scorpion I had ever seen.
Dust flew; and venom dripped whilst we onlookers (a small group of international volunteers) gasped and held our hands over our mouths as if to stifle screams.
It was a bit like watching a gladiator battle, but at the end of the day the hapless gogga didn’t stand a chance. Meerkats are more or less immune to scorpion stings.
Crunch, crunch, crunch; went the legs and tail and claws Crack, much, chomp: went the body, head and stinger.Dale Morris
Satiated, Zaphod then licked his lips and other bits and quickly returned to his sentinel position up upon my head.
The Kalahari Meerkat Project (a twenty year old study into the intriguing and often brutal lives of these sweet looking mongooses) is situated on a private reserve in the Northern Cape fairly close to Uppington.
There, amongst the sun scorched desolate dunes of the red Kalahari, a team of people from all over he world have gathered in order to scrutinize the private lives of these cutesy little creatures.
There are students from Germany, Professors from England, Camera crews from the BBC, local farmers and staff, and a whole bunch of fee paying ‘volunteers’ who have been recruited by the Earthwatch Institute- an environmental charity that marries everyday folk with extraordinary conservation, archeology and scientific research projects.
But why study Meerkats?
“Well, they are excellent models for answering all sorts of questions about how and why social animals evolved” said Dave “And that in turn can lend us insight into our society and behavior too”
Anyone who has tuned into the long running television documentary/drama series ‘Meerkat Manor’ will have seen what conniving and cunning masters of political subterfuge a meerkat mind can be. You will have witnessed premeditated warfare between clans, family betrayal, murder most foul, but also heroics, self sacrifice and community care deserving of a medal.
The series, which follows the daily lives of several groups of meerkats on the Kurman Reserve, has accumulated in four full length seasons and two movies which by all accounts has a fan base of literally tens of millions of people. It has been watched in 160 countries world wide and is the Animal Planet channel’s all time highest rated show.
The Earthwatch team (of which I was a member) were all big fans of the show and seemed to know every single meerkat by name.
“Ooh look, its Monkulus” said one lady excitedly “I have a coffee mug with his photo on it back home”
Another woman who was wearing a “I ♥ meerkats” tee shirt was giving me the evil eyeballs due to the fact that it had been my head (not hers) that Zaphod had chosen to stand on.
“You have no idea how privileged you are” she mumbled at me sulkily. But I did. After all, how many people can tell their friends that a mega movie superstar has sat upon their head….
Just a shame it wasn’t Megan Fox or Mila Kunis.
Helping to Study
As a ‘volunteer’ on the Kalahari Meerkat Project, I was afforded the opportunity to accompany experienced research students into the reserve and help them collect valuable data for their studies.
Every morning I awoke at the crack of dawn and followed Dave, Sophie, Alex, or Vicky (all university graduates) out to one of the burrows where we would sit in the early morning chill, clipboards at the ready, waiting for the superstars to make their appearance.
If it was raining or too cold they wouldn’t come up from the warmth of their burrow, but if the weather was just right, out they would pop, one by one like little solders standing to attention.
Eventually the last of the fifteen or so would be lined up in front of the sun as if worshipping it, and then at the behest of the dominant female, they would all head out and start digging up prey for the day.
Crunch, crunch, crunch went the crispy little beetles
Crack, munch, chomp went the hapless millipedes
When I asked Dave how come these normally shy little animals showed no concern for the presence of humans, he explained to me that all of the meerkat groups on the reserve had been intensively habituated.
“These animals are used to seeing humans and as such they don’t view us as a threat ” he told me “We never interfere with them and we never cause them harm, and that’s why they more or less ignore us”
He then went on to explain to me that when a baby meerkat first stumbles out of its burrow into a bright world of glaring daylight, the first thing it usually sees is a student, a cameraman or an Earthwatch volunteer.
“To help us recognize individual meerkats, we regularly dye their fur with a coded set of dots specific to that animal” Dave continued. And with that, he pulled out a little paint brush, a set of weighing scales and a small pot of black ladies hair dye.
“Yum yum yum” he called out in the manner of someone speaking to a small dog, and much to my astonishment, the entire clan of meerkats came running to our feet.
“We give them a drop or two of water or a molecule of egg to tempt them up onto the scales twice a day” Dave said “And once they are there, we can dab them with the paint brush”
Expertly, Dave coaxed meerkat after meerkat onto the scales and commenced swabbing and tickling them with the dye covered brush whilst I jotted down their weights.
“There, that should do it” he said whilst touching up a dark spot on the top of Zaphod’s head “We’ll now be able recognize him even if he leaves this group and joins up with another”
For near on two weeks, I ventured daily out into the meerkat’s world and learnt a great deal about how these fascinating creatures function in such a tough environment.
I witnessed enraged clans go to war with their neighbors over land claims and I watched in frightened anticipation as rogue group of wanderers came across a burrow full of its neighbors babies.
Meerkats will determinedly dig out and kill their enemies offspring, but in this case, the single entrance to the burrow was guarded fiercely by an adult babysitter who kept the attackers at bay long enough for them to give up.
Things really started to get exciting though when the leader of the ‘Lazuli’ clan, J Alfred Prufrock (silly name I know), took on a puff adder and got chomped for his troubles.
The very next day his head was twice its normal size and both his eyes were closed and bloody, but like a pit bull terrier clamped onto a burglar’s arm, he doggedly clung onto life.
I could hardly believe that such a tiny creature could withstand such a serious bite, but eventually, after days of hardly eating, he managed to pull through.
Sadly though, in the act of defending his clan against a deadly snake, Alfred ultimately lost his ‘top dog’ status to a younger male (his best buddy in fact)who treacherously took advantage of his weakened state and brutally usurped him.
Shame eh? But such is the life of a meerkat. They were born to take advantage of an opportunity (how else does one survive in a desert) and as such, perhaps they’re not so very different from our human politicians.
Little wonder then that the meerkats of the Kalahari have become household names in one of the most politically intriguing soap opera / reality television shows ever to be aired.
The “I ♥ meerkats” lady had been right- I had indeed been privileged, but not only because Zaphod chose my head to stand on, but because I had been given a backstage pass to one of the most exciting drama shows on earth… And what’s more, it was all real and all 100% South African.
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