INSIDE THE WORLD OF THE DESERT’S CUTEST CREATURE APRIL 2014
The Madness on the Manor THE LOVE & THE LOYALTY
MADNESS on the MANOR BOOM!
That's the sound of a myth being exploded. The myth that meerkats are darling, cuddly, selfless little creatures. And doing the detonating is Meerkats: Secrets of an Animal Superstar – Natural World. Look at this one, for example. Clinky is her name, and she's the matriarch of the Kung-Fu clan, who have become famous television stars. She attacks one of her own daughters, bites her viciously, then expels her from the group to fend for herself in the barren desert. Then she does the same to three other daughters. The reason? The daughters are, or could soon become, pregnant. There's only room for one lot of kids around here and they belong to Clinky, who is expecting again.
The outcasts hang around on the fringes, stressed, miserable, afraid. When Clinky sees them, she sets the others on them, leading a terrifying war charge against her own daughters. If they – the daughters – give birth and Clinky comes across the pups she will kill them. No! Suddenly basing a whole advertising campaign on these animals doesn't look so clever. Compare the baby killer dot com. Not so simples after all. Almost as interesting as the meerkats are the people who spend years and years living in the desert with them. Like Tim Clutton-Brock, an English zoologist who walks with them, humming to let them know he's there and on their side. And he makes them hard-boiled eggs for tea, because that's their favourite and also because it means he can do his research. It is
MEERKAT MADNESS 46
One of Clinky’s babies emerges from the den as he learns to walk
extraordinary, what he finds out. The sentry stuff I've seen before, and the different calls for different predators and how close they are. But their capacity for innovation – figuring out how to open complicated mechanisms to get at a tasty scorpion snack – is extraordinary. They have brilliant systems of education even. Gove out, Clinky in, Gove out, Clinky in … Maybe we can overlook a little light infanticide, occasionally. Ah, and eventually, Clinky allows her daughters – half-starved-to-death, shadows of their former selves – back into the fold. Because she's relented? No, because she needs free babysitters. Between the sand dunes and acacia bushveld of the Kuruman River Reserve 45 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC • APRIL 2014
Photo by HE Callahan
in the beautiful and desolate Northern Cape province is the Kalahari Meerkat Project. The project has been running since 1993 and a team of international researchers is studying 18 wild meerkat groups here. 14 of the meerkat groups have been habituated to humans to facilitate the research; the other 4 are still a work in progress. Habituated meerkats are comfortable around humans but they remain wild. Experiencing the meerkats in this setting is as close to nature as it gets. Project Manager of the Kalahari Meerkat Project, Dr Dave Gaynor, says
the project has continued for so long because they keep discovering new aspects about the meerkats. ‘A recent study showed that meerkats adopt strict traditions regarding the time they surface from the burrow in the morning,’ he says. ‘Some groups are lazier than others and if an individual from an early rising group migrates to a late rising or “lazy” group, that individual adopts their laissez faire approach.’ Day visitors (on Sundays only) are accompanied by a researcher to one of the meerkat burrows where they wait for the meerkats to awaken and emerge. The researchers tell them all about the meerkats and guests experience the meerkats being weighed and checked for babies.
The family takes a break together in the late afternoon
“Some groups are lazier than others and if an individual from an early rising group migrates to a late rising or “lazy” group, that individual adopts their laissez faire approach.” ‘This is the best time to view the meerkats, in their element, as they are normally very playful and mischievous!’ says Samson.
Photo by HE Callahan MEERKAT MADNESS 46
Meerkat April 2014