Tuesday, June 15, 2010

One less mongoose

For a young mongoose, life in the wild is fraught with hazards. When you weigh less than 200g, everybody thinks they can make a meal of you. And sometimes they do.
For the mongoose researcher - who inevitably grows fond of her subjects - the loss of a youngster is distressing. Particularly, if the said researcher fears she's indirectly responsible.

It happened about three weeks ago, soon after dawn on a Saturday morning. I was tramping through the bush in search of Ecthelion when I heard the piercing whistle of a mongoose alarm call. It didn't take long to find the termite mound in which the frightened mongoose was hiding. It was located right on the edge of Ecthelion's territory, so I wasn't sure whether I'd found them or the neighbouring group, Yarra. Either way, they shouldn't have been alarming at me. While I was trying to puzzle this out, a flurry of barking broke out. It sounded as if a dog had bailed up a mongoose about 80 metres away, at one of Ecthelion's favourite sleeping mounds.

Now dogs at my study site are bad news; both for me and the mongooses. At this remote locality, the only dogs one meets are those accompanying poachers. The local poachers usually set snares (lethal wire nooses strung across game trails) to trap bush meat, but sometimes they bring hunting dogs to chase and pull down antelope. Although I was keen to intervene in whatever might be happening to my mongooses, I'd no desire to march into the middle of a group of poachers, pepper spray or no. Eventually, I withdrew to the car, rang the ranger and then headed off to Halcyon instead.

Cadellin, a young male in Ecthelion; photographed in early May. He was named after the wizard in Alan Garner's children's fantasy 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen'.

However, I couldn't stop feeling anxious about Ecthelion. Wild animals that have learnt to trust humans are very vulnerable. To help reduce this risk, I use special calls whenever I approach, or walk with, the groups. This makes it easy for them to distinguish between researchers and strangers. Although this technique worked well with meerkats (where the local farm workers catch meerkats to sell as pets or 'bush meat', and hunters occasionally shoot them 'for fun'), my dwarf mongooses almost never saw humans on foot, other than researchers. This meant they'd never had to learn to differentiate between friend and foe. I was afraid that Ecthelion had confidently trotted up to the poachers, only to be attacked by their dogs.

I searched for the group again the next day but was unable to find them. This went on for almost a week; the group had gone into hiding which was not a good sign. Often when a mongoose is sick or injured the group will curtail its movements, foraging around the sleeping mound and returning there night after night. This lets the ailing animal 'stay in bed' and gives it a chance to recover. The fact that Ecthelion had not appeared at one of their other termite mounds was ominous.

After a week of searching, I finally found them. A hasty count revealed that someone was missing: Cadellin, a seven-month old male. And then I saw his litter mate Jen. He'd been severely mauled. He had two gaping wounds piercing his side and large strips of skin had been torn away to expose the raw flesh of his side and stomach. He was also skeletally thin, having been too badly injured to forage. But at least his wounds were healing and he was now able to keep up with the group.
Over the last two weeks, Jen has regained the weight he lost, and although his wounds (legacy of the dog's canine teeth?) are still open, he's behaving normally. I even saw him rolling about in play with his sister yesterday. I'm hoping the poachers don't come back!

Jen two-weeks after the attack. He was named after the hero in 'The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen' by Lloyd Alexander.


  1. Dear Lynda,
    guess it's time again for several fingernail transplantations, heart breaking, but part of a biologists life, though ...
    I'm very sorry to hear about the loss of Cadellin, may the brave little guy rest in peace, and I hope so badly Jen will fully recover from the injuries and doesn't get any infection.
    I'm wondering if there is any danger of tuberculosis in your area, and if the poacher's dogs that also come into "blood"-contact with other individuals could carry and spread tb or other diseases?
    Tb is taking its toll at the KMP again, and many old groups got wiped out within the last 2 years, like Elveera, Vivian, Young Ones, Gattaca, Commados, Zappa and finally Moomins this year, this is very sad.
    I so wish your little guys will not face any plague like this, and I also worry a lot about the danger that you have to face for yourself.
    Sending you a big hug and a good spirit to watch over you and your 4leggeds.
    Take care, Dear!

  2. Your posts are marvelous, both the intreguing and the sad.

    You have my sympathy.

  3. Hi Lynda, that is so sad and very traumatic for the mongooses. It is good to see that Jen is recovering. I must not get started on the subject of criminals, be they from the city or from the bush.....I have a very low view of them. Let's just hope that they eventually get what they deserve.

  4. Lil_Earthwoman,
    Thank you for your sympathy, encouragement and support.
    I don't think there's much risk of the dogs infecting the mongooses with anything (I hope not!). The situation at the Meerkat Project is just horrible; TB is such an insidious disease.
    I lost quite a few members of Koppiekats during 2006-7 to an unknown disease (dreadful to watch them die) but they showed none of the TB symptoms I'd seen in the meerkats. I pray that they never become infected with TB, both for their sakes and my own. My study site is situated in an official TB-free zone and many of the local landowners breed TB-free buffalo (which are worth an absolute fortune). If I found TB in the local mongooses, the area (and the buffaloes) would lose their TB-free status and I'd probably be lynched!

  5. Elva,
    Nice to hear from you. Thank you for the compliment. I hope all this sympathy doesn't go to my head and turn me into a sympathy-junkie. If all my posts suddenly become really sad you'll know why...

  6. Max-e,
    I don't think there's a person in South Africa who doesn't share your opinion on crime.
    It's such a heavy blight on the country.


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