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.