Friday, July 2, 2010

Aromatic antelope

I've committed a dreadful crime.
I didn't mean to. It was accidental.

It happened after the return of my errant water supply. I was so bewitched by the miracle of water-on-tap that I succumbed to a cleaning urge (always a bad idea). And now I think I've seriously blighted the breeding prospects of an innocent bystander. He's probably out there right now negotiating divorce proceedings.

After washing the dishes and scouring the kitchen, I thought I'd tackle the cats' litter tray (my, this is a gripping story). I carted two-litres of soggy clay and unpleasant chunky bits outside and - as usual - tossed it into the dense undergrowth beyond my back garden wall. Unfortunately, the vegetation was inhabited. As the reeking litter rained down, a very startled grey duiker shot out of the bushes. He stared at me a moment, nostrils distended, before leaping away in jinking flight.

Now being showered with a kilogram of used cat litter mightn't seem that bad (it's not life-threatening, after all). But you aren't a duiker (I assume). Duikers are knee-high antelope that creep about in thick vegetation. And scent is their all-important mode of communication.

Grey (or common) duikers (Sylvicapra grimmia) are a veritable treasure trove of scent glands. They've got them between their toes, in their groin and in slits beneath their eyes. These 'preorbital' glands consist of three different secretory layers which ooze a sticky, black concoction. Photo by A Meintjes.

Duikers live in monogamous pairs, and they smear their smelly secretions on trees and bushes to mark out their territory. But, more importantly, aromatherapy is a vital part of duiker courtship. During the final stages of foreplay, the couple presses their preorbital glands together, first on one side and then the other, which releases a heady rush of scent. So what's going to happen when my victim rocks up to the marital shrubbery reeking of cat pee? Grey duikers breed all year round (unlike the other antelope species here) so I'm hoping his spouse is already in the family way, and my vile misdemeanour won't diminish duiker numbers.

 Male grey duikers (who wear the horns) come at a run if their offspring utter distress bleats. He and his spouse will not only attack small predators, they'll butt large male baboons and three-metre-long pythons. Photo by A Meintjes.

So how did yesterday's calamity happen? One or two duikers often skulk in the undergrowth below my back garden, nibbling on flowers and seeds, sniffing out fallen fruits and snacking on carefully selected leaves. They like to poke about beneath the trees when the vervet monkeys are foraging above, retrieving any goodies that the monkeys let fall. I'm always amazed to see my dogs (who chase anything that moves) just sitting calmly watching the duikers walk past. The little antelopes adopt a strange erratic gait: they take half a tentative step, freeze for a second with hoof upraised, complete the step, freeze again, and so on. You've probably seen footage of chameleons moving in just this way. These broken, jerky movements don't seem to trigger the dogs' 'chase' instinct, and I've vowed, that if I'm ever confronted by a large carnivore, I'll give it a try.

Duikers also have another trick, which was the cause of yesterday's accident. If a duiker thinks it hasn't been spotted, it sinks gently down to the ground, in one fluid movement reminiscent of a curtseying courtier. Regardless of how often I see this, I'm always shocked; one just doesn't expect a small, flighty animal to lie down in the face of danger. I can't stop myself wondering if they're closet narcoleptics. So yesterday's duiker was actually lying in the vegetation at my feet, cryptically waiting to be showered with cat excrement.


Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth? Don't be fooled. Grey duikers happily munch carrion, and stalk and kill birds and mice. Photo by A Meintjes


  1. Poor duiker.

    I love the stories of your backyard creatures. To a North American zoologist it's like having movie stars drop by.

  2. Me too! I am just amazed that so many amazing critters are right there in your neighborhood!

  3. Is there a place for the duiker to wash up? Great post - liked the part about the erratic, defensive gait.

  4. Take heart, Lynda. Think of all the vile smelling stuff male homo sapians dose themselves with and the ladies come a-running. Maybe you made Mr. Macho out of the duiker.

    Wonderful description!

  5. That duiker has my sympathy. I cannot think of anything worse than being covered in used kitty litter, but I am sure he will get over it :)

  6. Hugh,
    Oh yes, it's all glitz and glamour here.
    Of course, it's a bit of a disappointment, to see everyone without their stunt bottoms.

  7. Jane,
    Riverside living gets hectic in the dry season.
    The sandy track to my house runs along beside the river. I love it that, by evening, the tyre tracks I laid down around lunchtime are almost totally obscured by a profusion of animal prints (little paws, hooves of every size, bird-foot tridents and the clawed feet of reptiles). Ahh, paradise!

  8. Memorizingnature,
    I think the duiker would prefer to smell like ANYTHING rather than set hoof in the water here. Crocodiles aren't fussy about cat pee.

  9. Elva,
    I hadn't thought of that. I may soon have the entire male duiker population lined up along my back fence.

  10. Max-e,
    I'm watching for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder: chewed hooves, nervous tics (or ticks), dark marks under the eyes (OK, additional dark marks under the eyes).

  11. LOL!! You sure put a hold on his love-life for a couple f weeks until the smell goes away!! Poor thing!!

    Might have to go for shock treatment to get over this "aroma" therapy. :)

    A great post Lynda!!

  12. Joan,
    Perhaps I should start tossing perfume-scented water over the back fence to help him along. I wonder what fragrance turns on lady duikers?

  13. hey
    love your blog its the best.I like to read
    all about your duikers! we have got a baby duiker
    he is about 1 week old his name is Gigi.

  14. Do you hand rais duikers?

  15. I am 12years old and live with my family at Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve and look after two baby Lion cubs called Moran and Amayi.

  16. Kristen,
    I'm glad you enjoy the blog. You're so lucky to live in such a wonderful place.
    I've never hand-raised a duiker, but Gigi must be amazingly cute; baby duikers are just so small. Give Moran and Amayi a pat from me (and keep them away from Gigi!).

  17. I will do that!
    whereabouts are you based?

  18. How on earth did you get those seeds
    off your dogs body?
    Did you just shave him or did you sit and pick
    each one off?

  19. Kirsten,
    My study site is located in a private game reserve ('Phuza Moya') near Hoedspruit in NE South Africa.
    I'm afraid I got fed up picking out the seeds and ended up cutting them out with scissors. She now looks pock-marked all over, as if she has mange!

  20. It must be beautful there! We used to live in South Africa but then we moved to Malawi! If you could hand-rais any animal what would you pick?

  21. Kristen,
    If I could hand-raise any animal I'd choose an African civet. I think they're adorable.

  22. That is a good choice! I read in one of your things that a mongoose was playing with your camera that is so cute!

  23. We have got a new duiker now she is much older and has got a blind eye! We think he got spited at by a spiting cobra!

  24. May I use your Duiker images as a reference for a character I am drawing?

  25. Jenna,
    Sorry I've been so slow answering but I have virtually no access to the internet at the moment. These duiker images were posted on Flickr (ArnoMeintjes Wildlife's photostream)and are available for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons License. If you are using your drawings commercially you should ask Arno Meintjes. His duiker photos are actually mislabelled as steenboks, and you can find them under his Steenbok set. You can enquire by leaving a comment on a photo.


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