I did NOT enjoy my time with the mongooses yesterday.
I arrived at the study site to find a stake-out.
Rangers and other reserve staff lined the road. Someone had heard dogs barking: the poachers were back.
Poaching using hunting dogs is popular here, and the pack of dogs kills any animal it comes across, including mongooses. (I wrote about the consequences of their last visit here.)
"They're in there", said a ranger I met on the road, waving his hand directly at Koppiekats' territory.
Arrgh! This reserve is 3,000 ha in size; 6,000 ha if you count the adjoining reserve (no fences in between). My habituated mongooses use a total of 200 ha. What are the odds of the poachers choosing my study site? Twice!
The reserve staff (which included giggling domestic workers, gardeners and anyone one else they could rope in) seemed to have Ecthelion's and Koppiekats' ranges surrounded, so I decided Halcyon was the choice of the day. Located about ¾ km beyond the stake-out, I figured it should be OK if I kept my eyes and ears open.
Pleaides (KF005) watching for danger at Koppiekats.
About 20 minutes later, I was sitting watching the mongooses stretch and yawn in the early sun when I heard something large approaching through the bush. It didn't sound like any animal I was familiar with, and I spent a couple of minutes straining to identify the sounds: wildebeest... eland... zebra? As the noises drew closer I came to the unpleasant conclusion that if it was nothing I recognised, it had to be a person (I told you I was a hermit). Heart thumping, I was just edging toward the mongooses' termite mound (to get discretely out of sight) and fumbling with my cell phone (to notify the rangers), when a man clambered up the embankment about 20m away from me. It wasn't an employee of the reserve, and no one I recognised. Fingering the pepper spray in my pocket, I continued to reverse toward the mound. I figured that the moment he saw me, he'd head the other way fast, so it was with a shock of horror that I watched him catch sight of me and swing round to come over. I only had time for a couple of gulped breaths before I saw he was carrying a walkie-talkie (a cunning prop?... nah, poachers aren't that affluent). Yet I was still unable to calm my racing heart. It transpired that he was an employee on the neighbouring reserve who'd seen my arrival from the far hillside, where he and his fellows were tracking footprints. He'd come over to let me know that they were there, so I wouldn't panic if I saw them (too late!).
After his departure, I attempted to recover my composure. Watching small animals snoozing in the sun, combined with deep breathing, is most therapeutic so I was almost back to normal when the shooting started. A loud volley of shots rang out, followed by another; and another. It was coming from the direction of the stake-out and, although it was distant enough not to endanger me, I was unnerved, having no idea of what was going on. I figured that the rangers were probably doing the shooting (because poachers with guns shouldn't need dogs) or at least I hoped that was the case. Meanwhile the mongooses went into a complete panic. They're not afraid of gun fire, but every grey lourie within a 5 km radius cried out in alarm, and the mongooses take lourie alarms VERY seriously.
Grey louries (Corythaixoides concolor) are now officially named grey go-away-birds after their loud calls. My mongooses take the warning to heart, fleeing to cover for 85% of lourie alarm calls, compared with 50% of tree squirrel alarms and 42% of hornbill alarms.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.
When the second round of shooting broke out, closer this time, I began to think that maybe I should just go home. I was sitting debating the pros and cons (scientific commitment versus personal safety) when the squirrels down by the creek erupted in a frenzy of alarms. A large black dog came loping past me. He was on a mission and took no notice of me or the wildly fleeing mongooses, but I began to suspect that this was not the place to be. The mongooses came to the same conclusion, deserting their sleeping mound to race off in the opposite direction to the dog. This made me even more anxious; they'd have been much safer just retreating back to bed. Still, there was nothing I could do to protect them, so I gave up and went home.
The rangers didn't manage to catch the poachers but they shot six dogs (more innocent victims). However, since there were at least twelve dogs in the pack (how much poaching do you need to do just to maintain twelve large dogs?), these animals are still rampaging in my mongooses' home ranges. I'm hoping the dogs will be too spooked by the shooting to indulge in much hunting, but who knows.
Once I got home, I found I really was quite stressed, so decided to take today off (it is Sunday after all). Tomorrow is soon enough to assess the casualties.
The reserve in which I work, on a more peaceful morning.