After Saturday's poaching fiasco, I felt very apprehensive about venturing back into the bush.
I kept picturing myself stumbling upon wounded dogs or disembowelled wildlife. Or, worst of all, finding my mongooses mauled or missing.
My anxiety levels were on the rise (I hadn't been able to find Koppiekats or Ecthelion) when a large dog-like animal lumbered out of a bush at my feet. My heart sank. It's not unusual for poachers to leave a dog behind, and I've tried before (unsuccessfully) to help these pathetic, starving creatures. But my dread turned instantly to delight as I realised that it wasn't a dog at all; it was a civet.
I adore African civets. They're decked out in amazingly luxuriant fur, blotched garishly in black and white, and they look like huge soft toys. They usually only prowl about at night, so it's a rare privilege to glimpse one (I've written about them before here). This one quickly disappeared into the vegetation, but I felt I'd received a gift and continued my search for Ecthelion with a lighter heart.
African civets (Civettictis civetta) aren't fussy about what they munch, happily scoffing fruit and veggies, insects, snails and carrion. They also hunt vertebrates up to the size of new-born antelope (e.g. mongooses) and are one of the few creatures to dine on large millipedes (which exude toxins). Image borrowed from here.
Click here to see a photo on one pinching leftovers; I love his portly profile.
It wasn't long before I found Ecthelion or rather they found me. Firstly I glimpsed a small black shape hurrying toward me and then excited mongooses appeared everywhere, some calling (they use the same high-pitched squeak they give when looking for lost group members) and others clambering up on boulders to weave eagerly back and forth (the mongoose equivalent of waving).
Why was I getting all this attention? I don't radio-collar my study animals (see here for an explanation), so if I'm to find the three-inch-high critters (in their 40 ha home range), it's important that they want to be found. To ensure a warm welcome, I reward them each time I join the group with some boiled egg, a few mealworms or some water. So during the winter dry season, when bugs are scarce, they're often very pleased to see me.
Ecthelion all came bouncing around eagerly, and I crouched down to try to count them (counting swarms of mongooses features regularly in my nightmares). Was anyone missing? I was so busy peering at individuals trying to identify who was present, I didn't notice one of the youngsters, Thor, creeping toward my backpack. Flattened against the ground, he inched forward, closer and closer, and then leapt up to seize the plastic bag poking out of the side pocket of my pack. He raced off at full gallop, the plastic bag - containing a boiled egg - flapping wildly behind him.
Thor (EM038) plotting egg theft.
The pilfering of 'egg bags' is an occupational hazard when working with mongooses. The meerkats were master criminals; some even learnt how to open zippers. One meerkat pup perfected the technique of clambering up his victim's back, onto their head, and then launching himself into the air. He'd plummet down onto the hand holding the egg bag, fixing his teeth in the plastic as he passed and letting gravity carry him - and the bag - away (it worked every time). While the dwarf mongooses are comparatively unsophisticated larcenists, they do tend to drag their spoils off down a burrow, so I immediately rushed after Thor. Unfortunately, I left behind the mealworm container, open and unguarded beside my pack. Returning with the slightly chewed egg bag, I found Jen and Binky (named after Death's horse in the Terry Pratchett novels) madly excavating bran from the container and gorging themselves on worms.
Once I'd regained a semblance of control, I was able to figure out that no one was missing from Ecthelion. The same transpired to be true of Koppiekats and Halcyon. Unfortunately, Bugbears was not so lucky. Melursus, a youngster born last Christmas, is AWOL and he almost certainly fell victim to the poachers' dogs. Thankfully no one else in the group appears to be injured, so it could have been much worse.
Melursus (BF034) at two months of age.