Friday, July 16, 2010

Surprises, mischief and loss

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.


  1. Sad to hear about Bugbears' loss, but glad that the other groups are fine.

    The mongoose mischief reminds me of a four-striped grass mouse in Westcoast NP that almost made it into our mini-coolerbag. He was standing on his hind legs pulling the zip open with his mouth while pushing with his front legs. He almost had a whole big enough for him to slip through before I managed to chase him off. Was he maybe an escaped lab rat?

  2. I am so pleased you wrote "semblance" of control and not just control. LOL!! What a fun time with them!! I would love to be able to do this kind of thing too but I think I would spoil them and let them steal the bags on purpose. :)

    I am sorry to Hear about the one who is missing. What a pity.

    A wonderful post again Lynda.

  3. Poor little Melursus! Lynda, what means AWOL, is it the same like APRED - assumed predated? Maybe he could have survived with some good developed skills and still is hiding, anywhere? Did you search for him?
    Isolated meekats survived even to seven month in the wild (an evictie). Maybe little Melursus still has a chance. Did you already see that missed dwarfs re-appear after a certain time? Or do they even try to join other groups? Well, we know what regulary comes out of this but maybe Dwarf Mongooses behave different to meerkats, in several ways? God, I have so many questions, what’s about evictions in dwarfs???? And rovers?
    In 2001 14 Young Ones rovers immigrated into Vivian, with the males returned a 2 months old pup that went missing 5 days earlier. Wish little Melursus would face some miracle too...

    Love the stolen egg bag and the excavated mealworm box, this is too sweet, a tiny little dwarf with a whole egg in tow is priceless. Always loved it when the kats did this, combined with athletic perfomances of course.
    One last question (can’t resist, sorry), who was the meerkat-pup-egg-bag-artist?
    I’m so happy and relieved that all you guys are doing fine again, and doing lots of mischief.
    And 5 stars also for trying to help the dogs, and for the second civet encounter within shortest time, hope for more.

  4. What delightful little rascals you are dealing with! Lets hope the missing one turns up.

  5. Henry,
    'Zipper-opening 101' is now a compulsory subject in all small mammal education programs. Other popular classes include 'New Approaches to Cat-baiting', 'Improve your physique! (for photographic models)' and 'Battery Theft for Fun and Profit'.

  6. Joan,
    There's no question about who's in control when I'm with the mongooses. I'm expecting them to mount a full-scale ambush soon, and I'll be dragged off into the shrubbery like Gulliver with the lilliputians.

  7. Lil_Earthwoman,
    AWOL is an abbreviation of 'absent without leave' (I think it had a military origin).
    Melursus is unlikely to show up again. Occasionally animals get separated from their group, but they normally rejoin within a day or two. Being only six months old, he's too young to disperse or go roving, and dwarf mongooses don't evict.
    Sorry, I can't remember the identity of the egg-thieving artiste. He was a member of Vivian, but it's about 10 years ago now (oh, I'm getting soooo old!) and I can't recall his id.

  8. Elva,
    I have to admit there are times when I use quite different adjectives to describe my 'delightful little rascals'!

  9. I am glad they are all OK . Do you think they did that on purpose leading you away from the mealworms kind of like a ambush :)

  10. Philip,
    Co-operative egg hunting in dwarf mongooses; what a terrifying thought. They'll be bringing down impala soon.

  11. African civets are gorgeous animals. I lived in Africa as a child and had one as a pet. A national had killed the mother. We raised the infant and released him into the wild when he matured. It was an amazing experience.

  12. Heather,
    I envy you raising a civet! I think they're adorable.
    Have a fun Xmas.

  13. Dear Lynda,
    Greetings from Oregon. Your writing is full of warmth and wisdom. I read your blog for hours tonight. Brilliant! Keep up the good work.
    Your crazy yank brother-in-law
    Greg Bowman

    1. Hi Greg, I'm glad you enjoyed the blog.
      I trust winter is coming to an end there. It keeps raining here and the grass is chest-high. Finding mongooses is a nightmare!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...