Something dark flicks between two boulders. A tiny rustle, a glimpse of movement, and then a streak of black slips away into the dry grass.
This is a dwarf mongoose.
This is one of MY dwarf mongooses.
So why is it acting so secretively?
To find the answer, you'll need a calendar. No, flip over a couple of pages. In roughly two month's time, every mongoose group living around here will be celebrating the pitter-patter of little (er sorry... 'littler') feet. Oh, and mongoose gestation lasts 50 days. Get the hint? Well, the mongooses certainly do. Any day now, lots of lady mongooses are going to be out looking for some fun. And the boys are getting ready.
Slinking at my feet are Mistletoe, Holly and Hemp, three young males from Halcyon. They're out on the prowl and, just like young guys loitering at the mall, they assume an insouciant slouch to impress the ladies. We're currently deep inside the territory of a neighbouring group, and the three Halcyon boys are dashing from rock to rock in a commando-style crouch. Their furtive movements have all the subtly of Sylvester stalking Tweetie Pie, and their behaviour screams INTERLOPER, not just to me, but to any mongoose that glimpses them. This is no accident. Despite the very real risks (groups will try to kill any trespasser they can catch), it pays to be recognised.
Rounding a large boulder, I find the three gathered in an excited huddle at one of the neighbours' scent-marking sites. Standing up on their hind legs, they pore over the rock face, sniffing the invisible messages left by prospective paramours and rivals. I can't be sure of the gen their gleaning, but research on other mongoose species suggests they're unravelling the sex, social status, reproductive state and individual identity of anyone that left their signature. The Halcyon lads are keen to know if there are any willing ladies in the group, and how many males are likely to try to see them off.
After several minutes of intense sniffing, it's time to leave some advertising. Hemp turns away from the rock, then swiftly backs up against it, flinging himself into an extravagant handstand. As his hind claws scratch for a toehold high on the granite, he smears a paste of anal gland secretion on to the rock surface. The other two rush to join him and all three teeter awkwardly on their fore paws as they jostle to add their marks. And let me tell you this stuff really pongs: a musky, fox-like scent with a strong overlay of eau de dead animal. To conclude the message to potential lovers, Mistletoe squats down and manages to squeeze out a skerrick of faeces.
Information exchange: Halcyon at a scent marking site.
Reproduction in dwarf mongooses is mostly hogged by the group's dominant pair. These two are responsible for 80 per cent of all pups reared by the group. So what do Halcyon's eager young males hope to gain? The other 20 per cent!
Like princesses marrying for purposes of state, alpha female mongooses don't get much say in who their life-long consort will be. The suitors just battle it out among themselves for the privilege of her paw. But things are different when it comes to romance. Bugbears' reigning monarch, Iorek, routinely sneaks off on romantic trysts with handsome Black (second in command), and when Amethyst (Koppiekats' sovereign) is in the mood for love, she spends a suspiciously large proportion of her time cruising her national borders.
But even if a young male isn't lucky enough to win the favours of royalty, he still has a chance with her subjects. Older subordinate females also indulge in hanky-panky with rovers, and although the fate of their litters is usually unpleasant (at the teeth of Her Majesty), in years of good rain, some of the pups are raised along with the queen's own.
Mongoose on the prowl.
For me, the roving season is a hassle. For example, if the group has encountered the scent of a neighbouring clan the previous day, the young males (like excited children on Christmas morning) chivvy everyone out of bed an hour earlier than I'm expecting, annihilating my plans for data collection. Last year at this time, I unwisely tried to undertake feeding experiments (to see if hunger affects a mongoose's contribution to sentinel duty). The experiments worked fine when I fed the girls, but whenever I gave a free meal to one of the lads, I could almost see him rubbing his paws together in glee. He'd then disappear for the day, off roving at the neighbours.
It also makes me feel glum because rovers usually end up leaving permanently once the rains come. Although it's perfectly natural for males to leave home at two or three years of age (to join another group or try to establish one of their own), it's sad to lose animals I've worked with all their lives.
But still, it isn't all bad news. Last week, as I was driving home, a rover ran across the road ahead of me. Recognising a scar on the animal's side, I screeched to a halt, and was delighted to meet up again with Merry, a male who'd emigrated from Ecthelion with six of his brothers, more than 18 months ago. Despite the long absence, he came running straight up to me when I called, and then sat by my feet expectantly, licking his lips!