Friday, February 18, 2011

Crying out loud

Have you ever lain awake in the night listening to the terrible shrieks, yowls and screams of something unknown?

Inevitably it happens when you're out camping, and all that separates you and the night is a thin smear of nylon.

Of course you know it's only some animal. Right?

I mean, there's no way it's a banshee, a victim of torture or that second-grade teacher you knew was a witch.
And while you're rationally thinking this, your body is preparing for the worst. Your palms grow sweaty, your breathing quickens and you leap neurotically at the smallest noise. Meanwhile your mind, consciously refusing houseroom to thoughts of ghouls, ghosts and gremlins, merrily conjures images of maimed animals; innocent creatures twisting in the agony of trap or snare, desperately gnawing at their own mangled legs.

What's prompted me to reminisce about such fun experiences?
Well I recently came across an entertaining article ('5 lovable animals you didn't know are secretly terrifying') and one of the critters it lists is the red fox. In an amusing transcript, the article describes - with quite uncanny accuracy - my own first reaction to red fox calls (although I hasten to add I wasn't stoned at the time). If you're not familiar with the dreadful noises a red fox can make, there's video clip in the article. But be warned: humans aren't alone in responding badly. An innocent click on the play button launched a large husky into my lap as she lunged head first into my computer screen, and the cats' fur took more than an hour to resume normal orientation.

Black-backed jackals are up there with the best when it comes to weird calls. Listen to them here (by clicking the website's speaker icon) if you doubt me.
Photo by Johann du Preez.

Of course animal calls are usually only harrowing because you don't know who's doing the shrieking. And like a good crime novel, it's always the most unlikely suspect. A top contender for the 'shock-value' award must surely be the hyrax (or dassie). These innocuous little creatures look like those fabric-covered brick doorstops (complete with button eyes and nose) that kids make at school in the lead up to Father's Day. Rock hyraxes have no appreciable legs, and spend most of their time sitting about in clusters atop boulders, soaking up the sun. Sometimes they'll scamper down the rocks to munch grass or totter about - with endearing ineptitude – in the branches, snacking on leaves. A colony hangs out on the koppies at my study site, and although I see them daily, nary a squeak do they make. But on bright moonlit nights, when you're least expecting it, male hyraxes let rip. Their shocking, maniacal cries (please listen to one here) terrify rivals and humans alike. Tree hyraxes have gone even further to perfect their cover, secreting themselves away by day in tree hollows so they can creep out at night and horrify unsuspecting bystanders.

A rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) trying to look innocent although clearly it's just mugged a picnicker. Hyraxes have changed little during the last 45 million years, apart from varying in size – one species grew lion-sized (urrgh!).
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

But my favourite alarming call comes from the Kalahari Desert. I worked for many years on the Kalahari Meerkat Project, and each year a new crop of volunteer field assistants arrived. They were mostly young graduates from urban UK, and, initially, they tended to be a bit unsettled by the isolation and wide, desolate landscapes. Now you need to understand that these young people hadn't spent their childhood playing cowboys and Indians; this was the generation that duelled with light sabres, rescued Princess Leia and verbs at the end of their sentences put, hmmm. Now as it happens, the Sand People in Star Wars (those scary hooded entities that ambush Luke Skywalker in the desert of his home planet) communicated with eerie calls virtually indistinguishable from the braying of mules (used for transport by our farm workers). So for me at least, it was a wonderful moment when - trekking with a new volunteer across the dunes in the middle of nowhere - the brays of the Sand People reverberated around us. I loved the look of utter shock and consternation as - just for one moment - they were plunged within their childhood fantasies.

I've heard that the bugling calls of wapiti (North American elk) are very similar to the cries of the Nazgul in the Lord of the Rings movies, so perhaps a whole new generation will experience this same heart-stopping magic. I wonder where the calls of the Dementors in Harry Potter came from...

Impala aglow. This antelope's grunts and roars (hear them here) routinely send my new field assistants scuttling for home.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

But the most alarming animal noise that I've ever experienced was made by creatures that potter around my garden nightly. And no, it's not the hippos.

It happened one night a couple of years ago. I was just getting ready for bed when the roaring growl of heavy machinery began emanating from my front garden. Above the steady roar of engines was a very loud pulsing whirr that had that ululating, come-and-go quality of an ambulance siren. The combined noise was so deafening that the student staying here at the time was convinced a helicopter had landed in the garden. To me, it sounded exactly like a UFO (or what a special effects team would conjure up as a scary, unearthly spaceship sound). Since my garden seemed to be free of luridly flashing green light, helicopters or earth-moving equipment, I decided I'd better go out and find out what was happening. Admittedly I did feel a touch of apprehension but, hang it, if a UFO was landing on my doorstep I wanted to know about it.

What I found couldn't have surprised me more, even if it had been a delegation of little green aliens.

Clumped around my compost heap were three highly agitated porcupines and one small honey badger. The honey badger (a species renowned for its 'nothing's too fearsome' approach to life) had clearly been trying it on, and the porcupines were rallying in defence. Now, when my dogs harass the porcupines (a nightly occurrence), the creatures respond by stamping their hind feet (like petulant children), coughing out a growl, and rattling their spines. Their tail quills are hollow so when the porcupine shivers its tail (as a horse shivers its skin to dislodge a fly) they do make quite a dramatic clashing sound (which you can hear here). But I'd no idea that, when seriously pressed, porcupines combined their cacophony of noises into such an amazing and other-worldly din.

If you know of a potential contender for 'Most Alarming Animal Noise', please, please nominate it in a comment.

Never underestimate a rodent. One of the Cape, or southern African, porcupines (Hystrix africaeaustralis) that visits my garden nightly.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Wee weird warthogs

Warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus).
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

I'm sorry I haven't posted recently; I've been going through a bit of a stressful patch.

However, outside in my front garden, there's a family that's clearly not stressed.
You could be forgiven for thinking they're feeling pious, because the two adults are down on their knees.

But they aren't facing Mecca.

Yes, you guessed it, they're warthogs.
Now I realise that you know all about warthogs. They trot past as non-speaking extras in every African wildlife documentary ever made.
Warthogs are passé.

But believe me, warthogs are weird. Pigs that live down burrows? Rabbits, wombats, prairie dogs – these are the critters that pop up out of holes. But pigs? And when tooth-and-claw threatens, warthogs don't just hurtle headlong down their holes like any self-respecting burrow-dweller. No, they skid to a halt at the tunnel mouth, whirl around (as much as anything pig-shaped can whirl) and reverse down backwards – now that's just perverse.  

When your the only pig bizarre enough to specialise in grazing, why not go the whole hog and gad about on your knees. This is said to give more leverage for snouting up grass roots, but I reckon they're trying to garner sympathy by looking obsequious. And it's premeditated: their gnarly knee calluses are present in the womb.
Photo by Brian Gratwicke.

But the reason I've been lured into writing about my common-or-garden warthogs is because, over the last couple of weeks, there's suddenly a whole lot more of them. Out in my garden - along with Mum and Aunt Mabel - are five little hoglets, currently leaping, spinning in the air and madly snout-jousting with one another. I've never figured out why warthog piglets are so appealing. I mean they're semi-bald and always look so... well, earnest. I guess it's partly because they're so tiny next to Mum (only 1% of her weight at birth), and they trot along in single file, tails stuck up and Mohican hairdos billowing in the breeze.

I first noticed something untoward in the world of hogs about two months ago. I pass several families (called sounders) on my way to the mongooses each day and, back then, all the mums suddenly disappeared. This set me in a panic because, around here, warthogs are popular guests at Saturday night's braai/barbie. But once I'd seen that last year's youngsters were pottering about normally, despite the lack of maternal care, I regained my composure and realised what was happening. You see when a mother-to-be's happy day arrives, she deserts her teenaged kids and retreats down a burrow. Here she'll stay, tending her tiny newborns, for at least a week. Even after she emerges, she'll still go hungry for several weeks, guarding her burrow-bound piglets and suckling them at 40 minute intervals.

Who wouldn't stay underground, if they looked like this? Warthog piglets don't leave their hole until 6-7 weeks old.
Photo by Martin Heigan.

Mother warthogs defend their piglets. That doesn't sound scary, does it. But then it fails to evoke the piglets' blood-curdling squeals, the dreadful roaring bellows and grunts of a charging sow or the hysterical yelping of an injured dog.

Maybe I need to go back a step. The summer before last I was letting my two huskies gallivant in the bush at the local mine when they flushed a young warthog. The little fellow took one look at the dogs and began hollering for Mum. His piercing 'I'm-being-torn-apart' screams were so shocking that Wizard and I stood transfixed, but Magic took off after the critter. Suddenly a large grey shape erupted from the bushes. Roaring and growling, Mother Warthog hurtled straight toward Wizard. I couldn't see what was happening because of the undergrowth but my heart contracted as a volley of dreadful yelping arose. Warthogs have a penchant for disembowelling dogs; their upper tusks can reach 60 cm (23") in length and the lower ones are razor-edged (honed by the upper tusks whenever the warthog chews).

Looking mean. The piglet's white cheek fur is thought to give an illusion of tusks (technically they're called tushes, not tusks, because they're canine teeth not incisors).
Photo posted on Flickr by Piglicker.

Straining to catch sight of Wizard, who - still yelping pitifully – was fleeing through the undergrowth, I suddenly realised that Mum was now charging straight at me. This didn't alarm me at first because warthogs often appear to be attacking you when they're actually just fleeing to a burrow behind you. I'd been fooled before. I was much more worried about Wizard. But as the massive creature hurtled down the hill toward me (mother warthogs weigh in at around 65 kg/143 lbs), I began to think, 'Surely she's not going to attack me too?' I'd never heard of warthogs disembowelling people. As she got closer and closer, I wondered, in a panicky sort of way, whether it was possible to play toreador with a pig. By that stage, of course, I really had no other option. Fortunately, when she was just one metre (3 ft) away from me, and I was getting ready to leap, she swerved sideways, dashing past in a flurry of dust.

Meanwhile, the piglet had given Magic the slip by squeezing under a fence, and both dogs were standing together on the track. Wizard, whimpering constantly, was trembling from head to foot, and his white fur was splashed liberally with scarlet. Heart in mouth, I rushed up to assess the damage. One of the warthog's tusks had speared his thigh, leaving behind a deep stab wound. But much worse, the other one had pierced into his groin and there was blood everywhere. Only after I'd flushed out the wound did I realise how lucky we'd been. The tusk had penetrated more than 20 cm (8"), but it had gouged up between the skin of his thigh and abdomen, slicing - but not actually penetrating - the abdomen wall. Although the wound was not life-threatening, it still took many painful weeks to heal.

Of course even as I write this, Wizard and Magic are racing up and down the fence, desperately eager to get out and chase those tempting little piglets. Oh, aren't dogs a blessing!

Pigging out. Unlike domestic pigs, warthog piglets don't own and defend a particular teat. They're so into sharing that females will suckle one another's kids. But milk-drinking is a frantic business: once flowing, the supply lasts only one minute.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.
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