Monday, August 29, 2011

The mysterious case of the missing mammals

It’s grim struggling out of bed on cold winter mornings but there are compensations.

For me, it’s watching the sunbathers.
Voyeurism, I know, but who can resist all those exposed fluffy tummies.

In the big nyala tree behind my house the vervet monkeys bob about like sailors in the rigging, waiting in the topmost foliage for the sun’s first rays. And when the light catches their coats, they blaze silver. Nearer at hand, dozens of tiny fire finches, blue waxbills and cut-throat finches squabble in the buffalo-thorn outside my bedroom. Lined up in the warming sun, they ruffle their feathers and shuffle their feet and complain non-stop in a cacophony of twittering.

But my favourite sun-worshippers sit about on the koppies (granite outcrops) I pass on route to my study site. Silhouetted against the sky on the giant ears of rock, they look like an infestation of ticks (OK, I’ve been working on small mammals for too long). But up close, they transform into pyjama-filled plush toys.

Rock hyraxes (Procavia capensis) are less adept than most of us at keeping their body temperature just so which makes their early morning sun-bathing session mandatory.

Now I’ve been spying on this unsuspecting colony of rock hyraxes (or dassies) every day for almost six years, so you can imagine my consternation a month or so ago when they all disappeared.

Was I passing by too early? Too late?
I often see eagles hovering about the rocks - clearly with evil intent - but they couldn’t have scoffed everyone. I rushed home to scour the hyrax literature to find what might have happened.
Apparently diseases like mange can wipe out whole colonies (yet no one’s looked moth-eaten) and a colony can include several widely-spaced koppies in their territory, so maybe they'd just changed residences (but they've never left before).

It was at this time too, that I noticed a new set of tracks on the road at the base of the koppies. Amid the usual mosaic of paw prints (laid down by genets and jackals, civets and porcupines) were prints I’d never seen before: the rear paw’s imprint always overlapped that of the fore paw.

Of course I didn’t put two and two together at first.
But then Koppiekats disappeared.

Koppiekats is the mongoose group who hangs out at the base of the koppies (hence their name). For days I scoured their territory (about 40 ha/100 acres of bush), searching every tussock, termite mound and cranny until I was quite certain they simply weren’t in it. But where were they?? A skiing holiday? A winter break in the Riviera? Victims of alien abduction?

Now when a mongoose is snatched by a ground predator, its group will desert that part of its range, sometimes for up to six months. But what could induce Koppiekats to vacate their entire territory? Dwarf mongooses are fiercely territorial critters and trespassing brings swift retribution. As I trudged about disconsolately seeking non-existent mongooses I kept stumbling upon macabre hints: the beak and piebald feathers of a late hornbill, random duiker legs, the half-consumed torso of a puff adder and a veritable fountain of francolin plumes. Hmm... Should I be checking over my shoulder?

Constant vigilance! Twenty-four species of raptor try to dine on my dwarf mongooses (Helogale parvula) and, on an average morning, the group suffers a predator scare once every 11 minutes. Unsurprisingly their repertoire of alarm squeaks is sophisticated. Their cries warn whether the peril is lurking in the grass or circling above and the degree of danger (from, ‘I spot trouble, but everything’s cool’ to ‘OH SH#@*T!!’).

It was at this point that I realised I’d better figure out who was making those weird paw prints. Now, for those without a foot fetish, deciphering the subtle disparities between the mitts of carnivores is wearying. I’ve spent many an hour crawling about in the dirt, clutching a grubby field guide and squinting in puzzlement at fuzzy-edged smudges. But these tracks turned out to be easy; there aren’t many carnivores with such distinctive pacing.
They were made by a caracal.

The caracal (Caracal caracal) may look like the lynx’s long-lost twin – complete with stumpy tail, untrimmed ear tufts and ginormous hind legs – but they’re not closely related. Molecular studies reveal that the caracal’s nearest and dearest is the African golden cat.
Photo posted on Flickr by e3000.

Now things made sense. These big-pawed, russet cats occasionally padded through our study site in the Kalahari Desert and when the meerkats got wind of one, they’d retreat down their burrow and refuse to emerge for 36 hours.
Why? Well caracals are weapons-grade predators. About the size of a small border collie, they’re dangerously opportunistic, slaying anything that's plentiful, from teeny bugs to antelope twice their own weight.
And they do it by ambush; lurking in wait to fell their victim with a single pounce.
And what a pounce!
A pet caracal, startled while sleeping, shot into the air, and measurements taken by the owner revealed that its forepaws only hit the wall at a height of 3.9 m (12ft 10”).

Such acrobatic feats have not gone unnoticed, and for millennia dignitaries in India and Persia (now Iran) kept tame caracals for hunting. In fact, caracals have given us that ever-handy expression, ‘put a cat among the pigeons’. The ancients - combining two favourite pastimes (bloodletting and gambling) - came up with a sport in which two caracals were set upon a flock of feeding pigeons, and wagers were laid on which of the cats would bring down the most birds. Hunting caracals can leap 4-5 metres (13-16 ft) into the air, and a skilled cat was able to snag up to ten birds before the flock escaped.

Dreaming of yummy mongooses? Back in the good ol’ days, caracals terrorised furred beasts throughout the deserts and dry savannahs of Africa, the Middle East and the Near East (as far as India and Russia). They’re now close to extinction in the northern hemisphere, and here in South Africa they’re classified as ‘vermin’ or ‘problem animals’ (depending on the PC-ness of the province) due to their taste for mutton, and are rigorously poisoned, trapped and shot.
Photo by Steve Jurvetson.
After a few weeks, the caracal prints stopped appearing on the track below the koppies (caracals have big territories) and, much to my relief, both the hyraxes and mongooses have now returned home. Unfortunately, two members of Koppiekats (Saturn and Shade) are missing, presumed consumed, and everyone else is pocked with bite-marks suggesting that their sojourn with the neighbours was not harmonious.
While I’m pleased that caracals live here (and I’d dearly love to see one), I do hope they don’t pay another visit soon.

Saturn (KM068). R.I.P.

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