Sunday, July 29, 2012

A prickly situation

I am besieged.
Outside my door is a gang of heavily armed assailants. They’re stamping their feet, rattling their weapons and chanting war songs.
Five are picketed outside the window, but I know they’ve reinforcements waiting in the shrubbery.

They’ve come for provender, and they won’t go until they get some.

Alright, I admit it, they’re only rodents.
But they’re SERIOUSLY scary rodents.

You can forget all that tremulous, big-eyed, be-whiskered stuff.
There aint no wee cowrin, tim’rous beasties here.
The creatures patrolling my garden weigh in at 12-18 kgs (26-40 lbs) and stand waist-high when agitated.
Their endlessly-growing incisors are the very least of my concerns.

What I face nightly when I venture out my door.
The troops at my compost heap, noshing on their ill-gotten gains.

Disconcertingly, Cape porcupines (Hystrix australis) hang out in mobs. Big mobs.
You see, like many African beasts, they’ve gone cooperative.
Mum and Dad are so profoundly dedicated to one another that their progeny can’t bear to leave the family home, and they stay on, year after year, with everyone pitching in to help rear their little brothers or sisters. Now you might consider this laudable (and I’m the first to applaud it in darling mongooses), but something’s gone horribly awry in porcupine society.

Cape porcupines are a romantic lot. Couples are sexually active all year round even though Mrs Porcupine can only conceive for 2-3 days annually (and she won’t even do that unless she’s enjoyed the attentions of her spouse for at least 3 months). Her hubby’s penis (which sports small prickles!) is equipped with a baculum (shovel-shaped bone) and a backward-facing opening (no, I don’t know why). And despite the couple’s devotion, he doesn't take risks: his semen quickly sets into a jelly plug: a chastity-belt porcupine-style.

You see the beneficiary of all this praiseworthy cooperation is just one solitary little porcupette (yes, that is the official name for a baby porcupine). Cape porcupine groups (comprised of up to 12 adults) normally rear only one porcupette annually (average litter size is 1.5), so I guess it’s not surprising that the family’s ‘baby’ is as spoiled, precocious and demanding as only an only child can be.

This one-week-old porcupette raises Hell at Basil Zoo in Switzerland.
Photo borrowed from the ever-beguiling Zooborns blog (click here to see more porcupettes of various species).

More gratuitous cuteness.
Photo borrowed from here (copyright conditions unknown, but just too irresistable not to include).

So when I venture outside at night, clutching the household scraps to my chest and stumbling toward the compost heap, I blame the porcupines’ social system for what happens next.
Out of nowhere an almost full-grown porcupette comes hurtling; galloping straight at me with head lowered and quills erect in a rattling dazzle of spikes. There’s something quite unnerving about being charged by a porcupine; it’s reminiscent of the fabled avenging aardvarks, only with more spiky bits.

While the adults will peaceably trundle along beside me to the compost heap, their quills lowered companionably along their backs, Junior – bristling like a giant sea urchin - repeatedly sidles up to my legs or races in front of me to lunge backwards, weaponry aimed mercilessly at my shins. At first I thought that all this belligerent sashaying was due to nervousness. But no, I’ve realised that tantrum-throwing is how charming little porcupettes scrounge victuals from their betters.
Tooth-gnashing, foot-stamping, hip-slamming, twirling and quill-clashing all seem to be an integral part of persuading big bro to relinquish his supper. To Junior, I’m just another member of the clan.

A standoff between me and the porcupette. I’ve now become a proficient porcupine mutterer (like a whisperer only with more expletives). Photo by Amy Hill.
African porcupines (unlike their Yankee cousins) are earth-bound creatures, retreating by day down massive, multi-roomed burrows. Cape porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) groups normally have 1 to 3 of these palatial bunkers within their 100-300 ha (250-740 acre) territory.

Is that an apple I see before me?
When not scoffing household refuse, Cape porcupines dine on bulbs, roots, fruit, tree bark and carrion. A leash-walking study (!) revealed that they mark important feeding sites with scent.

I’d just resigned myself to this nightly trauma, when things got appreciably worse.
You see the porcupines aren’t the only critters snooping around my compost heap.

African civets (Civettictus civetta) – my all time favourite beasts – are also very partial to leftovers.

Now, as in the classic scenario of birds and worms, the early scavenger gets the yummiest scraps, and this has led to an escalating race between the civets and porcupines. Who can arrive first? As a consequence (and much to my dismay), the porcupette now comes trundling in a full half-hour before sunset, whiling away his/her time by patrolling the garden and violently molesting anyone (dog, cat or human) unwise enough to venture out.
I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t start trading in ‘guard porcupines’.

An anxious competitor in the apple-eating race.
Photo by Amy Hill.

Desperate to escape the attentions of impatient, marauding porcupettes, I decided to try offering a distraction.
Porcupines, you see, have an unusual fondness for bone-gnawing (presumably quill-growing is a mineral hungry business) and they gather up any bones they find lying about, stockpiling them at their burrows. This bone-stashing tendency has proven a boon for researchers studying bygone eras. Unlike nasty old carnivores (whose bone caches are biased toward the yummiest or most easily captured prey), porcupines are completely non-discriminatory bone-collectors. Their hoards accurately reflect what’s living (or dying) out there, so their fossilised caches (recognisable by the extensive gnawing) reveal the abundance of different species, providing information about habitat and climate.

With a feckless disregard for the palaeobiologists of the future, I tossed all my dogs’ old, gnawed, beef bones over the fence. Would this keep the porcupette occupied? To some degree the experiment’s been successful (atrocious grinding/gnawing sounds now accompany all the foot-stamping and quill-rattling outside my door), but it’s also brought its own problems.
Spotted hyenas.
Yes, that’s right, I’m now responsible for the colonisation of my garden by hyenas.
Up until now, I’ve only ever heard these guys whooping in the distance, or seen the occasional paw print after they’ve padded through. But it appears they’ve now moved right in.

OK, I know that many of you out there are shaking your heads sagaciously and thinking,
‘This is what comes of feeding wild animals...”
And of course you’re right.

But it’s mighty cool to have hyenas in your garden.

Except perhaps when they whoop right outside your front door (heart-stoppingly, chest-thrummingly LOUD).
I just hope they don’t eat the civets or the porcupines.
Or, um... me.

Did someone mention ‘bones’?
I admit that I took this in Kruger. The locals are far too fleet-of-foot for my blundering photographic skills.

NB: I wrote this post about six weeks ago but didn’t get around to posting it (sorry). I’m telling you this, not because I want to draw attention to my ineptitude, but because my circumstances have changed, and I’m now suffering SERIOUS porcupine/civet withdrawal. Oh the misery...

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