Thursday, December 1, 2011

MEERKATS OF THE MAKGADIGADI PANS (Suricate – Suricata suricatta).


Early morning warm-up.

It is 5.30am and the sun is edging its way onto the Eastern horizon of the Makgadigadi Pans. We do not have far to drive. Just a couple of kilometres from Jack’s Camp is a group of habituated Meerkats, the reason for the trip to Makgadigadi.
Family Bonding time.
Extravagantly indulgent, this trip is costing an arm and a leg, but is a 25th Wedding Anniversary celebration and therefore cost can be (relatively speaking that is) ignored.
Slow start on a warm day.
Finding a Meerkat in the wilds of Africa, or more specifically, Southern Africa is not an easy task when time is limited and expectations are high. Certainly there are Meerkats spread all over the Western climes of Southern Africa but the crucial factor determining a trip dedicated to them is that they should at least sit still long enough to be photographed and not be hightailing it off in the opposite direction at the approach of a vehicle.
The grasslands are waiting.
Each time I explore for a new experience the dilemma of my impact on the intended target has to be considered. Habituation of wild animals is a hot topic with the decision of when exactly is habituation taming and when is it not. It is the dilemma facing all wild animals today. The more they see humans the more habituated they become and therefore lose at least some of their hunting instincts with regard to people inside vehicles. This habituation process makes animals so much more vulnerable to poachers and takes away from the true wilderness experience. In the Makgadigadi Pans they have their own version of habituation and they seem to have found the tenuous balance between conservation and human invasion.
Ooooh, its so difficult to get up in the mornings.
There is a minder for each little group of Meerkats. This in itself deters harassment of the animal as well as keeping tabs on the group so that guests to the area are able to easily access the group. The minder has a bicycle and he spends his days simply moving with the group as it forages for food. He will be there when they emerge from the burrow and he will only leave once they have disappeared underground for the night. Tomorrow morning he will return to start the whole process again. For someone who has limited time and has travelled only to see the Meerkats, as I have, this is very advantageous.
Gotta clean the doorway!
It is therefore, with great excitement that I alight the vehicle outside of the burrow to follow this first group on its foraging expedition. Scorpions are being excavated from the ground and being crunched up deliciously. Whoever knew there were quite so many scorpions around? A fat green frog bites the dust as an adult does the catching and then hands over the prize to a diminutive sibling.  It is not a pretty sight. In fact, if this were amplified it would be far more revolting than any of the Lion or Cheetah kills that I have witnessed. Gore, blood and guts of note accompany the frenzied feeding.
Yummy frog for din-dins!
As each new catch is accomplished I have to gingerly step around so as not to look as though I am a hungry, marauding intruder. The lucky recipient of a tasty morsel instantly turns his or her back on me and vigorously defends the meal from me.  To make things even more difficult from a photographic point of view the group is foraging in an area that is covered in a very spiny grass that stands almost as high as they are. I finally give up as I realise the burn I feel on the back of my neck is the sun beating down informing me that it’s time for breakfast..
Dung beetle bites the dust.
Bumping along the dusty track the following day we visit another group that is foraging along the road and I am able to get down to the level of a Meerkat without being impaled by the very spiny leaves of the grass. It is great that I am not bound to a vehicle where I have to sit and look for the best angle or have the poor Ranger move the vehicle every few minutes because the animals have moved on. The fading sunset puts an end to my euphoria as the group heads off to their burrow.
Gee, this is hard work looking for food.
It is our last day and I am determined to be sitting outside the burrow when the Meerkats emerge this morning. I am awake even before the wake-up call and we briskly head for the vehicle. Gentle rays of sunshine are painting the landscape and at the burrow there is no sign of the Meerkats as yet. A quick recce of the burrow reveals the entrances to be on the western side and I sit down and wait just metres away. I do not have long to wait before the first pert little face emerges cautiously from an entrance. The sharp little button eyes survey the landscape and determine the risks, then with a judicious approach the little furry creature sits down on the edge of the excavated burrow allowing the sun to warm his tummy.
Scrumptious scorpion a'la carte.
One by one each member of the family emerges and an orgy of scratching, nibbling and preening ensues. The sun is now above the horizon and after the family bonding session the group head off for the grasslands to forage for breakfast. Dung beetles are dug up in their encasements only to be broken open and devoured in a flash. Scorpions are brought up from under the earth with a gnashing of teeth, a spattering of innards and a crunching of keratin and the scorpion is no more. Another frog hits the dust – it is a feast to behold. Accompanying this is the constant call from the baby Meerkats as they follow their minder.
Peeing the Meerkat way.
Indeed it is a special privilege to be able to move among these captivating creatures without them regarding me as a threat to their existence and I reluctantly leave them to their foraging. They will forever be a part of the magic of the African Landscape.
I'm so good looking!









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