The coolest dudes of the Kalahari

By Mark Brazil | Nov 29, 2000

Where the Auob River drains out of Namibia and runs in to South Africa, the land is dry, desertlike, the soil sandy and red. This is the Kalahari, or more precisely, the Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park, a finger of land between Namibia and Botswana, linked across the border with a park on the Botswanan side. One can follow a track that meanders back and forth across an international border marked only by a dotted line on the map and by a similarly dotted row of unobtrusive low posts.

Life here marches to the beat of a harsh drum. Relentless sun, chilling nights, no water. The Auob River has, for most of its life, been a river only in name. Occasional rains have carved a shallow valley, and in years of exceptional rains, perhaps once every few decades, sufficient water falls upstream for it to gather and flow. The residue of moisture retained in the lower soils of the valley supports a scattering of trees, whereas the open plains a few meters above are dry, grassed in spring and arid the rest of the year — barren flats between ancient, massive desert dune systems.

It sounds like an odd place to come seeking wildlife, but under ecological adversity evolution has produced some remarkable adaptations to the strangest and harshest of circumstances, and such creatures are of great interest.

I wrote earlier this year of the giant millipedes that fascinated me in the Kalahari. They are sluggish creatures, reliant on their ability to produce a pungent toxic gas to repel any potential predators — and it works, with one exception.

The hard-packed soil and sand of the desert is well suited for those inveterate diggers, the ground squirrels. They build holes, burrows and warrens like digging is going out of fashion next week. The ground is pocked, pitted and riddled with holes, and though ground squirrels may make most of them, they don’t always manage to keep them.

There are other creatures that enjoy the coolness offered by a shady hole. Why dig your own when you can steal one? One creature happy to make itself at home in another animal’s burrow is the suricate, and they are not averse to munching the occasional millipede.

If any creature deserves to be called “cool” it is the suricate. Dressed for dastardly deeds, these bandits of the desert wear permanent dark “shades.” Their bandit masks mark them out, and like all “desperados” they just have to be in a gang.

After several unsuccessful days of searching for them, I knew at last when I was getting close. Standing tall on a low desert bush was the slender shape of a sentry on duty. Where there was an alert sentry I knew there had to be a gang, and where there was a gang, there had to be “action.”

Just a few moments of fancy quickly led me to imagine a crime in progress, a miniature black sedan screeching to a halt beside the sentry, the gang piling in and the car roaring off in a cloud of dust on to their next raid, leaving behind only the smell of burning rubber and the wailing of sirens. I had to blink to shake the image and reassure myself that this really was a sentry. After several days searching for suricates under a searing sun anyone can be excused flights of fancy, and gratuitous alliteration.

The suricate is better-known to the TV-viewing public as the meerkat, but that is misleading, for meerkat is a general Afrikaans name for those animals we know as mongoose, while the suricate is a very particular species, a side-branch of the mongoose family — and what a side-branch.

Decked out in fawn and silver-gray, the short-haired suricate is distinguished by its darkly shaded eyes, dark transverse bars across its lower back and rump and its slender black-tipped tail. Far more than its appearance though, it is its behavior that sets it apart from any other African animal; after the giant millipede, it is surely the most fascinating creature of the arid south.

The highly social suricate lives in a gang of up to 30 or so individuals consisting of a dominant female and her mate — the gang-bosses — and successive litters of their offspring — the gang minions. Grooming each other, sleeping in a gang-heap and scent-marking each other makes each gang member a recognizable entity. Scent is the key here. If you don’t smell like the gang, you don’t belong in the gang.

Life in a suricate gang is one long social occasion. The first to get up in the morning checks out the warren entrance, peeks out, pokes about and checks that no predators are close. Then one by one the gang stir and gather at the surface, basking and warming themselves in the early morning sun. They fluff out their fur, groom each other and set off for a day of gang-foraging.

Though they may steal ground-squirrel burrows, suricates are good diggers, and that is how they find their food — by excavating arthropods. If it’s crunchy and it moves they are after it, and neither a millipede’s noxious gas nor a scorpion’s sting-in-the-tail are able to deter them. The foraging gang fans out and each member finds its own food, but all the while they all keep up a steady burbling chuntering, keeping in touch even if momentarily they are out of sight.

While each individual appears utterly selfishly intent on finding food, they are mostly closely related to each other, and protecting one’s own is akin to protecting one’s self. So every now and then, a different individual pauses, finds a vantage point, stretches upright using its tail as a prop and peers around. There is always a sentry on duty. While others are nose down in the dirt, digging out beetles, somewhere nearby one of their brethren is up, alert and scanning for trouble. When youngsters are being hurried from one patch of cover to the next, sentries stand nearby, ready to warn of a swooping raptor or a rushing carnivore.

Sentry-duty is no casual activity. Sentries may spend up to an hour alert for danger, and during the mid-day siesta that is a draining task. However, sentry-duty brings security for the gang: An early warning of impending attack allows the gang to drive away the attacker or to flee to the nearest burrow system. Distinguishing between airborne or ground attack is crucial, as the required responses are so different, so the sentinels hoot when they detect danger at ground level and give a rasping bark when the threat comes from the sky.