Mad for Meerkats
The best and worst thing about winter is that sunrise comes late. Yes, you can sleep later, but on the odd occasion when you wake up before dawn, rising out of bed in the sub-zero temperatures becomes a task of Herculean proportions.
Much like humans, meerkats also hate the cold, so we knew they’d only be up once sunlight hit their burrow. We rushed to get to the conservation area, where we’d be meeting Devey Glinister, the meerkat mad conservationist and wildlife rehabilitation expert who was taking us on a meerkat adventure tour.
Though meerkats can sleep in many different burrows, the dedicated Devey is there every sunset to monitor their movements.
The three of us sat outside the meerkat mound, waiting for it to be deemed warm enough, and safe enough, for the meerkat family (called a mob or a gang because they gang up on their enemies) to emerge.
First came the dominant female, nearly always the sentry, who eyed out the surrounds with a penetrating gaze, watchful for any movement. Her gaze falls on us only if we move, but quickly determining we’re not a threat, moves out across the Karoo and spekboom veld.
“Meerkats don’t see a jackal or rooikat as danger, they see movement. If jackal runs past or rabbit runs past they have the same reaction”, says Devey.
Devey tell us that he has spent months habituating the meerkats to his voice, allowing him to introduce them to tour groups.
“I started out at a distance of about 200 m from the burrow complex,” Devey explains, “and every day I went a few metres closer. If you’re in the open and they can hear you all the time, they associate your voice with nothing.
If they see danger and I’m talking loudly they’ll associate my voice with danger. The whole habituation process is to make it comfortable for them to have you around”.
While the sentry performs reconnaissance, Devey tells us he has been rescuing and rehabilitating wild animals and birds his whole life. “I first encountered meerkats on a horseriding safari. Realising the predicament they’re in, with their habitat being destroyed by development and farming, I became interested in meerkat conservation”.
Ridiculously cute, meerkats are also often kept as pets, with disastrous consequences. “Their burrowing instinct means they will dig up your beds, carpets, furniture and they’re quite smelly – they just don’t make good pets”, Devey tells me.
Meerkats are a member of the shy five, along with the aardvark, aardwolf, bat-eared fox and porcupine, all of whom live in burrows or dens, though the meerkat has the most complex social structure. “They’re not glamorous animals”, says Devey, “nobody take people out to see them – that’s why I’m the only person who does this”.
As Devey talks, the sentry, still standing at attention, gives a soft chirrup (telling the family that all is well), and another head pops up out of the burrow like a jack-in-the-box, and then another.
The meerkats stand to face the sun, arms at their sides, absorbing heat through their ‘solar panel’, the dark patch under the fur on their belly. Lining up as if posing for a photograph, as they slowly warm up, they begin stretching and grooming each other, while some of the younger ones start to play.
This family consists of 13 members, which is well within the average. “A meerkat gang generally ranges between 10-20 meerkats, they never go over 20 except on the movies”, Devey informs us.
The meerkats are fascinated by the camera, which glints in the early morning sun. “Meerkats like shiny things”, says Devey. “Right after I told one group that meerkats carry rabies, one of the meerkats noticed the silver-sequinned sneakers of one of the ladies, and started trying to bite it and pull it off!”
He points out the mob’s dominant male. “Only the dominant male and female are allowed to mate and have offspring, while all males offspring are banned from the group once they reach sexual maturity, which occurs between 12 - 18 months of age.
They have to go find females from other groups and begin their own family, while females can stay with the family and help raise their mother’s offspring.”
Suddenly the dominant male began making an eh...eh sound, before setting off to the north. The direction is different every day, as the far-sighted meerkats always rest an area for a couple of weeks before foraging there.
We notice that the burrow is surrounded by holes, which they dig up to 30 cm deep to find their prey (insects, worms, caterpillars and scorpions).
Meerkats also like to eat bird eggs and sometimes, even young chicks. “They’re not hunters,” Devey informs us. “They don’t run after their prey, but if they come across a rodent, lizard or grasshopper, they’ll try to catch it”.
As the meerkats move off, we see the sentry climbing to the top of a bush (this could be any object higher than the surrounding area), standing on its hind legs and scanning the land and sky for predators.
This sentry holds its post until another meerkat finds a perch further ahead, ensuring one meerkat is always on sentry duty. There’s no way we could hope to keep up with them - Meerkats forage up to 3 kilometres away, and do so fast.
Devey tells us that doing the meerkat adventure tours has helped him quite a lot with his research. “I was running around after eight groups of meerkats that I’d habituated, so doing tours meant I focused on this one group and I think it has definitely led to greater insights”.
In fact, Devey is currently in the process of building a meerkat sanctuary, the first of its kind in the world, where once-pet meerkats can be reintroduced to other families.
“It’s something that hasn’t been done before - meerkats’ territorial structure is so complicated that they don’t easily tolerate each other, but you can habituate them given enough time”, he said. “You have to understand their social order, how they live, how they work and be able to train them accordingly”.
We learn that everything a meerkat knows in order to survive is taught to them by their family; they don’t know it instinctively.
“You have to build the right structure with the right dominant male and female, and teach them what the dangers are”, Devey exclaims. “Meerkats brought up as pets are used to dogs, birds and cats, but out in the wild it’s jackals, hawks and lynx, and they’re going to eat them”.
Devey also has to teach them how to forage for food, while another challenge is finding the right environment for them. “Most game farms will take them, but they must be in semi-desert environment, with low rainfall. This is because rain washes off their scent markings, which can lead to fighting, as meerkats only recognize each other by scent, not sight”.
“I’m not that educated”, Devey continues. “I did microbiology many years ago but I’ve always wanted to do something with nature. In your heart you just have this calling.” And it’s not hard to see why Devey feels such a strong fascination for meerkats.
As we begin packing up to leave, we turn back for a last look at the Karoo scenery around us, only to see a meerkat sentry perched atop a bush in the far distance gazing right back at us.
To book a meerkat tour visit De Zeekoe Guest Farm in Oudtshoorn (click link to read review). You can even stay in their luxurious appointed guest house or choose a more rustic (though equally luxurious) self-catered stay in one of the serene cabins on the lake.
Go to De Zeekoe Guest Farm to book a meerkat adventure tour and/or your accommodation
Return from Mad for Meerkats to Our Trip
Return from Mad for Meerkats to Eco-friendly Africa Travel