The Kalahari Desert can be a lonely and elusive place, one of rich species diversity and surprising arrays of life, contrasted with unparalleled hardships.
To survive in this type of environment, it’s good to have friends.
The number of highly social animals increases drastically in areas that have harsh weather conditions, sporadic food abundance and limited or sporadic resources – from emperor penguins in the Antarctic to tightly organsised wolf packs in the Arctic. The vast thirstlands of the Kalahari are no exception.
Here you find an amazing array of highly social animals including the tower building termites, mole rats, clans of brown hyenas and lion prides, but none more adorable than the meerkats.
Meerkats are a species of highly sociable mongooses that live in clans varying in size from six to 30. The clans are strictly structured with an alpha male and female, who act as the breeding pair, with the other members of the clan helping to care for the young. These other duties shared by the clan members include babysitting duties, sharing food with the pups and most importantly, keeping lookout.
When on safari in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, you wake up very early in the morning, not that disimiliar from most mornings on safari, but this time you actually have an appointment. We know where we need to be and when, and the party that we are meeting will not wait for us.
Shortly after sunrise, the first members of the meerkat family begin to emerge from their underground dens. Obviously groggy from a good night’s rest, they stretch as they squint into the morning sun, and it is here that we want to be in order to share in their morning ritual.
The cold breeze of the Kalahari has us wrapped up warm in scarfs and jackets while the meerkats prop themselves up on their two hind legs, using their sturdy tails as a tripod. They fluff out their thin hair, exposing their dark-skinned bellies, specifically adapted to absorb this early morning warmth.
In the private concession managed by Uncharted Africa Safari Co. there are a few meerkat clans that have been involved in a habituation process over the last decade. These meerkats are not tame; they are not fed or interfered with in any way. But members of the local community employed by the safari camps act as meerkat habituators. Their job is to get to the den where the meerkats slept the night before, before they rise, and then follow them as they forage throughout the day, never engaging with them but acting merely as observers.
Over a period of weeks and months the meerkats grow accustomed to having people around, realizing that they pose no threat, and continue exactly as they would do naturally. Meerkats that are born into these clans are completely relaxed around people, offering a truly unique insight into the lives and habits of the meerkat clan.
After they gather together in the perfect morning light, playing and grooming each other as they warm up, they head out for their daily foraging.
Meerkats feed mainly upon underground insects and their larva, as well as the odd reptile or bird’s eggs. Finding their prey as they forage with an incredibly well-developed sense of smell, they dig them up using their sharp claws and rapidly devour them on the spot.
This feeding behavior forces them to spend most of their time looking down towards the earth. This is when the rest of the clan comes in handy.
While the meerkats are all feeding, one will always be keeping watch, standing upright, using their superb eyesight to spot predators, alerting the other members with numerous different alarm calls if a threat presents itself.
By sticking together in this way they can spend more time foraging and therefore find enough food to sate their huge appetites.
When one spends time following these clans, some people are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. When keeping a lookout, the meerkats tend to look for a good vantage point – and in the open grasslands of the Makgadikgadi, that point could possibly be you.
If you stay absolutely still, a meerkat might just leap up onto your shoulder and scramble onto your head, making for a great viewing platform and even better memories.
It’s easy to see why the meerkats have made such an impact on those who have been lucky enough to spend some time with them. They are truly remarkable little animals.