From far left: Susie, Cat, meerkats
I fell in love with meerkats after National Geographic published an amazing photo essay a few years back and have been a big fan ever since. As you know, meerkats are only found in one place in the world – sub Saharan Africa. And as I found out this week, there’s only one program in the world that lets you go out into their natural habitat with a conservation program – Meerkat Magic. It has to be a sunny day, and you have to put up with the somewhat crazy man who leads the tours, but I was more than happy to fork over hundreds of rand for the experience. I wanted to see them in person and wanted to learn more too.
Side note: While Grant the guide was a bit of a crazy man, you’ve got to respect his ideals and the program he works with. They’re the only meerkat conservation program worldwide that leaves the meerkats in their natural habitat and doesn’t domesticate them by handling them or feeding them.
We got up and drove to the meeting place at 4:45am, made it out to the conservation site by 5:15am, and then hiked out to one of the 60+ boroughs by 5:45am. Then our lessons began. Did you know the meerkat is a tiny rodent, just larger than a rat, and their closest relative is the mongoose? Did you know they dig with sharp claws into the ground to hunt for insects?
The scientists study the meerkats daily and always record which borough they go down in at night so they know where they’ll reappear in the morning. Sadly, we had to wait for a few hours for the little guys to pop their heads up out of their holes as it was a cold and cloudy morning in the desert. Apparently meerkats are a lot like people… see a cloudy day and they’d rather just stay in bed all day. (For us it’s just laziness, for them it’s a security thing. If they have overcast skies and can’t see predators like hawks or eagle coming at them, they’re putting themselves at risk).
When they finally dragged themselves out of bed, for the first time in four days, we were super excited but knew the rules. At first we couldn’t make eye contact, had to freeze, and kept a few meters between us. It was great to see them wake up one by one, pop their head out of their various holes, and then climb out to sun themselves. Each one turns to face the sun, stands on their two hind feet to expose their belly, and is careful to make sure their shadow isn’t affecting their friend’s sun. Considerate little creatures, eh? I think I can identify with meerkats… I’d love to begin my day lying in a puddle of sun, just hanging out and warming my belly. One of my two highlights of the trip out to the meerkats was seeing them wake up. They get so relaxed waking up and warming their belly in the sun that a few actually started to nod off and fall asleep while standing. So cute!
By the end of the morning when they were more comfortable with us following them at a distance, they let us watch them and follow them through the brush as they rooted around for insects to eat like grubs and millipedes. That’s when my other highlight of the day came – we got to see a kill.
When I was at Kenya’s Masai Mara for the world’s best rated safari, we got to see “a kill” – in our case a cheetah ripping into a live impala and eating it for dinner. It’s not like elephants or zebras who eat plant vegetation. Seeing a kill was very much a “National Geographic moment” and was so astounding to see that primal bit of raw nature. When we were at the meerkat site this week, we got to see another kill – the very rare moment of a larger animal hunting, killing, and eating their prey. In this case it was a small mama meerkat (about 1 ft long) sniff around, dig a deep hole, and tear out two live gerbils. The guide told us it was extremely rare to see meerkats eating small mammals as they usually stuck to insects like grubs and beetles. However, we were happy (if not a bit grossed out) to see the tiny meerkat tear up a live gerbil and attempt to eat it for breakfast, blood dripping down it’s cute meerkat face. It was also a bit ridiculous to realize wild gerbils lived below ground in holes in the desert. I’d never really thought much about where gerbils came from (besides second grade classrooms) and certainly never considered the possibility of wild gerbils existing in the first place. Oh nature…. what a funny, funny world.
Many thanks to Grant for sharing pictures of the day. (Very sadly, guests are forbidden from taking pictures, so I guess sharing his is the least he can do. The organization needs the film revenue to help fund their conservation work and rely on BBC, National Geographic, etc, so while I was sad to leave my camera in the car, I was glad to know the money was going to a good cause).