Making friends with Makgadikgadi meerkats

Years of scientific study have resulted in several meerkat colonies in Botswana being semi-habituated. Some luxury Botswana safari lodges offer a great meerkat experience, taking guests out to meet these social mongooses, giving unique insights into how Kalahari meerkats band together to face the challenges of this unique and unforgiving environment.

If a mug of hot chocolate seems a little incongruous in the middle of an African desert, then you’ve not experienced a Kalahari sunrise. The air was wonderfully cool and crisp as our guide drove us away from our luxury Botswana safari lodge, following the edge of the pan as the first blush of mauve light crept over the horizon. The previous day, on our quad-bike excursion across the pans, he’d taught us how to use our kikois as headscarves, and as we drove towards the meerkat colony we were glad that we’d remembered his advice.

With us in the open 4×4 vehicle was one of the researchers who’d been studying the Kalahari meerkats for several years – which also represented several generations of these fascinating mongooses. As we drove into the dawn, she explained to us that ‘meerkat’ was a complete misnomer as it means ‘marsh cat’ in Afrikaans.

We arrived at a place where the flat, grey ground was pockmarked with the entrances to maybe a dozen burrows, with a small mound of earth by each hole. We quietly clambered down from the vehicle, and the researcher led us to the colony. Glancing towards the sun, she told us that we were just in time for some of the most important moments in the meerkats’ daily schedule.

We’d only been seated there for a few minutes when the first small, pointed snouts began to emerge from the burrows. There was something almost comical about this, but we learned that there was a serious reason behind all the sniffing. Rather than simply scurrying out, they first used their excellent sense of smell to check that nothing more alarming than a few humans was outside.

One by one they exited, fur fluffed up against the cold (although they’d clearly picked a sunny spot for their burrows, as we could already feel the sun beginning to warm us). The researcher identified some of the individuals for us, including the alpha female, who’d recently been the star of a TV documentary.

The meerkats stood on their hind legs and scanned the cloudless sky. The researcher did the same, and told us that eagles were one of the meerkats’ main predators. As there was no sign of any raptors, the meerkats began chirruping to each other as though giving the all-clear, and turned to face the sun.

The bare, dark skin on their chests would absorb the heat more quickly, dispelling any lingering night chills. Several of the meerkats were however more interested in grooming each other.

One of them appeared to notice me for the first time, and approached in a quite nonchalant fashion. Several sniffs seemed to reassure him that I wasn’t a threat – but it seemed that I was an opportunity instead. In such flat terrain, vantage points were few and far between. What better to use as a watchtower than an obliging human?

The meerkat clung to my jacket with sharp little claws, and in a trice, had installed himself on my head, from where he had a much better view across the pans. He uttered a shrill call that I assumed was the meerkat equivalent of ‘I’m the king of the castle’ and then climbed down again. Perhaps I wasn’t so very interesting, after all!

A few minutes later, several tiny pups emerged and were fussed over by the adults. Some of them tried to stand on their hind legs, too, but were none too steady.

As the hungrier adults began to forage, there was a sudden bark of alarm and all the meerkats looked skywards. At first we couldn’t see anything, but then our guide pointed out the unmistakable shape of an approaching eagle. The youngsters and their ‘babysitter’ disappeared below ground, while the remaining adults stared intently at the approaching raptor.

The researcher, studying the eagle through her binoculars, smiled and whispered, ‘Watch this’. One of the meerkats emitted a different call, and foraging resumed. The researcher explained that this particular eagle, the black-breasted snake eagle, doesn’t eat meerkats and that they use a quite different call when they see a martial eagle, which has similar plumage but far more sinister designs on the meerkats.

Lots of contented scrabbling and scratching ensued, with the occasional satisfied chewing of a juicy grub. The uncovering of large, black scorpion caused a lot of excitement: several meerkats banded together to bat it around until one could bite off its sting, rendering it harmless – and, apparently – delicious.

Having been sniffed at, climbed on and completely enthralled, we left the meerkats to forage and turned our snouts towards our own breakfast, hoping that the only item on both menus would be birds’ eggs!

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