Animals who need better PR
Samuel Cox has been travelling to Africa for 18 years and spent a year teaching wildlife photography and conservation. During this time, he’s become increasingly aware of the blinkered approach most tourists have to African wildlife.
When looking for animals on safari, for example, the Big 5 is always at the top of the list. Underdogs such as the honey badger have won some appreciation, thanks to the internet. But, there are still many other creatures who deserve more attention. You could say they need better PR.
With approximately 6,600 adults left in the wild, wild dogs/painted wolves are the most endangered carnivore in Africa. Given their dwindling numbers, you’d expect these rare and special sightings to hold more value to tourists. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
I’ve seen guides work themselves silly to get their guests great sightings of these creatures, only to be given a shrug of a shoulder: “It’s just a dog. I don’t get it.” There’s a general assumption that they’re mangy, dirty and smelly.
But, there’s a simple idea that could change this: change their name. The name wild dog isn’t exactly romantic, after all. It conjures up an image of a house pet gone feral. However, the translation of their Latin name, Lycaon pictus, is painted wolf. This perfectly describes their unique coats of brown, black, white and yellow. And, perhaps if we start referring to them as wolves, we’ll create a sense of their mystical wildness, and we’ll see a rise in popularity, respect and awareness for them.
Standing proudly atop dead trees or gliding across the skies in large groups, vultures have great character and make for striking photographs. Vultures are the cleanup crews of the bush, a hugely important ecological role. Even though they prefer fresh meat, they will consume carcasses too rotten for most other animals, preventing the spread of disease. Vultures are incredibly adaptable and are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
However, there are several misconceptions about them. For instance, seeing vultures circling high in the air doesn’t necessarily mean that they have spotted dead or dying prey. The chances are that they are riding the early morning or late evening thermals to gain a higher vantage point.
More damaging is a local myth that consuming certain vulture parts gives supernatural powers of being able to look into the future. For this reason, animal carcasses are regularly poisoned to kill vultures that come down to feed. This misguided belief was taken to unprecedented levels during the 2010 Football World Cup when people thought they could make a fortune betting on match results.
Hyenas have a reputation as dirty, scavenging antagonists. But the truth is they’re brave, intelligent, communal creatures whose evolution has selected traits from other species to make them hugely successful in the wild.
Hyenas are efficient and accomplished hunters. The second-largest carnivore in Africa after the lion, they hunt in clans and can bring down adult zebras. However, they’re also clever and opportunistic, so they’ll take any free meal they can. Their powerful jaws can crush carcasses, and their droppings are often chalky white from all the bones they eat.
Most people think hyenas are some kind of dog, but they belong to their own zoological family: Hyanidae. They share attributes with both felines and canines. Like dogs, they run, bring down and kill prey with their mouths. But they groom themselves and scent mark like cats do. Even their babies are referred to as cubs, not pups.
Golden brown baboon spider
Most spiders, especially those of the tarantula family, seem to make people uncomfortable, if not downright scared. But golden brown baboon spiders are the gentle giants of the arachnid world.
This rare species lives only in South Africa’s Lowveld. Although they look fearsome and they can inflict a painful bite, their venom is harmless to human beings. They’re very rarely seen, as they live most of their lives in an underground hole, which takes them seven years to construct. They only ever come out in search of a mate or to snag prey at the entrance of their burrows.
They live up to 25 years – an astonishing age. However, they only reach sexual maturity at 15. This, coupled with the amount of time they take to burrow their holes and the fear people have for them, has put their numbers under threat. As they’re endemic to a small area in South Africa, they’re a protected species. It is illegal to kill, capture, keep, buy, sell or export these spiders. There’s a lot of effort being made to keep these wonders alive in the wild to flourish.
The best-known and worst-feared snake in Africa, there have been countless stories told of these snakes being aggressive, vindictive, even vengeful. But it’s all nonsense. No snake wants to bite a human being. Ever.
We’re far too big to be considered food, we smell of strange chemicals, deodorants and perfumes, and we’re noisy when we move, so we’re easy to avoid. But, when we come across a snake and raise our hands and scream, we’re automatically making ourselves bigger – a universal sign of aggression. This can cause it to lash out in self-defence.
Unfortunately, most people are brought up with old horror stories of snakes, so we still have an archaic fear of these wonderful creatures. The more we strive to educate and inform people about snakes and how to respect them, the sooner we can live in a more harmonious state.
Forever loathed as literal homewreckers, these tiny marvels of nature have more going for them than you’d believe. Termite mounds can stand over ten metres tall – impressive feats of work when compared to the size of their creators. But, these are just their chimneys. Their underground palaces are up to nine times bigger, built-in sections, each for a specific purpose.
Do termites actually eat wood? Not exactly. Although termites swallow wood, they’re unable to digest it. So it’s excreted, mixed with faecal pellets and fungal spores inside the colony. The fungus then digests the wood, and the termites eat the fungus. It’s a complex feat of fungi farming that relies on constant humidity and a temperature of precisely 30℃. To accomplish this, the termites must dig for water and keep opening and closing the above-ground chimneys.
Termite mounds are used by birds, snakes, wild dogs and warthogs for nesting, sleeping, and denning. Monitor lizards use the mounds as incubators for their eggs, and tree seeds often germinate inside them – as is the case in the Okavango Delta where approximately 70% of the islands began as termite mounds before seeds from trees and plants took root. And, of course, termites themselves prove an invaluable food source to many other creatures.
Even though they humbly dedicate their lives to dung, these beetles are probably one of the strongest and most determined creatures in Africa. There are three different types of dung beetle, all of which use dung as a food source and breeding chamber. Rollers roll dung away, tunnelers bury dung wherever they find it and dwellers live in manure where it lies.
Even small balls of fresh manure can be heavy, so rollers are incredibly strong for their size. They use their back legs to push their dung balls, moving across the ground backwards. To orientate themselves, they will climb atop their sphere and use the Milky Way to steer their way home.
Although beetles rarely show up in fossil records due to their lack of bones, palaeontologists have found fossilised dung balls the size of tennis balls that date back 30-million years. It may be a crap job, but these brilliant beetles have been perfecting their clean up craft far longer than we’ve been around.
Impalas are the most common and widely spread antelope in Southern Africa. They’re nearly guaranteed to be the first thing you see when visiting a park in Africa. Because of this, they quickly become ignored after the first few photographs. Grumblings of “It’s just another impala” begin to arise. Unless one is in hanging in a tree or about to become prey, people don’t care much about them.
However, what most people are unaware of is how well-adapted they are. Their diet, camouflage and breeding habits have all evolved to give them a substantial advantage. For example, impalas can quickly adapt to changing environments by being both grazers and browsers, depending on what is available. Also, all the female impalas in a herd fall pregnant within a few weeks of each other. The sudden influx of babies leads to a higher survival rate because predators can eat a limited number of vulnerable babies in a short period.
And, when running from predators, tufts in the lower back legs release a pheromone. This ‘follow me’ sign means they don’t get split up and lost. Their teeth, designed to be loose, can be moved into grooming mode to help remove ticks and parasites. They are, in short, the perfect antelope, and their range and numbers are a testament to their success.
Only found in sub-Saharan Africa, red and yellow-billed oxpeckers are often seen fluttering around and perched on various animals. They provide an essential pest control service for the animals they follow. Using scissoring and pecking motions, they remove ticks, flies, lice and worms from the fur. They also alert their hosts to potential predators with their alarm calls. (Interestingly, although they remove parasites, oxpeckers are somewhat parasitic themselves: they also feed on the blood of their hosts.)
One of the main problems facing these beautiful birds is the chemical dipping of livestock by farmers and game reserve management. Unfortunately, this harms oxpeckers, which are generally more successful at removing ticks. With the proliferation of game farming in South Africa, it will be essential to protect and expand oxpecker populations as an effective, environmentally-friendly form of biological control of ticks.
“What is a pangolin?” is usually the reaction whenever I mention their plight. With their armoured scales, they look like anteaters on the verge of battle. The scales are made of ceratin, the same substance as rhino horn. Tragically, this has made them hugely popular in Asia, where their scales sell for over $3,000 a kilo, despite the fact they have no medicinal value whatsoever. It’s estimated that 100,000 pangolins are captured every year from Africa and Asia and then shipped to China and Vietnam.
There are eight species of pangolin: four in Asia and four in Africa. Their traits vary hugely. Some prefer to climb trees, others burrow holes big enough for a man to stand in. They don’t have teeth, so they use their long tongues to catch ants and termites. Stones in their stomachs help grind the insects up. One pangolin can eat about 70 million insects a year.
Although they look like anteaters and armadillos, new research shows they are most closely related to Carnivora, a diverse order which contains cats, bears and hyenas. Sadly, thanks to human greed and ignorance, all eight species of pangolin are on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.
The southern ground-hornbill is one of two species of ground-hornbill. It’s the largest species of hornbill with a lifespan of up to 70 years. (This is comparable to the more famously long-lived wandering albatross.) In traditional culture, they were seen as a symbol of the arrival of the rainy season, so hunting them was strictly tabooed. Despite this, they’re classed as vulnerable to extinction and are listed as endangered in South Africa. Aside from the usual conservation issues, this is due to two problems unique to these birds.
Firstly, southern ground-hornbills raise their young in groups. This is called obligate cooperative breeding. At least two other birds always assist each breeding pair. Birds who haven’t had at least six years of experience in assisting other parents are usually unable to breed successfully themselves.
Secondly, chicks remain dependent on their parents for up to two years – the longest of any bird – which means these birds can only breed once every three years. It’s a fascinating but tedious familial setup. And, when you factor in ongoing large scale clearing of their specialised habitat, it’s all too easy to see why their numbers are dwindling.
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