What would you get if you mixed the body parts of a kangaroo, horse, rabbit and hyena and then, just for fun, added massive fingernails? Certainly, one of the most unique-looking animals in the world – the aardvark. Written by: Maria Diekmann, founder and director of REST
This fascinating creature has rarely been studied. Few are kept in captivity due to their nocturnal behaviour, difficulties with an artificial diet and the need for large foraging areas. Their teeth, located towards the back of their mouth, are susceptible to infection in captivity, but no one is exactly sure why. While found in most ranges of southern Africa and not listed as threatened or endangered, many believe the species is declining.
The Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST) in Namibia is preparing a young female aardvark for release back into the wild. Caught in a snare and found on a private farm, she was close to death when given to REST. Once her wounds had been cleaned, the long task of healing and gaining weight began.
Beatrice, or “B’ as she has been nicknamed, is amazing. As a young female, she only weighs about 45lb (20kg) – adults can reach 143lb (65kg). She sleeps approximately 18 hours a day, and REST supplements her natural foraging with a milkshake of food, cereals, grains, fruit and honey, both in the morning and noon. She wakes up between 6pm and 8pm and is taken out to forage naturally in the bush in the same habitat where she was found. Initially, a soft rope leash was attached, but for a few weeks now, B has been walking unleashed with me.
Fortunately, we have years of experience following released Cape pangolins in the bush, so my staff and students are used to walking silently behind a creature late into the night.
Having never rehabilitated an aardvark before, I was slightly concerned initially. However, my experience with Cape pangolins prepared me for the habits and needs of a similar, mainly nocturnal, ant-eating species. Like the pangolin, the information about aardvarks is conflicting and often wrong – at least in the region where I work. Both species prefer ants to termites, and the tongue of the aardvark is much thicker but shorter than that of a pangolin, only about 6-8 inches long. While a pangolin mainly uses its long, narrow, sticky tongue to attract and capture ants, the aardvark digs much deeper and laps up the ants. During these tongue licks, they consume massive amounts of dirt and small rocks. These small pebbles are believed to help with digestion and are then chewed for up to 10 minutes with a crunching sound that would displease any dentist.
Beatrice has taught me so much about aardvarks. If she represents the species, they are one of the gentlest alive as long as they do not feel threatened. Her nose, which she pushes into the hard ground to sniff out ants before digging, is as soft as velvet, and her powerful front feet have nails five times larger than humans and can move a foot of soil in less than a minute. Her back legs are used for covering her faeces and walking, which she does with a long sloping back like a hyena.
I have contacted a manufacturer of tracking units so that she can be tracked when released – to date, other researchers have used an implanted radio device, so I am gathering information on the best way forward. By Christmas 2015, Beatrice should be walking free. She will be monitored for health and safety, and I am confident that after months of rehab in the same area, she will do fine on her own.
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