Making friends with meerkats
Veronique Venter has devoted the past four years to habituating meerkat families, spending many hours in their presence to build their trust, so that our guests can view them in their natural environment.
What’s the secret to habituating a family of meerkats?
It basically takes a lot of time and patience! The process can take years, depending on the size of the group and the habitat. In an area of thick, bushy vegetation, meerkats tend to be more cautious than a group that can see you approaching from a distance.
What’s the process?
We start about 50 metres away from the burrow site, early in the morning, and gradually move a metre or two closer depending on how relaxed they are when they appear. If you see they are not comfortable, you move back a metre or two. It is a very slow process of moving closer or moving back to give them more space, all the time observing their behaviour. We don’t follow them as they move beyond the burrow to forage, just to be sure we do not interrupt their feeding habits or affect them negatively in any way.
We usually spend at least four hours with a new group, morning and evening, every single day. It’s important to be there when they come out of their burrows and again when they go underground in the evening. As time goes by and they get to know and trust that humans are not a threat, they slowly but surely allow us to get closer. Once we’ve gained their trust, we can easily get as close as two or three metres from them and they ignore us completely.
What do you do in their presence?
We sit down, get up, and move around. We talk normally or play music softly to get them used to other human voices and sounds. I often talk to the meerkats!
How are they adapted to life in the Kalahari?
They are well adapted to life in this harsh, semi-arid environment. In winter they use their bellies like little solar panels, facing the sun to warm up. In summer, it’s the opposite. They scratch off the top layer of hot sand so that they can lie in cooler sand. Very long claws make it easier for them to dig deep into the hard soil for food.
How many groups can you identify and how far apart are they?
The different colonies have several burrow systems. The Mokala group and the Gosa group are approximately three kilometres apart; the Gosa and Rockstar groups are only about 500 metres apart. Each colony has several bolt holes in their territory and they know all of them, often moving through an area to check that all the entrances are clear or to check for snakes.
Have you witnessed meerkats defending their territory or young from predators?
Following a group for up to eight hours a day, as we do, we see regular interactions between meerkats and snakes, for example. They don’t necessarily kill a snake, but make sure to push the predator out of their territory to protect their young and the group itself.
Meerkats have unbelievable eyesight, and can see a predator approaching from miles away. When something gets too close, the scout will let the rest of the group know by giving an alarm call. There’s a different alarm call for each predator, so that the rest of the group knows precisely where to go or what to do if they hear a specific call.
If the scout doesn’t see the danger approaching, I’ve seen an entire group running up to a jackal to try intimidate it and chase it off. The same goes for an African wildcat.
Do meerkats have to defend their prey from others?
Yes, if they pick up the scent of another group of meerkats who’ve strayed into their territory, they start to scent mark every blade of grass and bush. If they bump into the invading group, they will perform a ‘war dance’ to show their strength and size. I’ve seen them fight to the death. It’s all done to protect the group, especially the babies, and also their food resources.
Meerkats look so cute, especially when you see them on Tswalu EcoLive. What’s the reality?
Never forget they are wild animals, and will do anything to survive. If they feel threatened by a predator and there is nowhere to hide, they will attack and even kill it if necessary. If there is insufficient food in a particular year, they are sometimes forced to abandon their pups. They’ve been known to eat their own young when food is really scarce.
However, on the cute side, it’s amazing how you start noticing individuals and their personalities – it’s not that different to a human family. You get the quiet one, the crazy one, the clumsy one and so on!
What have you learnt that Google can’t teach us?
I’ve witnessed how they look after each other. You can’t read about that. Once, an alpha female died and left behind four-week old pups. The rest of the group raised those pups like their own. They started feeding them solid food immediately – they usually only start to eat solids at six weeks. All of those pups made it to adulthood! Isn’t that amazing?
As a guest, what are the dos and don’ts?
We always advise our guests to approach slowly, and not to make any fast or sudden movements that may scare the meerkats. For children, it’s important to remind them not to run or shout. It seems obvious, but we also remind guests not to reach out and touch them, to whistle or call them. We never feed them during the habituation process, so feeding is also a complete no-no. For the best experience, it’s best to sit as still as possible, about two metres away, and just observe them going about their normal activities.
In the kitchen: Bread
Bread baking is taken seriously in Tswalu’s kitchens, and around 10 different types of bread are produced daily, from breakfast through to dinner. Potbrood, baked in a cast-iron pot over the coals, is a boma dinner favourite.
In conversation with Thomas Peschak
Thomas Peschak’s assignments for National Geographic have taken him all over the world. Several months spent with the Tswalu Foundation led to a story for the iconic magazine about the impact of climate change on biodiversity in an arid savannah.