South Africa’s marvelous meerkats


In the chilly dawn of the Kalahari Desert, two dozen meerkats turn the dark fur of their bellies to the sun, warming up for the day’s hunt for food.

Television stardom hasn’t spoiled the long-tailed, foot-tall creatures. Despite being subjects in Animal Planet’s “Meerkat Manor,” the group has to work hard to stay alive. Watching these pound-and-a-half animals is part of my responsibility as one of three volunteer assistants organized by the Earthwatch Institute — a Massachusetts-based scientific organization — to help research teams from England’s Cambridge University. The studies and volunteer sessions are scheduled to continue through September ’06 and may continue in future years.

Sun worshipers
The meerkats’ sunning on the highest point of their burrow mound continued for almost an hour on cold mornings. Some animals hobnobbed, darting from burrow to burrow. Some indulged in mutual grooming to reaffirm group bonds.

The volunteer research teams were working with six groups of wild meerkats, a mongoose species, that have been habituated to humans for studies led by Cambridge’s Timothy Clutton-Brock. Among the six were the Whiskers and Lazuli groups, which have been featured in “Meerkat Manor.” Our groups ranged in size from Gattaca’s 13 adults to Whiskers’ 43 members.

While the sun climbed and the meerkats warmed up, one of the university’s researchers weighed group members to note how much weight they had lost overnight. The meerkats have learned that climbing into the weight box will earn them a bit of hard-boiled egg or a sip of water — a profitable trade in the harsh desert.
Soon, the sunbathers began to move out. We followed, hoping to glean information on how they survive in this dry land.

Within 15 minutes, the radio-collared dominant female gave a lead call and the entire group hightailed in the same general direction. We followed closely, trying not to lose them in the tall grass.
The meerkats moved quickly but stopped often to dig for insects. As we watched, they darted under bushes, digging furiously for prey and occasionally stopping abruptly to stand erect on their hind legs to search for danger or locate other group members. Some acted as sentries, climbing the highest accessible object, usually a tree stump or thornbush. When accompanied by humans, the animals might harmlessly climb atop them, as well.

Follow that ’kat
It was quiet, the only sounds the wind in the grass, birds calling and the meerkat pups begging for food from the older group members.

As the foraging began, the adults tended to eat the first few prey they found, but after a few bites they would run to a noisy begging pup and provide it with breakfast: a fat larva, crunchy beetle or scorpion (the stinger removed by the adult). Pups stayed close to a favored adult but could be fed by any member of the group that responded to their loud pleading.

Part of our job as volunteers was to follow one meerkat at a time for 15 minutes, noting how much time it spent foraging, how often it stood up on alert, if it climbed a high point to serve as sentry for the group and how far it traveled during the allotted time.

This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Due to a much-needed rainy summer, the grass was hip-high and thick. Meerkats are only a foot tall when standing on their hind legs, and when foraging they’re very close to the ground and well camouflaged. Even though each group member is individually marked with hair dye, it was very difficult to track a specific meerkat when it was digging under low-growing three-thorn bushes — with other meerkats darting around — all while being careful not to step on a meerkat or a snake hidden in the grass.

We also helped the researcher by taking GPS readings every 15 minutes to determine how far the group traveled. As we continued our observations, we noted each time a pup was fed, by whom and what it ate.

Sometimes the animals seemed very nervous. On our first day with them, after a series of alarm calls about a martial eagle — a meerkat predator — the group had had enough. One meerkat stood sentry on a thornbush while the others curled together inside to stay warm. This was the first and only time our work was cut short. Because we couldn’t reach through the thorns to the animals to take their midday weights, we left the field about 10 a.m. and took our own midday break.

Relationships
The meerkats made physical contact with us — even allowing us to stroke them — and groomed one another often during nonfeeding times. Although they are undeniably cute, they can play dirty. Each group has a dominant pair, and they run a tight mound.

Subordinate females aren’t supposed to breed. If they do, the dominant female is likely to kill the pups. This contributes to an overall pup survival rate of only about 20%. When the dominant female is pregnant, she may chase off one or more of the subordinate females before she gives birth. This may be to protect her own pups or as a result of plain bad temper — no one really knows.

Individuals occasionally may leave their group and form a new group, but group size is important to survival: a group of fewer than five adults is unlikely to raise a pup to adulthood.

Saying good night
In the end-of-day trip to the burrows, the meerkats showed their personalities. Some just had to find a last morsel of food, while others were tired and ready to quit. Still others wanted to play and socialize.
We took the evening weights. Then, as the sun dipped into the west, the meerkats bathed in the dimming rays, collecting as much heat as possible before retiring for the night.

Some propped themselves against bushes to conserve energy. Others stood erect until they fell asleep on their feet. One dozed, toppled face down in the dirt and startled himself awake. One by one, then by twos and threes, they moved into their burrows. Shortly after sunset, the last sentry retreated underground.
I knew the animals were entwining themselves in a cozy knot belowground. Sleep tight, meerkats.

Volunteer
Earthwatch Institute (800/776-0188, www.earthwatch.org) is a nonprofit organization, and the entire cost of a program plus transportation to and from the rendezvous point may be tax deductible. The meerkat program is among more than 100 scientific research programs available.

The last 2006 session for volunteers wanting to assist meerkat research will be Sept. 19-Oct. 2. Team size is three to six.

The fee I paid to Earthwatch covered all routine expenses, including transportation, meals and lodging once I met the staff at the rendezvous point, Upington, South Africa. It also helped to fund the scientists. For this project, the cost was $2,786 for members plus a $30 membership fee.

Getting there
Kuruman River Reserve is in the Kalahari Desert in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. It’s about 20 miles from the Botswana border. The nearest airport is in Upington.

Several airlines fly from the U.S. to Johannesburg, South Africa; prices vary by season. From Johannesburg you can fly to Upington on South African Airlink (www.saairlink.co.za). Airfare for this last leg was about $500.
Bus transportation to Kuruman is available for less than $100, but it’s a 30-hour ride and, for both comfort and safety reasons, is not recommended.

You can drive, but most of the roads are unpaved. If you do choose this alternative, take plenty of water and at least two spare tires.

Accommodations
Housing at the reserve is in individual bungalows furnished with a single bed, dresser, table, chair, cold-water sink, electric kettle, portable heater and fan.

Breakfast is self-serve, mostly fruit, cereal and bread. Since the volunteers’ day starts before dawn, we settled for quick food. Lunch was also self-serve, with sandwiches, salads and leftovers. Dinner was prepared by a local cook and was excellent and varied, from curries and casseroles to meat grilled over wood fires. Vegetarian options were available.

A few travel tips
Seasons are the opposite of those in North America — June is winter and September is spring. Temperatures can drop below freezing at night and in the predawn hours when you’re hiking to the meerkats, but days are warm and sunny. Earthwatch provides a very good list of what to take.

Before leaving for Kuruman, make sure you are up to date on routine inoculations for tetanus, polio and typhoid. Malaria isn’t present at the reserve. However, poisonous snakes are, primarily Cape cobras and puff adders, as are scorpions. The meerkats will alert you to any snakes in the vicinity.

South Africa is a large country, with lots of activities for visitors. However, extending your trip may limit the tax-deductibility of the trip. Useful websites for information on touring in South Africa include www.sanparks.org (South African National Parks site), www.satsa.co.za (Southern Africa Tourism Services Association), www.safrica.info (published for the International Marketing Council of South Africa), www.satour.com (containing useful links for travel in South Africa) and www.southafrica.net.