The night has always been a time of terror for us. We are not built for it. We can’t see. We swapped our night vision for the ability to see all the bright, shiny colours that fill our days. When we were new in this world, we must have spent our nights huddled together in frightened little groups, hiding from the monsters that haunted the dark, praying to see another dawn, wondering if it was all worth it just to be able to see a really vivid shade of blue.
And monsters there were. Real ones. The current consensus is that we evolved in Africa. And in Africa, the night time is when the really scary guys come out. We get used to seeing the big predators in the daytime on the National Geographic channel, but that’s because we’re not so good at filming at night, and every now and then lions and leopards like to stay up after bed-time. Lions are mostly active at night. So are leopards. And hyenas. And hippos, and scorpions, and malaria mosquitos. Being scared of the dark is wired into us.
But then we upped stakes and moved into suburbia. We didn’t bring the lions and leopards with us. Just the fear. Fear of nothing seems like a bit of a waste. So we made up things to be scared of. Werewolves. Vampires. Ghosts and goblins. Freddy Kreuger and Jason. And we keep on praying for the dawn. At least on movie night.
But there are places out here where the monsters still roam. Where lions swagger through dappled moonlight, and leopards become one with shadows. Yes, good people. It’s time for another Lowveld post. I had insomnia last night, so today I have that special sort of writer’s block that comes with not being able to use both eyes at once, and I’m fleeing to my old refuge in times of creative drought.
I’m not going to write about those monsters though. I’m going to write about the comic relief.
The Earth Pig.
If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in one of the wild places of Africa, insist that someone takes you out on a night-drive. You climb up into an open vehicle, wrap yourself up in blankets, and set out through the dark using hand-held spotlights to seek out the animals. It is a completely different world to the day-time. There are no endless skies and broad vistas filled with herds of buffalos.
This is a far more intimate experience. Everything you see takes centre stage, lit up by a halo of bright yellow light. And you’ll see things you’ve never even heard of; civets and genets, galagos and caracal.
And if you’re very lucky indeed, you may see one of these.
It is, in a word, ridiculous. And, rather sportingly, it’s been given a ridiculous name. It’s an Aardvark. And it is, more than anything else, unlikely. It has a face like a stretched out pig, the ears of a donkey, a body like a bear, and a tail like a rat. It’s big, about 60kg. And slow. And clumsy. When you first see one, you find it hard to believe that it can last a single night with the lions and hyenas.
But it has a few tricks up its sleeve. It lives on ants and termites. It digs into their nests and uses its long and sticky tongue to lap them up, at a rate of up to 50 000 a night. This means it’s good at digging. It gets a lot of practice. And those ears aren’t there for show, either. So an Aardvark can hear almost anything coming its way. And when it does, it doesn’t run away. It digs. By god, does it dig. It can dig two feet in 15 seconds. It can dig faster than two men with spades. And it would take a very stupid lion to follow it down a hole. Its main defence would be to simply dig away, filling up the tunnel behind itself. But if pushed, it might turn around. And then suddenly claws sharp enough and arms strong enough to dig through earth as hard as concrete don’t seem quite so comical any more.
Aardvarks may be funny looking, but they shape their world. Because they dig holes. All night, every night, they dig holes. Holes to catch ants. Holes to catch termites. Holes to get away from predators. Holes to live in. And so Africa (or at least the wild parts of Africa) is full of holes. These can be useful. Hundreds of things use them for dens; hyenas, warthogs, porcupines, leguaans, anything that lives in tunnels finds it easier to move into an abandoned aardvark hole than to dig their own.
But they can be treacherous, too. Take a look at a giraffes legs. Now imagine what happens when a running giraffe (or anything else) steps into metre deep hole. When you see footage of cheetahs streaking along behind springbok at nearly 100km/h, bear in mind that they are not running down a racetrack. They are running across a piece of ground that is put together like a piece of Swiss cheese.
The living pinecone.
This is a Pangolin.
I have never seen one. And not for want of trying. But they are out there, lumbering through the bush trying to be as unlikely as the Aardvarks. And they might just take the prize.
Pangolins are also quite big, about a metre long. And they are doing everything they can to disguise the fact that they are mammals. They have no external ears. They walk around on their hind legs, like dinosaurs. And, like dinosaurs, they have scales. They have no teeth at all. And they too have long, sticky tongues, because they, too live on ants and termites.
Like the Aardvarks, they are diggers. But not nearly in the same league. And they don’t dig their way out of trouble. They roll up into armoured balls. But those scales aren’t just there for protection. They are weapons of war. They have jagged, sharpened edges, and if something like a lion tries to have a go at them, they slide the scales across each other like shears, and can cause some nasty damage.
But their defence might be their undoing. For a start, anything that odd looking must be magic. So they are highly sought after for the traditional medicine market. But they have a new problem. Conservation.
Africa isn’t that wild anymore. Wild animals are kept locked away in huge reserves. Behind electric fences. To be of any use, an electrified game fence needs one particular strand of wire more than any other. This needs to be close to the ground. It’s there to stop things like lions from digging their way out. And it usually sits at exactly the wrong height for Pangolins. This would be fine if they ran away when shocked. But they don’t. They roll up into balls, often around the wire itself. And then they die.
They are still out there, lumbering around in the dark, and nobody can really say how well they are doing because they have never been common, and are very hard to see, but they are in trouble. And the world would be a poorer place if we ever lost something so silly.