15. Creatures of the Night.

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.

Seems like a reasonable trade-off.

Seems like a reasonable trade-off.



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.

 

What terror is this that stalks the night? A vampire! A sparkly, sparkly vampire!

What terror is this that stalks the night? A vampire! A sparkly, sparkly vampire!

 

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.

For some bizarre reason, no sports team has ever been named after the Aardvark.

For some bizarre reason, no sports team has ever been named after the Aardvark.

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.

Not that I'm saying that Aardvarks are comical. At all.

Not that I’m saying that Aardvarks are comical. At all.

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.

No. Why don't YOU go and see if there's anything living in it.

No. Why don’t YOU go and see if there’s anything living in it.

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.

If you ever see one suddenly get two metres shorter, you'll know why.

If you ever see one suddenly get two metres shorter, you’ll know why.

The living pinecone.

This is a Pangolin.

No. It is not a lizard. Or a fish.

No. It is not a lizard. Or a fish.

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.

On the plus side, a well trained Pangolin can be used to trim shrubbery.

On the plus side, a well trained Pangolin can be used to trim shrubbery.

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.

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19 thoughts on “15. Creatures of the Night.

  1. I have really enjoyed visiting your blog-it is very entertaining and enjoyable to read. I look forward to reading more.
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  2. ioniamartin says:

    He’s so spaaaarkly. I apologise for the small amount of vomit. The rest of the post was awesome:)

  3. dste says:

    Aw! I feel so bad for the pangolins now! I hope they can somehow find a way to keep the animals in that doesn’t have that unfortunate side effect.

  4. Lyn says:

    Very enjoyable read 23 🙂
    Yours is the first post I read this morning. There’s one thing you’re wrong about though. You said “And you’ll see things you’ve never even heard of,” well, I’ve heard of galagos and caracal. The Galagos are a group of islands off the coast of South America and the Caracal is sort of like a little round boat. My edumacation wasn’t wasted; I learned a couple of things 😉

  5. narf77 says:

    After waking up from a dream about a tsunami your post surely holds the key…err…sparkly vampires? Are we on the same planet Mr 23Thorns! Have you fallen prey to using sparkly lures to get teenage girls to read your posts in your quest for 60 000 viewers?!!! A quick trip to the bottom of the post to furtively check your tags reveals you have been able to keep your dignity intact and your dear constant readers respect…you are delving into the dregs of the horror genre there sir! (At least there wasn’t a tag to Winston Churchill or God help us, a naked Maggie Thatcher!)

    Now you are talking! Animals…animals that have been put together incorrectly to prove that God has a sense of humour! We have them also…we have platypi in Tassie but your Aardvarks have the distinct advantage of being the very first animal in the phonebook so they are obviously invited to more nocturnal events. In fact, if you could see your way clear to giving me their phone number I have a nocturnal proposition for them…I will pay their way over here. I will allow them to eat every single small insect on the property in exchange for their hole digging ability. Steve and I have been putting off digging our rocky clay infused ceramic hard soil for a few weeks now. We have a massive veggie garden to build and holes are the order of the day. Paper, rock, scissors got boring about a week ago and now it’s just sullen silence and mental recriminations…a team of active aardvarks could certainly do the trick!

    It’s not like we Aussies are averse to importing just about anything that we can from Africa to try to fix our problems. Every single thing we imported went feral and as our Tassie tourism industry is apparently all we have left keeping us out of the poor house, perhaps we need to start thinking out of the box… an invasion of Aardvarks might be just the cash injection that we need! No natural predators here and they can dig all of the holes that they like! Perfect for an Aardvark population explosion!

    What the heck, send a few pangolins down as well! They will feel right at home with our echidnas. By the look of it, they are close cousins (apart from the size…). Who cares if they can’t dig, when every single under 10 boy in Australia insists on mum and dad taking their next holiday in Tassie to see the “baby dinosaurs” our economy will be saved! I think I just found a way to get instantly elected to state parliament in our coming elections. I thought I was already a shoe-in thanks to being the only candidate that no-one had ever heard of…I could personally save our economy! Forget the raving loonie party, my party has scales! Unless pangolin and aardvarks are VERY good at swimming Tassie comes with a built in “fence” and we are entirely girt by sea. We could be an extension of the Serengeti! I think I am onto something here! Leave it with me Mr 23Thorns, you and Mrs 23Thorns might yet get royalties from this idea and you can live the rest of your life as multi-millionaire recluses wandering the Serengeti writing small novella posts for an exponentially increasing blog base…nothing like the delicious smell of money to draw a crowd sir! 😉 You might yet get that elusive 60 000 views per month…

    • I’m in! We can make a TV show! We can call it 23 hours. (It’s a long flight, you know.) A camera crew can follow us in our compression socks as we go to war with the Border Security guys over the legalities of importing silly-looking wildlife.

      • narf77 says:

        And exporting Mrs 23Thorns… you don’t think you are getting away with getting rid of your gnarly looking hedgehogs without us being able to offload some of our more “unusual” critters in return (food us once Africa…FOOL US ONCE! 😉 )…it’s up to you what you choose but I suggest you choose the fluffy cuddly ones as some of our endemics are as bolshie and reprehensible as the general populace… I reckon you might be right about the television possibilities… it worked for Steve Irwin…you might want to steer clear of the water if you choose to go down that road… (I hear you have HUGE Great Whites that make ours look like shrimps on the barbie over there…)

  6. Andy says:

    Ever played the ABC game? When the subject was animals, A was Aardvark. Always aardvark. Unimagiative species that we are.

  7. Is Marc Brown’s Arthur still on TV? He was a tamed aardvark who kind of reminds you of your kids.

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  9. Marcia says:

    Love this one, 23. I’ve been interested in odd and little known animals all my life. I am familiar with everything you mentioned except galagos and leguaans (both of which I will be googling shortly). But being familiar with them is not the same thing as knowing them like someone who lives with or near them does. I learned new stuff! New stuff makes me happy! For instance, I had no idea the pangolin walked on its hind legs! I find that amazing! And I didn’t know how dangerous those scales were. I also didn’t know quite how comical a baby aardvark could look.

    As much as I love the humor of your blog, I also love that I learn so much about a part of the world I will probably never see. Thank you for this one, even though you had to struggle with Insomnia Eyes to get it written. Good job!!

    PS…I am also familiar with oh, so sparkly vampires. They can be interesting, too. But not nearly as much so as a hind-leg walking pangolin.

    • 23thorns says:

      I’m just trying to be fancy. A galago is just a bushbaby and a leguaan is a Nile monitor.

      • Marcia says:

        Well, that’s more like it, then. I know what both of those are! We have a lovely pair of Nile monitors at our local zoo, and I’ve seen bushbabies in nocturnal exhibits elsewhere. But alas…it’s not the same thing as seeing them in the wild, is it? You have such a wealth of treasure around you, 23. I’ll just have to content myself with alligators and manatees, and the ever-increasing stream of exotics taking over much of Florida, including, but not limited to, tegu lizards, iguanas, humongous pythons, and the accursed, steenkin’, no-good, very bad Cuban treefrogs, which have even moved into my own yard.

        But in my heart…I’m dreaming of galagos and leguaans and pangolins. Oh, my.

      • 23thorns says:

        I was reading somewhere the other day that you have Nile monitors there now as well. My mother has a family of bushbabies living in her suburban garden. They come down in the evenings to feed from her hummingbird feeder, which only seems fair, because we don’t get any hummingbirds here.

      • Marcia says:

        We do have Nile monitors here now, too. And all sorts of parrots. Actually, pretty much anything that people have been able to buy as pets and then toss out when they realized they don’t MAKE good pets are popping up all over the place. It’s awful. And some of these animals are creatures I really like, especially the reptiles. But they don’t belong here and are wreaking havoc with our eco-system. *sigh* That’s a conversation for another day, though.

        Now I have to wonder why your mother has a hummingbird feeder if you don’t have hummers? Did she buy them just for the bushbabies? I can tell you that if I looked out and saw a bushbaby at MY hummer feeder (where I have LOTS of hummingbirds, btw), I would be wildly excited.

      • 23thorns says:

        We don’t have hummingbirds, but we’ve got little birds here called sunbirds, that are pretty much the same except that they can’t hover.
        We’re pretty lucky with invasive animals. For anything that makes it over here there is generally something bigger and uglier that wipes it out in no time. Even the rats are pretty much limited the places where the people are. Plants are a different story though

  10. billgncs says:

    I have an old t-shirt from the 1980’s with an aardvark with a rugby ball in one arm — the team logo: Albuquerque Aardvarks — my favorite shirt of all time, of course club rugby in those days was entirely amateur.

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