One of Samara’s secrets

We visited Samara in the Great Karoo in late winter. This semi-desert region has extremes in temperature between day and night. The semi-desert environment yields unusual opportunities.

One of Samara’s secrets is the “better than even” possibility of seeing an antbear or aardvark (Afrikaans) in the late winter afternoon.

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” ~ Roald Dahl

The antbear should not be confused with an anteaters, like those found in South America. The Giant anteater was the subject of a winning entry in the BBC Wildlife photographer of the year competition which was disqualified for featuring a taxidermy specimen. Like any authentic wildlife photographer we only show what we see naturally without human intervention. Whist every photographer creates a photograph with action, composition and background, we do not use stuffed animals to create an image – in Africa we are fortunate enough to have the real thing – though most of the time a little patience is required.

“The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those have not viewed the world.” ~ Alexander von Humboldt

This world has some wonderful and weird creatures. Just as Australia has the unusual duck-billed platypus, Africa has the usual Antbear or Aardvark. This strange looking animal is nocturnal, it has rabbit-like ears and a kangaroo-like tail. It has a pig’s snout and is an eater of ants and this strange mammal usually forages alone. The Antbear is the only species in the order Tubuliderntata and based on DNA analysis could be associated with elephants.

In Samara we were fortunate enough to see an Antbear on two separate occasions. We happened to strike the timing lucky. In August in South Africa, it is late winter in Samara. This means that the days are warm but the nights can be icy cold.

During the day the Antbears usually sleep in their burrows where the temperature is even and it is quiet and dark. The burrows are used as temporary sleeping quarters and on occasions breeding dens.

Come late afternoon in winter the Antbears come out of their burrows and start to forage. Our guide, Julius, said that you will usually not see the Antbear in the late afternoon but being winter it is warm and the Antbear is prepared to venture out when it is still light because it is not too cold. Later, once the sun has set the bush gets very cold in Samara.

Both sightings of the shy Antbear were in the late afternoon and our good fortune was attributed to the warmth of the late winter afternoon. In summer you are unlikely to see the Antbears as they only come out to forage when it is dark because it is warm enough.

“The beauty of Africa is not man made, it is natures gift to humanity.”
~ Paul Oxton

What was really special was that we could get relatively close, within five to seven metres, to the Antbear while being on foot. As with all wildlife they will tolerate you as long as you don’t make a racket and there are no sudden movements.

Once you spend a little time with these unusual mammals it becomes clear that they have acute hearing and sense of smell.

While foraging in grasslands and forests, Antbears also called “Aardvarks,” may travel several miles a night in search of large, earthen termite mounds. A hungry Antbear digs through the hard dry shell of a termite mound with its front claws and uses its long, sticky, worm-like tongue to extract the termites or ants within. It can close its nostrils to keep dust and insects from invading its snout, and its thick skin protects it from bites. It uses a similar technique to raid underground ant nests.

“Cherish the natural world because you’re part of it and you depend on it.” ~ Sir David Attenborough

Antbears are not the only mammals that eat ants. They are joined by Pangolins, and Aardwolves though not at the same time.

While Antbears have cylindrical teeth but these teeth have no enamel coating so are worn away and regrow continuously. By contrast, Anteaters are toothless. Their physical digestion is aided by the pebbles and debris that they consume when they ingest insects. They have long tongues, up to 18cm in length! Aardvarks are nocturnal while Anteaters are diurnal.

A long, sticky tongue lets antbears slurp up termites from their mounds.

Antbears are considered a keystone species, which means they are an animal that balances the ecosystem around them. Other examples of keystone species are Sea otters and tortoises. Antbears dig burrows which various species use at different times. Wild dogs and hyaenas will use discarded Antbear burrows so too will warthogs. Snakes also enjoy the cool quiet burrows.

The Antbear’s legs are short and powerful and end in webbed toes, four on each of the front feet and five on each of the hind feet. The toes end in long tough blunt claws excellent for digging burrows in the ground or holes in termite nests. The claws are reputed to be stronger than the head of a pick-axe.

Apart from being good diggers, these mammals are important pollinators for some plant species, especially the aardvark cucumber.

Antbears are nocturnal animals, and spend much of their time in underground burrows. To escape the heat, they can dig extensive burrow systems, especially during the breeding season. They are expert diggers, and tunnel systems can exceed 10 metres in length.

“Animals have hearts that feel, eyes that see, and families to take care of, just like you and me.” ~ Anthony Douglas-Williams

Antbears can be found in almost any habitat south of the Sahara Desert that has adequate insects to eat. They commonly live in bushland, grassland, woodlands, and savannas. They are not found in swamp forest or any overly wet habitat, because the moisture makes it impossible to burrow. In similar fashion, they avoid extremely rocky habitats that can impede digging.

These mammals are myrmecophagous, which means that ants and termites make up the vast majority of their diet. The only vegetation they eat is the aardvark cucumber. The Aardvark and the aardvark cucumber have a symbiotic relationship, which means both creatures benefit from the interaction.

An Antbear has thick hair around its nostrils, which acts to filter dirt when eating, and the nostrils can be closed fully to prevent dirt and ants getting in.

“We are, as a species, addicted to a story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” ~ Jonathan Gottschall

Antbears are prey to many animals including lions, leopards, hunting dogs, hyenas, and pythons. Antbears have a keen sense of hearing which enables them to detect approaching predators. If they need to escape, they can dig fast or run in zigzags. If that does not work, they can strike with their claws, tail and shoulders, and have been known to flip onto their backs and lash out with all fours.

Our two sightings of antbears were very special. This is one of the “secret seven” in South Africa. The other six are serval, African wildcat, pangolin, large-spotted genet, African civet and porcupine.

“I love and in a way need, a private secret place. It’s a kind of deep obsession, but I also love to need and be with friends and the two things often need to be together… it’s a painful conflict that will never be smoothly resolved.” ~ Morris Graves

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

4 thoughts on “One of Samara’s secrets

    • Thank you Anne – it was such a special experience walking along with these aardvarks for about an hour each time. We were only six or seven metres from it most of the time. I have seen so many antbear holes in my life but this was the first time I had seen a live antbear. My next post is about walking with cheetahs which I think you will enjoy. Best wishes Mike

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