The suricate. Looks like a mongoose – and should as it belongs to the same family -, lives in mobs or gangs, does a lot of standing on its rear legs to survey the lie of the land – and with good reason as they’re a snack size for the average Martial eagle and jackal – weighs all of 0.9 kilograms, and has something of a cult following in the UK due to a series of television adverts for the insurance company Compare the Market.
The meerkat described above, named Aleksandr Orlov, is Russian and sports a heavy Russian accent, comes from aristocratic stock and spends most of the advert’s duration frustrated over the confusion between his website (compare the meerkat dot com) and compare the market dot com (there is an added play on the similarity between market and meerkat).
All of this is, of course, completely inconsistent with the natural home of these creatures, found predominantly in Africa.
Photo: Meerkat Family
But the ad campaign is brilliant – the range of adverts continues with the latest release in Feb this year – and has experienced such success that a book, featuring Orlov, was published in 2010. And there has been an upsurge of interest in meerkats as a result.
When visitors from the UK come to South Africa, seeing a gang of meerkat is now as important as spotting the Big 5, and stories featuring visits with the little creatures regularly appear in their press. Film crews now visit expressly to capture meerkats on camera, working alongside projects like the Kalahari Meerkat Project.
The meerkat (a complete misnomer as the Dutch translation means ‘marsh cat’, which these little creatures most certainly are not) lives predominantly in the Kalahari Desert of Africa.
The Kalahari is a huge semi-arid and sandy (obviously) savannah that extends for some 900 000 square kilometres that predominates in Botswana but also extends into Namibia and South Africa.
Photograph: Meerkat Family
In South Africa the semi-arid Kalahari takes up much of the area north of the Orange River to Botswana. Despite its endless sand dunes, salt pans and dry river beds it is here that you’ll find some of the best game viewing in the country, in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. And meerkats.
Whilst there is no permanent surface water in the Kalahari (Kgalagadi means ‘a waterless place’) it isn’t a ‘true’ desert as despite being erratic, rainfall does occur – parts of the Kalahari receive over 250 millimetres a year, and it’s rather well vegetated as a result. Only in the south west does it become truly arid. But temperatures easily soar up to 45°C during the day in summer and recorded sunshine hours are up to 4 000 a year.
Meerkats, whilst not one of the big game most people come to see, form part of the ‘Shy Five’ of the Little Karoo (a term coined by Meerkat Magic in Oudtshoorn for those somewhat smaller animals usually difficult to spot). The others are bat-eared foxes, aardvark, porcupines, and aardwolf.
Photograph: Baby Meerkat
Meerkats are difficult to spot because they’re essentially burrowing animals and live in large underground networks with a number of entrances and exits. These colonies can get as large as 30 members led by an alpha pair.
When they do surface, and only during the day, there is always one or more sentry on guard – whilst others look for insects, scorpions or play – to warn them of danger. When the warning bark goes up, the entire gang will vanish into bolt holes within seconds.
Where to sight meerkats in South Africa:
- Walk with meerkats in Oudtshoorn with Grant McIlrath, a research biologist who has bred a little group of wild meerkat. Known as the meerkat ‘whisperer’, Grant is a research biologist.
- DeZeekoe Guest Farm / Reserve offers daily sunrise meerkat tours near Oudtshoorn.
Photograph: Meerkat Family – nursing babies
Stay in the Kalahari Desert and experience meerkats first hand
- Cullinan Guest Farm, McCarthy’s Rest
- !Xaus Lodge, Kgalagadi
- Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, Tswalu
- Springbokpan Guest Farm, McCarthy’s Rest
- Soetvlakte Guest Farm, Kuruman (the main town in the Kalahari)
There are a number of game reserves in the Kalahari – Tswalu is South Africa’s biggest private game reserve, whilst the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park straddles South Africa and Botswana.