Sunday, May 10, 2009 – Arrival at Meerkat Research Project
Why did the girl climb the mountain? To get the scorpion of course
I arrived in Bloemfontein Airport around 2:00 and was picked up by Dayne who is in charge of this program. There are two other volunteers here with me – Steph and Rachel. The four of us drove two hours east to the foot of the Lesotho mountains to get to the farm. We’re all here to volunteer for the meerkat research project run by The Conservation Group.
The project is based at Moolmanshoek Private Game Reserve, a beautiful undiscovered piece of nature hidden at the foot of South Africa’s 7th highest mountain near Lesotho, an enclaved landlocked country completely surrounded by South Africa. Moolmanshoek is a private game farm home to herds of zebra, wildebeest, gemsbok, ostriches and of course- a large density of meerkats.
We will be working closely with colonies of meerkats to provide research information to The Conservation Group. Our duties will include:
- Data capture
- Behavioral observation
- Mapping territories
- Habituating new groups
Having watched about 4 seasons of Meerkat Manor on Animal Planet…I felt I had this under control.
We arrived around 5:00 that evening – were given the tour of the place – then told to unpack and get settled in.
This is our home — the small square section of the building with the thatched roof is our den – the window with the white curtain is our bedroom.
Inside the den
Steph and Rachel — both from England
Our shared bunk room
My space 🙂
Just outside of our small home is the “boma” — containing our small kitchen, outdoor grill and picnic table. It’s walled up with a door to keep the animals out.
Outdoor grill area
Inside the door way lies our small kitchen — hard to even get a picture of it – that small 🙂
The toilet and showers are just around the corner from our room and you most definitely wear your coat to and from. The temperature has dropped a great deal from Cape Town and Zambia. We’re up in the mountains and there is a definite mountain chill. Ahhh…what am I saying…it’s freaking freezing!
We had a wonderful first night with Dayne and her mother Marinette. They made us dinner over the fire and we all got to know one another over a couple of glasses of a lovely local red wine. The girls and I are in a bunk room and it finally got cozy around 3am. Then up at 6:00 am to hit the trail at 6:45. Things are a bit different here. We’re responsible for our own meals – which meant I had to get my tush in gear in order to make coffee. There was frost on the ground at 6:00 as I scurried from our building to the boma and the kitchen to put a tea pot of water on the fire. Then it was a cold water face wash and teeth clean — jumping into sweat pants and sweat shirts and then a 10 minute walk to Shelton’s house. Shelton is in charge of the meercat program and all of our activities. Then it’s another 10 minute hike to the main burrow area.
Here’s me, Steph, Rachel and Shelton on the right
Shelton got Rachel, Stephanie and I to the main borough and then left us until noon. We sat there and waited for the little guys to wake up and come upstairs to start feelin’ the sun. And they came…one by one… There are 14 meerkats in this particular group and this is the group that we’ll follow around every day and record all sorts of data for. As we followed them around…I found myself saying in a singsong voice…come little meerkats…come along with a whistle here and there. The lions responded to that..why not meerkats. If nothing else…they will get used to my voice.
These little guys are only about 12″ high and weigh around 2 lbs. The babies teeny, tiny! They can have up to 8 babies at a time (called pups). They’re born blind, deaf and almost hairless – so they stay below ground for several weeks. This little guy is probably two months old.
They live together in big groups called clans – and the clan’s dominant female leads the group. We’re observing a clan of about 30 meerkats.
The little meerkats live in an intricate tunnel system underground called burrows which keep them safe from predators and cool during hot days. One burrow can have as many as 15 entrance and exit holes and can reach up to 6.5 feet deep. All of these entrance and exit holes make it very difficult for us to know where they’re going to be on any given morning or afternoon. They rotate through all their burrows regularly.
Later in the day, Shelton took us on a walk to collect food for the meercats. They love scorpions…so scorpions it is! We started out at the bottom of a mountain and ended up at the top. I didn’t have a heart attack…but the thought crossed my mind a few times. Check out the view! It was worth the climb. And we unearthed 8 scorpions to feed our little dudes tomorrow.
We’re heading to the top of this!
Notice the nasty stinger at the end of his tail — the adults will always remove that before giving it to one of the youngsters – who are not old enough to tolerate a bite. Adults are actually immune to the venom — the pups are not.
We got back to camp around 5:00. Dinner was made for us that night (and it would be the last) – and we watched Out Of Africa on the big screen at the main house. And that’s the end of our first day at Meerkat base.