With the rock star status of Aleksandr the Meerkat, I fondly remember the less known animals of the bushveld that I grew up with in South Africa.
I have been living in London for almost 12 years, but I grew up with mountain views. These were not the views of Table Mountain, but the Magaliesberg – firmly behind the “boerewors curtain” on the northern side of South Africa’s capital Pretoria. In the early 80’s, these suburbs were still growing, with some wild creatures straying into our garden from the bushveld over the fence.
They are certainly not as famous as the meerkats, elephants and the big cats, but they are special in their own (secretive) ways.
Painted Reed Frog
My little slimy frog friends form the official soundtrack to an African evening. The tiny males compete for female attention in choirs of bell like calls, their aim is to make as many calls as loud as they can, and they are really loud! They have many colours and decorations in variations of bright stripes and dots. The bright colours are mainly for warding off predators because their skin is poisonous. If you are on a holiday in South Africa, you can find frogs sitting on reeds and in grass around freshwater pools, occasionally in my dad’s tiny fish pond. The mucus on their skin dries to form a waterproof barrier to protect them from the summer sun.
Painted Reed Frog - Hyperolius Viridiflavus
Not as big or famous as lions, leopards and cheetahs, but a close contender for the feline beauty awards. Caracals are about the size of a large cat, but sadly got a bad reputation for stealing poultry and are often hunted. They prefer semi desert areas and their hairy paws are especially adapted to walk on sand. Their reddish fur and black tuffeled ears blend well into the reddish sand and rocks and make them surprisingly hard to see in the wild.
Blue Headed Tree Agama
At first I was really scared of these pre-historic creatures. They are pretty big at about 40cm and look fierce. They climb trees and buildings, preferring high areas in the sun. In the breeding season, the males’ large heads turn bright blue. But they never hurt me; they just watched from the wall, nodding their big blue heads up and down, as if in agreement to eat the insects while I spent the afternoon in the pool.
Blue Headed Tree Agama - Acanthocerus Atricollis
African Fish Eagle
The majestic fish eagle has one of the most distinctive calls of the birds that live around freshwater areas in Sub-Sahara Africa. I can only describe it as possibly yelping, similar to a turkey, at a higher pitch, and a seagull, uttered while throwing their heads back like a seagull. But somehow this is more of a welcome call to the African sunset before the painted reed frogs take over the airwaves for the night. A female’s wingspan can reach 2.4m, and pairs can often been seen at the top of the highest trees close to their twig nests. Seeing one of these swoop down to pluck a fish out of the water is quite amazing!
African Fish Eagle - Haliaeetus Vocifer
Galagos earned their name “bush baby” from the loud cries that sound disturbingly similar to that of a human baby. These ‘primitive primates’ are closer related to Madagascar’s lemurs than monkeys, and their favourite snacks are the creepy crawlies of the bush. It’s a bit hard to spot them in the wild, as they jump fast and far between trees when not hiding from daylight in hollow tree branches, but if you shine a bright light towards the distant trees, their large eyes reflect in countless little pairs. I first encountered a bush baby in a campsite – a precious moment before he jumped away and the huge giraffe around the next tree made me jump almost as high as the bush baby.
Bush Baby - Otolemur Crassicaudatus
The bat-eared fox are nothing like European foxes. They are about cat sized, and their large ears can detect their prey in the ground. They then dig furiously and devour the unlucky insect in seconds. A bat-eared fox will mainly eat termites, grasshoppers, little lizards, eggs, small mammals and even fruit, from the grassy plains and savannahs close to it’s earthy den home. Unfortunately their cousins, the jackal, has landed them in trouble with their taste for farmyard treats and they are often poisoned by farmers. You can sometimes see them in playing in pairs in the moonlight.
Bat-eared Fox - Otocyon Megalotis
The name ‘aardvark’ translates as ‘earth pig’, but it isn’t related to pigs at all – more to the hyrax, a rabbit sized furry mammal. An aardvark eats mainly termites and ants, the only fruit it will try is the aardvark cucumber. You might see only see the leftovers of this solitary nocturnal animal’s meals in the giant termite mounds of the bush. I have to admit, I have not seen this elusive animal in the wild, but I always wished to see one of these strange ‘living fossils’. London Zoo has a very lovely pair you can see up close when they are sleeping.
Aardvark - Orycteropus Afer
Have you seen any of these whilst on your South African holiday?