Seeing is believing: Mike Unwin admires the collective spirit of the banded mongoose
andemonium on the savannah. A martial eagle grabs a mongoose. Swooping in from nowhere, the huge raptor snatches up the hapless creature in its talons and glides over to a nearby tree in order to finish the job.
But this battle is far from over. The mongoose is a banded mongoose (Mungo mungo), which means it comes with back-up. Preoccupied with securing its struggling, biting victim, the eagle has failed to notice the loyal posse galloping along behind. The tree is a low one, and within seconds the leaders of the pack are racing up the trunk and snapping at the raptor’s feet. Unnerved, the eagle releases its victim and flaps heavily away. Bloodied, but alive, the rescued mongoose dashes away with its pals to regroup.
This incident – witnessed in Kenya’s Masai Mara – is just one example of the impressive pluck and organisation of the banded mongoose. Many other stories describe a similar spirited group defence against much larger adversaries.
If exposed in the open, the whole troop will pile together into one tight-knit mass of snapping, writhing mongoose, bristling with needle-sharp teeth. It’s enough to make even the likes of lions or wild dogs think twice.
Like the meerkat, the banded mongoose is a medium-sized species (1.5–2.25kg) that lives in cooperative troops. These number up to 40 individuals, though an average is nearer 20, and are just as organised as those of its better-known cousin. What’s more, although you may seldom see a banded mongoose on TV – certainly not advertising price comparison websites in a Russian accent – this species is much more widespread than the meerkat and so is easier to observe in the wild.
Teamwork is the key. When foraging for food, banded mongooses take turns as sentries – often standing upright, like meerkats, to check the coast is clear. They move together on a broad front, keeping in contact with soft grunts and chirrups. This collective vigilance can also benefit their neighbours: baboons will often forage close to banded mongooses to make use of all those extra beady eyes and sharp ears.
This mongoose is easy to identify by behaviour alone: except for meerkats, which are confined to Kalahari regions, the only other such communal species is the much smaller dwarf mongoose. But should you come across one on its own, just raise your binoculars for a closer look and you’ll see the reason for the animal’s name. The ‘banded’ doesn’t refer to its teamwork – as it is tempting to assume – but rather to a line of vertical, tiger-like dark bands along its back. Other key features include a longish tail and distinctly rounded back.
Banded mongooses feed mostly on invertebrates, notably millipedes and beetles, which they extract industriously from the ground, or dung heaps, with long-clawed front feet. They are diurnal, feeding most actively in the early morning or late afternoon, before retreating at dusk to their den – typically, a termite mound or hollow log with multiple entrances.
Life within a troop is largely peaceful. Females generally give birth within a day or so of each other, sometimes even all on the same day, and nursing is a collective endeavour. Each pup – born in an average litter of four – acquires its own adult helper, who continues with escort duties once the youngster emerges after four weeks or so to forage.
By contrast, dealings with rival troops can be extremely aggressive, with skirmishes sometimes proving lethal.
Look out for banded mongooses in savannah and woodland habitats across sub-Saharan Africa, from KwaZulu-Natal northwards. They often become very tame, and around tourist hotspots, such as Victoria Falls, Chobe waterfront or Kruger’s Skukuza rest camp, you may get to observe a troop at close quarters.
Enjoy their fascinating antics while you can. After all, it is surely only a matter of time before we see banded mongooses advertising home security systems on TV, perhaps in a Mexican accent. You heard it here first.
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.