I remember the occasion as though it were yesterday: May 1997, a night drive in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal and an unfamiliar, humpbacked creature shuffling away from our spotlight beam. Not until my binoculars alighted on those telltale ears did I dare believe my luck. And then it was gone: my one sighting in half a lifetime of roaming the bush had comprised just four seconds of retreating rear end. But I knew how lucky I was.
Unique is an overused term but truly there is nothing like an aardvark. As if its name wasn’t weird enough (derived from Afrikaans, it literally means ‘earth pig’) the animal defines oddness. Yes, perhaps its skin and shape do recall those of a pig but add the ears of a rabbit, the tail of a kangaroo and the snout of an anteater and you have a creature straight from Alice in Wonderland.
The taxonomy is as intriguing as the appearance. Known in some regions as ‘antbear’, an aardvark is no more bear than it is pig, rabbit, kangaroo or anteater. In fact it is the sole remaining species of the Tubulidentata, an ancient order, named for the tube-like internal structure of its teeth, that evolved in Africa around the same time as elephants and manatees. With no direct relatives around today it is thus, genetically speaking, a living fossil.
Although aardvarks range widely across sub-Saharan Africa, spotting this shy animal is notoriously difficult. It ventures out only after dark on its solitary quest for ants and termites, swinging its long nose back and forth to scent the prey then breaking into the ground with massive, spade-like nails before licking up its prey with a 30cm-long snake of a tongue.
The same digging prowess also enables an aardvark to excavate its breeding quarters: a labyrinth of passages with up to twenty different entrances – or exits, depending on where you’re standing. Many other creatures, from pythons to porcupines, find welcome refuge in abandoned aardvark burrows. Farmers, whose land may be riddled with holes, tend to be less grateful.
You can find aardvarks in any open country with a year-round supply of ants and termites. They are among the few mammals to benefit from ranching, since overgrazing clears the way for their prey, so you need not confine your search to game parks. South Africa’s Karoo is a good area and, among major safari destinations, Zambia’s South Luangwa enjoys consistent sightings. Take night drives wherever you can. By day, anthills newly hacked open betray recent aardvark activity, as do the animal’s unique (again) three-toed tracks. If all else fails, you could try burying yourself inside a termite mound and waiting. Let me know how that goes.
(Image of aardvark tracks by Mike Unwin)
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.