The aardvark is a peculiar animal. The only surviving member of the order Tubulidentata, it is quite literally in a league of its own, genetically and physically-speaking. It resembles nothing else that you might spot on an African safari, combining the ears of a donkey, snout of a pig and tail of a kangaroo with a 40cm pink tongue and long sharp claws.
This bizarre beast has an equally bizarre name. The term ‘aardvark’ comes from the Afrikaans meaning ‘Earth pig’, a nod to its appearance and underground dwelling. It is also variously referred to as ‘ant-eater’ and ‘ant-bear’, although these terms may lead to confusion with species such as South America’s giant ant-eater, to which the aardvark is not related.
Strictly speaking, aardvarks are not rare. They occur across sub-Saharan Africa in a variety of habitats and have even been recorded in the Congo Basin rainforest. Yet in most parts of the continent, a request to your guide to find you an aardvark on safari will be met with a look that can only mean one thing – dream on.
The aardvark’s reputation for elusiveness stems from two factors: their typically low density across landscapes and their nocturnal habits. Even seasoned safari-goers, armed with plentiful sightings of the famed Big Five, may never see an aardvark, which is why spotting one has become such a bucket-list experience.
1. Quality habitat
Aardvarks are found across the African continent in a broad range of habitats where they can source the food they need and where soils are conducive to excavating burrows.
This includes grasslands, savannahs, woodlands, rainforests and the semi-arid Karoo region of South Africa, where Samara is located. Although there has been comparatively little research into aardvark ecology, recent studies have shown a density of 8 aardvarks per 10 square kilometres in the Karoo.
Ideal habitat for aardvark contains soils that are sandy enough to be able to dig with ease, yet structured enough so that the burrows do not collapse in on themselves. It also provides good populations of ants and termites, which form the bulk of the aardvark’s diet (they may also feed on the pupae of other invertebrates such as grasshoppers or beetles, and in some regions will consume the aptly-named ‘aardvark cucumber’).
Samara covers large tracts of suitable aardvark habitat across its 67,000 acres, from the riverine thickets of the Milk River valley to the southern Nama Karoo plains. Accordingly the reserve is home to a large number of aardvark, although the exact figure is difficult to surmise.
2. Low predator threat
The natural enemies of the aardvark include lions, spotted hyaenas and man. Outside of protected areas, aardvarks may be persecuted by landowners for the holes they dig in roads and under fences, whilst there have been reports of aardvark body parts being used in traditional medicine.
In natural systems, the aardvark’s main threat is from predation by lions and spotted hyaenas, both of which are particularly active at night, just like the aardvark. This is part of the reason that aardvarks are seldom seen in predator-rich ecosystems like the Kruger National Park or the Serengeti.
The Karoo, being a semi-arid area, typically has a relatively low herbivore density and therefore a lower predator density than other regions. Samara is home to lions, cheetahs and the occasional leopard. Of these species only lion pose a serious predation threat to aardvark, and this risk is mitigated by the comparatively low density of lions over the vast landscape.
3. Cold winter nights
Aardvarks are sparsely haired, which is thought to be an adaptation to prevent overheating in their burrows. This also means that they cannot withstand extreme cold, retreating into their underground homes when the mercury approaches 2 degrees Celsius. Studies have shown that these burrows have their own microclimate to keep occupants warm when it is cold outside and cool when it is hot outside.
In semi-arid environments like the Karoo, including at Samara, winter nights frequently approach freezing temperatures, cutting short aardvarks’ foraging time. As a result, these usually-nocturnal animals emerge during daylight hours to feed, creating photographic opportunities that a night-time sighting cannot offer. Many of the reserve’s aardvarks are habituated to humans tracking them on foot, delivering once-in-a-lifetime sightings.
Aardvarks aren’t just the latest species to tick off your safari wish-list – they are deserving of attention for the important ecological function they perform. Emerging research is showing that aardvarks are particularly critical to semi-arid ecosystems, characterised by low or erratic rainfall, hot summers and cold winters.
They are thought to act as ecosystem engineers in these environments through the digging of burrows that provide other species with shelter from predators and temperature extremes. Once abandoned by their builder, these excavations, which may run several metres deep and contain a number of corridors and chambers, are used by a wide range of mammals, reptiles and birds – up to 30 at last count, including warthogs, porcupines, bat-eared foxes and birds such as the ant-eating chat.
However, climatic changes are placing additional pressure on aardvark, with more potent and frequent drought years precipitating a decline in ant and termite populations in semi-arid regions, leading to aardvarks foraging extensively during the day in order to maximise their food intake. This food scarcity combined with the high energy cost of digging a burrow and foraging in the heat of the day places stress on the aardvarks, with every drought year witnessing further mortalities.
It’s clear that more research, monitoring and conservation of aardvark is required to broaden our knowledge of this fascinating – and potentially vulnerable – creature.