Mongooses are small carnivores that belong to the family Herpestidae. They usually have short legs, reasonably long snouts and bodies, and a long tail. They also have small rounded ears and often have long claws, that are non-retractable and are used for digging and climbing. The body-shape of mongooses is similar to that of weasels or genets (which both belong to different families – Mustelidae and Viverridae respectively). Mongooses often have oval-shaped pupils and have enlarged anal glands, with which they mark their territories. Mongooses are thought to have evolved from the Viverrids (genets and civets), which evolved from the felids (cats).
The name “mongoose” is supposedly derived from the Marathi (a language that is used predominantly in western India) word “mungus”, used to describe the Indian mongooses.
Mongooses became famous by Rudyard Kipling (the famous author who wrote “The Jungle book”) in the story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”. In this tale, an Indian grey mongoose is adopted by a British family. The mongoose, in this story, manages to kill two cobras that threaten the safety of the family.
Mongooses are famous for their ability to kill snakes, including those that are highly venomous. In South Africa, the slender mongoose is well known to be able to kill snakes. This is partly due to their speed, agility and ferocity, but also because (according to various studies) some mongooses supposedly have receptors for acetylcholine within their bodies that, like the receptors in snakes, are shaped so that it is impossible for snake neurotoxin venom to attach to them. Other animals that have similar acetylcholine receptors include pigs, honey badgers and hedgehogs.
There are 34 species of mongooses worldwide, of which the largest is the white-tailed mongoose (weighing up to 5 kilograms) and the smallest being the dwarf mongoose (weighing up to 300 grams). In South Africa there are 11 species of mongooses that have been recorded (including the suricate / meerkat, that occurs in the drier western half of the country).
Mongooses belong to the order Carnivora, and therefore feed predominantly on live prey such as small vertebrates, for example birds (and even bird eggs), snakes, lizards and invertebrates including insects, spiders and scorpions. In turn, they are fed upon by various birds of prey (raptors) and sometimes killed by larger carnivores.
Mongooses can basically be divided into two main groupings i.e. those mongooses that are gregarious in nature and live in family groups (usually referred to as a “business of mongooses”) and those mongooses that are generally found alone (solitary mongooses), unless they are mating or females with youngsters. Young mongooses are known as pups, although they should theoretically be known as cubs as they are closer related to the cat family than the dog family. The gregarious mongooses are usually placed into the sub-family Mungotinae, whereas the solitary mongooses are usually placed into the sub-family Herpestinae.
In the Singita Kruger National Park Concession we find the following mongooses: dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula), banded mongoose (Mungos mungo), marsh / water mongoose (Atilax paludonisus), slender mongoose (Herpestes sanguineus) and white-tailed mongoose (Ichneumia albicauda). Of these the dwarf mongooses and the banded mongooses are gregarious mongooses, whereas the slender mongoose, the white-tailed mongoose and the water mongoose tend to be solitary mongooses.
In the Kruger National Park, the following scarce mongooses have also been seen on rare occasions (although they have not yet been recorded in our concession) – Selous mongoose (Paracynictis selousi), large grey mongoose / Ichneumon (Herpestes ichneumon) and Meller’s mongoose (Rhynchogale melleri).
Solitary mongooses of the Lebombo Concession: Slender mongoose (Herpestes sanguineus)
The slender mongoose is the most weasel-like mongoose in the area. It is generally brown in colour, with a long, black-tipped tail. This is the mongoose that is most famous in South Africa for killing snakes (even highly venomous snakes such as mambas, boomslangs and cobras). They are extremely agile and are able to climb well, although they are generally seen on the ground. They are usually seen alone and are diurnal in habits, sleeping at night in holes in the ground, in old dis-used termite heaps and hollow branches. They feed on a wide variety of creatures including birds (they are often mobbed by birds as they travel around). They have been seen on occasion to scavenge from carcasses. Slender Mongooses are known to be territorial and mark their areas using their anal glands and cheek glands. They tend to defecate at regularly used latrine sites, which is another form of territorial marking.
Water / Marsh Mongoose (Atilax paludonisus)
The water mongoose is a large, dark-brown, shaggy-coated mongoose that is usually found along waterways and in reedbeds surrounding inland water-bodies. It is generally nocturnal and feeds on a variety of vertebrates and invertebrates, including crabs, fresh-water mussels, fish, frogs, water-snails, aquatic insects, birds and snakes (amongst others). They have long, clawed, finger-like toes that they use to feel in muddy areas and in murky waters for prey species. Water mongooses are generally solitary animals. They are territorial creatures and use their glands to mark objects along the banks of the rivers. They are able to swim well. We very seldom see these creatures in the concession, but do see their distinctive, long-fingered tracks in muddy areas along the N’wanetsi River on occasion.
White-tailed mongoose (Ichneumia albicauda)
White-tailed mongooses are the largest of the mongooses. They are grey in colour, with darkly-coloured legs and a conspicuous, bushy white tail (which they raise and fluff out when agitated). These creatures are solitary and nocturnal in nature. They feed predominantly on insects and other invertebrates, although they will also feed on small vertebrates such as mice and birds if they are able to catch them. During the day they hide in old termitaria, in holes in the ground or hollow logs. At night they become active and often walk around in a zig-zag fashion as they forage for insects and other prey. We do not see them very often, but find their tracks all over the concession during the early mornings. They are territorial and tend to defecate in middens, often close to their den-sites.
Gregarious mongooses of the Lebombo Concession: Dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula)
They are the smallest of the mongooses in southern Africa. They are dark-brown in colour and feed predominantly on insects, scorpions and small rodents. They are diurnal (active during the day). Although mongooses are renowned for their ability to kill snakes these mongooses are very small and more likely to be eaten by snakes than to catch and eat them (except perhaps very small snakes). These mongooses live in groups of between 2 and 21 members. Within the “business” there is only 1 dominant pair (the Alpha pair) that mate and breed and the rest of the group help to raise the young. They are territorial and mark their territories by anal pastings, by defecating in middens / latrines and by glandular cheek secretions. They usually have a few places, within their territories, that they use to sleep in (often in dis-used termitaria or under logs). They are quite vocal while out foraging and keep in contact with the rest of the group with high-pitched chirping noises. They are often found in association with hornbills. This is a mutualistic symbiotic relationship whereby the hornbill benefits by catching the flying insects that the mongooses disturb and the mongooses benefit by being alerted to possible danger in the area by the hornbills.
Banded mongoose (Mungos mungo)
Banded mongooses are fairly large mongooses that are grey in colour, with black or dark stripes across their backs. They live in groups that can number up to 40 individuals. They maintain territories by anal markings, glandular secretions and communal middens.
Banded mongooses are diurnal and may have several sites within their territories that they use to sleep at night. These are usually in dis-used termitaria or under fallen trees. In the mornings the “business” will leave their sleeping site and move in a loose group as they forage, keeping constant contact with the rest of the group with soft chittering calls. They feed predominantly on invertebrates such as scorpions, beetles, beetle larvae and other insects such as grasshoppers. They often dig around and in antelope and other herbivore droppings in order to find prey. They will also eat bird eggs if they find them and tend to throw them through their back legs at a hard object such as a rock in order to break them open. Rival packs may fight if they encounter each other. Studies have shown that when rival groups fight, males from the opposing “business” may mate with females from the opposite group while the rest of the opposing males are pre-occupied with the fight. Within the group there may be more than one female that gives birth. Usually the dominant members within a group are the older members. When the “business” comes across potential danger the group will band together to fight off the enemy. Other members of the group will also come to the rescue of an individual that gets into trouble.