What is the hardest animal to find on safari?

Sabi Sand | July 2019

A question commonly asked by guests to guides and trackers on safari at Singita is, “What is the hardest animal to find on safari?” Over the last 12 years in the Sabi Sand my answer is the aardvark (Orycteropus afer) as I’m yet to get a glimpse of one, well, alive at least…

A male leopard with a hoisted dead aardvark kill was my first sighting of this mystical creature. It was thanks to Joffers and Orange who found this incredible sighting (and also gave us a good chuckle a couple of days later when Joffers called in a leopard killing another aardvark that turned out to be an-aardvark-looking-warthog!)

The aardvark is a medium-sized mammal native to Africa, the only species in the world to be a single species in a taxonomic order. It has a long pig-like snout, elongated ears, powerful legs and very long claws which make them the best diggers in the world. The body has sparsely covered coarse hair. They weigh around 60 kg for a total length of 1.6 metres. Their lifespan is believed to be between 12-20 years.

Their eyesight is poor but they have an excellent sense of smell and hearing, which helps them ants and termites that make up the bulk of their diet. They will feed mostly at night and use their very long tongue, to lap up the insects. Their rarity is linked to their elusive and nocturnal habits.

My intrigue for the aardvark began when I learnt that it was a keystone species. A keystone species is a plant or animal that plays a unique and crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions. The concept was introduced in 1969 by an American zoologist, Robert Paine. If they were to disappear from an area, the livelihood and survival of other species would be affected. They facilitate the environment by digging burrows that they use as shelters or to rear their young. In the case of the aardvark, its disused burrows are used by an array of species – at least 17 species of mammals have been recorded. Currently, at Singita Sabi Sand, we have a number of hyena clans as well as a pack of wild dogs (Africa’s second most endangered carnivores after the Ethiopian wolf) that are using old aardvark burrows. Other species that are commonly seen using their burrows are: warthogs, porcupines, honey badgers, jackals and bats.

My first ever photograph of a live aardvark was captured on 8 November 2018. (On three previous occasions I had only been able to see the remains of a tragic encounter with leopards and lions.) It had rained the night before and during our morning drive Musa found fresh clear tracks. With very enthusiastic guests we set out to find the aardvark’s burrow. Running out of time we decided to return to the last tracks after our guests had departed the lodge. After a 1.5km trail, the tracks led us to a burrow under the shade of a large jackalberry tree, close to a dry riverbed. It was such an exhilarating feeling to be so close to such a mystical animal, knowing he/she was only a couple of feet away, but not wanting to disturb the animal we set off home. I was able to borrow a trail camera (triggered by movement) from Panthera and set it up close to the burrow. The red colour in the photograph is due to the fact that I covered the flash with a gentle-on-the-eyes red film in order to prevent any stress on the animal, who might have had the fright of its life after a good 12-hour sleep! When I downloaded the images from the trail camera I was over the moon, my first ever sight of a live aardvark.

Earlier this year, Musa with whom I’ve been lucky to be working with for the last three years and who has the extraordinary ability to find aardvark tracks, asked me to stop the Landover and, with a big grin told me to have a look at some fresh tracks. From his grin, I knew it was aardvark tracks and no less than 100 meters from the original tracks we were able to find a large termite mound with a burrow. I set up my trail camera on the side of the burrow entrance and was ecstatic when we returned there the next day to collect the memory card. This time we manage to film an aardvark leaving its burrow at 21.27pm and had some very unique observations of him scent marking the entrance of the burrow when he returned at 01 .44am.

Since these last images were taken, we have not be able to find any more active burrows or tracked any aardvarks successfully. With only four months left before the end of 2019, which happens to be the year of the Pig (my lucky number is twelve) and Pig is the twelfth in the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiac sign, I’m hoping to move on from A to Z… To no longer say that the aardvark is my most elusive animal, but now the zorilla instead!

On the 31st July 2019 we stopped for a beautiful sundowner in the south of the reserve and guess who’s tracks Musa spotted crossing the path? A mere metre in front of our drinks set up? Yes, an aardvark’s! I hope that is a sign, and as I’m about to go to bed I can’t help thinking about what is happening out in the wilderness and hope that 2019 (12) will be the year of the aardvark.