Text and photographs Gary Newton
We were standing in the back of a lime-green Frankenstein of a farm vehicle. It looked as if it had been assembled with parts cannibalised from a Land Rover, a Massey Ferguson tractor and a Maytag Gyrator Electric Ringer washing machine. This was the vehicle that had backed over little Kobus last year, branding him for life with a tread mark on his back, but that’s a story for another day. We were motoring over the veld to an area where we were to disembark to walk and stalk springbok, when a shout went out, “AAAARDVAAAARK!”
I felt like Ishmael when Daggoo cried down from the masthead of the Pequod, “There she blows! – there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!” While the aardvark didn’t have ‘a hump like a snow-hill’ it did have ears like a jackass, which were all we could see sprouting from a sea of grass as it trolled for termites. I leapt from the back of the still moving vehicle, heart pounding, and gave chase.
An aardvark? The animal that greeted me when I opened my ABC primer in 1956! The animal that looked like one of Winnie the Pooh’s pals, a combination of Eeyore and Piglet that I had always thought was fictitious! Aardvark? The first ‘English’ word I learned because it began with not one but two A’s! An English word that turned out to be Afrikaans, and Afrikaans for ‘earth pig’! Here I was, a half-century later, my 1950s crew cut ‘grown’ into a comb-over, hoofing after an actual aardvark through the dry winter grass on the western fringe of the Kalahari.
The aardvark’s award-winning olfactory sense directed it to stop and start digging. We stopped and squatted in the high grass, keeping our distance. It kicked up a cloud of dirt and dust as it burrowed in on a kimberlitic pipe of sweet termites. We tippy-toed stealthily to the lip of a hole it had dug with astounding speed, bent down and peered in. “Thar she blows!” or rather, “Thar she sucks!” We were within touching distance of the big grey scraggly-haired rump of an aardvark hovering up termites with its foot-long tongue! Shiver me timbers, mate, life doesn’t get any better than this. No one sees aardvarks, not even sun-weathered octogenarian South Westerners who’ve been trooping around the veld since The Riddle Rider was playing at the Acme Theatre on Kaiser Wilhelm Street in Windhoek.
One of the rare PhD dissertations done on the rarely seen aardvark states, “It is almost impossible to observe them in the wild.”
Aardvarks are predominantly nocturnal, exceedingly wary and careful, and equipped with extraordinary senses of smell and hearing. One of the rare PhD dissertations done on the rarely seen aardvark states, “It is almost impossible to observe them in the wild.”
After the fateful encounter, I joined the thin ranks of the aardvark obsessed. I spent time – the Minister of Home Affairs (aka my dear wife) would suggest far too much – learning about them.
So other than their two “A’s”, what’s so special about aardvarks anyway?
Aardvarks look like no other animal because they look like so many different animals. They appear to have been assembled by a second-grader from a Mr Potato Head set (or, by Dr Frankenstein, the guy who assembled the farm vehicle). They have beady and bookish eyes planted incongruously on a crass, elongated piggish snout; a tongue like a monitor lizard; ears like a donkey; tail like a kangaroo; and hooves like a springbok badly in need of a pedicure. When they’re young, they look old, like Marabou Storks, a bird born with a comb-over. Aardvarks are tragicomic creatures – so most of us should be able to identify with them.
Aardvarks are one of a kind taxonomically. They constitute their own order, family and species.
African aardvarks constitute the only order (Tubulidentata), in the mammal world that contains a single family (Orycteropodidae), with a single living species (Orycteropus afer, which translates roughly as African shovel-foot or African foot miner). Aardvarks are all alone, species-wise. They’re not even related to South American anteaters. The two species evolved independently, a phenomenon known as ‘convergent evolution’. Aardvarks are living fossils. If one is lucky enough to see an aardvark, you’re looking at a live dinosaur, and you’re in Jurassic Park, as their appearance and chromosomes are pretty much unchanged over the course of the last 20 million years.
Aardvarks are altruistic. Their vacant burrows provide housing for a remarkable array of the Kalahari’s homeless, including 17 species of mammals. Aardvarks even share their living space with porcupines – but they probably draw the line at honey badgers.
Aardvarks rarely vocalise. When they do, they make a snuffling sound, like Mr Dick in David Copperfield. Unlike Mr Dick, aardvarks are not gregarious. They are solitary, not mixers, don’t move about in families, flocks, pods, troupes, herds, or gaggles, and they don’t congregate at waterholes or termite mounds. And, they don’t join Facebook.
The aardvark diet is a riot of termites and ants – up to 50 000 a night – and, as icing on a cake, the occasional dung beetle larvae or wild cucumber (cucumis humifructus), aka the ‘vegetable hedgehog’. Perhaps their diet accounts for a tooth structure that is unique among living mammals.
In spite of their obvious appeal, aardvarks never get leading roles in wildlife documentaries. They don’t even appear as walk-ons. Getting footage of aardvark in the wild is challenging. Viewers prefer to see ‘predation’ anyway. They want to see a pride of well-muscled lions tear a big bad Cape Buffalo apart rather than a solitary, portly, vegan ‘vark slurping up ants with its tongue’. You never hear tourists ask their safari guide, “Forget the Big Five, take me to an aardvark.” There are very few aardvarks in zoos – and none feature as logos on polo shirts. Not yet anyway!
Aardvarks were living on this Earth before we made our appearance, and among us in their nocturnal niche for millions of years – unchanged, little known and rarely seen. I felt blessed to have seen one. I was smitten. So, naturally, I had to organise an expedition to try to find another…