Text and Photos by Dirk Skorski
Dirk Skorski is a German freelance nature photographer who works and lives in Namibia. When photographing Namibian wildlife and landscape, his motto is “Wait until one can wait no longer”. As one of the founders of the bat-eared fox project, he has followed the family life of bat-eared foxes for the past three years, sharing his knowledge with his clients on photographic courses and outdoor safaris. His work has been published in many international magazines, and he participates regularly in the annual Namibia Holiday & Travel Photographic Competition, raking in top awards in the Wildlife, Birds, Flora and Wild Places categories.
“I’m worried,” says Margit du Toit, initiator of the bat-eared fox project. “Let’s go and check the den.” Outside a heavy rainstorm has passed overhead and flooded huge areas of the study site.
Only two years ago, at the beginning of December, the hand-raised female bat-eared fox named Fanta had given birth to a litter of four. Since then her offspring have brought new life to the area. With the rains coming earlier in the past two years, the date of birth has now advanced to the end of October. “It seems the animals know instinctively about the coming rainy season,” Margit says just before we arrive at Joy’s den. Joy is Fanta’s grandchild. The den is situated under a big thorn bush in the middle of rivers that are now flowing. Inside it is completely dry. Although Joy has not celebrated her first birthday yet, she has all the skills she needs to survive with her offspring in the harsh living conditions prevalent at the edge of the Namib Desert.
The first target of the project is to gain more data on the behaviour of bat-eared foxes and their role in the environment. By means of radio collars, Margit is able to track these tiny little predators in the open bush-land savannah. Even though the bat-eared foxes in the study area have known her from birth, they remain untamed. Nevertheless, once tracked down, they tolerate the close presence of humans most of the time.
The next day we are on our way to locate George, the only male bat-eared fox from last year’s litter. Armed with a hand receiver and a light aluminium antenna, we approach his present home range. The receiver gives us a soft ‘beep’, indicating George’s presence before we reach him. As we walk up and down the small sand dunes, the sound first becomes louder, then weaker. “George is on the move. He’s trying to escape from us,” explains Margit.
As a youngster George was the bravest of the litter and keen to make contact with Margit, I’m told. But since he’s been on his own, he avoids humans. Nevertheless, we are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him running through tall grass. Our sightings are marked by means of a GPS device and then transferred onto a map.
This helps not only to calculate the home range used by bat-eared foxes, but also to follow the varying temporary coalitions of the three sisters and brother of the past litter. At the age of four months, the siblings had been left by the mother to fend for themselves and find their own territories, and of course to meet up with local bat-eared foxes for mating.
Later in the afternoon when the heat of the day has subsided, we are out again to find Elsa, another of Joy and George’s siblings. The weak signal from her radio collar means a long walk for us through the bush. Although there is not much out here, one always has to keep an eye on the ground for snakes. From time to time we find harvester termites busy collecting seeds and pieces of grass, which they carry into their subterranean nests. Margit mentions that these specific termites are the main ingredients of the bat-eared foxes’ diet. Bat-eared foxes differ from other members of the dog family insofar as they eat mainly insects, occasionally also small reptiles.
Strong south-westerly headwinds help us to approach very close to Elsa without her noticing. She is busy digging. Then the action stops and the head with the enormous ears is bent low, only centimetres above the ground. Bat-eared foxes can hear sounds of movement as deep as 40 cm into the ground when tracking down their prey. Elsa is successful, and is rewarded with a protein-rich grub.
The next morning Margit wants to do some video filming of Joy’s puppies inside the den. Carefully we approach, calling her name to alert her of our arrival. All we see from the outside is her head, but we can hear the high-pitched sounds of the newborn. Joy is very calm and allows Margit to install the small video camera in front of her. At home we watch the video footage and enjoy participating in the bat-eared foxes’ family life. Joy has four healthy-looking puppies. We see them running around inside the den and suckling on Joy’s well-filled teats.
As the study site is situated on commercial farmland, the foxes have to cross fences and roads, reconnoitring their surroundings carefully. Crossing roads is the most dangerous activity. Because of their nocturnal way of life, bat-eared foxes run a high risk of being hit by cars. “So far,” says Margit with relief, “there haven’t been any such incidents around here.”
The bat-eared fox project is well known in the region and is supported by the neighbouring farmers. Margit, actual a veterinary surgeon, intends to build a reception station for injured or diseased local animals. “But this,” she admits “will be a long-term project, as it is funded entirely by membership fees and donations.”
Thus far the bat-eared fox does not appear on the CITES list for endangered species. Nevertheless, Margit hopes that her project will support the protection and survival of these small but undoubtedly spectacular predators on commercial farmland.
Facts about bat-eared fox