There are some very fascinating animals in the South African bush. One such animal, often overlooked (although it seems to be a very popular name to use for tourism related ventures) and not often seen, is the Aardvark. In African folklore, the aardvark is much admired because of its diligent quest for food and its fearless response to soldier ants. Hausa magicians make a charm from the heart, skin, forehead, and nails of the aardvark, which they then proceed to pound together with the root of a certain tree. Wrapped in a piece of skin and worn on the chest, the charm is said to give the owner the ability to pass through walls or roofs at night. The charm is said to be used by burglars and those seeking to visit young girls without their parents’ permission.
South Africa’s Aardvark (Orycteropus afer) is an unusual species known for its excellent digging skills and termite diet. The common name of Aardvark originates from Afrikaans and is translated as “earth pig”. Although it may resemble a pig, it is no relation. In fact, the Aardvark has been classified into its own family of Orycteropodidae of the order Tubulidentata. Although the aardvark, endemic to Africa, shares some similarities with the South American anteater, the two are not related. The last survivor of a group of primitive ungulates, the aardvark could more accurately be called a near-ungulate that has developed powerful claws.
Aardvarks are found in all our regions, from dry savanna to rain forest, where there are sufficient termites for food, access to water and sandy or clay soil. If the soil is too hard, aardvarks, despite being speedy, powerful diggers, will move to areas where the digging is easier. They are seen mostly in grassland areas, open woodland and sparse scrub. They are also known to take advantage of domestic stock farms where the grass has been trampled, making the Aardvark’s food sources easily accessible. Topping the Aardvark’s diet in dry months are ants, whilst termites are the feast of choice in the rainy season. The termite or ant nest is broken open and revealed by the digging action of the Aardvark’s powerful claws. After opening up the colony the insects along with larvae and eggs are picked up with the Aardvark’s long sticky tongue. This unusual species may also feed on other insects or the wild cucumber fruit.
The Aardvark is really a very unique looking creature. Its sparse hair covers the grey-yellow skin of the Aardvark, ideal for camouflage. The aardvark has a short neck connected to a massive, almost hairless body with a strongly arched back. The legs are short, the hind legs longer than the front ones. The head is elongated, with a long, narrow snout and nostrils that can be sealed. The long, tubular ears are normally held upright but can be folded and closed. The short but muscular tail is cone-shaped and tapers to a point. The thick claws on the forefeet are well adapted for digging. The hair lower down on the body darkens. Interestingly, the coloration of an Aardvark can vary according to the soil of its locality. The Aardvark’s back has a distinctive arch. As a member of the order Tubulidentata, the Aardvark has unusual teeth. The teeth do not have a pulp cavity, but are rather made up of thin tubes of dentine held together with cementum. As such, the teeth wear away continuously and re-grow throughout life. Adult Aardvarks are left with only molars. The aardvark has fewer teeth than most mammals.
Aardvarks are very secretive animals. They are mostly solitary and nocturnal, but sometimes will come out during the day to sun themselves. Visitors to South Africa’s game parks may be lucky enough to spot an Aardvark on a night game drive. These are not social animals and only come together to mate. Females tend to prefer to remain in a particular location whilst males tend to be more nomadic. Females excavate large burrow systems. Aardvarks cover several kilometres whilst seeking out sustenance for the day. On discovering an ant or termite colony, they tear it open and devour their share of tasty creatures. Their digging habits have made them unpopular with farmers as they do dig holes in roads and dam walls. When aardvarks sleep, they block the entrance to their burrow, leaving only a very small opening at the top, and curl into a tight ball. Especially during the rains, aardvarks may dig themselves new burrows almost nightly. Many animals, including ground squirrels, hares, civets, hyenas, jackals, porcupines, warthogs, monitor lizards, and birds use abandoned aardvark holes as shelter. When pursued, an aardvark will furiously dig itself a hole, and when attacked, may roll onto its back and defend itself with its large claws or use its thick tail to somersault away from its attackers.
Predators of Aardvarks include lions, leopards and hyenas, whilst pythons may feast on their young. When pursued by a predator, the Aardvark speedily digs a hole to get away, quickly disappearing into the earth. They will defend themselves with their frightening claws or even somersault away by means of the tail. Aardvark are unfortunately also used for food by some African tribes. Body parts from the Aardvark may also be used as charms, as mentioned earlier. As it is nocturnal and has poor eyesight, the aardvark is cautious upon leaving its burrow. It comes to the entrance and stands there motionless for several minutes. Then it suddenly leaps out in powerful jumps. At about 30 feet out it stops, raises up on its legs, perks up its ears and turns its head in all directions. If there are no sounds, it makes a few more leaps and finally moves at a slow trot to look for food. These animals are an absolute delight to watch, if you are lucky enough to spot them!