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Digital Subscriptions > Travel Africa > January-March 2020 (89) > GROUND RULES


Next time you’re on safari, look down. You never know what you’ll unearth. What’s beneath your feet is much more important than you might think

Unearthly: A Cape cobra emerges from a rodent burrow. Like many snakes, this species often forages underground for small mamals and reptiles

Tchik, tchik!’ goes the alarm call. ‘Tchik, tchik!’ The unhappy bird has been in my ear ever since we parked at the waterhole. Reluctantly, I turn my attention from the elephants and look left. A capped wheatear is hopping from bush to ground and back to bush again. Its mate, equally agitated, perches nearby, tail flicking furiously. What’s their problem? Is it me?

Then another movement catches my eye: the flickering tongue of a snake, protruding from a hole. As I watch, a snouted cobra emerges slowly onto the dusty ground. The birds redouble their efforts, hopping and fluttering around the reptile, which, undeterred, eases its gleaming length back into another hole. Of course! Capped wheatears nest in burrows. The brave birds must be doing their best to protect their brood from a grisly fate.

This mini-drama took place some years ago in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. I don’t know how it ended – not well for the birds, I fear – but it was a reminder that when on safari, while we scan waterholes, horizons and treetops, we shouldn’t ignore the ground at our feet, where a world of wildlife lies just beneath the surface.

The hole story
Look closely at the African earth and you’ll see that it’s riddled with animal holes. Some may be tiny, others large enough to crawl inside, but all serve similar purposes: burrows in which to sleep and rear young, refuges for dodging predators or avoiding the sun, and entrances to underground tunnels. Some may also be about food: hideaways from which to ambush prey or larders in which to store supplies.

Among the smallest holes you’ll notice are those of harvester termites. Pencil-wide, these are surrounded by tell-tale clippings of grass that the industrious insects collect as food for their underground colony. Harvester termites are unusual in that they forage on the surface; they are most visible during winter, when the grass is dry and there is less rainfall.

Bigger invertebrates dig larger holes. The oval or crescent-shaped slots of certain scorpion species show where these nocturnal arachnids shelter by day from the sun. The rounder, more vertical hole of a baboon spider is lined with silk, which detects the movement of passing prey and prompts the predatory occupant to launch its ambush.

In soft, sandy soil, the larvae of ant-lions adopt a similar ambush approach – but rather than a hole, they dig a small conical pit, a few centimetres across, beneath which they lurk, jaws open, to ensnare any hapless ants that tumble in.

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