Returning Meerkats to the wild

Working in a wildlife sanctuary in Africa is always an enrichment for the human as well as for the animal. But after a while there comes a time where the animals have to be returned to their natural habitat to ensure they grow up in a species-appropriate way. To provide some insights in this kind of work, our volunteer Natalia, who received our “Get Involved Scholarship”, wrote about her experiences with meerkats at the N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary.

It was love at first sight! As soon as I got off the plane, Namibia had already become my favourite country! The landscape is beautiful and if you pay attention, you’ll see animals everywhere!

The N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary takes care of animals that lost their mothers, used to be kept as pets, or were injured and then release them back into the wild, whenever it is possible.

Many people think that keeping wild animals like meerkats as pets is a good idea. But then someday they realise that they were wrong. That’s when N/a’an ku sê becomes the animal’s new home.

After spending some time living in an enclosure at the Sanctuary, three of those meerkats were sent to Kanaan, one of N/a’an ku sê’s research sites in the Namib Desert. There, they could be released into the wild.

The one male and two female meerkats were first released next to a water dam. There was shadow from a tree, many bugs to eat and it was easy for us to fill their water bowl. Even though the meerkats were next to one of the animal’s water sources, that was already there, they were not tall enough to reach it. So we provided them with their own bowl.

Secret observations of meerkats

For the first two weeks we took them in at night, when most of the predators are active. We left the box for them during the day and in the evening they would fall asleep as soon as we put them in the car.

At first we were worried, because people had always protected them. Because of that we were happy to see, that they managed to take care of themselves. We even caught them on the camera trap, attacking a crow!

During those first two weeks, we would give them an egg in the morning but they were perfectly capable of finding their own food already.

They not only dug to find food, but also to make tunnels. In spite of having their box there, they were digging many tunnels under the water dam. Because we were quite concerned about the structure collapsing, we decided to move them to a dry riverbed.

After a while, we found the perfect tree as their new home. It had big roots and a lot of very low branches that they could climb on to look for predators and build tunnel systems under it. We dug a hole in the ground to put a water bucket and a couple of rocks inside, so they could get out in case they fell in.


The first night in the wild

Once they they had a new home, we decided that it was time to stop bringing them in at night. We left their box with the door open just enough for the meerkats to fit in there, in case some predator would pay a visit. Making them not follow us to the car took a very long time and it felt like we were abandoning them, but it was for their own good.

On the next day it was time for the truth: we checked if they survived their first night in the wild. Thankfully they were fine and already built a few tunnels under the tree!

Still, it wasn’t easy to go back as they kept trying to follow us. After a few days, we took the box away since it was clear that they didn’t need it. When we came back to check on them and change the water, we couldn’t find them anywhere. We called for them, but there was no sign of movement. We left, hoping that they were still fine.

The next day we came there to fill their water and once again we weren’t able to find them. We were starting to assume the worst, but as we started driving back, we saw the three little ones under a different tree! Not only were they alive and well, but they were also out exploring and had expanded their territory!

The first veterinary task

Usually people rescue cats from trees; in Namibia we also rescued one of the meerkats when it could’t find its way back to the ground.

The same adventurer got a big wound on her back for some reason. It looked really bad, so we were very worried about it. After talking to a veterinary, we were told to only keep the wound clean, so that’s what we did. Somehow she didn’t mind it at all when we touched her wound; we could poke it, squeeze it and pluck the dirt out, and she didn’t react to it in a negative manner at all. In spite of our concerns, the wound healed perfectly. Even though we’ve seen hyena and cheetah tracks around the riverbed (not to mention all the raptors that are always around), the little animals managed to thrive!

As the time went by, they started giving us less attention, and didn’t really mind that we left anymore, so we started checking on them every other day. Now they have claimed the entire riverbed. Recently the male – who used to love to cuddle – started biting us for no reason, so now we don’t even get off the car to see them anymore.

Getting bitten by a meerkat is not fun, and I will miss spending time with them, but the scar on my leg will always remind me of this successful story, of three little meerkats, who began their lives not even knowing how to be meerkats, for they were treated like pets and now are back where they belong, being wild.

Guest contribution by Natália Cará – edited by Volunteer World

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