The Small Mammals of Sagalla: Part I
By Sarah Weiner
I was only lucky enough to see her speckled coat once. She was frozen, crouched low to the ground beneath the tangled bush, with the light of my head torch reflecting off of her chestnut eyes. I knew I would spook her into fleeing, but I inched forward, desperate to get a closer look. As my shoes crunched through the rusty sand, she whipped around and the last thing I saw was her black ringed tail snaking away through the dry undergrowth.
This beautiful, elusive creature is a common genet (Genetta genetta). Genets are crepuscular creatures—they are typically most active in the twilight hours. The genet that I have become familiar with seems to prefer the witching hour for her nightly visits. As I lay in bed at night, I first become aware of her presence as she climbs the wooden posts that hold the metal pavilion above my tent. The sound of her claws scratching against the crumbling maze of red clay tunnels glued to the posts, long since abandoned by the termites that once inhabited them, arouses me from sleep.
Genets are solitary animals, and she is no exception. When my bed frame creaks as I turn onto my side to face her, she jerks her head in my direction. Despite her excellent night vision, she can’t see me through the mesh window of my tent. She relaxes into a comfortable seat on the horizontal post that hangs a few feet above my eye level. All I can see is her inky silhouette against the starlit sky.
Sometimes she grooms herself, her head bobbing up and down gently as she licks her paws. I’ll catch a glimpse of her long, pointed snout as she turns to the side to reach her back legs. Other times, she sits motionless, save her long thick tail flicking softly, and gazes out into the darkness. She doesn’t appear to have much of an agenda. Genets primarily hunt by smell, so the elevated location couldn’t possibly serve as an advantageous lookout point. She’s far too calm to be on the prowl, anyway. Nor could the bare post be a particularly comfortable resting place for the evening compared to the acacias nearby that provide coverage with their entangled, thorny branches. She’s undoubtedly aware that I dwell in her space. Genets live within confined territories, so she must hear me noisily zip and unzip my tent at least half of a dozen times daily. Yet, she regularly returns to the same perch to sit and wait in the stillness.
I try to stay awake long enough to watch her slink away into the bush, hoping to enjoy these silent encounters as long as possible. Usually, I drift off to sleep and wake the next morning to replay the scene in my head.
Elephants are undeniably majestic animals. Their footprint leaves a gargantuan mark on the ecosystem, and their remarkable intelligence and sentience are something to behold. In lieu of being able to marvel in their glory every day, however, it is the smaller, more hidden mammals of Sagalla that captivate me on a daily basis.
Take, for example, a tasty snack for my friendly genet: the rufous elephant shrew (Elephantulus rufescens).Named for its long, trunk-like nose, elephant shrews and savanna elephants, despite their staggering size difference, actually belong to the same Superorder, Afrotheria (which also curiously includes hyraxes, aardvarks, and sea cows). Elephant shrews, also known as sengis, have a peculiar life history compared to other mammals of their size. One of the most common rodents in Kenya, Hinde’s rock rat (Aethymys hindei) (who I suspect is the culprit who feasts upon our avocados and bananas when the produce cabinet is left ajar), lives for two to three years and gestates six to ten pups at a time, giving birth after only three weeks. Sengis, on the other hand, live up to six years and gestate their young for two months, giving birth to only one baby at a time. This long lifespan and gestation period are extremely rare for a mammal of this size.
A rufous elephant shrew (Elephantulus rufescens) freezes just long enough for a quick photo in Sagalla.
Another sengi poses for his close up in Laikipia.
Having spent some time studying small mammals in Laikipia, I can tell you from personal experience that although they may shriek like maniacs when first removed from a (humane) trap, elephant shrews never bite. Whether out of fear or comfort, an elephant shrew will often settle quietly into the palm of your hand after a minute or so. Don’t be surprised, however, if it uses its powerful hind legs to catapult itself into the air—up to one meter high—to escape back into the bush.
Of similar stature, though much feistier and certain to draw blood should your fingertips be within reach of his sharp incisors, is the fringe-tailed gerbil (Gerbilliscus robustus). With its large glassy black eyes and caramel pelage, the fringe-tailed gerbil is certainly one of the most photogenic and charismatic small mammals I’ve come across, despite its proclivity for chomping on fingers.
A fringe-tailed gerbil (Gerbilliscus robustus) hides in the undergrowth in Sagalla.
Another gerbil poses for his close up in Laikipia.
Often, I’ll catch a sengi or gerbil scuttling through the snarled undergrowth or dashing across the driveway in the dark. I’ve learned to distinguish between the footsteps of these small mammals and the overly abundant Agama lizards that litter camp. While the lizards are clumsy, trampling through the leaves making little effort to conceal their presence, the small mammals are much more light-footed. They zip by in small bursts, pausing in silence, waiting for you to make your next move.
Even smaller mammals that I’ve encountered in camp include the small-eared dormouse (Graphiurus microtis) that Josh, a fellow intern, impressively spotted one evening climbing fifteen feet above us in an acacia tree, wagging its cute bushy tail. On another night, I chased a juvenile Hinde’s rock rat into the bathroom only to watch him scale the textured clay wall like a gecko. I actually managed to capture the little guy by the base of his tail (which is harmless), but while I was frantically beckoning someone to check out my discovery, he began spinning and flipping rapidly in midair until he shed the outer layer of his tail and then he dashed off into the dark. This is a unique defense mechanism, not dissimilar to a gecko self-amputating its own tail, that allows A. hindei to quickly escape the jaws of a predator (or the hands of a curious human, in this case). Though I wish I hadn’t forced him to do this, the skin will grow back as good as new within a couple weeks.
A small-eared dormouse (Graphiurus microtis) in Laikipia
A juvenile Hinde’s rock rat (Aethymys hindei) does his best gecko impression in Sagalla.
Just stumbling upon these four species of small mammals has made me wonder what other little creatures hide in the undergrowth, and whether or not I can catch one. I’ll be sure to update you if any critters fall for my homemade mop bucket-based, peanut butter and Weetabix-baited trap…
Photos by Sarah Weiner
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