Porcupines are secretive and elusive rodents with a spectacular quiver of arrow-sharp quills. They’ve earned their place among the rarely seen 'Shy Five', though: they’re nocturnal and usually flee from any human disturbance. Yet there are some things about human settlements they can’t resist.

Did you know?

Porcupine quills are actually modified hairs.

In the late afternoon, or very early in the morning, you may glimpse what looks like a Native American headdress scuttling about in the African bush.

But take another glance. It’s almost certainly a porcupine, a fascinating beast with an impressive defence system.

Like many of the secretive Shy Five wild animals (which also include the meerkat, the aardvark, the aardwolf and the bat-eared fox), it is one of South Africa's nocturnal animals.

Although porcupine meat is said to be delicious, lions and other predators hesitate to take a porcupine on. When cornered, this prickly, large rodent issues a clear warning that is more like a war dance than anything else.

It erects a crest to enhance its size, growls ferociously, then stamps its feet, shaking its tail to rattle the hollow black and white quills. It’s an eerie and ominous sound.

If an attacker ignores this abundantly clear warning and persists in getting closer, the porcupine will abruptly reverse or lurch into its enemy.

The quills are only loosely connected to the skin, and once their sharp points penetrate the flesh of an adversary, they’re usually left there, leaving the predator whimpering and looking like a pincushion.

Porcupines usually spend the day in burrows, caves or rock crevices, and then come out at night looking for fruits, roots, bark, bulbs and seeds.

Game lodge owners often curse them because they seem unable to resist the gurgle of black PVC water pipes, sometimes even digging to get at them and chewing holes in them.

Porcupines occur throughout South Africa. The only place there’s no chance of seeing them is in the dry, hot Richtersveld in the north-western corner of the country.

Even so, they are rarely seen, mostly because they are nocturnal and because they shy away from attention.

It’s hard to say whether porcupine numbers are declining or not, but indications are that the trade in porcupine quills for jewellery and decoration has had a distinctly negative effect on populations.

And while it’s lucky to see a porcupine, you’ll need a lot more luck to see porcupine babies. Incidentally, they are born with their spines, but the quills only harden once they’re born.

All too often, you’ll find jewellery or curios made from porcupine quills. Avoid buying them. They are almost certainly contributing to the decline of the species.

Travel tips & Planning info

How to get here

You’re likely to see porcupines at dusk or dawn (or at night) almost anywhere in South Africa except the driest regions in the west. But they are secretive, so keep a sharp lookout. Sometimes they may be found in a distinctly non-wild place – on a veggie-garden raid in a private game lodge, for example. On farms they’re sometimes considered pests because they’ll do almost anything to get at cultivated food.

Best time to visit

Nocturnal animals such as porcupines are most easily seen in mid-winter (June to August), during the late afternoon or very early morning. But if you want to see the adorable babies, your best chance is in spring (September and October).

What to pack

Whenever you’re looking for nocturnal animals like porcupines, bring warm gear no matter the season. You may also need to bring a flash for your camera.

Where to stay

It’s hard to say where you’re most likely to see a porcupine, but a farm stay might be a good option. The farmer will almost certainly know where you can see these creatures, if they’re present on his property. Ask before booking.