South African ground squirrels are knee-high rodents with fluffy tails and a pale racing stripe down their cinnamon-coloured flanks. At a glance, they’re easily mistaken for meerkats, since they also occur in the Karoo and Kalahari. But unlike meerkats, these little burrowers (which often live alongside meerkats) are mostly vegetarians.

Did you know?

Ground squirrels chase away snakes by repeated sideways flicks of their fluffy tails.

In the arid Karoo and Kalahari regions of South Africa, you may spot what looks like meerkat.

But look carefully, because it may in fact be a ground squirrel, or a group of them. It’s fairly easy to confuse the two, in part because they have so much in common. They’re roughly the same size, like the same terrain, also sit upright to look around, live in groups and are mad-keen burrowers. In fact, sometimes meerkats and ground squirrels actually live together.

Where they differ physically is that ground squirrels have very fluffy tails compared to meerkats, no visible ears, have pale bellies and unlike meerkats, ground squirrels are largely vegetarian. They eat seeds, soft leaves, flowers, tsamma melons (which are similar to watermelons and grow wild in the Kalahari) and the odd passing termite.

Their fluffy tails aren’t just for decoration. They use them during the heat of the day as parasols. By shading themselves from the sun, they’re able to save 5% on their energy needs.

Another trick they use to dodge the heat is to lie flat on their stomachs in the shade, legs and arms outstretched like a hearth rug, occasionally flicking sand onto their backs.

If it’s cold, they simply retire to their burrows.

Compared to the precocious and amusing meerkats, ground squirrels can come across as a little country-bumpkinish.

But watching them from the comfort of your chalet or tent is one of the enduring delights of a visit to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Here, as at some other park campsites and picnic spots, they have become used to humans.

They forage on all fours, regularly sitting back on their haunches holding seeds or leaves in their clawed hands, watching you with shyly confiding eyes. You might also see high-spirited youngsters chasing each other around, leaping high in the air and jinking their fluffed-up tails.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

South African National Parks Central Reservations (Pretoria):
+27 (0)12 428 9111 or +27 (0)82 233 9111

Call Centre Office Hours (GMT+2):
Monday to Friday: 07:30 - 17:00
Saturday: 08:00 - 13:00

Email: reservations@sanparks.org

Luxury Lodges Reservations
+27 (0)12 426 5084/5 Monday to Friday: 07:30 - 16:00

How to get here

Ground squirrels are widespread across nearly 50% of the country, in the Karoo and Kalahari. You’re quite likely to see them at the side of the road at times. But arguably the best place to see them is at the rest camps of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Spend time in the late afternoon watching them and their sometimes-burrow mates, the yellow mongooses, going about their business.

Best time to visit

Ground squirrels can be seen throughout the year. They don’t hibernate. But on very cold or overcast days, they’ll rise late and retire early. If you're visiting

Get around

Once you’ve spotted a ground squirrel burrow near your chalet at a national park, get a deck chair and a drink and enjoy the show.

What will it cost

Price will vary quite widely depending on what type of accommodation you choose in a national park in South Africa. The most inexpensive option is to camp, up to private guesthouses in some camps. Enquire directly with the South African National Parks.

What to pack

Bring along a camera with a medium-length lens and a pair of binoculars. If you're going to the Kalahari, it is scorching hot during the day in summer (October to March) and very cold, especially at night, in winter (May to August). Pack very light clothes for the summer months, though something warm for night time, and pack very warm clothes for night times in winter. Winter days are usually warm and sunny, so you'll need light clothes in winter, too.

Where to stay

In the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park, any of the major rest camps (Twee Rivieren, Mata Mata or Nossob) will offer excellent squirrel-frontage.