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SSouth Africa’s Big 5 are easy to see at many locations around the country: elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard are big and bold, even if the last-named is a little more elusive and nocturnal.
The Shy 5, on the other hand, are a quintet most visitors aren’t even aware of, even though they’re just as fascinating to watch. Elusive masters in the art of melting down a handy burrow at the slightest hint of danger, the Shy 5 are much less frequently spotted than the Big 5, but they’re well worth the effort.
The Shy 5 comprise the meerkat, the aardvark, the porcupine, the aardwolf and the bat-eared fox. All are nocturnal beasts except for the meerkat, and although most can be found in many different locations around southern Africa, the Karoo or the Kalahari Desert are the 2 regions where you’ll have the best chance of spotting them all on the same game drive.
The strongest of the group is the solitary aardvark, a powerful termite-and-ant-eating digger that uses its formidable excavation prowess to break open termite mounds and anthills or dig a burrow with several escape routes. Its old holes are often renovated and occupied by all other members of the Shy 5.
The most prickly customer is the porcupine, a large, quilled rodent that devours juicy bulbs, fruit, bark, berries and roots, warding off danger by stamping its feet and rattling its black and white quills. If that doesn’t work, it will charge in reverse, driving its sharp quills into predators. They detach easily from its hide, to lodge in a predator’s face and fester painfully, so very few carnivores will attack a porcupine twice.
The aardwolf looks like a miniature, striped hyena at first glance, but this dog-like animal lives on a steady diet of termites too. Its jaws are most unhyena-like – small and weak with peg-like teeth. It frightens away attackers by puffing out its huge mane and making scary roaring noises.
Another doggie character is the beautiful bat-eared fox, with its fluffy tail, robber-mask face and huge ears, all the better to hear bugs with. This insect-muncher will stand peering at the ground, detecting every tiny twitch of termites, larvae or beetles underground. It digs them up with its elegant, black-stockinged forelegs, then trots on, usually with its family.
And then there is the ever-photogenic meerkat (another insect-lover with a fondness for termites), the only diurnal member of the quintet; known for taking turns at keeping watch for land-based and aerial predators, while the others in the colony eat, groom and play in the sun.
At first glance, this seems like the odd one out among the Shy 5. Isn’t this the cheeky Timon in The Lion King? The soapie star of Meerkat Manor? Yes, and there are meerkat troops that are habituated to humans. But usually their superb sentinel skills send them scampering down a burrow at the mere sight of you – you’ll probably spot meerkats more easily than the rest of the Shy 5, but you won’t see them for long…
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111
How to get here
The Shy 5 have distribution ranges all over the country, but the best chance to see all 5 of them in one place is in the Kalahari and the Karoo, collectively the arid heartland of South Africa. Head for the Karoo National Park outside Beaufort West, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park near Upington, the Tswalu Private Game Reserve near Kuruman, or the Samara Private Game Reserve near Graaff-Reinet.
Best time to visit
Unless you’re a night owl (preferably with infra-red goggles), the best time to see the Shy 5 is in deep winter (June to August). That’s when even the most strictly nocturnal creatures will often be seen in the early morning – they conserve more heat feeding by day. Give the meerkats time, though. They hate getting up early on cold days.
What to pack
A game drive at night on an open vehicle can get very chilly, even in summer, so take along a jacket, scarf and beanie. Don't forget your binoculars, or better still, night vision binoculars if you can. By day, even in winter, a hat and sunblock are recommended.