Our ‘Secret Seven’ wildlife species in Africa are rarely seen and elusive animals. Well, the name says it all.
These are the most secretive animals and even many frequent visitors to National Parks and wildlife reserves haven’t been fortunate enough to see them all. The secret seven comprise aardvark, African wild cat, civet, large spotted genet, pangolin, porcupine and serval.
In a lifetime career working in the bush I’ve been lucky enough to see six of our Secret Seven. But one I am yet to see in all my years..
The main reason these guys are such a rare ‘spot’ is due to the fact that they are mostly nocturnal, solitary and shy animals. Let’s run through our list so that you’ll be ready to share in the excitement if you do spot one. It’s usually quite a fleeting sighting and they are certainly camera-shy!
Afrikaans Name: Erdvark
This animal has long ears, a long pig-like snout and a very thick tail. Their skin is almost bare and of a yellow-grey colour while the hair on the legs is generally darker in colour. Plus their hindquarters are also much heavier than the front quarters and their shoulders are much lower than the crop. Their limbs are extremely powerful and the feet, especially their front feet, have strong claws adapted for digging and for breaking into anthills. The aardvark is very adaptable and occurs in areas where the soil is not very compact and where a sufficient number of termites are.
Male aardvarks are slightly more heavily built than the females. Both are generally solitary. They range widely seeking food, with those noses of theirs held close to ground as their sense of smell is amazing. They are nocturnal (active at night) and usually sleep in a hole that they fill up behind them.
Speaking of their holes. You may be surprised that they have three holes with three different uses:
Hole 1: They live in this hole as well as give birth to their young in this hole. They give birth to a single young and they are born from July to September after a gestation period of +-7 months.
Hole 2: This acts as a temporary shelter from bad weather or unexpected weather or if they travelled a bit too far they will seek shelter before moving back to hole 1.
Hole 3: A small excavation for seeking food.
They can dig at unbelievable rates. Sometimes when they are done with their holes, if they are in good condition, then other animals will move in! They’ll make & shape them into dens or shelters for themselves. All and all, you can call the Aardvark the architect of bush.
African Wild Cat
Afrikaans Name: Vaalboskat
The second of our secret seven wildlife species is a slender animal resembling a grey house cat! Their colour varies from grey to dark grey, from reddish to dusky red stripes on their legs and tail. African wild cats are larger than small spotted cats and they usually have more spots. These cats can easily interbreed with domestic cats, but the cross-breeds will have shorter legs and lack the reddish tinge on the back of their ears which African wild cats are known for, however the cross-breeds will have a red nose instead of the normal black nose. You can find these cats everywhere, provided there is sufficient dense thicket, tall grass and rocks for shelters.
These shy, cunning animals are usually solitary, except for mating season when one or more males will be around a single female. 2 to 5 young are born any time of the year with the peak being between September and March, after a gestation period of +-2 months. They are mainly nocturnal. But you may be lucky and see them in the late afternoon at sunset. They are very territorial and both sexes will defend their areas. Although these cats are mainly terrestrial they are very good climbers, especially if they are being pursued. They also sometimes hunt from trees. I have been very lucky to have seen them, but only 2 individuals in my career.
Afrikaans Name: Siwet
This cat-like animal is a whitish-grey with indistinct spots on the forequarters and regular black spots which merge into stripes on their hindquarters. Their legs are black and their tail white, bushy and ringed with a black tip. These animals prefer woodlands with thick undergrowth. They also like to be in well-watered surroundings. African civets are exclusively nocturnal and are most active during the early hours of the evening or just before sunrise.
They are mainly solitary animals. Civets can climb trees but they mostly move on the ground, you will find these guys usually along footpaths and walking purposefully with their heads held down. They are extremely shy animals. If you disturb them, they will either stand motionless or lie down on the ground. Depending on good camouflage rather than fight. One to four young are born between August to December after a gestation period of +-2 months. These animals can live up to 12 years if they don’t get killed by lion, leopard or pythons.
I have been lucky enough to see four individuals and the last one was my best sighting; a civet being chased by a leopard! He survived due to the fact that the leopard wasn’t hunting or anything. It seemed that they just accidentally walked into each other in tall grass. Personally, I think the leopard got just as much of a fright as the civet.
Large Spotted Genet
Afrikaans Name: Grootkolmuskejaatkat
The fourth one in the secret seven roll-call is a rather small, cat-like animal. The large spotted genet are white or greyish-white with dark spots and stripes. Their tail is long and dark with white rings. The species has been split into the Large spotted genet with black spots, stripes and rings. And the Rusty-spotted genet with rust-brown stripes and spots. These animals like to be in well-watered areas with sufficient undergrowth.
Usually solitary animals, but they can sometimes be found in pairs. They are nocturnal animals and will emerge a few hours after sunset. During the day they sleep in old aardvark holes (our architect of the bush, remember?), spring hare holes or sometimes they will sleep in hollow tree stumps. They are mainly terrestrial but will either take shelter or hunt in trees. Their movements are watchful and furtive and when they run they keep their heads down and their tails horizontal.
These animals love dog pellets so people that live on farms where they keep dogs have to keep the dog food inside or they end up stealing the dog pellets.
Afrikaans Name: Ystervark
These guys are the largest rodent in the region. Their bodies are covered in quills, spines and flattened black bristles. Quills are generally black and white and very distinctive.
Porcupines are usually solitary but three or more can be found using the same shelters. Sometimes at the holes you will find bones which the porcupines drag to the shelters where they gnaw on the bones for calcium.
These guys are very adaptable and you can find them everywhere except in forests and desserts. So you may see them away from conservation areas. Indeed they are the worst enemy to veggie gardens and agricultural lands and cause a lot of damage.
They can travel long distances looking for food at night. These guys might look slow but they can run really fast if being pursued by a predator. Speaking of dangerous encounters for porcupine, they are pretty feisty. The quills by the neck and hindquarters are longer and thinner. They raise these up to make the porcupine look bigger and more fearsome to its enemies.
Look at this encounter between a leopard and a porcupine in the Kruger…
Quills cannot be shot out or released as folklore says, (cool though that would be). They actually back up into the predator where the quills will stick and remain in the predator. Lions and leopards struggle after an altercation between them and a porcupine as the quills cause infections and festering sores, making it difficult to hunt, eat or even drinking water, so they become weak and easy targets to their own enemies. Some people working in the bush actually refer to porcupines as the serial killer of the bush.
Afrikaans Name: Tierboskat
The serval is a slender animal with long legs, a rather small, rounded head and large ears. Colour varies from dull white to light golden-yellow with black stripes down the neck and irregular black spots on the body. The serval is sometimes confused with a young cheetah cubs as they look very similar. Yet so different if you know what to look for. Servals prefer thicker, more humid types of woodland with sufficient shelter and water.
These animals usually forage alone, although pairs sometimes hunt together, even in swampy areas. They are mainly nocturnal but you may see them in the early morning and late afternoon. They can run fast for short distances. At night they range far in search of food, using roads and footpaths to avoid difficult terrain. Although they are excellent tree climbers they are mainly terrestrial. These guys can live up to +-12 years unless their predators like lion and crocodile get to them first.
Afrikaans Name: Ietermagog
And last, but not least, in our secret seven line-up is probably the animal that most keen safari visitors would LOVE to see. These guys have got very hard, dark grey-brown scales which cover the body like roof tiles, their defining characteristic. It’s a very odd animal. You very rarely see them, being even more elusive than the other secret seven clan.
Pangolin walk on their hind legs with the front legs held off the ground, only touching now and then. The front feet have long, curved claws which are used to dig. They like sandy soil in dry fairly humid types of savannah with adequate shelters.
Pangolin are usually solitary animals and move about noisily as they brush against bushes and branches. They are also mainly nocturnal but you can occasionally see them during the day. If they suspect any intrusion they will stand on their back legs supported by their tails. When threatened they will roll themselves into a ball. They live in old Aardvark holes and hunt for food at night. They eat mainly ants and sometimes termites. Intriguingly they also emit a really foul odour when threatened.
These guys can live a good life of over 12 years in the wild and have no natural enemies. Their worst enemies are humans, unfortunately. Sadly they are the most trafficked animals in the world, mainly sought after for their scales. Again, another sad story of ignorance, greed and misinformation about non-existent health benefits. This animal has evaded me watching to catch a slighting for 9 years and going. So Mr Pangolin, watch out! Our cat and mouse game ain’t over just quite yet. I’ve still got my eyes open and I will see you soon!
So as the sundowner drinks come to an end, and the night drive begins, keep your eyes peeled for one of these secret seven gems.