There’s a furry little creature, ubiquitous throughout southern Africa, named procavia capensis. Some call it the Rock Hyrax or Rock Dassie, but we call it the Dastardly Dassie. We’ve seen dassies on the southern coast of South Africa where waves crash and coastal grasses sway knee-high. We’ve seen them in deep canyons living in crevices on featureless stone faces. And we’ve seen them in the flat expanse of the desert, gnawing on dead bushes.
At first glance, the dassie should be cute; they remind me of a large guinea pig, furry with a small head and tiny ears, delicate paws, and not much of a tail to speak of (the elephant stole the dassie’s tail and used it for a nose, according to local lore). A not-unpleasant voice ranges from a low thrumming chortle to a squeaky bark of alarm that can send hundreds of them racing for cover in a synchronized wave of brown and black.
I had assumed the dassie to be a rodent, but a guide told us that its closest relative is actually the elephant (so there’s something to the local legend!). But where elephants are usually laid back, dassies can be surly. And on closer inspection, maybe not so adorable, either. The first time KC and I encountered a dassie, we were taking a short hike to South Africa’s famed Cape of Good Hope. We spotted a few members of the colony lazing in the sun on some rocks near the trail, but they skittered away as the path took us nearer. We crossed a small footbridge over a marshy area, and just as KC took a step down onto the dirt trail, a dassie shot into the path in front of him and faced him down, baring small but menacing fangs. What the …?! We both took a skip back onto the footbridge and she (I generously gave this mammal the benefit of the doubt and assumed she was a female who had unwisely chosen that busy footbridge to rear a baby or two) retreated under the bridge. We proceeded to the point.
On the return trail, we were preoccupied by a troop of baboons near the trail, as we’d read that they are very aggressive in this area and have been known to pull rucksacks from unsuspecting tourists’ backs. The 3 baboons, though, ignored us and maintained their steady grooming, meticulously sorting through the hairs on one another’s backs and munching the ticks and fleas. We weren’t so lucky with the dassies; twenty meters from the footbridge, a dassie launched out of the grass, again into our path, fangs bared and headed straight for KC’s ankle. It was a mock charge, but another took up the game and the two of them harassed us until we were safely on the other side of the bridge. It was about then I decided dassies are a little dastardly.
That was 7 months ago. Since then we’ve seen a few hundred hyrax, probably including yellow-spotted and tree hyrax as well. We’ve never been harassed by dassies again, and maybe those dassies – in one of South Africa’s most popular tourist destinations – have been fed by humans and weren’t charging, but begging. Nonetheless, we’ll always refer to them as dastardly dassies, and when we say it, we try to sound like Kramer from Seinfeld when he sneered his nemesis’s name. “Neeewwwwman.”
Today I’m typing from the shade of a huge boulder in the Spitzkoppe region of Namibia’s desert. Last evening, as the sun went down, a colony of dassies came down to the desert floor from the rocky heights of the “Matterhorn of Namibia.” Dassies feed in the cool of the day, and this colony was fun to watch. They scrounged in the dirt or climbed a tree to eat leaves. They made a depression in the sand and rolled around, scratching their backs and probably getting rid of parasites. Some were comical to watch as they clumsily inched their way out onto bush branches too flimsy to hold their weight, then fell out of the bush. To watch a dassie eat brings to mind a miniature saber-toothed tiger: when they open their mouths, the most alarming fangs appear. It seems a strange evolutionary trait for an herbivore.
Dassies have evolved at least one less perplexing characteristic, one which the elephant may envy in these years of drought: they can survive for long periods without water by storing what they need in their bodies. As a result, their viscous urine contains almost no water content and their communal toilets can be seen from far away as white splashes on cliffsides.
So what do you think: Is a dassie cute? Here’s a quick video of the dustbath and feeding time to help you make up your mind.