The meerkat or suricate is a small carnivoran belonging to the mongoose family. It is the only member of the genus Suricata. Meerkats live in all parts of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, in much of the Namib Desert in Namibia and southwestern Angola, and in South Africa.
Meerkats are primarily insectivores, but also eat other animals (lizards, snakes, scorpions, spiders, eggs, small mammals, millipedes, centipedes and, more rarely, small birds), plants and fungi. Meerkats are immune to certain types of venom, including the very strong venom of the scorpions of the Kalahari Desert.
Under the searing sun of the Kalahari desert in South Africa, this huge cobra seems poised to launch a deadly strike on a group of tiny meerkats. On its own, a meerkat doesn’t stand a chance against an adult cape cobra. And there is a more serious threat to meerkat families – if the cobra finds the meerkats below ground it can easily dispatch the pups.
Cobras can grow up to 2m long and are extremely venomous. These impressive predators are able to climb trees, survive long periods of drought and are one of the most common snakes in southern Africa where the meerkats live.
However above ground and in a group, meerkats have the advantage. Using a complex system of alarm calls for predators, a meerkat is will immediately alert the rest of the group if a snake is spotted.
On a fall morning recording, we recorded the battle between Cobra and Meerkat. Then the group goes on the offensive and will mob the cobra. This teaches the pups to be wary of the cobra and will make the cobra thing twice about approaching meerkats in the future. They had been goading the venomous snake, knowing their only hope of avoiding a bite was to tire it out and force it to slither away.
But then they realised something was wrong. For the cobra was, in fact, an ultra-realistic ‘spy’, an animatronic snake whose skin cloaks a hidden camera that allows film-makers to capture natural wildlife behaviour up close. That is film unique footage of rare, exotic and occasionally dangerous animals, including wolves and crocodiles.
‘I think the reason they worked out the cobra is too stronger,’ says series producer Philip Dalton, who spent ten weeks in the Kalahari, enduring 16-hour days to capture the meerkats on camera.
‘We could see their noses twitching. And then one stared down the snake’s throat and may have noticed it had no teeth.’
Once the colony realised they had been frightened by an impostor, their first act was to accept the interloper. Within seconds they were seen crawling all over the cobra-camera and cuddling each other. Another camera was hidden inside a model meerkat.
‘It was my job to smear that with the meerkats’ droppings to ensure they accepted it as one of their own,’ says Mr Dalton. ‘It wasn’t the most pleasant task, but it worked a treat.
‘The spies meant we see the world – and their behaviour – from the meerkats’ own perspective. And it was fascinating to see how they work as a team.’ As many as 30 cameras were used to shoot remarkable footage of these and other animals.
You can see video about King Cobra: