Staying at Abelana Safari Camp is going to put you at close quarters with an unusual little creature with a BIG story – the rock hyrax.
Known locally as a “dassie,” the rock hyrax, as its name implies, lives in rocky habitats so the towering rocky outcrops and koppies around camp are the perfect home for these engaging, furry little characters. When fully grown they can reach up to 50cm in length and can weigh in at 5kg, so they’re not exactly large. Which is why when you are told that they are the closest living relative to the elephant you’d be forgiven for laughing. No, we’re not joking, hyraxes and elephants are, in evolutionary terms, cousins!
Along with the manatee and dugong, hyraxes share a common ancestor with the elephant named Tethytheria that died out some 50-million years ago. And, strangely, in spite of looking like a hamster on steroids, rock hyraxes still have a few physical and physiological things in common with their much larger and more imposing relative.
First up, they have tusks! And like elephants, these grow from their incisor teeth. Then, the nails on the tips of their toes are flattened. Like bull elephants, male dassies also lack a scrotum and their testicles are tucked away deep inside their abdominal cavity next to their kidneys. Female hyraxes have a pair of teats near their front “arm pits” too, just like their elephant counterparts, but also have four more in their groin area.
They are perfectly adapted to life among the rocks, with soft rubbery pads on the soles of their feet that give them amazing grip when running over the rocky surfaces, aided by special sweat glands that give them extra traction. You’ll also sometimes see them foraging in trees!
They largely feed on plants, some of which can be tough to digest, so their stomachs have three chambers packed with symbiotic bacteria that help them to break down tough leaf matter.
Hyraxes live in large groups presided over by a single, dominant male. Babies are born after a gestation period of around seven months – a long time considering their small size. Up to four pups are born with their eyes wide open, and after only two weeks of milk from mom, they are able to eat solids and are completely weaned by 16 weeks. Rock hyraxes are often labelled as lazy as they spend a lot of their time inactive, soaking up the sun which helps them to regulate their body temperatures – something they don’t do terribly well themselves. Research has shown that they’re inactive for as much as 95% of the time. What a lovely, relaxed life!