Many animals scarcely show themselves at all, and when they do it is at night. Incidentally, long ago, when all mammals were small, they had to be nocturnal to avoid dinosaurs. Our warm-blooded condition today has its origins then, when mammals had to withstand the cold of night.

One of the best ways to detect secretive animals is to look for tracks, and especially droppings. Easier than it sounds because most animals use human paths. So watch your feet, you never know what you will step on.

Porcupine droppings occur every few hundred metres on most paths. They are blackish tubes, about 3 cm long, bluntly pointed at both ends, always arranged in neat piles of five or more, long axes pointing in the same direction. When broken open you can see the fibres of roots and bark.

The frequency with which droppings are found is an indication of how common the animal is. Serval droppings are a kilometre or more apart, as befits a fairly large carnivore. Servals eat mice almost exclusively, crunching up and digesting all their bones. So the droppings consist entirely of dark hair matted together, with a twisted point at each end.

Crabs are common in the streams, and often wander quite far from water if the grass is long and wet. They are the main prey of two carnivores, the evidence being brightly coloured orange-and-white pellets of crushed shells loosely stuck together. The manner of distribution of the pellets gives the clue as to their owner.

Cape Clawless Otters have a midden – a predetermined latrine site. The idea is not to keep the environment clean but to establish a territorial marker. If it is kept “fresh” a visiting otter will take one sniff and move on. On the other hand the Water Mongoose drops a single pellet wherever it happens to be when the mood takes it.

Brown Hyaena droppings are the easiest of all to identify. There were two piles between Cowslip Falls and Top Dam in November. They resemble those of a very large dog, but are snow white, glistening when fresh, drying out to resemble hard balls of chalk. The colour is due to a diet almost exclusively of bones. So don’t fall asleep in the veld if you’re out after dark…

David Johnson

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