Students of the Bible will have come across a creature called a coney. Biological details are few, but we know it lived in the rocky hills. Around here we call it a dassie, or hyrax. It looks a bit like a large, elastic rat, but it’s not related to rodents. Among many differences it lacks a visible tail, has tusk-like incisor teeth used for fighting and grooming, and rubber “hooves” instead of claws. Their short legs and sticky glands on the feet make dassies excellent climbers and rock jumpers. Other unique features are scent glands along the back, with erectile hairs there to advertise them.
Dassies are gregarious, roosting together in caves or boulder jumbles. They even have a communal latrine, which might be centuries old. The early morning sun-bath is essential, for dassies are not completely warm-blooded, cooling down overnight to conserve energy. They feed on plants, always with one elder on sentry duty. Black eagles are the main threat. An alarm call sends the whole colony under cover. A group usually has a dominant male, and up to 17 wives and their offspring. Young males are tolerated if they keep out of trouble. Females start breeding at one year, litter size 2-3. Dassies are slow breeders, gestation period seven months, by far the longest for such a small animal.
Once common in the Drakensberg, an epidemic killed most of the population around 1980. Since then there has been a slow recovery, and dassies can now again be seen in RNNP. Soon we can hope to see their return to The Cavern grounds.
Long ago the hyrax tribe was important. Thirty million years ago there were many species, some of them large. Hyraxes evolved in Africa, along with their cousins the elephant, elephant shrew, golden mole, aardvark and dugong. These afrotheres (literally “African beasts”) are not at all related to the rest of Africa’s mammals: cats and antelopes and the rest are all invaders from Asia, arriving after the two continents joined. So our little dassie is part of Africa’s long history, and one of the few survivors of ancient times.