Another dassie characteristic, which endeared them to the early white settlers in South Africa and long before that was appreciated by the Bushman and Khoi people, is the dassie’s fussy toilet hygiene. The whole colony always uses the same middens in the boulders to dump their droppings and empty their bladders. Some middens are centuries old with crystallised urine a metre thick. The settlers learned from the indigenous folk that this clear amber crystal has medicinal value, which we have not tested.
I once had a personal demonstration of a dassie’s hygienic ablutions. We were staying with an old friend who runs game reserves in Swaziland and whose home is a rambling two-storey pile of cement brick that could have been designed by Dr Seuss. In the living-room is a massive fireplace with a rough-built chimney of rocks stones running right up one high wall. Dassie squatters have taken this over as their residence.
At an early hour one morning I had to use the loo just down the passage from the bedroom and made my way, half asleep, with a torch because there was no electricity in the house. The loo door was half open. I pushed it wide and aimed the torch beam in.
It shone on a dassie blinking at me. He sat on the open loo clinging with his forefeet to the front edge of the seat and his backside hanging over the bowl, doing his thing.
He ignored me and I wasn’t going to chase him. So I leaned against the door jamb and politely waited until he finished, jumped down and ambled sedately past me back to the chimney. He didn’t bother to flush.
In their normal boulder residences they gather in deep, narrow crevices and holes out of reach of all but the most long-armed predators. In the cold of winter they sleep in heaps, piled up to four deep on top of each other for warmth.
In the mornings they wait for sunrise before they emerge to sit in its warmth. First out is usually a female who becomes the family sentry. One of the most familiar sounds in the mountains and rocky koppies of Africa is the their emergency alarm, a sharp harsh bark like a poodle’s with a sore throat. At that dassies for fifty metres around vanish instantly.
Sometimes the bark might continue for minutes from some dassie perched on a high boulder, opening its mouth wide as regularly as a clockwork toy. This might be an early warning of something seen in the distance – there is nothing wrong with their far sight – or of a passing predator such as a cobra too obvious or too slow to be an immediate threat. Or it be a statement by the dominant male of the colony: stay away, this is my territory.
When a colony leader is challenged it can lead to ferocious fighting. We have seen battle-torn males come for food with open wounds and patches of skin hanging in tatters. Some are patterned with the scars of previous fights.