Aardvarks may be on the way out

Elusive animals could vanish forever due to climate change

03 August 2017 - 06:48 By Shaun Smillie
SNOUT AND ABOUT Aardvarks in the Kalahari have been dying of starvation because of the drought Picture: iStock/Getty
SNOUT AND ABOUT Aardvarks in the Kalahari have been dying of starvation because of the drought Picture: iStock/Getty

A drought in the Kalahari has provided a glimpse of what the future might hold for one of South Africa's most elusive animals - and it doesn't look good.

A team of researchers believes the aardvark could soon face localised extinction because of higher temperatures and drier conditions brought on by climate change.

They came to this conclusion after they watched five aardvarks they had fitted with tracking devices slowly die of starvation.

What drove them to death was the worst drought in 35 years. While aardvarks can handle the aridity and heat, their prey, ants and termites, couldn't.

"We were surprised by how dramatic an effect this was," said Robyn Hetem, of Wits University, who was part of the study.

The study group also found other dead aardvarks.

Aardvarks use their long sticky tongues to scoop up the ants and termites.

This is a particularly bad drought but the scientists believe it is only a taste of things to come.

"While unusual now, those are the conditions that climate change is likely to make the new normal," said Andrea Fuller, the research group's director.

Another concern for the researchers is that aardvarks are ecosystem engineers and have an effect on a wide range of other species.

Their burrows are used by a variety of animals for shelter.

"If the aardvark runs into trouble and dies out, then the species that depend on its burrows will also be in trouble," said Hetem. "There are many knock- on effects that we just don't understand."

Hetem believes aardvarks will be forced out of hotter areas as their food source dries up.

"Populations of many animals in South Africa are already declining as a result of habitat loss and over-exploitation," said Fuller. "Climate change is an additional threat, which might push species to extinction faster. By 2050, the aardvark might not be the only species removed from tourist checklists."

Now the team wants to study other ant- and termite-eating animals, such as pangolins and aardwolves, to see how they are affected by temperature change.

Meanwhile, the area in which Hetem and her colleagues were conducting the study has recovered from the drought.

"The ants and termites took about two years to recover, we think, but the aardvarks haven't completely bounced back.

"Their numbers are much lower than they were when we began the study," said Hetem.