ON SAFARI IN SOUTH AFRICA SPOTTING A ROYAL BEETLE
By David Tett
This December, when Carolyn and I took our two kids on their 5th safari in Africa in Madikwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa, up by the Botswana border, we had the great pleasure of learning more about some fascinating creatures – great and small
From many aspects, this lesser known private reserve in South Africa revealed wonderful safari moments, from busy scurrying scarab beetles fighting over dung balls, to stunning sightings of numerous white rhino, and even a rare brown hyaena. Maybe surprisingly, it was the African Wild Dogs and the Scarab (a.k.a Dung) Beetles that really captivated us. Neither are exactly kings of the jungle, but on close observation, they are really cool animals.
Scarab beetles, or Scarabaeoidea, are found on every continent except Antarctica, and they are ever present in Africa. But here they have a rather more practical name of dung beetle which belies its royal status amongst famous Egyptian kings. The scarab was very significant in the funerary cult of the ancient Egyptians. It was often shaped out of green stone and placed on the chest of the entombed. One famous example was found among the provisions of Tutankhamen.
Back to the practical name, dung beetles are highly utilitarian and wonderful recyclers, and some species navigate by the polarization patterns in moonlight. Since I was a kid growing up in Zimbabwe, my 3 brothers and I were fascinated by these beetles which we encountered on every safari my Dad took us on. We marveled at how they pushed their dung balls backwards with their long hind legs, and still managed to keep a straight line. As boys do, we had to test them by putting sticks or rocks in their way, and then watch them navigate around the obstacle and carry on in that same straight line (check out the Madikwe Dung Beetle Rodeo here.
I had a brilliant time introducing my 12 and 14 year olds to my favorite scarabs. Their first reaction was the usual “gross” or “eeew” which, as their father, I pride myself in eliciting. But once we all got down on our knees and got up close to the piles of buffalo dung, they started to see the fascination of the beetles’ ability to hold a straight line while going backwards. And naturally my 12 year old son had to put something in their way, so I was pleased to see the Tett traditions were showing up in the next generation
What makes a great safari? Moments like this where a completely unexpected discovery in the natural world leads to fascinating observation, great conversation, and memories for my family for years to come.