Over the past few weeks, you have been with us as we followed the progress of our Alpha female Cleopatra and her journey towards motherhood. The WildEarth crew too have eagerly been awaiting the birth of her pups and the addition of 3-5 new little meerkat faces all belonging to our proud Cleo. That day finally arrived on Saturday the 15th of this month, and the WildEarth crew rejoiced as Cleo emerged from the Sour grass burrow that morning with all the signs of giving birth; a flat stomach, birth fluids around her groin area, and dark, damp sand clinging to her fur. But that was the last time we celebrated.
That morning, all ten Gosa gang members left the burrow very quickly and seemed to be very tense. The WildEarth crew followed them but lost the group soon after that. Starsky and Gandalf returned to the burrow after a while but soon also disappeared off into the tall grass. All that day I sat outside the Sour grass burrow, waiting for the group to come back. But they never did. All that time my mind was racing. I knew we would only see the pups in around 2 weeks’ time, but meerkats usually leave a baby-sitter with the pups while the group goes off to forage. Where is the baby-sitter? Where is the group? What about the pups? “No” I told myself, “it’s going to be ok”.
I was wrong. Horribly wrong.
We lost the Gosa gang completely after that morning. They never returned to Sour grass burrow and simply vanished into thin air. I felt sick, what was going on? Where are the pups? Where is the group? The atmosphere at Gosa camp was thick with worry as all the crew seemed to be absorbed with this total turn of events. On Monday morning we found all ten meerkats at their Eastern most burrow: Gosa Dam. We knew they had not been back to where the pups had been born as we had checked the burrow for fresh prints and there were none. A lump grew in my throat as I realised something that I had tried to put in the back of my mind; the group had not been back to Sour grass burrow, therefore the pups have not been moved from there, and the entire group is now at the Gosa dam burrow. I sat down slowly, and as I did so, I subconsciously whispered “They’re dead”. All the hours spent filming Cleo’s growing belly, watching her dig a small hole to lie down flat and cool herself in those days leading up to the arrival of the pups, and even seeing the tiny movements coming from within her womb when we were close enough to see them, all of that faded together with the sun as it disappeared behind the dunes.
For the past few nights the Gosa gang have slept at the Gosa Dam burrow except for Wednesday night when they moved to the Camelthorn burrow in the South. And, as if to drive the message home, when they moved there were no pups with them. That Wednesday afternoon I sat in the fading light, inches away from Cleopatra and her family. As we both stared out into the surrounding bush, a number of things went through my mind while I tried to piece together the puzzle of the loss of the pups. This morning Garth and I went back to Sour grass burrow and the only track we saw leading in and out of the burrow hole in which Cleo came out that fateful morning was that of a large puffadder.
We will never actually know how the pups met their unfortunate fate. Were they killed by a predator? Were they stillborn? Killed by a family member? Or abandoned? And if the answer lies in one of the last three scenarios, did the large puffadder pick up on their scent and feed on them? Any one of these is possible, and maybe we’re not supposed to know at all? Maybe nature needs to still keep her secrets from us? And although we do not know what happened, we know for certain that Cleo has lost her pups, and she knows more than we do as she has not lead the group near Sour grass burrow since it happened.
In this week of sadness and uncertainty, however, there is one thing that I am certain of; Cleopatra has still managed to keep the Gosa gang together, even after this terrible loss, and seems to still have enough energy to fight on and face the days ahead.
A remarkable young Alpha female in a world full of peril.