Suffolk a real kool kat
MEERKATS stole the nation's heart – and a Suffolk man is set to return to South Africa where he has been studying wildlife in a project which could help find solutions for anti-social behaviour among humans.
MEERKATS stole the nation's heart – and a Suffolk man is set to return to South Africa where he has been studying wildlife in a project which could help find solutions to anti-social behaviour among human populations.
Kevin Wallace, 30, of Ipswich, has spent much of the past two years studying the daily lives of meerkats – very sociable animals which feed and look after each other's young and fulfill other group responsibilities.
"At the moment, much of the work involves observing which of the animals does what as well as estimating the consequences, both for helpers and the rest of the group," he said.
Mr Wallace, a former pupil at Thurleston High School in Ipswich, went to the Northern Cape in South Africa after completing a degree in zoology at Liverpool University.
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He joined other volunteers from a variety of countries living in a farmhouse in a remote bush and semi-desert area occupied by colonies of meerkats.
Each day from sunrise the animals – well used to the proximity of the human researchers – were followed and observations made about their social behaviour.
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The creatures were regularly weighed – enticed into the arms of the researchers by pieces of egg and other treats.
"I didn't know anyone before I went there but it turned out to be great fun and the wildlife was beautiful," Mr Wallace said.
"Meerkats have a very civilised way of life and the outcome of the research could have a spin-off in combating anti-social behaviour in humans," he added.
However, some cattle ranchers in the area regard the creatures as vermin and shoot or trap them. Skins and live creatures are sometimes sold to tourists.
Living in the bush Mr Wallace and other researchers had to be on their guard against dangerous creatures including deadly snakes, black widow spiders and scorpions.
"I was bitten by a scorpion once but it turned out to be the less dangerous variety and the sting was like you would get from bees. Black scorpions are deadly and if you get bitten by one of those you have to get to a hospital within twelve hours," he said.
For seven months he worked with a film crew producing a documentary on meerkats for BBC television.
"The people living in the bush are very poor and the rural communities have yet to shrug off apartheid. There are still churches where only whites can go and blacks are barred from the pubs," Mr Wallace said.
Now back at home visiting friends and relatives he is set to return to South Africa on Monday to work with a friend setting up a small mammal game reserve near Cape Town.
Dr Andrew Russell, of the Cambridge-based Meerkat Project, said: "We are trying to understand how the meerkat societies work and develop. The work could have implications for human societies."