Hermanus arrived at Zuri as a very tiny baby, yet already a force to be reckoned with. Although porcupines are born with soft quills, these harden within a few days, making them rather tricky to handle!
There are about 24 different species of porcupine around the world, and Hermanus is a member of the Cape Porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis), one of the largest rodents in the world, and the largest in southern Africa. They are found throughout southern and central Africa in South Africa, Nambia, Kenya, Uganda and the Congo. This species of porcupine has a wide distribution, preferring hilly and rocky country, but able to adapt to almost any habitat with very dry desert and very wet forest being the exceptions. They have been found at heights of 11 480 feet on Mt Kilimanjaro!
They are territorial and and come out at night to eat. During the day they will sleep in disused aardvark burrows, or burrows that they dig themselves, holes or caves. They can hear very well and will freeze when they encounter a predator. When they are cornered, they will raise their quills, spines and spikes to look bigger. If this does not deter the would-be attacker, they will do a little war-dance by stamping their feet and the specialised hollow quills will make a rather eerie noise. They cannot shoot their quills to protect themselves, but are known to ram into an enemy at which point the quills easily come out and are left stuck in the victim. Quills will grow back, but because they are covered in barbs, they are very hard to remove from the victim.
The Cape Porcupine is monogamous and usually lives with its mate and offspring. They can grow up to be anything between 18 and 30 kg. Porcupines can live for up to 15 years in the wild and reach sexual maturity at around 18 months in males and 9-16 months in females. Young are weaned after about 4 months. Although they usually forage alone, the whole family will sometimes look for food together. Hermanus usually comes to the house alone, but does sometimes bring his family along to share his Eukinuba.
They are mostly vegetarian, eating roots, tubers and bulbs that they dig out of the ground using their strong claws. It has been shown that in areas that have low levels of phosphorus, porcupines will collect bones in their dens and gnaw on them. They will also eat potatoes, maize and pumpkins that are cultivated by farmers and they are notorious for ringbarking trees. This has made them unpopular with farmers who grow crops for a living.
Porcupines are viewed as agricultural pests and are often smoked out of their burrows and hunted. It has however been shown that they play an important role in the environment. They actually forage very little in areas that were previously or are currently ploughed. Where they are active their diggings disrupts the plant community structure and create sites where seeds can accumulate and germinate. Through digging and turning the soil over, making burrows, they also enable other animals to reach the underground resources. They have been described to act as “ecosystem engineers”by CJ Bragg et al (2005).
Although they are currently classified as “Least concern” by CITES, the trade in porcupine quills will have a negative effect on their populations. Porcupines do not shed their quills regularly and most quills that are used to produce products like lamps and jewelry will have come from dead animals.
Article written by Marike Kotzé. Marike has a MSc in Genetics from the University in Stellenbosch and a certificate in Science Writing.