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Watching a herd of giraffe pace languidly across the endless grass plains at the foot of the Chyulu hills one day, I was interested to see that they all stopped in exactly the same place and, one after another, spread their long front legs and put their heads to the ground as if to drink. Nothing particularly interesting there you might think, but there’s no surface water on this volcanic soil, so they weren’t drinking. It took a while to get close enough to see what they were feeding on, and it sure wasn’t leaves. As we got closer, we could see a dark object that seemed to be the focus of their attention. Not one of the herd of 17 animals, which were strung out some 100 or so yards apart, passed without stopping and laboriously bending the twenty or so feet down to have a taste. Clearly whatever it was, was much prized. So when the last giraffe had gone we drove up to see what it was. As we approached, the dark mass began to take shape, and before long we could see that what the giraffe had been chewing on was the long dead remains of a wildebeest. As it turns out, the habit of straying from a strict veggies-only diet and chewing the odd bone (Osteophagy) isn’t uncommon amongst herbivores and is apparently a sign that they’re suffering from a mineral deficiency. But it doesn’t stop there. Over the years people have discovered that animal diets are far more complex than we at first realised. We now know for example that elephants eat considerably more than just buns. And while, in the 60s, people refused to believe that chimpanzees ate anything other than bananas, their bloodlust and penchant for fresh monkey is now well documented. But few people realise that even animals as unassuming as the duiker – a diminutive and slightly neurotic looking member of the antelope family – conceals a dark side beneath that meek looking exterior. They have been witnessed killing and eating everything from insects to reptiles, small birds and, in moments of Freddie Starr-like impetuousness, even small mammals.
Each year, at about the same time as the onset of the first rains, the African sky is filled with flying termites and ants. In the ant world, these are the lucky ones, who, for the briefest of moments take to the skies in their millions to speed date on the wing. But for most of them their luck runs out when (or more accurately if) they hit the ground again. Virtually all of them end up inside something’s stomach and of those that aren’t eaten, every single one of the males dies, while a massive percentage of the females dies also. At first glance these creatures seem to be the embodiment of the word “ephemeral”. So it comes as a surprise to most people when they learn that, of the tiny percentage of females that survive to become queens, some can live for more than 15 years. When you think of the scale of risk that exists in the African bush, it seems hardly possible that ants could live for quite so long without being trodden on, drowned, burned, accidentally swallowed or actively preyed on. But the majority of queens in all ant species live for at least 5 years, pumping out thousands upon thousands of offspring over the course of their sedentary lives.The record for an ant (in captivity of course) was an astonishing 29 years before she eventually died of old age, or possibly boredom.