The rock hyrax is commonly known as a 'dassie' in South Africa, and occurs widely across the country.
The Rock Dassie or Rock Hyrax is a small terrestrial species belonging to the same family as the Elephant. They are characterized by their short, stocky bodies and with small ears, small and short tails and an eye-catching black nose in the middle of their face to finish it all off. Their heads are also quite wide and small, but narrows down greatly towards the end to where their mouth is. They are a semi-dark brown shade all over their body, although it is darkest on their back and slowly goes lighter and lighter. Males are 1 tenth larger than females in general, and the average weight of an adult Rock Dassie is round about 4kg (8.8lbs).
Like the biblical scene of Moses dividing the seas, so too is the range of the Rock Dassie. They can be found just about anywhere within South Africa, as well as the western parts of Namibia along with small areas within Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique close to the South African border. The other areas in which they can be found lie close and beyond the equator in the northern parts of Tanzania going north up to coastal Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and within northern DRC going into west Africa, Liberia, Sudan, Chad, Nigeria and within scattered areas of desolate sand within the Sahara Desert. Coastal Western Africa, most of the Mediterranean coast is however excluded.
Needless to say these creatures are some of the most abundant small mammals of Africa and can be recognized by most indigenous or native tribes of Africa, whether it is in the Transkei of South Africa or in the desert areas of Egypt. Population densities are just as high as their distribution is wide, in high density areas like those around Mt Kenya around 20 – 100 individual Dassies on every square kilometer on average. Their populations are cut down considerably by hunters after food, and Dassies are some of the most vulnerable because of their lack of speed and agility for the most part. Despite all this they are still a very stable species and an easy and pleasant vacation sighting within the Kruger National Park.
Rock Dassies aren’t at all fussy about the climate and weather of a habitat, but do however prefer, as you might think, rocky or mountainous areas of land or cliffs comprised of a number of large boulders with small little opening or holes in and between them in which they find shelter at night. They favor foods like fresh shoots of plants, berries and sprouts along with the usual herbivores diet of grasses, shrubs and leaves. They highest altitudes at which they can be found, namely in Kenya, are at 4300 meters above sea level. In the Kruger National Park they might be found living amongst compilations of large boulders in the middle of the savanna or grassland, or in small mountain ranges also inhabited by klipspringers and mountain Reedbuck, in addition to potential predators.
Rock dassies are group forming animals with some studies done showing up to 2 groups of dassies within one square kilometer in addition to bachelor males who solitarily roam the same land. Such a group mainly consists of females who mate with any male member of the group yearly, although there is usually a dominant male. Juveniles and even pups can also be seen in some months of the year. Such a group finds refuge in between large boulders or rocks or within small caves and holes in mountainous areas, where they try and avoid the many dangers that are on their daily paths.
Rock Dassies do groom each other during the day, usually a very social activity among animals, but their penultimate and favorite activity to participate in as a group is sun basking. Many members of the group will lie down in the sun on a big rock near their shelter while others keep a lookout for predators. When looking for food, they don’t typically go further than 50 meters from their shelter to find berries, citrus and other fruits they so eagerly eat. Their communication method of choice is to speak to one another, and for this reason they have over 21 different calls that signal something, most notably a high pitched shrill sent out when a predator attacks one of them.
16 months is usually the age at which most rock hyraxes become sexually mature and are able to mate and contribute to the growth of the group. Between February and April breeding usually takes place. It has been shown that the reproductive organs of male dassies drastically increase in size during this time as a preparation for successful mating. Once a female conceives a gestation period of 6 -7 months goes by before new faces arrive. Litters are usually made up of 2 to 3 newly born young. In some groups one dominant male has been seen to mate with 17 females of the group.
Dassies are some of the most preyed upon animals in any mountain biome. Leopards, caracals and eagle species are usually among those who take advantage of the vulnerability of dassies and are most frequently seen feasting on their meat. There isn’t much they can do but keep their eyes open at all times and inform others if a predator is seen to ensure the survival of the group or harem. The attacked dassie typically runs as fast as possible to the nearest shelter between rocks, not big enough for their predators to fit into. This is why they don’t forage too far away from the shelter where they sleep.
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