These are stories about two out
of five species of gundi, the desert gundi Ctenodactylus
vali and the Mzab gundi, Massoutiera mzabi. Another
two inhabit the 153 area: Ctenodactylus gundi the North
African gundithe 'gundi-mouse' which was given to a Swede
in 1774and the Felou gundi Felovia vae which was
first discovered in its only known colony about a hundred years
go. The fifth lives far off the 153 in the deserts and mountains
of Ethiopia beside the Red Sea.
153 map covers the range of four of five species of the small
furry mammal called Gundi. George and I have been chasing gundis
for the past fifteen years so several 153s have been worn to
tatters. The Map does not have flags on it reading 'Voici, gundis',
so you cannot just set off with it and find a gundi. Our first
expedition to the Algerian Sahara was a flop. We did not know
what we were looking for. We had read about gundisthe comb-toe
rodents or ctenodactylidsbut it had not helped. All we knew
was that they lived in rocky areas, were about the size of a
guinea pig and had combs on their toes. Were they to be found
in the sun of a Saharan day or were we destined to be groping
for gundis in the middle of the night? Reports were conflicting.
Did they burrow? Some said yes, some said no. And what did they
do with the combs on their toes? There were plausible stories
of sand being brushed away from burrows and crazy stories of
them combing themselves in the moonlight as they whistled. The
beast became more and more mediaeval, straight out of a bestiary.
There were a few skins and skulls in the Natural History Museum
which gave an idea of size and colour. But colour was not much
help as it turned out because red gundis were invisible against
red sandstone, blond against pale, black against black. And
what of the black gundis? Well, we have not yet seen one.
one was able to tell us anything useful about the elusive beast
until we met Bouzidi the Chaamba. And he told us that the way
to find it was to listen or spot its 'crottes'. Gundis drop
their pellets on communal dunghills outside their shelters and
use the same ledge for centuries. So you not only have to find
the droppings and recognise them but you have to know how old
they are. Once a good heap has been identified there is nothing
to do but sit on a rock nearby, unpack the binoculars and wait.
If it's 35°C in the shade there is no point in waiting since
gundis are not mad Englishmen but know the right temperature
for sunbathing. So come back and sit in the cool of the morning
or evening. If the topmost crotte on the heap was moist then
something is sure to happen. When the sun comes upif it's
not too cold and windyone two three four out onto a rock
shelf, a family of gundis. First face to the sun, then the sidesand, finally, the rump. We quickly learnt that gundis do not
come out in the moonlight and do not comb their hair like the
Lorelei. They scratch with the combs to avoid damaging the fine
fur with their claws. To scratch a rump with a comb on top of
a rear foot puts a gundi in direct competition with Charlie
Chaplin for funny movements.
The desert gundi of western Algeria is
the smallest of the family: chestnut-coloured with nothing but
some bristles for a tail. It can endure a higher temperature
than its relatives in the 153 area: 41°C for eight hours is
not bad for a small mammal. Normallyoutside experimentsit keeps to ambient shade temperatures between 15° and 35°.
a quick warm-up, gundis come out foraging: sorties to a favourite
clump of Moricandia or, failing something so delicious,
a nibble at a clump of grass. Grass is a standby. Gundis prefer
leaves or the succulent flowers of the Compositae. None
eats insects and they prefer greens to seeds. In emergency,
they can manage on dry stuff for days but in the long term they
need green stuff to stay alive. They do not need to drink. Even
the babies get little liquid. A female cannot spare much fluid
to make milk so her offspring have to adapt to plants quickly.
Gundis are bornnever more than three at a timefully-furred
and open-eyed with big back feet. After a few hours they are
brought out of the shelter and onto a ledge in the sun but at
the slightest sound or shadow the big back feet bounce them
back under the rock. Now you see me, now you don't. The mother
suckles them a moment but, at the same time, feeds them chewed
leaves from her mouth. When she takes them out she may abandon
them and then forget which rock so she has to home in on their
chirps. And what a chirp they makelike a nestful of birds.
When we trapped a Mzab gundi we baited the trap with her babies
and she was in there like a shotbefore we could get to
our hide. Catching the babies had been hilarious. Like the mother,
we homed in on them but they were pressed tight into a crack
and it was impossible to prise them out. Gundis love cracks.
The favourite crack in our house is between a radiator and a
wall and these babies were in just such a place only worse with
prickly rock, not a smooth radiator. So Wilma crouched below
with the chech at the crack while George took a deep deep breath
above and blew them down the chimney. Out came one golden puff
into the chech. Then a great big blowand several blows later
because the sister had her curved claws well hooked indown
came the second.
tawny Mzab gundi has longer fur than the desert gundi. It has
a short fantail instead of bristles. The Mzab gundi lives round
the central mountains of the Sahara and the desert gundi lives
over towards the western dunes.
African gundis are caught in a chech so as not to damage the
fur which is easily stripped off. Remarkable for a rodent, no
gundi bites and they can be transported in a cardboard box.
Once, we brought gundis back to England in a shoe box. We have
wandered across Africathrough steamy jungles and over
snowy mountainsto deliver gundis in a box to a pilot of
some airline. We pack them in wood for posting (nails, screws,
thongs, according to local supply). We add sand and leaves.
We have brought bundles of lucerne in the souks of North Africa
from traders who assumed we had a donkey round the corner and
Wilma has been seen running madly across fields in Spain and
France to get at the lucerne. She hasn't been caught yet. In
153 country, there is always Gloria. A daily dose of tinned
milk let down with water from a small pipette keeps. a travelling
gundi in good shape. More of a problem is keeping warm. Gundis
get miserable when the temperature drops below 15°C. In winter,
they keep warm inside the rock by piling up in a heap. When
the sun shines, they are out on a ledge or sheltered from extreme
heat in a breezy nook. It was not easy to provide such facilities
on long journeys to the sunless north.
are many French hoteliers who must have wondered what went into
our room in a huge basket and wondered much more when it whistled.
They would have been astounded if they had seen the bed heaped
with furniture to get the gundis near the light bulb with us
curled up in between the chair legs. And what did they think
of the small black pellets they found on sheets in the morning?
year leaving Alger by boat, we had to battle with customs for
possession of our Land Rover. There was nothing wrong with our
papersthey just wanted the Land Rover. The gundi boxes were
snugly wrapped in sleeping bags for the sea-crossing. Finally,
George argued his way through the Algerian web of duplicity
and reached agreement for shipping the Land Rover but the boat
was loaded.' The Land Rover would be shipped after us on a freighter.
(The customs officer showed gold teeth when he smiled). As we
steamed out of the dock we saw the sleeping bags being stolen
on the quayside. Death to the gundis. We spent a miserable night
on board with the Captain radioing back to Alger to insist that
the Land Rover should be put on the next freighter as promised.
Thanks no doubt to the French captain, the Land Rover followed
us on a freighter to Marseilles. But the comedy continued. This
time French customs decided they liked the Land Rover and anyway
it was 'pas normal' for it to sail by itself on a freighter
when it was an 'accompanied car'. Befriended by our ship's purser,
George was advised to jump into the Land Rover at midday when
all good Frenchmen are obsessed with lunch and drive like hell
through the barriers. Unbelievable success. But what of the
gundis? Some were dead but the others were revived over what
Rover are pleased to call a heater. The survivors returned to
England tucked snugly inside Wilma's T-shirt and entertained
us with their whistles and chirps for many years.
George © 1984