Dassies: The Next Best Thing to Elephants

*** Warning: This post contains content that may be considered inappropriate for children! ***

While we did not have time for a safari, we nevertheless saw relatives of one of the so-called “Big Five” game animals on our recent trip to South Africa. These were dassies, the South African name for an animal also known as the rock hyrax or rock badger.

My first dassie sighting was at Boulders, where we went to see the two thousand-plus African Penguins that make their home among the dunes and boulders in this area of small, sheltered bays about 14 miles north of the Cape of Good Hope.

I could have stayed for hours watching the penguins go about their business, seemingly indifferent to the throngs of smart phone-wielding humans in their midst. Some waddled around aimlessly in their black and white tuxedos, others swam joyfully in the surf and several just stood there, head thrown back and beak pointed skyward, letting loose the loud and obnoxious braying sound for which they were originally named the Jackass Penguin.

I was about to leave the beach and head back to the car, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something small and brown scurrying through the bushes. Doing a double-take, I then spotted two furry animals — apparently a male and female — snuggling together in a compromising position against a wall.

They were about the size of large guinea pigs, with narrow, squirrel-like heads, plump, tailless bodies, and stubby little legs. A hair shy of cute with their protruding fangs and beady eyes, I had never seen anything quite like them before, but guessed they might be some kind of rodent.

As I stood there gawking at them, someone told me these were not over-sized gerbils, but dassies, distant relatives of African elephants.

“Oh, really?” I said, suspecting she was trying to pull one over on a clueless American tourist.

But the parking lot attendant and Google soon confirmed that the dassie is, in fact, considered by most scientists to be the closest living relative of the elephant, both of which are also related to manatees and dugongs. Among other shared traits, dassies and elephants have structurally similar skulls, toes, and teeth. Dassies’ long, pointed incisors, some say, are akin to elephants’ tusks.

A few days later, hot and sweaty after hiking up Table Mountain on the steep, sun-blasted Platteklip Gorge trail, we stumbled into what may be the best place to see dassies in the Cape Town area. There, near the cableway station at the top of the city’s most iconic landmark, dozens of dassies lazed about in the sun and mingled with the tourists. As I later learned, these were only a fraction of the hundreds of dassies that make their home here among the rocks, each a member of one of several distinct dassie colonies.

People could not have been more excited about the dassies if they’d been actual elephants,  jockeying for photos and blatantly disobeying the large “Do not feed the Dassies” signs. A glamorous young woman in suede bell bottoms and platform shoes even tried to pick one up as he sniffed around for food in the viewing area. I thought about telling her he was the cousin of the world’s largest land mammal, but I didn’t think she would believe me. She clearly had not noticed his tusks.




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