A Prickly Customer – the Cape Porcupine
Cape porcupines (Hystrix africaeaustralis) are the largest porcupines worldwide and also the largest rodents in Africa. Being nocturnal, they are seldom seen and most people have probably never seen a porcupine quill attached to an actual porcupine. We've all seen lamps, jewellery, curios and even clothing adorned with these pied accessories, and it is the distinctly African decorative qualities of the quills, that is leading to the demise of the porcupine across the civilized world.
Add to that the unusual flavour of the meat, which has led to the extinction of the porcupine in countries such as Italy where porcupine flesh is considered a delicacy. In South Africa, those Khoisan people still living their traditional way of life, consider a porcupine a very fine catch indeed. Weighing in at about 18 to 30 kg each, a porcupine provides a veritable feast for these rural folk.
However, traditional hunting has a marginal impact on porcupine populations when considered against the mass slaughter that the quill industry carries out every year. Trade in porcupine quills is unrestricted, and therefore, uncontrolled. Nobody knows how many of these animals meet their end every year for the sake of fashion, feast or décor.
In addition to their ornamental and nutritional value, porcupines come in to constant conflict with farmers. Able to bite through tough tubers with their front teeth, any attempts to fence them off from crops prove futile. They also have a penchant for biting through water pipes when thirsty – another habit which does not endear them to the agricultural community.
Porcupines are vegetarian, surviving on fruits, roots, tubers, bulbs, and bark; and are non-aggressive. When cornered, the porcupine attacks by running either sideways or backwards into their oppressor – 'business-end' first.
In this fashion they are able to defend themselves against most predators, and there has even been a case where a cocky leopard was almost killed by one of these angry rodents. The spines on their tails are hollow and shaken together in warning, much like a rattlesnakes tail, in an attempt to scare unwanted attention away.
None of these defense mechanisms stand a chance against the guns, arrows, traps and poison of mankind though.
In nature reserves across South Africa, where porcupines can go about their business without offending everyone they come into contact with, they lead a peaceful monogamous existence, sleeping by day and foraging at night, producing up to three young per year, and can live for up to ten years.