Wednesday, August 24, 2005


It’s never a good thing when an organism suffers such predation that its numbers dwindle to a fraction of what they were, it upsets the balance of nature and opportunists fill the gap. But then there’s the Parktown prawn, libanasidus vittatus, king of the crickets, scourge of the slipper, midnight invader, who adores the lush green gardens of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg and most especially the inside of your shoes. News reports suggest there are fewer of them around, and my own eyewitness reports confirm this, I’ve seen one or two dead ones in my garden being devoured by ants, but for the last two years I have not had a surprise lurking in my house or even in my bed.

My first encounter with a parkie was of the eyeball-to-eyeball variety on the pillow first thing on waking up in a house in Blairgowrie, which one would think was outside the prawn belt. I opened my eyes and there he was, two inches of russet, bristling fury, grinding his mandibles in an ominous way, antennae waving above implacable eyes. His tusks quivered as he dared me to move because he was so ready to jump straight at my mouth. I froze, tried not to breathe or make any sudden moves. If I flipped him off the pillow, he might shoot his black projectile faeces on me. I did the only thing I could do, I backed away slowly and as I did so, revulsion overcame resolve and my mouth opened in a blood curdling shriek. I leapt off the bed, flinging the pillow into the sky. The parkie flew through the air and landed on the carpet where in a deft movement with pot and piece of cardboard, I trapped the critter and took it outside and did the only thing I could do, the thing everyone in Joburg does … I tossed it into the neighbour’s yard.

They’re fascinating little creatures, completely inedible even with copious amounts of butter and garlic. They have ears on their legs and tusks, which they use for digging their burrows and when it rains, their burrows flood, so they move into your house until it dries out. Despite their scary looks they’re essentially harmless and very useful in the garden because they eat snails and cutworms. They’re almost indestructible which might have given rise to the myth that they came from outer space, or evolved in some weird mutation. There’s even a website for all things parkie and they’ve been featured in Time and The Economist , BBC and CNN news broadcasts.

The culprit in the parkie genocide is a creature that was once rarely seen in the city, but is now so commonplace and blasé they barely look up from spearing the ground with their beaks as you thunder past in your car, the hadeda ibis, a bird that looks like a duck and walks like a duck, but has a long curved beak and feathers the oily grey of an old leather jacket.

Hadedah have become so numerous because they’re flexible, they’re willing to eat whatever is available, so the sad demise of the prawn will have little effect on their numbers. Be prepared to come around the corner and find them pecking away at the Epol in your dog’s bowl or snitching fish out of your pond.

Luckily for the hadedah, their numbers can only go up because they don’t taste good to anybody.

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