Southern Africa has its own answer to the kangaroo, albeit a fraction of the size of the Australian version. However, the small springhare that leaps around in sandy areas is no relation to the Australian marsupial. In fact, its closest relatives are a mystery to scientists – all they can agree on is that it is not from the rabbit family, but is actually more closely related to rats.
Finally stumped after trying to link the springhare to jerboas, porcupines and scaly-tailed squirrels, taxonomists put the springhare in its own family, Pedetidae. There Pedetes capensis, or springhaas, resides as the only member of the family. Springhares occur over a wide geographic area, but on a smaller scale their distribution is very patchy.
The species occurs in isolated pockets where there is sandy soil for it to dig its burrows. Little is known about the nocturnal animal, and scientific research is few and far between. In the Kruger National Park (KNP), they predominantly occur in the northern half of the park.
The Pumbe sandveld on the eastern boundary is a favourite location, and some sandy areas near Kingfisherspruit offer sightings. Ngirivani, the lower Vutome Loop and west of Tshokwane are also places to keep an eye out on night drives. Kobus Wentzel, district ranger for the far north, says, "The ruby red eyes are clearly visible at long distances."
In his experience, the best places to spot the bounding beastie are west of Shingwedzi, near Punda Maria, along the Levuvhu River and in the western reaches of the Letaba River. "They are locally common at certain times." He adds that they are more often spotted in open areas with sparse grass, rather than in tall grasses.
A bushy tail makes up half of the springhare's overall size, and they have several bodily adaptations to suit their burrowing lifestyle. The front feet have curved claws for digging out holes, while the triangular hind feet shove sand out behind them. The strong leg muscles allow springhares to make spectacular leaps of over 10 metres.
A special flap of skin at the bottom of its ears prevents sand getting in during excavations. Long eyelashes also help protect the eyes. Springhare burrows are of a medium size, and if one is seen during a walk, others are likely to be close by as they always have at least two entrances, and sometimes many more.
Each female has her own burrow system where she gives birth, and sometimes several systems are located close together. Springhares also commonly feed in groups. They are considered to be a pest in Botswana, where they frequently eat crops. Karoo landowners are also becoming concerned about an increase in the number of springhares that are entering the endangered riverine rabbit habitat.
Springhares provide a tasty meal for humans, and are said to be an important protein source in Botswana. Wild cats, servals, genets, mongooses, jackals, honey badgers and large owls also enjoy a springhare snack.