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The Naming of the Shrew

An oh-so-casual “have you seen the elephant shrew?” lilts across the bar, as guests trickle onto Zambezi deck for tea, and as it’s Monday. scones. The scene is too perfect to be plausible, but the shrew, scenting the soft breeze with its patent proboscis, pays no heed to the unlikelihood of the situation, and continues in its scurrying bounce to flit about the pool-side lawn… It beats an occasional retreat to the undergrowth when startled by the almost Napoleonic salute of Canon camera and the strafe of shutter sounds take the small macroscelid by surprise.

Not much is known about Elephant shrews, or sengis, as they are famously elusive and almost entirely nocturnal, preferring dense undergrowth and the cover of thicket and forest which is why it was so astonishing to see the little creature scampering around the grass – especially with a dozen guests tramping over the wooden walkways in the late afternoon sun. Wary, beautifully camouflaged and particularly industrious, they work to clear leaf litter from landing pads and paths in the dust under the shrub canopy, any accidental rustle gives their chief predator, owls, an exact location. With a home territory of almost a full square kilometer, the four-toed elephant shrew hops through the bush, propelling itself forward on powerful, if small hind legs; not that we had much of an indication of the species’ propensity to hustle from this markedly relaxed individual…

The elephant shrew used to be classified as a rodent but studies in phylogeny and physiology have shown it to be more closely related to its namesake – the elephant. They have since been placed in the superorder Afrotheria, which encompasses and unites mammals such as aardvark, hyrax, and elephant.

It only remains to be seen if we can properly habituate this littlest of elephants: we are currently proposing names, current favourites are Shakespeare, Shrewart Little and aTi-shrew. Thoughts?

Image and words by: Tara Vivian-Neal