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Dr Nico Avenant, mammologist at the National Museum, Bloemfontein, was recently approached to identify two hedgehogs which were allegedly purchased from a pet shop.

The new owners became concerned when they learnt that it is illegal to have hedgehogs in captivity without a permit and took them to the offices of the Free State Department of Economic, Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (DESTEA) in Bloemfontein.

Ilse van den Bergh from DESTEA contacted Dr Avenant to identify whether the hedgehogs were indigenous, or an exotic species. Indigenous species can be released safely, whereas alternative arrangements would have to be made for exotic hedgehogs.  The two hedgehogs were identified as belonging to the indigenous Southern African Hedgehog species, Atelerix frontalis, and were released in one of the Free State provincial nature reserves.

‘Cuteness overload’ fuels the illegal pet trade of hedgehogs

Dr Avenant believes that hedgehogs are a charismatic species, and there is an increased tendency among the public to keep them as pets. Because of their Red List status, however, only zoos and registered breeders may keep and trade in hedgehogs in South Africa. The public may be granted a holding permit if they can prove that they have acquired them from a registered breeder.

This species is also considered a delicacy (food source) in some African cultures and is harvested locally. Their spines and bones are used by traditional healers and are commonly seen in muti markets. Their spines are also often sold in curio shops across the country. The effects of these practices are unknown but, when coupled with habitat loss, will likely result in a further decline in local population numbers.

Southern African Hedgehogs spend their days curled up in a ball under the cover of vegetation, emerging in the evening to forage. They are omnivorous, but although invertebrates (such as beetles, earwigs, grasshoppers, termites, slugs, snails, centipedes, moths and earthworms) form the bulk of their diet, they also consume eggs, mice, lizards, fungus and even dog food.

This species readily enters torpor (a lighter form of hibernation) during low ambient temperatures or a decline in food availability, spending as much as 84% of their time in torpor. Although Southern African Hedgehog females can have litters of up to 9 young, the average is four. They weigh more or less 10g at birth and are born during the summer months after a gestation period of 35 days. Similar to kittens and puppies, baby hedgehogs are born with their eyes closed and only the tips of their infant spines are visible. They can live up to seven years.

Indigenous hedgehogs on the Red List as Near Threatened

Hedgehogs have a definite role to play in our ecosystems, and are often referred to as an indicator species (where their absence is correlated with degraded ecosystems). Some vegetable farmers also consider them as an eco-friendly form of pest control.

The indigenous Southern African Hedgehog Atelerix frontalis is listed by the 2016 Red List of Mammals of South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho, as Near Threatened. Although this species of hedgehog has a wide range across Southern Africa, and occurs across a variety of habitats, including rural and peri-urban gardens, there is a suspected continuing decline in the population.

From 1980 to 2014, there has been an estimated 5% loss in extent of occurrence and 11–16% loss in area of occupancy, primarily due to agricultural, industrial and urban expansion.  Secondary poisoning, electrocutions from electric fencing (the extent of which is increasing with the expansion of the wildlife ranching industry), and being hunted for food and the traditional medicine markets, are considered further major threats to our indigenous hedgehog species. Road kills can also play a role in the dwindling number of hedgehogs, especially after the first summer rains when the hedgehogs feast on insects attracted to the warmer surface of the roads. When in danger, hedgehogs roll up into a ball, which makes them easy to capture.

Apart from the direct competition and cross-breeding threats that exotic hedgehog species such as the Four-toed Hedgehog Atelerix albiventris and the Somali Hedgehog Atelerix sclateri holds for our indigenous species, exotics are considered a potential indirect threat to many other indigenous species and to our natural ecosystems.

Reference: Light J, Pillay N, Avenant NL, Child MF 2016. A conservation assessment of Atelerix frontalis. In Child MF, Roxburgh L, Do Linh San E, Raimondo D, Davies-Mostert HT, editors. The Red List of Mammals of South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho. South African National Biodiversity Institute and Endangered Wildlife Trust, South Africa.

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