I was sprawled out on a hot afternoon, mid-siesta, in a luxury yurt nestled among a patch of trees in the Kenyan bush when I heard the rustle of leaves. I looked up to find a furry creature shaped like half a cheese wheel, with a tiny black nose and little round ears. I had the the unmistakable sensation that it was staring at me. I stared back. We stayed like that for nearly a minute, until it scurried back up the trunk from which it had descended.
I later learned it was a tree hyrax that had long ago taken up residence outside of my tent and probably just wanted to meet his new neighbor. These charming little creatures may look like rodents, but are instead members of hyracoidea, a taxonomical class that contains only one family—hyraxes—which can be subdivided into at least five species that live across sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. They are more closely related to elephants than rodents, a fact further illuminated by the presence of flattened hoof-like nails and internal testicles.
By day, tree hyraxes can be found sunbathing on branches, their noses faced toward the sun, the corners of their mouth turned up into a quasi smile. But by night, they are another beast entirely. The males are famous for a song that increases in syntactic complexity and pitch before reaching a terminal climax. The unusual vocalizations have been compared to “a huge gate with rusted hinges being forced open” followed by a lengthy period of “unearthly screams” that end in an expiring series of “deathly shrieks.”
These territorial calls tend to occur once in the early evening around dinnertime, and again some time after midnight, usually when people are trying unsuccessfully to sleep. Whilst shrieking, the hyrax bares its vampiric, tusk-like incisors in an expression that recalls its Greek etymology, hurax or “shrewmouse.”