Proteles cristata - The Aardwolf

The elusive aardwolf is a beautiful animal. Its coat is a yellow-brown hue that is strikingly slashed with black stripes. The legs also have stripes down them. The tail is bushy and has a black tip. The legs are also black from the knee down. When the aardwolf is threatened or afraid, a coarse black stripe along its back will stand up, making the animal appear larger and more menacing. For this reason, it is also known as a maanhaar jackal (or mane jackal).

Did you know? Although the aardwolf is capable of digging its own burrow when necessary, it usually takes over the existing hole of another suitably sized animal, like a porcupine.

The aardwolf’s name is translated to ‘earth wolf’; which is likely a reference to its dog-like appearance. However, this is actually a rare type of hyena that feeds almost entirely on termites (with the addition of some occasional insect larvae), digging them out of their mounds with its snout and long sticky tongue. Interestingly, because it has no need for its other teeth, they are completely underdeveloped, which leave the aardwolf practically incapable of seizing other prey, or chewing any meat. These teeth fall out as the animal ages. Its well-developed canine teeth are used for fighting and defending itself.

While its skull and teeth are smaller, the aardwolf’s head structure is very similar to the average hyena’s head, while its ears are rather large. The two anal glands secrete an odorous fluid that is used for marking its territory, and they give off a musky smell. For this reason, it is also sometimes known as the civet hyena, as civets are known for their musky secretions.


The aardwolf usually reaches a length of 55 to 80 centimetres, not including its tail (which is an additional 20 to 30 centimetres). At the shoulders, it is around 40 to 50 centimetres tall, which is still rather small compared to the 70 to 90 centimetre shoulder height of the spotted hyena). Males and females are about the same size.


The aardwolf weighs around 7 to 10 kilograms, but some larger individuals have been known to reach an impressive 15 kilograms. Those in the southern part of Africa are generally smaller than those in the east of the continent.


The aardwolf favours open scrublands, semi-arid plains, savannahs and grasslands. This is where termites can be found in abundance and the aardwolf can remain relatively well concealed when it is hunting at night. It digs burrows in which to hide in the day time.


The beautiful aardwolf is found in the scrubby savannahs of eastern, northeastern and southern Africa. Specifically, one population is found in South Africa and Botswana, and the other (a completely separate population) occupies an area from central Tanzania to the southern part of Egypt.

In South Africa, the aardwolf can be found at the Sandveld Nature Reserve (about two hours from Bloemfontein and 3.5 hours from Johannesburg), the Pumba Private Game Reserve (just outside Grahamstown and about 105 kilometres from Port Elizabeth), Sterkspruit Nature Reserve (close to the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga), and Mokalala National Park (about 80 kilometres from Kimberley).

Diet - Insectivore

This carnivore is different from its hyena family members as it feeds almost exclusively on termites. In fact, it will eat between 250 000 and 300 000 termites per night (as it is a nocturnal animal). When eggs, carrion or small birds are easily available to the aardwolf, it may take the opportunity and eat these, despite not having the optimal tooth structure for such a diet. When feeding on termites, the aardwolf is careful not to eat the entire colony or to destroy the termite mound. This means that the termite colony can rebuild itself and its numbers, ensuring that the aardwolf will always have a steady food supply.


The aardwolf is a shy, nocturnal animal that leads a relatively quiet, private life. It is monogamous, though, and will find its mate and stick close to them while breeding and rearing the little cubs. Sometimes, this animal will be seen in pairs or small groups.

An adult pair will usually occupy a territory of between 1 and 4 square kilometres, depending on the amount of space available to them. Both the male and the female will mark the territory. If there is a shortage of space, the animals may share the territory with one or two other mating pairs. Any intruders will be chased off, but the aardwolf does not have the stamina to sustain a chase for more than a few hundred metres. It may also use its bad smelling secretions to ward off predators or other intruders.


The monogamous aardwolf remains elusive, and a challenge to study and observe in the wild. Still, researchers believe that breeding occurs all year round. There seems to be a peak in births between September and April. Between 2 and 5 cubs are born and these little balls of fluff are cared for by both of the parents. Their eyes are open when they are born and they weigh between 200 and 350 grams. They are fed regurgitated termites once they have been weaned off their mother’s milk. The cubs spend the first 6 to 8 weeks in the den, and will stick close to their parents until the next litter arrives (approximately a year later). They do not return to their parents’ territory. This animal reaches sexual maturity at between 18 months and two years of age.


The gestation period of the aardwolf is around 90 days.

Life Expectancy

Not enough is known about these animals in the wild, but the oldest known aardwolf in captivity lived to a month short of 19 years. Other specimens in captivity averaged a life span of 12 years.


The population numbers of the aardwolf are very healthy, and there is no current threat of extinction. However, these animals continue to be persecuted by farmers that believe that they are killing their chickens and lambs. This is not the case, though, and farmers need to be educated about these precious animals, which actually benefit the farmers by keeping the termite numbers within a healthy, manageable range. They are also slaughtered by some for their beautiful fur, hit by cars and trucks on busy motorways, and killed by domestic dogs. Loss of habitat due to urbanisation and pollution is another threatening factor.

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