Social media users were scratching their heads in confusion on Friday when images surfaced of a dead aardvark washed up on Milnerton Beach, just north of the Cape Town city centre in South Africa. Photographers Alex and Juanita Aitkenhead discovered the unusual wash-up while walking on the beach on Friday evening.

Image © Alex Aitkenhead

"We saw what looked like a dead seal in the water, but on closer inspection, we could clearly see that this was not a seal," Aitkenhead told a local news outlet. The carcass was later retrieved by the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) who kept it overnight before handing it over to wildlife services for evaluation.

Image © Alex Aitkenhead

Aardvarks are adaptable animals found throughout much of sub-saharan Africa wherever food is available. The do most of their foraging at night and live almost exclusively on ants and termites (and the occasional helping of beetle larvae), which they dig out of nests using their impressive claws. Although the animals have been recorded in the Western Cape’s Peninsula and along the Garden Route, a beach in Cape Town is an unusual place to find an aardvark.

So how did this rarely seen animal wind up washed up? Sadly, the answer points to the illegal wildlife trade. After conducting a necropsy on the female aardvark, the Cape of Good Hope SPCA concluded that the animal did not die from drowning, but more than likely succumbed to suffocation or a heart attack. 

"The results indicate that the animal was already dead by the time it went into the water," explained SPCA spokesperson Jaco Pieterse, adding that the animal was found in very good condition suggesting that it had not been dead for long and had likely not travelled an extensive distance down a river to arrive in the ocean.

"The aardvark showed no signs of external trauma that might have indicated how she came to be floating in the sea," Pieterse said. "Examining her heart, [we] noticed conditions that would indicate that she had suffered from heart failure and some fluid on the lungs would indicate shock lung; which is a state most often caused by suffocation (such as being kept in a box with no ventilation might induce)."

The conclusion is that the aardvark was likely dumped in the ocean and did not arrive there by natural causes. Wildlife authorities will continue their investigations and "will be looking at camera footage and taking into account reports received from several eyewitnesses to help solve this case."

In a similar record from last year, an aardvark washed up on a beach in Namibia which also led to suspicions of wildlife crime. Aardvarks are used for meat, curios and some traditional medical purposes. Although populations are believed to be stable, they are elusive animals and accurate data can be tricky to come by. 

Header image: Louise Joubert