What ground squirrels and mongooses lack in size they more than make for in courage and attitude. On a recent trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – an expanse of semi-desert habitat that straddles the border between South Africa and Botswana – photographer Lana De Matos and her husband were lucky enough to witness a thrilling showdown between a scurry of squirrels and a Cape cobra (with a guest appearance from a particularly emboldened mongoose).

The encounter was filmed at Nossob rest camp where ground squirrels and yellow mongooses have taken up residence in burrows alongside campers and tourist chalets, often providing much entertainment to those visiting the arid park. Following a relatively unsuccessful morning game drive that yielded no "exciting sightings", De Matos was having lunch with her husband when he spotted some commotion near the camp swimming pool. "We saw the Cape cobra and ground squirrels and knew something was bound to happen! We grabbed our cameras, and set off for a closer view," De Matos told Latest Sightings who recently shared the footage.

Endemic to southern Africa, Cape cobras are at home in arid terrain and sightings of these snakes in the sandy semi-desert of the Kgalagadi are not uncommon. In fact, regular visitors to the reserve know to scan the monstrous nests of sociable weavers for cobras that sometimes raid these communal bird homes in search of fledglings to eat. While this particular snake was sporting a vibrant shade of deep orange, Cape cobras come in a range of colours from bright yellow to black. 

"When we got closer we saw that the ground squirrels were trying to keep the Cape cobra away from their underground burrows, where they raise their young," De Matos explained. "The squirrels took turns constantly attacking the cobra from different angles." Ground squirrels across the globe are known for their snake-taunting tendencies. Research conducted in California found that squirrels use their fluffy tails to help see off rattlesnakes. The tail-flagging displays may serve as a warning to snakes that the squirrels are vigilant and ready to dodge an attack.

In this case, however, they received a helping hand from a yellow mongoose that entered the fray, at which point "the ground squirrels took a rest and watched from the side as the mongoose had its moment to defend and attack," de Matos recalled. Mongooses – armed with a handy resistance to the cobra's otherwise deadly bites – will readily take on these snakes and other venomous species. It's unclear if the mongoose was actively trying to make a meal of the cobra or if it simply wanted the snake out of its territory, but either way the vicious onslaught worked. As soon as a gap became available, the cobra slithered to the safety of a nearby burrow.

Header image: Lana De Matos