Nature’s Genius – Elephant Feet

My trunk as a trombone

Check out my trunk!

I didn’t see an elephant for the first week and a half I was in the bush, which seems ludicrous given their immense size and the fact that I was out every single day, driving around game reserves looking for them. But elephants are surprisingly good at disappearing into the surrounding flora. And their dull gray colouring makes them often indistinguishable in a cluster of trees and bushes. If they don’t want you to see them, you won’t see them.

Despite their size, they can be remarkably light on their feet. The term ‘lumbering elephant’? Yeah, it’s a misnomer. In my experience, elephants move neither clumsily nor heavily. In fact, they move astonishingly quickly and lightly (almost bouncing as they go), even though they look like they are in slow motion much of the time. I guess it’s all relative – I mean, a single elephant stride is probably equal to about 15 of mine, so even though they look like they’re strolling, they’re crossing large swaths of ground quickly. And they are doing so without even trying. An elephant running will bear down on you a lot faster than your brain can process, precisely BECAUSE of that relativism. You may come across an elephant 300 meters away from you and think you’re far enough away to be in a safe zone, and then suddenly that same elephant is your face in barely enough time for you to blink. So I recommend you do not piss off an elephant.

Usually, the way you find elephants is by the sound of breaking branches. Sometimes by their low rumbling. Even occasionally by their bubbly farts, which really do sound like a kid blowing bubbles. But they can travel silently when they want to do so. And I do mean silently.

There have been many mornings when I’ve woken up and walked outside my tent to see fresh spoor from not one, but many elephants, just on the other side of my door. And I didn’t have the faintest notion they had travelled past in the night. I heard nothing. To give you some perspective, I am a light sleeper. As in if a mouse farted, I’d wake up. And yet elephants always manage to give me the slip, which is one of the many reasons I find them so fascinating – they are multi-tonne Houdinis.

Most people focus on an elephant’s trunk, which is a fantastic bit of evolutionary brilliance. It has no less than 40,000 muscles in it (and up to 150,000 portions of muscles). As a comparison, an entire human body has about 650 muscles. Total.

The trunk can be used as a snorkel when they swim; as a hose to wash them off; as a straw to drink; as a sort of hand to forage for food; and as an arm to throw things at whatever they don’t like. I know – I’ve had one throw grass at me when he got annoyed with the uninvited ‘guest’ (me) who arrived unbidden during dinner and just wouldn’t take the hint to leave. The grass-throwing was the final hint of his that alerted me to move off, as I (not always the fastest on the uptake) realized the elephant was truly getting annoyed at having his peace and quiet interrupted by a camera-happy human settled in and staring at him from a mere 3 meters away.

The trunk is dexterous and gentle enough to act as a finger to scratch an itch or rub gunk out of an eye. And it is even used when greeting other elephants, kind of like a handshake. But, rather than focus on that amazing appendage, I’m focused on the feet. Why the feet?  Well, to me, it’s incredible that an animal of such immense size can manage to navigate through forests and woodlands in almost total silence. And that’s all due to the foot structure. Nature, that genius of design, once again created a perfect combination of form and function to suit the needs of her children.

Because of the amazing engineering in the structure of an elephant’s foot, elephants can walk right past you without making a sound. This is made possible because of fatty connective tissue in their feet that acts like both a shock absorber for their weight and a sound smotherer of potential location giveaways such as cracking twigs. In fact, their foot structure is such that elephants walk around on the tips of their toes, meaning they pretty much tiptoe through life. Animals like horses, rhinos, and sheep also do this. But, and no offense to the other animals that travel digitigrade-style, I think it’s much more impressive that elephants do it. I mean, they ARE the size of a small house and all.

And what’s more amazing, they can HEAR through their feet.

If you ever spend time with elephants, you’ll likely notice the sounds they make. It’s hard not to notice them since elephants are rather chatty creatures. Sometimes they make a low rumbling sound that sounds a little like they’re humming a Gregorian chant. Sometimes they stomp their feet (which, in this particular case, DOES make a noise, though it’s still relatively muted when you think about all the weight behind each stomp). Sometimes they trumpet and scream. Yes, scream. Well, those sounds (and even lower seismic ones they produce that humans cannot hear) can travel great distances (as much as 20 kilometers!). And elephants can pick up the vibrations of those sounds (and what those sounds mean) through their feet. They ‘hear’ another elephant from miles away just by listening through their tootsies. I know I’m an animal nerd, but how can anyone NOT be impressed by the fact that an elephant can communicate with another elephant several kilometers away by listening through their feet?

If you want to learn more about this, check out:

Elephants “Hear” Warnings With Their Feet, Study Confirms – National Geographic

Elephants pick up good vibrations — through their feet – Science Daily

12 facts to change the way you see elephants – Mother Nature Network

And a few photos of those lovely feet, some trunk, and the whole package:

 

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Categories: adventure, Africa, Animal, Big 5, Conservation, Elephant, nature, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

Lemur Love – Madagascar’s Unique Monkey-types

In honour of #WorldLemurDay, I decided to skip posts about anything in the area where I actually live and instead focus on a trip I took to Madagascar in January.

Madagascar is as cool as its name suggests. It is wild, it is rugged, it is magical, it is bizarre. A true land of extremes, it features a slew of inhabitants that seem to exist in a vacuum, and, in many ways, really do. Most of the wildlife on the island is endemic, meaning it occurs nowhere else in the world. And, as is the case in so many places worldwide, those species are disappearing. Quickly.

Aside from a short takeover stint from France, which decided to colonize the country in the 1900s, the Malagasy, their ways, traditions, and language have remained firmly footed and constant throughout the country and the centuries. And both the Western and the Malagasy cultures have often been at odds with the local wildlife.

Home to both the world’s largest and smallest chameleons, the looks-like-a-mongoose-on-steroids carnivorous fossa, and the ONLY place lemurs occur naturally, Madagascar is a stunning land of contrasts, rife with conflict and challenges. In fact, it feels like a Hollywood cliche – a kind of biological lost world torn between the technological advances foisted upon it by Westerners and the ancient traditions that bind the Malagasy people to their past.

Like so many African countries, Madagascar suffers from excruciating poverty, resource gouging by outside interests, and a complicated history stemming from colonial rule and subjugation. Cultural beliefs also often act as a hindrance to the conservation of the local wildlife. Fady is one such example. Fady are cultural taboos and prohibitions, and they wreak havoc on species like the island’s quirky aye-ayes.

Aye-ayes are a type of lemur that looks sort of like what you might get if you crossed Yoda’s hair with the face of a perpetually surprised and alopecia-addled mongoose with Mickey Mouse ears. So they are not only one of the less adorable creatures of the animal kingdom (unless you are a fan of the fugly, as I am), they are also believed to be an omen of death. Which doesn’t win you a lot of friends. The story goes that if one points its bony little finger in your direction, you are as good as gone. Not surprisingly, the aye-aye is not a fan favourite for the locals. In fact, one might say that these poor creatures are persecuted. Luckily, they are nocturnal, making their dalliances with humans less frequent. Had they been diurnal or crepuscular, they would’ve likely gone extinct long ago.

Though I wish I had, I did not get to see an aye-aye while I was visiting Madagascar, but I did see quite a few other lemur species, including a pair of rough-necked lemurs who lived in the trees above a lodge I stayed in on the tiny island of Ile aux Nattes. These particular lemurs made a low, almost demonic barking sound as they bounce about from tree to tree, feasting on mangos and dropped both their scraps and their poop on whatever is below them. One of them was very inquisitive and friendly, climbing down from the tree tops for a scratch behind the ears from a willing human now and again. This particular lemur also took a shine to my toothpaste, which I had to wrestle from her surprisingly tight grip more than once during my stay. Crest, just so you know, your ProHealth toothpaste has at least one lemur fan.

In contrast to the ruff-necked lemurs’ somewhat unnerving bark, the indri (also the world’s largest lemur) sing a hauntingly ethereal song as they cruise about the forests of Andasibe. With a musical symphony that begins at daybreak, their calls reverberate throughout the trees, pinging from one section of the forest to another as the primates get their day going and start their search for food. Their calls remind me a little of whalesong, with that almost whimsical sine curve of sliding arpeggios swinging high and dropping low. Indris also have impossibly long eyelashes, which I’m sure has nothing to do with their singing, but it’s just an observation. And while they are no less inquisitive than the ruff-necked lemurs I met, they don’t come right up to you looking for an ear scratch. Which is disappointing to someone like me, who would probably touch every animal I could if I didn’t think I might potentially lose a hand (or at least some fingers) in the process. I was that child in the store who could not help herself from picking up EVERYTHING. It’s shocking I still have all my limbs.

Anyway, in celebration of these beautiful animals, I thought I’d share a few pics of some of the locals I had the privilege of meeting on my whirlwind jaunt through this mystical island. Enjoy! And please, if you’re interested in visiting this amazing country, message me. I’m happy to offer suggestions and advice. It’s an epic adventure worth the challenges and the price tag. And you’d be doing some good for conservation AND humanity because the local communities (human and wildlife alike) could seriously use the tourist dollars.

Categories: adventure, Africa, Animal, Conservation, Madagascar, nature, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

South African Adventure #11 – (Re)learning how to write, spell, and speak

First of all, there are 11 official languages in South Africa. Yes, 11. I am only going to focus on English in this blog, mainly because it’s the only SA language I speak. I may have picked up some phrases in Zulu, Shangaan, and Afrikaans, but conversant I am not. I am exceptional, however, at getting my point across via charade-type gesturing nowadays.

South Africans follow the same spelling and writing conventions as the Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis. For a writer raised in the US, this is a challenge. But I’ve willingly followed their lead, replacing letters, altering spellings and grammar rules, and changing inflections all over the lexicon. This hasn’t been without mishaps, though. I’ve certainly written text that had half American spellings and half South African ones. If I wasn’t detailed in my copywriting before, I’ve certainly learned to be so living here. Let myself even think about daydreaming and I’ll be confusing spellings and terminology all over the pages and screens I publish on.

South Africans spell things the same way as the Brits (using ‘s’ where Americans use ‘z’, such as in ‘organisation’; using a ‘c’ for an ‘s’, such as in ‘licence’). They use the same grammatical rules as the Brits as well (which was a challenge for me, who’d not only grown up under the American system of writing but was also schooled intensely in AP and Chicago Manual of Style writing and editing…). I still find myself asking South Africans about the proper way to say and write certain words. Though I have to admit that, like many Americans, a lot of South Africans don’t know how to spell/write/speak grammatically correctly, a trend I’ve noticed gaining speed worldwide. I chalk it up to a plethora of exposure to bad writing (thank you, internet), poor blogging, devaluing of the craft of language, and too many people who call themselves writers and editors but have never bothered to learn the actual craft of either. Why do so many people think you don’t have to know how to write to call yourself a writer? Could a doctor could go out and practice without first going through pre-med, medical school, residencies, etc.? Or a lawyer practice law without actually studying law and passing the bar exam? Why any so-called writer believes they should have their own special ‘we don’t need to actually KNOW how to write to be considered writers’ category is nonsensical (and arrogant) to me. Okay, off the soapbox, tangent truncated.

South Africans not only spell differently from Americans, they speak differently too. This might seem like it should’ve been obvious (it is, after all, another country), and I knew they did, but it still hit me hard when I arrived here. I couldn’t always understand what the people around me were saying. And, in fairness, they couldn’t always understand me. South African pronunciation is in many ways similar to British pronunciation, but the accent is different. Some phrasing and pronunciations have a harder, more gutteral feel. It is not an easy accent to replicate. I am a musician. I usually have an ear for the musicality of a language and a dialect, and I pick up accents quickly. Not so here. I am firmly American in my speech. Except when it comes to the slang. And South Africa has some beautiful slang. Imagine all the unique slang that a country of 11 national languages can produce! Lekker. Aweh. Eish. Given the right amount of inflection and gesture, these and so many other words can convey in one or two syllables every emotion and nuance you need to know about a moment in time.

I hadn’t realised how many South Africanisms I’d picked up until I went back to the US a few months ago, nor how many pronunciations I’d adopted. I found myself saying ZEH-brah for zebra and GAH-raj (like the Taj in Taj Mahal) for garage. Garbage was now bin. Yebo replaced yes. A barbecue was a braai (the braai is itself a blog post – braai-ing is a revered activity here, spoken of in ecstatic tones and elevated to a spiritual endeavour, especially if you hold the position of braai master). Sausage is boerwoers (and despite my best eforts, phonetically spelling out boerwoers in a way that does justice to the word is beyond my descriptive abilities). A street light was a robot. And a truck? Nope, a bakkie.

I had even inadvertently fallen into saying toe-MAH-toe, even though that is one situation I find annoyingly inconsistent. Why are tomato and potato, which are spelled exactly the same, pronounced differently in South Africa? No South African could give me an answer on that one. But then again, that seems to be the norm with the English language, no matter what accent is used to speak it. American English has its fair share of stupid inconsistencies as well.  I pity anyone who has to learn English. I was an English major and I still struggle.

Anyhoo, I find myself often having to correct myself no matter where I am these days. Which brings me to my point. Why don’t we just standardise/ize English? I studied Spanish. From what I recall, there is really only one Spanish. There is slang, but the language itself isn’t unique to each country that speaks it. Sure, there are nuances, and trying to understand a Cuban, a Puerto Rican, an Argentine and a Spaniard all in one room takes a level of multi-tasking I cannot produce, but they spell things the same way, and the grammar is the same. WTF happened with English?

And the accent? I’m all for regionalisms and each part of the world having their own culture, but really, why the need to make it a POINT to change up the manner of speech? And yes, it was intentionally changed way back when. Apparently, the bluebloods amongst the Brits felt a need to differentiate themselves from those damn Yanks and Brits of the ‘lesser’ classes, and they poshed it up. Read more about it here. I swear it must be a human nature thing to feel this irrepressible need to be superior to something or someone. It’s like we have a collective culture of bullies with low self-esteem. Have so few of us matured beyond third grade?

Don’t get me wrong. I do love the accent, and I admit it – I feel a special sense of pride that I can now pull out 42 ways to rewrite a sentence, depending on which style guide you’re adhering to. But I do get tired of constantly having to rewrite and readjust according to which English country I happen to be in at the moment. It’s the 21st century. There are apparently two billion (yes, billion) native English speakers in the world. Can’t we all just get on the same page and read from the same book without having to convert it to placate cultural egos?

But what does this have to do with living in the bush? Well, not much, really. This is more about life in South Africa (and random general challenges you face while living abroad). It’s easy to understand how you can feel alone and out of sorts in a place where you don’t speak the language. It’s harder to imagine feeling that way in a place where many people actually speak the same language as you. But trust me, you do. You cannot help but feel like an outsider every time you open your mouth. It’s an unfortunate part of being an expat. But it does eventually get better, and it gets better faster the more quickly you learn the local lingo and start using it.

Oh, if you feel like facepalming for an hour, ask a South African about their definition of the multiple variations of now (now now, just now, right now). You’ll end up with a migraine if you try to figure it out. Don’t bother trying. Just resign yourself to the fact that time is a relative term here. And that’s not always a bad thing.

If you want to learn a few other pure South Africanisms, check out 43 Favourite South Africanisms

 

 

Also check out this Guide to South African Slang

If you need help with some pronunciations, let me know and I’ll do my best to spell the words and phrases out phonetically. Except, as I mentioned, for boerwoers. You’ll need to find a true South African to help you with that one.

Categories: Africa, American, Education, Expat, Life Lessons, South Africa, United States, writing | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Signing the Death Warrant for Rhinos Everywhere: Why Opening Trade in Rhino Horn is a BAD Idea

I’ve been against trade since day one for many reasons, most of which are elaborated in this post from an organisation I was fortunate enough to work with. In light of the South African government greenlighting the auction (read: sale) of rhino horn by the country’s largest rhino farmer (how WRONG does that phrase sound, btw???), Wildlife ACT issued this post responding to said farmer’s ‘reasons’ for allowing trade to be allowed. Wildlife ACT is on the ground doing honest conservation work. These guys are the real deal, and they are passionate about protecting wildlife. And this is their response to the approved rhino auction. If this doesn’t pointedly demonstrate why trade is a bad idea, I don’t know what is.

Here are some of the points made, as well as some of my own points:

  1. If we open up trade, we create an even larger market. We can’t meet the illegal demand. How, exactly, are we to meet the much larger ‘legal’ demand when there aren’t enough rhinos to meet the demand now??? It doesn’t matter if the horn grows back – there aren’t enough rhino in the world to meet the illegal demand. There sure as hell aren’t enough to meet a legal demand!
  2. Legal sales create loopholes for illegal sales. We haven’t tackled one of the biggest elephants in the room: corruption. We already can’t seem to keep tabs on what’s already coming in and out of the borders or what’s legally and illegally permitted in the involved countries. We need to clean up our corruption and put resources towards weeding out the corruption within law enforcement, judiciary, border control, politics, etc. Period.
  3. Rhinos live in many countries in Africa AS WELL AS in Asia. And they live in countries outside of South Africa (where this rhino farmer lives). Who’s protecting the rhino that live outside of private reserves in South Africa? And whose protecting the rhinos living outside of South Africa? Because this farmer might become rich with the opening up of trade, but the rhino that live in National and Regional parks around the country and in the rest of the world aren’t getting any money from said farmer. And opening up a legal trade means those animals are just as much as target as the ‘safe’ ones in private reserves (or breeding camps), in not MORE of a target. In fact, given the propensity for markets to value the ‘real’ versus the ‘fake,’ wild rhinos will inevitably become targets because they are ‘the real deal,’ and in the race for status, the real deal is what people want, and they will pay MORE for it. Meaning the illegal trade and poaching will not abate in the slightest with the legalizing of trade. For example, look at salmon farming. Look at where the market has gone – people want WILD salmon now and are willing to pay more for it, precisely BECAUSE it is wild and not farmed (and people perceive wild to be better). It is inevitable that people will want WILD rhino. And how will they get wild rhino horn? Illegally. Through poaching. Period.
  4. The people who will profit from farming rhino are the rhino farmers. No one else.
  5. Look at the vicuna situation. Opening up legal trade in for what has been called ‘sustainable utilisation’ hat has proven distastrous for this species, as illegal poaching has not gone down, but UP.
  6. We need to focus on demand reduction, not increase consumption. Because that genie is not going back in the bottle once you open it up. YOu give in to the demand and you are not only selling snake oil (since rhino horn doesn’t cure anything), but you are sentencing a species that has been around for millions of years to extinction by saying it has a price on its head. This is also why I am against trophy hunting of said animal, but that’s a whole other topic.
  7. There’s a reason rhino evolved to have a horn in the first place. It is used for defense and for mating rights. It is a means to ensure the best genes get passed on. This is why you can’t go around the national and provincial parks and dehorn rhino. Not to mention how that will affect tourism. Again, this means these wild rhino will continue to be targeted.
  8. Elephants are being born with smaller (and, in some cases, no) tusks because elephants with the largest tusks are being targeted for poaching (and hunting). Why wouldn’t the same happen to rhinos? If we continue to cut off the horn, what’s to say that future generations will simply to evolve to NOT HAVE A HORN AT ALL? Then what happens? Oh, but by the time that happens, said farmer will probably be dead and gone, so won’t be his problem, will it? But it will be everyone else’s. And, provided they aren’t already extinct, it will DEFINITELY be the rhino’s problem.

The list of cons go on and on, but I think these points and any additional ones pointed out in the article should be enough to convince anyone that truly cares about the protection and conservation of this (and so many other) species that trade is a bad idea.

At the end of the day, the ONLY beneficiaries from trade in rhino horn are this particular farmer, those whose grease the wheels, and those who profit from illegal trade. Rhinos have no chance if we allow any sort of trade to happen. End of story.

The reality is, you open up trade, you create demand. You make the problem WORSE, not better. Period. Please click on the link to read the entire article.

Dear John, Our Response to Your Rhino Horn Auction

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Conservation, Education, environmental management, legislation, nature, poaching, Rhino, South Africa, trophy hunting, United States, Wildlife, wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#WorldElephantDay and Another Jane Goodall Life Lesson: Value Your Family

I will honestly admit I forgot about these life lessons blogs. Well, I didn’t forget about the life lessons. I just forgot to create more blog posts around them. But with #WorldElephantDay upon us, I can’t think of a more pertinent life lesson that hits the heart of what elephants are facing today than this one – the need to value family.

I dedicate this blog to elephants not just because they live in family groups and value each other, but because they are part of our animal family, and we are not valuing them. Unless they are dead. And I think that’s pretty kak, to borrow a word from South Africa’s vast and creative repertoire of words.

Elephants are highly intelligent, sentient beings. They mourn their dead. They celebrate the living. They play, they fight, they hold grudges. They remember. Yes, they remember. Haven’t you ever heard the saying “I have a memory like an elephant?” There’s an excellent reason for that analogy. Don’t believe it? Piss off an elephant. They won’t forget you, and they won’t hesitate to get retribution. You don’t want an animal that can weigh up to 7 tons and can blast through forests and flatten cars without breaking stride targeting you for retribution. I have seen them take down fully grown trees without even uttering as much as a tiny grunt of exertion. It was awe-inspiring. And humbling. And it made me reevaluate how much (or, more appropriately, how little) I could rely on my vehicle to protect me in the event of a committed charge from an angry pachyderm.

Solo elephants are fun to watch, but – to me – it’s elephant social dynamics that are most fascinating to see. Herds are led by a matriarch, the oldest elephant in the group. She and the other elder females pass on knowledge and wisdom to the rest of the members of the group. The matriarch remembers migration routes and imparts that information on to her younger siblings, daughters, and granddaughters and their offspring.

Males stay with the herd until they reach the teenage years, at which time they are permanently ousted from the group and seek their fortunes in finding love elsewhere.

The elders take a vested interest in teaching the young, and all members of the herd take a vested interest in protecting each other from outside threats. They rally around their own and put up an impressive front when threatened. And this isn’t just the females, which dominate the herd dynamic. Bull males will often mentor younger bulls. Kill the elder elephants and you kill the teachers, which is why so many ‘rogue’ male elephants end up getting shot as ‘problem animals.’ They haven’t been taught how to stay in line. They are teenagers with no guidance and nothing to lose, mainly because they don’t know any better. No different than human teenagers in the same situation.

It is no longer surprising to me that the main reason for these ‘problem animals’ is human activity.

Elephants are a keystone species, which means ecosystem stability depends on their existence in it. Yet elephants, like every other animal on this planet, are under threat from that very distant and selfish relative who manages to cause infinite damage to nature without even batting an eyelash or bothering to consider the ramifications of its actions. Yep, good ol’ humankind. Elephants are losing the battle to survive because of humanity’s tendency to take without thinking, to take without giving back, and to take without considering the cost. And that cost is life. Life of elephants.

All for ivory.

Elephants are under massive threat because we like their teeth. Which, if you think about it, has to be one of the most ridiculous things in the world. We kill them for their teeth. We kill these incredible, sentient beings with families, histories, and personalities, for their teeth. And not all their teeth. Just those two big ones that stick out. The tusks. When did humans become so enamored of enamel? And why? Why are we the only species in the world that will happily destroy a species so we can put a trinket around our neck or on our mantle? Or a head on a wall?

Though elephants are the largest land animals on earth, they are in many ways a mirror of ourselves. They work together and figure things out. They are curious. They are caring. And they are disappearing at a rate of close to 50,000 per year. They are running out of time. We are running out of time to save them.

To see them go extinct will be catastrophic not only for the ecosystems they keep in balance, but for future generations of our own, who will never know the magnificent, clever, generous, tender, and formidable nature of these unique life forms. If we allow them to go extinct, we allow the worst of our nature – greed, ignorance, and ego – to win out. If we lose them, we might as well admit we lose a part of ourselves, and a good part at that. And we can never get it back.

Please, let us value our family. Don’t buy ivory products. Don’t ride elephants. Don’t shoot them for sport. Let us come together to ensure elephants survive long into the future.

If you want to learn more about the poaching crisis decimating elephant populations (and see if you might be unknowingly contributing to the damage) consider watching a documentary called The Ivory Game. This isn’t a blame game. It’s an awareness game. And if we’re not willing to educate ourselves about our potential role in a problem, how can we expect to fix the problem, right?

If you’re keen on learning more about elephants in general, check out the following links.

Also, I’m going to be posting some of my elephant stories in the upcoming weeks, so keep an eye out if you want to hear about some personal experiences with these gray giants.

Defenders of Wildlife: Basic Facts About Elephants

Smithsonian: 14 Fun Facts About Elephants

Africa Geographic: 10 Fascinating Facts About Elephants

TED-Ed Blog: 12 Amazing Facts About Elephants

Scientific American: Elephants Are Even Smarter Than We Realized

San Diego Zoo Zoonooz: Dangerous Road – Demand and Greed Drive the Market

 

 

Categories: adventure, Africa, Big 5, Conservation, Education, Elephant, environmental management, Jane Goodall, Life Lessons, nature, poaching, science, South Africa, trophy hunting, Wildlife, wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Pearl of Wisdom: “Age Does Not Define You” (Another Jane Goodall-ism)

Age does not define you.

Sjoe, this is a big one for me. It’s particularly pertinent when you work in an industry where it feels like the median age is 22. For the longest time, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest child, the youngest kid in my grade, the youngest this, the youngest that. Now suddenly I’m the ‘older’ one. And it’s not seen positively.

It’s taken me a long time to be okay with the idea that my age doesn’t define who I am. Sadly, many people (woman in particular) are seen as less useful once they hit some subjective sell-by date, which is ridiculous. Some of the most brilliant work done in the world was (and continues to be) achieved by people well beyond the energetic youth stage. In fact, some were quite deep into their wrinkles.

I started touring as a musician at 25, which was practically grandma age for most of the people I encountered. I tackled welding for the first time at 32. I also faced down my first elephant, mamba, and lion at that same age. To be honest, the best and most challenging experiences of my life only happened once I was past my first quarter century. And that wasn’t for lack of trying. Yet I was always ‘past expiration date’ according to the norm for the industries I was in.

welding

The most challenging part of this is the way our society shames people not only for their age but also for their attitude about that age. Especially if society sees someone who they feel is not acting their age (though your guess is as good as mine as to what is acceptable and what isn’t and why at any age). It would appear, though, that anyone who travels more in squiggles than in straight lines and are thus perceived as ‘lacking direction,’ fall into the category of people who never grew up. They live forever in this negative spotlight, ever on the receiving end of a barrage of whispers and smirks. “Aw, they had such potential. Now, look. They’ve wasted their life.” Or “When is that person going to grow up and get their sh*t together?” The perpetual Peter Pans are beloved until they turn 30. Then they are a menace to society for some reason.

Let’s be honest – I have yet to meet ANYONE who really has it all together at any age, and who isn’t just saying it to make themselves feel better. In fact, I’ve started to think that having it all together is actually a myth. Kind of like the pursuit of perfection. It drives us, but it isn’t a realistic goal that anyone can actually attain. And that stems from many reasons, one of the biggest of which is that everyone’s definition of having it all together seems to be different.

Fact is, many of us do not have a straight path to follow in life, and age has nothing to do with it. At least not in the sense that it seems society THINKS it does. Ever heard the quote, “Not all those who wander are lost”? Actually, in many cases, age is the main reason many of us wander. It is the impetus that propels us to keep exploring, to keep pushing ourselves. We realize there is something amiss in our current life. And we act on that. As we gain more knowledge, we realise there is always more to know. Thus we push onward, collecting more stories, notching experiences on our proverbial belt. But this doesn’t age us. In many ways, it keeps us connected to the childlike fearlessness we lost somewhere between a bad experience at a grade school dance and our first failure on our first job. Age, if looked at in this way, can actually act to keep us ageless.

Cliché as it is, age brings us wisdom. It brings us a better understanding of who we are and what our true purpose is. And it gives us the wherewithal to follow our star instead of hitching it to someone else’s. Instead of clinging desperately to something someone else told we us we should do – but that we desperately hate – or forcing ourselves into a box of what is expected of us by people who aren’t living our life (and in many cases know nothing about us), we do our own thing. We experiment. We try different roads. Oh, the audacity, right? Heaven forbid we be ourselves and let our hearts guide us!

From the time I was a child, I was told I must choose a career; I must climb some ladder; I must stick with one thing; I must focus. Focus, focus, focus. On what?!? The answer to what, exactly, I was supposed to focus on changed with every person I spoke to. For someone like me, who is utterly enthralled with the process of learning, telling me to stick with one thing was like trying to herd 100 cats while being chased over ice by a pack of wolves. And it was a slap in the face to who I was. I know I am not alone in that.

I was also told I must grow up. I must stop being silly. This admonition I got when I was apparently using my imagination too much and thinking of outlandish things like making up an entire series of stories about a family of lint balls. Who draws the line between what is silly and what is not?

I don’t know. The lint tales were pretty damn entertaining. And my English teacher loved them! Too bad they got thrown away one day when someone in my family tossed out a bunch of my things without asking me. Ah well.

Anyway…

For years I have been told I must change. I must fit this mould. I must pick one thing and stick with it. Well, for me, who loves several what are considered completely divergent things (music, wildlife, science, writing, photography, education, to name a few), that’s an impossible proposition. Why must I choose ONE thing? The world is not made up of one thing. It is made up of many things that all work together and depend on each other. And to assume that a person can only do one thing is also a slap in the face to the beauty of humanity’s amazing complexity.

Not a single one of us excels only at ONE thing. Not a single one of us is interested only in ONE thing. The WORLD does not exist on the back of ONE thing. So why do we beat ourselves into a rigid submission, telling each other that we MUST follow ONE path? It’s illogical, impractical, and soul-destroying. Not surprisingly, I’ve been in revolt of that system ever since I was a child. And this is where someone like Jane Goodall stands as an inspiration to me.

Jane started out studying to be a secretary. But her mentor, Dr. Leakey, pulled her out of that role. Instead of her fighting and saying, “Oh, but this is what I studied; this is what I have to stick with,” she rolled with it. She quickly moved into an industry that she had no prior experience in, doing a job she knew not a whit about doing, at a time when women were pushed AWAY from the science field (and in many cases are still pushed away from today). Now in her 80s, she is still going strong. And guess what? She does more than ONE thing. And if she had stuck with one thing those many years ago, what would her life be like? Would we even know who she is? And what would be the fate of all the wildlife she’s devoted her life to saving? And all the people she’s educated and enlightened along the way?

In addition to any research work she does, Jane lobbies, she educates, she motivates, she fundraises. She gets stuff done, and not just in conservation. At 80 years old, she still jets all over the world to make a positive impact on the planet. If she let her age define her, imagine how different the world would be.

Dreams come at any age. And life happens. It doesn’t follow some prescribed plan; it doesn’t fit neatly into some preordained script. It is messy, unpredictable and often scary. It is exhilarating, exhausting and ever changing. If we let our age stop us from doing something, we miss out on all the fun. We essentially die before we are dead.

It’s a pity so many of us tell ourselves our time for dreaming ends the day we hit puberty. Or the day we graduate college. Or whatever other arbitrary date that gets picked for us by someone else. Age is a number, a simple way for us to count the seasons we’ve lived through and to keep a mental library of our own history. Don’t let a simple counting system get in the way of you living your life to the fullest.

If I wanted to depress myself, I could look at where I am in life and compare it to where other people my age are. I could think about all the vacations I had to forego, all the fun nights out with friends I missed, all the houses I would never buy, the new cars, the new clothes, the list goes on and on. I have not had those things, because I have chosen another path, one that is not about things and the acquisition of them.

What I do have, though, is a multitude of amazing experiences and a lot of cool memories. I have lived the kind of life people say they dream about when they gaze out their office window. And I will continue to live that life. And it will never be glamourous. And it will never be easy or stable. I will likely always struggle with the things so many of my peers take for granted, like buying a car that isn’t 5+ years old and laden with a hundred thousand kilometers on the clock; ordering a latte; getting a new pair of jeans when mine have seen the end of their days; having health insurance; being able to see my family (or even talk to them) whenever I want. I have given up a lot to be where I am. I have struggled massively. I have lived through dark times where I have been utterly alone, literally and figuratively. I have taken chances other people have been afraid to take. And I have paid for those chances, for better or for worse.

I stepped outside the lines when I was colouring my storybook. And I will continue to step outside those lines, forever refusing to live within the boundaries someone else has drawn for me. I draw my own pictures. I write my own story. And because of that, my age doesn’t matter. It never will.

And neither does yours. Get out there. Live your life.

 

20160531_092238All rights reserved. ©2016 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: adventure, Africa, Jane Goodall, Life Lessons, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Five days, three tyres, a set of shocks, a flock of birds, and about 10,000 burned calories later… the whirlwind Namibia extravaganza

Sooo we decided to take a trip to Namibia. Driving. In a little VW Golf. In defense of the car, it was unfair to drag it over such roads. In defense of me, a 4×4 was simply not in the budget, so as with most things in life, we improvised and rolled with what we had. Here is a bulleted blow-by-blow account of our whirlwind tour.

  • Cape Town to Fish River Canyon in one day. This is 977km (607 miles). It is lovely for a few hours outside of Cape Town, then it gets dry. Then drier. Then it’s just dust everywhere. And a few sheep. (Saw my first actual black sheep!) And some odd-looking trees called quiver trees. And lots of rocks. Then no more trees at all. Just rocks. And finally nothing but tan-coloured dirt.
  • A very slow and unwelcoming border post. But they did eventually let us through. (To their credit, they were much nicer and faster on the way out – though not sure if I should read into that or not.)
  • welcome-to-namibia-jvitanzo

    Arriving at the border between South Africa and Namibia

  • One blowout on the empty dirt roads from Ai-Ais to Hobas camp. I also would like to add that we sadly took out more than a few birds on our travels. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to slam on brakes on loose sand. Birds that decide to sit in the middle of the sand/dirt road seem to be simply asking for a quick death via grill.
  • broken-car-jvitanzo

    our sad little VW Golf loses a shoe on the rough roads in southern Namibia

  • No restaurant on-site once we arrived at Fish River Canyon (and we’d packed nothing but some nonperishable goods), so food and drink options are limited to the small shop at the reception area, which had little more than tinned beef, bread, and milk.
  • A beautiful sunset spent sitting – sundowners in hand, because though we couldn’t get food, we could get alcohol – at the edge of a massive and empty canyon, lulled by the shushing of a warm wind, the gentle cries from a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles somersaulting like acrobats through the air, and pretty much nothing else. There was not another human for miles.
  • A night venturing out into the empty space behind our camp, startling a dazzle of zebra (no joke, that’s what a group of zebra is called), tracking down frogs, and practicing our star photography. Stumbled upon an old car that looked like it had been abandoned there a few decades ago. Briefly made me wonder if, given the roads we’d arrived on, and the fact that we still had a long way on more dirt roads to go to Sossusvlei, our car would be joining it in this desert graveyard.
  • Waking up to a chorus of what sounded like a million different species of bird. Watching a lone baboon make his way through camp, checking every bin he passed in a search for tasty morsels. A morning spent lazing about, bird watching, followed by a full day in Fish River Canyon, walking in extreme temperatures amongst shale, some limestone and quartz, and not much else. The only mammals we saw, other than the baboon at camp, were a hare and a klipspringer. Even the birds and the reptiles were quiet. The afternoon was spent in the pool in a vain attempt to cool down. A minor disruption of gunfire as someone shot towards the troop of baboons coming down the hillside towards the camp. The baboons tucked tail and did a 180 out of there. Then silence.
  • Evening braaing with a can of beans, a can of bully beef, and some potatoes. And a big slab of chocolate. Because I will always find a way to make sure chocolate is somehow involved in any activities.
  • Twelve hours driving from Fish River Canyon to Sesriem Camp, after a rough road incident along the way that set us back many hours and possibly even more years of life, given the stress levels it induced. (Be forewarned – paved roads in Namibia aren’t actually paved in the sense of being sealed like tarmac, and locals have no qualms about running into the road – and into your car, though I’ve found this in South Africa as well.)
  • Set up camp and scouted out the neighbours, which included about a thousand sociable weavers, a horned adder, a few dozen barking geckos, a Bibron’s thick-toed gecko, and a striped pole cat (of which I actually only saw the butt-end as it ran away from me). And a house cat that apparently lives in the tree above our tent. We named him Frisky. He got a can of tuna fish.
  • Walked into springbok on my way back from the ablutions.
  • Five am wake-up call, one-hour drive to the dunes, six hours trekking in 40-degree heat (Celsius, not Fahrenheit), through mid-calf-deep sand, to climb massive dunes, find some web-footed geckos, look at dead trees, and avoid being pummeled by surprised oryx and ostrich. Much water consumed. Made friends with a few European swallows and a random beetle that fully appreciated the bits of apple tossed their way.

    As a note: it’s 65-km trip from the entrance of the park to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei, so best to stay in the camp at Sesriem (where we stayed), which is right at the entrance. Or you can stay at the 5-star lodge (where we would’ve liked to have stayed, but could not even come close to affording).

I should add that a dune is a lot like a body of water –it’s hard to gauge distances, and everything seems a lot closer than it actually is. Our little dune seemed like a trifle until we actually started climbing. It didn’t take long until it was all burning calves and thighs, with us eventually crawling on hands and feet the last few dozen meters (no joke, at one point I was literally trying grab the sand in hopes that I could pull myself up), and then collapsing at the top, where we sat for a good 15 minutes just taking in the view. And letting our heart rate settle back down to a reasonable pulse.

On the return to the bottom, we attempted initially to slide down. Sand is not like snow, unfortunately. We slid about three meters and then stopped dead, sinking into the deep drifts. We had no choice but to walk down on our rubber legs. Along the way, we met a few web-footed geckos hiding out underneath or near the dune grass.

Once we reached the bottom, we headed onwards to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei.

Because we didn’t have a 4×4 we had to walk to the main area of Sossusvlei/BigDaddy/Deadlvei from the 2×4 parking lot, a distance of 10 km roundtrip. Apparently, there is a shuttle, though I don’t recall ever seeing it, and for whatever reason we decided not to take it. I’m not sure what we were thinking. Deadvlei is another 1km once you get to the 4×4 parking lot.

When we finally got close to Deadvlei, I took off my shoes and walked in my socks. The shoes were making it harder to walk in the thick sand, and the sand was way too hot for bare feet. The socks were the perfect happy medium.

I have to say, I try to stay in good shape. I exercise pretty much every day. And I almost didn’t make it. My legs have never felt more like soggy noodles in my entire life. 

  • Afternoon spent passed out in the tent, sleeping off what was probably heatstroke.
  • Early evening meeting the local sociable weaver population, which converged at our camp in search of crumbs (see photos below). We had many to contribute to the cause since our rolls had gone stale. Ecstatic birds flocked all around, squeaking happily, popping off to tell their friends about the buffet at Campsite 10, and bringing back reinforcements. Birds met the otters, Seaweed and Barnacle; birds harassed horned adder; birds gorged on every morsel of carb they could find; birds dispersed. Quiet resumes.
  • Delicious braai, night walk that culminated in finding one lone scorpion and a rather befuddled oryx. Last night of sleep under the brilliance of the Milky Way before heading back to South Africa. I don’t recall my head even hitting the pillow that night.
  • scorpion-namib_desert-jvitanzo

    Scorpion under UV light, Sesriem, Namibia

  • Early morning wake-up. Pack up the car. Sixteen hours driving from Sesriem to Cape Town. A very friendly border patroller who offered to buy our car as we hit the South African side.
  • Saw more snakes and scorpions passing through the Cederberg roadworks than we did in the actual desert. One scorpion looked to be the size of my hand. Ces’t la vie.
  • A trip to the garage gets us four new rims, three new tyres, a total realignment, new shocks, many gallons of water and plenty of elbow grease to clean off the dust.
  • Sleep for 24 hours straight.

Namibia was beautiful. I’m glad I went. But I don’t think I will be returning unless someone else is driving their car, and it’s a luxury 4×4 kitted out with a packed fridge and cooler.

 

TRAVEL TIPS

If you are keen to go on an adventure and would like to follow in our footsteps (in which case I would HIGHLY recommend you bring more supplies and make use of that shuttle at Sossusvlei…), here are a few useful links:

Sossusvlei (and Deadvlei and Fish River Canyon) – general information

The Cardboard Box (travel tips for all locales we visited)

Sesriem Camping (http://www.nwrnamibia.com/sesriem.htm)

If you’re averse to camping, try the Sossus Dune Lodge

And if you want to step it up about 40 notches, &Beyond has a lodge there as well: the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge

Hobas Camping (http://www.nwrnamibia.com/hobas.htm)

I also highly recommend going no later than November and no earlier than March. Unless you REALLY love excruciatingly hot and dry weather. I was there at the end of October (I know, I’m a little late with my recap), and it was already scorching.

Also, if you’re keen to hike in Fish River (which looks stunning, but which wasn’t open for hiking when we were there), you need to go between May 1 and September 15. That is the only time the trail is open (and for good reason, given the chance of drowning in flash floods and/or dying of heatstroke at other times). If you’re keen, read this article first on how to survive the hike, courtesy of Getaway Magazine.

 

All rights reserved. ©2016 Jennifer Vitanzo

 

 

Categories: Africa, Animal, Baboon, Bush, Camp, gecko, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why there’s no better time than now to care about rhino poaching (or any poaching)

The IUCN – International Union for Conservation of Nature is meeting in Hawaii as I type this. The conference is bursting with people who can and do make the laws about how we treat our brethren species of animals. Poaching and the issues of illegal wildlife trade are at the top of their list of topics to tackle. And I don’t envy a single one of them, as there are no perfect answers, and everything they come up with as solutions will be scrutinised and fought over by some faction who isn’t pleased with their decisions. But there ARE answers to be had. It will be interesting to see what comes out of the convention, as well as what comes out of CITES’ CoP 17, taking place in South Africa in mid-September.

I am sure people are tired of hearing about the poaching problem. And hey, I’m tired of hearing about it too. I’m tired of getting paid peanuts to fight to protect wildlife and wild places for a world that collectively doesn’t seem to care enough to do anything to help the situation. I’m tired of being asked to educate people who seem to not want to listen. I’m tired of seeing butchered rhinos and elephants, selfies taken with abused animals or that put animals at risk (or worse, cause their actual death), and 12-year-olds beaming as they pose next to some big game they’ve ‘bagged’ for sport. I’m tired of it all because, to be honest, it often feels like a losing battle. If I had even a penny for every person I’ve met who says that humans are more important than any of the other animals in the animal kingdom and that the sole purpose of every other species is for human benefit – our consumption and enjoyment – I’d quite possibly oust a billionaire or two from Forbes’ coveted Wealthiest People list.

However, despite the frustration, I continue to not just sit back. I do something. Or at least I am trying to do something. Are you?

Often I’ve found that the same people who complain about poaching and the illegal wildlife trade also haven’t done anything to help solve the problem. I know this isn’t always the case with every person, but more often than not I’ve found it is. Like it or not, that’s been my experience so far. So many people complain about the situation and ask how they, a single person, can possibly make a measurable impact. And each time they ask me, I give them reams of information about how every bit counts, how they CAN help, and enough positive reinforcement to hype up a small army. Sometimes I feel like the Tony Robbins for wildlife protection. Except he gets paid a lot more. And people listen to him. They don’t seem to listen to me.

Most times I get angry, because many of the same people who ask for suggestions and who insist that they are going to get involved, don’t. Or worse, they go ahead and do the things I’ve said CAUSE the problems (such as taking selfies with captive lion or tiger cubs at pretend conservation sanctuaries, riding elephants, or eating shark fin soup). Then they wonder why I stop talking to them.

It’s a shame, not because I stop talking to them (I doubt they really care since they clearly don’t care enough about me to listen to my expertise, advice, and suggestions). It’s a shame because the ill effects of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade aren’t contained in a handful of people in a handful of countries. Nope, they affect EVERY ONE OF US, everywhere.

It has been proven many times over that the funding from poaching is funnelled into any number of criminal organisations and actions, from illegal drug trafficking, human and wildlife trafficking, and terrorism groups (Boko Haram, anyone?). And still, billions of people are sitting back and doing nothing about it.

Here’s what I want to know. People were more than willing to dump a bucket of ice over their head, pledge money to a cause that only affects a very small proportion of the population (and no, I am not diminishing this cause or the disease, but I am playing devil’s advocate for a moment, for perspective and for argument’s sake), and pass it on to a bunch of other people, who happily did the same. And on and on and on. The ice bucket challenge raised millions of dollars to help what is actually a minuscule proportion of the population.

Rhino poaching, on the other hand, affects BILLIONS of people. It affects – whether directly or indirectly – every human on this planet. So why the different response? Why the lack of participation? Is it because the face of it isn’t a human’s? Do we just not care so much when it’s another species in the animal kingdom? Or is it the belief that it’s not in my back yard, so it isn’t my problem? Well, if nothing else, this post should have opened any reader’s eyes to the fact that it IS in your backyard. It’s in everyone’s backyard.

Forget the millions of people in Africa who will suffer because the tourism industry will suffer a massive blow from the extinction of the rhino. Not to mention the imminent demise of other iconic species like and the lion and the elephant – we’re getting awfully close, people – the population of elephants decreased 30% in the last 7 years alone. Then there are the smaller, lesser-known species – pangolins come to mind – that suffer as a result of the inefficiencies, loopholes and lack of sufficient attention directed at this problem. The cracks are wide and deep, and we aren’t doing enough to seal them up and prevent further cracks from appearing.

Who wants to see the Big 4? Or, and what is becoming highly likely, the Big 2? If poaching continues, it won’t just be biodiversity and habit that will be affected adversely. Poaching affects animals AND people, and on a massive scale. Economies will suffer on the African continent, which will obviously not just cause suffering for the people who work in the tourism industry; entire countries overall will bear the brunt. And let’s not forget the fact that people are also dying in myriad ways as a result of this trade, whether directly – as rangers fighting against poachers or as poachers being killed in action – or indirectly – as victims of terrorist attacks, corrupt regimes, and genocide.

It has been well proven that drug trafficking, human and wildlife trafficking, and terrorist groups receive funding by poaching and the illegal wildlife trade syndicates behind it. MILLIONS UPON MILLIONS OF DOLLARS from the death of wildlife go into the hands of violent militant groups and drug cartels around the world!

So are you paying attention now? Are you perhaps now considering that it’s time to do something about this?

I work in conservation in South Africa. I see this stuff first hand. And it has two contradictory effects on me. One effect is to hate the human race, feeling nothing but disgust for anyone who can do what these people do to another living creature.

The other is to treasure that same human race because I see the people on the ground working their tails off to save these and so many other creatures. They aren’t just saving a bunch of big grey tonnes of mammal with a few pointy parts on their face. They are saving economies, people’s livelihoods, biodiversity…the list goes on and on. People are risking their lives EVERY SINGLE DAY, putting themselves in the literal line of fire to not just keep these animals alive, but to combat the trade across the board. And they are doing so with limited support and even more limited resources. And you can help them! Yes, YOU!

Everyone everywhere in the world can help to fight the poaching problem. There are plenty of honest and trustworthy organisations that are channelling the money they receive into rhino (and ultimately wildlife) conservation, community outreach and betterment programmes, as well as for education campaigns for the cultures who are selling and buying the horn. WildAID is a perfect example.

The MyPlanet Rhino Fund is another example. They are affiliated with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), which is a highly reputable organisation in the conservation industry (and in indeed any industry). You can donate directly or, if you are South African, you can get yourself a MyPlanet card, designate the MyPlanet Rhino Fund as your beneficiary, and voila! It costs nothing to sign up for the card and you pay nothing to have it. But a percentage of every Rand you spend gets put into a fund that is allocated to worthy rhino poaching initiatives. I speak from experience with these guys. I’ve been in meetings with them when they decide where the funding is going. And it DOES go to the causes, not the pockets.

But it isn’t just about donating money. It’s about donating your time and using your actual voice. Volunteer for an organisation like the World Wildlife Fund, or the Nature Conservancy. Hold your own fundraisers at schools, offices, whatever. Walk the walk. Petition your government to get involved. And, for the love of all that is good in this world, don’t buy products made with rhino horn (or from ivory, or pangolin scales, or bear bile, or lion skins, etc.). The more voices putting pressure on the countries where this is happening, the more those countries have no choice but to take this problem seriously and do something (or many things) significant about it.

Here is one such challenge that can be changed, provided there is enough dissent to force that change. In South Africa, anti-poaching units are not allowed to engage the poachers unless fired upon. Which means that even if these units find poachers, they can’t do much. They can try to arrest the poachers, but obviously, a poacher is not going to rock up, put out their hands and let someone put them in cuffs. They are armed, they are dangerous, and they are there for one purpose – to get the horn – and they will (and do) kill anyone or anything that gets in their way. We need to call upon the South African government to change the rules of engagement. There also need to be stronger and more seriously enforced laws surrounding wildlife crime. Right now those laws are a joke and the likelihood of them being upheld even more of a laugh. The government needs to take environmental crime seriously. They need to step up to the plate and take care of their country’s natural resources, its biodiversity, its economy and its people. But this isn’t just happening in South Africa. All governments everywhere should be taking notice and taking action.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that because you don’t live on the front lines in Africa and Asia that your country isn’t complicit in what’s going on – the US and Europe are among the many places contributing significantly to the decimation of wildlife, through outlets like trophy hunting, illegal trafficking, land clearing, or even traveling to places overseas and visiting petting zoos that cater towards exotics. Petting a lion cub or taking a walk with one is never conservation (check out Blood Lions if you don’t want to believe me). Cuddling a loris on the streets of Southeast Asia does not help wildlife (and certainly not the loris, who’s had his teeth ripped out just for the occasion). These are all examples of scams and greedy practices that bring in money that goes solely into the pockets of the people benefiting from keeping and breeding captive animals, animals that are often stolen from the wild and that will never be released (nor could possibly be safely released, after so much human interaction) into the wild. Ordering shark fin soup is not something you should do, ever. Just don’t.

Know people in Asia? Here’s another avenue to try. By spreading the word that rhino horn, pangolin scales, elephant tusks, tiger/lion penis/bones have NO MEDICINAL VALUE and they are ILLEGAL to buy, you can help educate people in the countries mainly responsible for the demand. And be sure to tell them it’s not cool to buy those products either since a huge part of the market in many countries isn’t actually traditional medicine, but ego and status. Feel free to share a photo of a poached rhino with them, so they can see how their ignorance/greed/’whatever it is compelling them to buy or sell illegal products’ is leading to this disgusting massacre of life.

People keep bringing up legalising trade. Study after study has shown that not only will legalising trade not help, but given the amount of time it will take to change the laws that allow trade, there will be no rhino left if it ever gets legalised. Let’s not forget the ethical side of trade as well. Or the sociological one. Or the environmental one. Farming rhino is not a walk in the park, nor is it good for the environment or the rhino. In fact, the only things it benefits are the owner selling it to the middle man, and the middle man selling it to the buyer.

Rhino must be knocked out with anesthesia every time you want to cut off their horn. Every time. Not only is this not good for the animal in general, continued activity such as dehorning causes behavioural changes, stresses the animal out and leaves it more susceptible to disease. It also means the rhino has no horn to defend itself. That, in turn, can affect the wild populations. Disease can knock out an entire crash of privately owned rhino. And then who will meet the demand? Sorry, folks. We gotta go back to poaching because there’s not enough rhino horn available legally.

As more people can GET rhino, more people WANT rhino. And that’s a whole other black hole. The DEMAND side has to change, whether we legalise it or not. Because we will NEVER be able to keep up with the demand. The elephants are a great example. We never bothered to deal with the demand side. We legalised ivory sales again. And elephant poaching went wildly out of control (and continues to spiral downward at an uncontrollable rate).

Today, I am asking you to start your own challenge. Like with the Ice Bucket Challenge, I ask YOU to spread the word about rhino poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. Get people to get involved in the fight. Take a photo of yourself doing your best rhino impression, tag it with “#SaveOurRhino” and upload it to every social media account you have. And, and this is one of the most important parts, TAG OTHER PEOPLE and ask them to do the same. And then physically get involved.

Combatting illegal wildlife trafficking is going to take the help of people all over the world. You aren’t just saving an amazing animal (and by default, if we curb poaching, we are in fact saving MANY species of animals). You are saving millions of people’s jobs and the economies of entire countries; you are fighting terrorism and the illegal drug/human/wildlife trafficking trade; you are doing your part to sustain the planet and its incredible biodiversity. If there isn’t a worthier cause than that, I’d love to know what it is.

Please help. Share this post. Get involved. DO SOMETHING!

Video: Critically Endangered Black Rhino Calf Hit the Ground Running Hoedspruit’s young orphan rhino, Gertjie

I know many people have never had the fortune to see these animals in the flesh, except for maybe in a zoo (and speaking from experience, I can tell you it isn’t the same thing as seeing them in the wild). But if you’ve never seen a baby rhino, please watch the video above. It will melt your heart. And maybe it will further convince you to get involved.

While I am using a happy video rather than a brutal and violent poaching one, I’m doing so for no one’s benefit but my own. I’m tired of seeing massacred rhino, so for my own sake, I want to share something positive. But I am not promising anything for the future. I do believe that if you shield your eyes from the truth, you’ll never acknowledge it. So be warned that an ugly, heartbreaking one will likely surface at some point if that’s what it takes to get people to get off their butts and actively involved in fighting this war on wildlife (and on ourselves).

That’s today’s buzz from the bush.

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Conservation, Education, legislation, Lion, nature, poaching, Rhino, South Africa, trophy hunting, United States, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #64 – King of the Jungle (but Maybe Not for Much Longer) and Another Jane Goodall Lesson (Treasure This Earth)

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Panthera leo. The king of the jungle. The lion.

The lion is considered by many to be the quintessential animal of Africa, a creature both elegant and dignified, gracing much of the iconography of the continent. To lose the lion is, in many ways, to lose the face of a continent.

Not very long ago, lion populations topped 200,000. Now there are reports that state their numbers are well below 30,000. Sure, 30,000 seems like a big number, right? Now think of this. There are over 7,000,000,000 people in the world. 7,000,000,000. Suddenly 30,000 doesn’t look like such a big number anymore.

Of course, lions don’t only live in Africa. There are lions in Asia as well. But not many. The Asian populations are doing even worse than their African cousins. And while everyone shouts about rhinos and elephants (and by all means, please keep shouting – those animals need as much help as they can get!), the lion is quietly disappearing right under our noses. As with so many other issues with our planet, we are not living up to one of Jane’s life lessons: we are not treasuring our earth. We are failing it and ourselves.

Last month’s debacle over the illegal hunting of #Cecil in #Zimbabwe brought the plight of the lion (and the controversial topic of #trophyhunting) to the forefront. And I’m glad it did, not just because I’m not a fan of trophy hunting, but because I think it’s about time people start talking about what’s going on in Africa, and how it isn’t just Africans but also the rest of the world affecting this amazing continent. It’s about time we realise that as a global community we are not treasuring our earth. And we are collectively letting it down.

I grew up in the US, a child of consumerism and the constant flow of opportunity, excess and – I hate to admit it – ignorance. I was pretty clueless about the ways of the world outside the boundaries of my fine country. Well, let’s be honest, I was pretty clueless about what went on WITHIN my birth country’s boundaries too. But I was always an avid reader, and I did my best to fill my brain with information from National Geographic, newspapers and whatever else I could get my hands on. I did my best to learn, to inform, to debate, to question and to gather nuggets faster than a starving chipmunk in a drought. Then the internet arrived and it was like the heavens opened up and dropped Christmas on me 24-7.

So.Much.Information!!!!

But here’s the rub. The more I knew, the more I wanted to learn. And when it came to conservation, I learned quickly that there was no easy answer when it came to preserving our wildlife and wild places. For whatever reason, we drew a line in the sand: humans on one side, all other species on the other. Hunting was a huge player in that divide.

Sadly (and perhaps ironically), though hunting was a main reason for the decline in many species of wildlife, it was also partly what brought these same species back. In some cases, it was because of hunters that land was set aside for conservation, so they could replenish stocks of animals and then kill them again – I know, odd logic, if you can call it logic at all, but that happened, nonetheless. As a result, conservation and trophy hunting became bedfellows, no matter how strange, contradictory and convoluted it may seem.

People spend a lot of money to hunt wildlife. I don’t agree with it, and to be honest, I find it appalling and neanderthal that in this day and age people still think it’s okay to shoot something for fun. In fact, why it was EVER acceptable blows my mind. But those are my personal sentiments. From a purely economic standpoint, trophy hunting brings in money, even if not a lot of it goes to the areas the industry says it goes to. It is still money that the armchair activists of the world are NOT bringing in.

I want to note that from what I’ve read, it would appear the trophy hunting industry certainly exaggerates how MUCH they are actually contributing to conservation and communities (see article “Economics of Trophy Hunting in Africa are Overrated and Overstated”), so the trophy hunting industry should perhaps stop patting itself so heavily on the back…

Anyway, while tourism of the non-hunting side still brings in significantly more money than trophy hunting (and, again, it is estimated that significantly more of the eco-tourism money actually reaches the local communities and conservation efforts), the two are still partners in crime in the battle to save wildlife. I may not agree with trophy hunting, but at the moment, until something better comes along, it is what it is. Money is king worldwide. If wildlife doesn’t have a price on it, many people don’t care about it. A fact I despise and am always trying to change but acknowledge, nonetheless.

The other thing is that a lot of hunting concessions are on pieces of land that wouldn’t be appropriate for photographic tourism, though they may be fine for wildlife to live on. In some cases hunting concessions provide buffer zones to national parks, which also helps to keep poachers away. Of course, that isn’t to say that poaching doesn’t continue to happen and that there aren’t trophy hunters who are actually guilty of poaching themselves, or of corrupting the system. In fact, that’s more of a reason to turn the spotlight on the industry now, as from what I’ve read, Palmer’s hunt was indeed illegal – it is illegal to lure an animal off a property, and Palmer’s hunting party did not have the proper permits in place to hunt a lion in the first place: all roads point to poaching. And there are documented accounts of people who’ve somehow been allowed to hunt more wildlife than they were legally permitted to hunt. Or where a single hunting permit somehow turned into 14 permits.

However, too often the hunting community immediately goes on the defensive as soon as people get up in arms about trophy hunting, thus obfuscating the reality that the industry needs a clean sweep. There are MANY issues with the hunting industry, and corruption within it, that need to be addressed – issuing illegal permits, hunting where hunting isn’t allowed, using illegal means and methods to hunt, etc. The hunting community also constantly rolls out the tired story that they are the ultimate conservationists, and if it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t be any animals. While that’s not entirely true, it’s not entirely false either. Though, honestly, how can anyone be expected to believe that anyone who hunts animals (particularly critically endangered ones) for sport is truly a conservationist? Sorry, trophy hunters, you’ll never convince me of that. But hey, if they want to keep large swaths of wildlife alive so that they can then shoot a few of them, at least they are putting their money where their mouths are. I am pretty fed up with animal activists and conservation-minded people complaining about the problems and then doing ZERO to change the situation. Posting about it on Facebook is not going to change the world. You have to actively get off your butt to effect change.

But back to trophy hunting. Trophy hunting is about ego, hence the name. Trophy hunters are doing it for a trophy. And even though I hear over and over that trophy hunters only take animals beyond their prime or that are sick/injured beyond repair, we’ve all seen the smug photos posted on the internet. These are not pitiful specimens on their last legs that these hunters are posing next to. They are beautiful specimens. They are creatures at the top of their game. Look at the professional hunting clubs. There are competitions to see who can bag the biggest and the best, not the sickliest and the most malnourished one about to keel over. In the wild, animals kill the weak and the young. Humans kill the strongest and the best. For sport. So let’s stop trying to wrap it up all pretty and pretend trophy hunting is anything but about getting a trophy, and the best one at that.

Whether or not I agree with or like trophy hunting isn’t the point, though.  What IS the point is that right now, trophy hunting is one of the ways that reserves (private and otherwise) bring in money. If a reserve has an excess of buffalo (which is not a threatened species and which is regularly consumed, at least in South Africa) and there is a trophy hunter willing to pay huge dollars/pounds/whatevs to hunt that animal, what do you think a reserve should do? If they let the animal just die, they lose out on much-needed revenue (revenue that keeps that reserve in business and, therefore, maintains a home for all the other animals on it). Or they allow a trophy hunter to hunt the animal and thus help defray the outrageous costs of running and maintaining a reserve. A reserve that ensures that wildlife and wild places thrive overall. It’s economics. Not only that, the wildlife needs a home. The reserves are the vehicle keeping many of these populations in existence. What do you do? People seem to expect these reserves and parks to run on good intentions alone. They also seem to think that ALL land in Africa is ideal for eco-tourism and photographic adventures. If only.

The fact is, there are too many people who consume too much and who are habitually encroaching upon wildlife populations in one way or another. People are greedy. We seem to have a global collective entitlement attitude that posits that every other animal on this planet exists for our fun, enjoyment, consumption. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to decimate populations, take away habitat and corral whatever we can round up into reserves. Then we have to ‘manage’ those populations, lest they trample or eat a villager’s crops (or a villager him/herself). Park staff have to shoot animals that have become “problem animals,” or when there are too many to control. We put animals in giant pens and then we regulate their numbers when we run out of room for them. This is how it is. And this is where trophy hunting fits in, for better or for worse.

On another note, I may have an ethical issue with trophy hunting, but I have no issue with hunting for food, provided there is a properly regulated system and the animal is not a threatened species. I eat meat. Not a lot of it, but I do eat it. I wear leather shoes. I am fully aware that the way a lot of wildlife is killed on a reserve is often significantly more humane than the treatment of the pigs, cattle and chickens Americans (and people all over the world) consume on a daily basis. And yet where is the outrage over that? The lion’s life is not more important than the pig’s.

But the death of this lion IS important, as it might be the trigger we need to open up a discussion, change policies and rethink how we see and interact with the other members of the animal kingdom. It might change how we manage land and our own populations.

There is a saying that states “If it pays, it stays,” and I hear people attribute that to animals and wildlife management all too often. But you know what? There are MANY people on this planet who do not ‘pay to stay.’ And we aren’t running around shooting them, are we? No. So why do we think that only wildlife has to pay rent while humans live rent-free, multiplying faster than rabbits, flagrantly wasting resources, destroying land and killing the rest of the animal kingdom for fun? And all of this is done not just at the expense of the rest of the animal kingdom, but often at the expense of other humans as well.

And by the way, what makes us think that wildlife doesn’t ‘pay’? The rest of the animal kingdom did a bang-up job of keeping this world in balance and functioning in tip-top shape. Then humans came along. Now look at it. No other species but our own has caused the extinction of another species. And not just one, but hundreds (maybe more, considering there are probably species we wiped out that we didn’t even know existed in the first place).

Here’s another fact – while there are trophy hunters from countries in Africa, it isn’t Africans who make up a big piece of the trophy hunting pie. It’s Americans. And Russians. And Europeans. And plenty of people from plenty of other countries not found on the continent of Africa. So while people around the world sit in the comfort of their home and type their loathing and outrage for trophy hunters and trophy hunting, their neighbours are out shooting the animals. And sadly it is the people who shout their outrage without knowing the full story that are doing more damage than the people pulling the trigger. Because right now, as stupid as it sounds, African wildlife needs trophy hunting. I wish that weren’t the case, but until people start doing and not just saying, it will remain that way.

Look, I would like nothing better than the end of trophy hunting. However, until we all learn to treasure our earth – start valuing wildlife for wildlife’s sake, start demanding that we put into place efforts (conservation and agricultural and population ones) that don’t kill wildlife (AND then donate a whole lotta money to those efforts) – that ain’t gonna happen. Many people would rather shell out hundreds of dollars for a brand new iPhone every year than donate that money to conservation. Or have smaller families. Or consume less. The sad truth is, many people would rather overconsume at the expense of wildlife than give up their unnecessary materialism. And every year, when they toss out that ‘old’ iPhone or no-longer-in-style pair of $300 jeans, where does their waste end up? In landfills. Which keep expanding. And which take MORE land away from wildlife. Think about that the next time you buy something.

I agree with the airlines who banned the shipment of specific animal trophies. I wish they would extend the ban to the shipment of ALL animals, Big 5 or otherwise (c’mon, guys – the pangolins could use a massive hand!!!). But I don’t agree with the ban because of how I feel about trophy hunting. I agree with it because until we can better police our borders, root out corruption, enforce our laws and effectively prosecute poachers and illegal wildlife syndicates, airlines are just another easy way for these criminals to get their goods out of the country and across borders. If we shut down the shipping of trophies via planes, we help to shut down the transfer of many illegal wildlife products. And THAT is why I am happy about the bans.

I hope that the incident with Cecil is the catalyst necessary to evoke change. I hope it is the driving force that shines a blinding light on corruption within the trophy hunting industry and forces much-needed policy changes and better policing. I hope it shows us that perhaps it’s time we start implementing OTHER ways to raise the much-needed funds to save our wildlife and wild places. I hope it makes people sit up and take notice about how THEIR actions are affecting events on the other side of the world. I hope it is the instigator that propels people into action beyond empty rhetoric.

I want to be optimistic and believe that the tragedy of one lion will open up people’s eyes, start a viable dialogue and usher in much-needed change (and money!). I want to think the world will collectively experience an about-face and we will all finally begin to, as Jane Goodall’s life lesson states, treasure this earth and all of its creatures.

But I have a sinking feeling that in a few weeks people will have forgotten all about Cecil, Walter Palmer, trophy hunting and the issues facing wildlife worldwide. It’s already starting to happen. It’s already getting swept under the rug. And that makes me fear for the future of not just Africa’s iconic species, but of ALL species on this planet.

On another note, I’ve been told that I should get off my soapbox about this stuff, that I shouldn’t say it like it is, and that I should ‘soften’ my approach because that no one wants to feel bad about their actions, even if those actions are wrong. Here’s what I think about that: reality bites (to steal a title from a 1990s film). The truth is the truth, even if we don’t want to hear it (hey, I know I’d often like to hide from it myself). If we all chose to ignore the evil or hush it up, we are the just as complicit in the evil-doing as the people doing the evil. If we continue to soften stuff until it becomes palatable, then we forget the horror of what it is. And then it starts to matter less. And then we start to care less.

People can feel however they want about what I have to say; it’s their choice how they react or whether they choose to read what I write. But whether someone’s going to like the truth or not is not going to keep me from telling it.

My thing is, we can either face reality and deal with it, or we can ignore it and continue to let a lot of bad things happen. The choice of what we decide to do is ours. I’m not okay with sitting back and pretending something doesn’t exist just because that’s the easier thing to do. After all…

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. – Edmund Burke

Or, as the eloquent and brilliant Lucille Ball says:

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

So, here’s to our lions, those magnificent creatures that will hopefully roam this earth long after I am gone. I hope I always have the truly special opportunity to shoo them from my doorstep. And here’s to all the other species out there, including the humans. Here’s hoping that we humans finally wake up, rise up and work together to fix the mess we’ve made of our beautiful planet. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush

 All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Lion, trophy hunting | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #41: Life with Monkeys

baboon bosom buddies

sticking together

I’m skipping my life lessons because today I just want to tell a story. So much has been going on in my life that I need some space from thinking and theorising, and instead I want to relay a day in the life. You can extrapolate any profoundness you may find, or you can just read it for what it is. For me, it is simply a funny memory.

I spend a lot of time with monkeys, and not always by choice. They tend to go where humans are, because humans mean easy access to food. Easy pickings. I don’t blame them. I would opportunistically scour human campsites and lodges for ready-made meals rather than spend days on end picking through dirt and grass, hoping to scrounge up enough calories to get me through to the next day. When the options are between a buttery croissant and a prickly, stubborn pine cone, can you blame them for going for the croissant?

Unlike so many other species out in the bush, monkeys aren’t easily contained by fences and perimeters. They figure out ways to circumvent the electrical wiring, though on occasion one does get caught in the current. Then you hear a scream and a thud as it hits the ground, shakes off the shock, and hurls itself off into the cover of trees.

Monkeys are a challenge mainly because they are clever. Well, and they are naughty. Often both at the same time. You can’t leave anything unattended when a troop is about. Even a single vervet (standing probably less than ½ a meter high) can create a tornado’s worth of damage in minutes.

When I worked in northern Zululand, we had a standing order that you locked the kitchen and kept the windows and doors shut tight whenever you left camp. Eventually we had to up the ante and order mandatory lockdown unless we were actually PRESENT in the kitchen. This after a volunteer left the door unlocked one day and then took off on a game drive to monitor the wild dogs. While I was left behind at camp, I was in my room and nowhere near the kitchen. Less than ten minutes passed before I heard clanking and crashing.

I looked across the lawn to see puffs of white powder billowing out the kitchen door like exploding cumulous clouds. Unsure of what I would find when I got close enough to see inside the doorway, I clapped my hands and yelled as I made my approach. A wave of ghostly shapes came pouring out of the kitchen and into the sunshine. Covered in flour, the barking dervishes shook their coats and scattered in every direction of the compass, leaving a haze of white in their wake.

If I didn’t know any better, I would say the kitchen had been ransacked by a marauding group of starving plunderers. These baboons were clearly on a mission, as though searching for Blackbeard’s treasure and fully convinced it MUST be hidden in the deepest recesses of the cupboards, specifically INSIDE the bags of booty (aka the flour, pasta, coffee, etc). Spaghetti, condiments, bread, fruit (or what was left of it, since they managed to carry off a large portion of the produce; and what they didn’t take they still made sure they tasted), it was strewn about in every direction. Some was even on the ceiling, no small a feat, since the thatched roof was a good 4-5 meters high).

It took two hours to clean it all up.

I was not amused when the volunteer sauntered back into camp, like the king returning to his castle. When I approached him and told him what happened, he shrugged it off, promptly put on his headphones and walked away. For a moment, I admit I secretly hoped a leopard would pop up and carry him off. But it didn’t happen.

Despite their mischievous ways, I still love monkeys. The jury’s out about how I feel about humans on any given day, though…

 

All rights reserved. ©2016 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: adventure, Africa, Baboon, monkey | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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