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 they 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 but acknowledge, nonetheless.

The other thing is that a lot of hunting concessions are pieces of land that wouldn’t be appropriate for photographic tourism, though they may be fine for wildlife. 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

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…

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

Jane Goodall-ism and South African lesson for today: enter Santiago

mantid photo shoot

mantid photo shoot

In keeping with 15 Life Lessons of Jane Goodall, here’s another nugget of wisdom Dr Goodall drops on us, and one that is very relevant in my current situation – there are many teachers in life. My latest teacher has six legs and thousands of eyes. And his name is Santiago.

I love animals, but I can’t really have any pets in the bush. And to be honest, the longer I work with animals, the less I feel okay about having pets in general. However, I inadvertently became the ‘mom’ of a praying mantis several months ago when a stowaway nymph (baby mantid) came into my home tucked away on a flower. He was so small and well camouflaged, I didn’t even discover him for a whole week.

Not knowing where the flower came from, I had no idea where the mantid came from either, so I decided to keep the little guy. This was a very big step for me, as I have never been a fan of insects. Nor had I a clue how to raise one. Things did not look promising for the teeny invertebrate.

As a little girl, I spent a lot of time outside. But I was always told to NOT dig in the dirt, to NOT play with bugs. Bugs were dirty and gross.

And then I saw nature documentaries with really awful bugs that did really awful things to people. These bugs (which I later understood were actually parasites) were pretty much my worst nightmare.

So I stayed away from the insect world.

Then I spent a few months in Costa Rica as a university student. And I saw some REALLY big bugs. ‘Size of my hand’ big. Every morning I had to shake out my shoes, lest I put my foot into a dark, cosy space that had become home to a scorpion or tarantula overnight. Every evening I battled it out with my biggest nemesis, the mosquito. But having people around me who appreciated bugs (okay, not the mosquitoes – I’ve YET to meet anyone who appreciates mozzies) made me more tolerant. Also, being in such a wild place sort of weened me off of bug-free living. It was my initiation into what was to come many years later on the other side of the world.

Enter Africa. The insects here are not just plentiful in number. They are also plentiful EVERYWHERE. My initial reaction was to gently usher them out of my clothes, bags, shoes, house, wherever they might be congregating, and back into open spaces where we’d be less likely to conflict. I was happy to let them live, but I drew the line at having them share my space like miniature roommates.

However, when you live in the bush, you simply cannot avoid them getting into your stuff. So you can either learn to live with them, you can learn to live with them AND appreciate them, or you can be miserable. I chose the middle option, mostly because when I finally stopped and watched insects, I was hooked. They are fascinating, so completely alien to us (green blood, funky eyes, lots of legs, and all that), they could hold my attention for hours at a time. That in itself is impressive.

You know when people talk about watching grass grow? Watching insects is not like that (except in the case of watching a cocoon, since nothing happens there for a long time). Insects are alert. They are a whirring world of activity: little bulldozer spiders clearing out dens, little ant armies marching in formation, little artistic dung beetles rolling the most perfect ball of poo imaginable.

(I guess I should note that technically a spider is not an insect. While it IS an invertebrate, just like other insects, it falls into a different group called the arachnids. Scorpions are also part of that group. But for the purposes of this blog, all the creepy crawly invertebrates get lumped together as bugs.)

mantid and his grape

Santiago and dessert

And then there are the mantids.

Praying mantises get their names from their habit of sitting with their front arms folded, almost like they are in prayer. These ambush predators can sit still for hours, and the extreme patience with which they stalk their prey makes a person who DOES watch grass grow seem impatient.

When my little mantid arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Mantids eat live prey. Where was I going to get food? Believe it or not, my home does not teem with bugs, even though there are plenty outside of it. I would have to learn to wrangle crickets, flies and grasshoppers and lure them to their unpleasant death at the hands of my tiny ninja. So I was not only living with a bug, I also had to catch MORE bugs to feed him.

Praying mantises are also in the same family as cockroaches. So you KNOW I would have to have a serious change of heart about insects to be happily sharing my home with a roach’s cousin. It did not sound like a good plan. But I was up for the challenge; I was ready to start a new chapter of growth in my life – learning to love a bug.

Plus, I have to admit I felt an immense amount of guilt over displacing him. How could I not take care of him?

I shouldn’t have worried. He grew on me very quickly.

It was hard NOT to like him, honestly. He was so entertaining. When he was a baby, he hopped around on my hand, his little legs tickling like weightless feathers dancing over my skin. His little head would swivel around and watch the world, snapping to lock eyes on me whenever he heard my voice.

When I took him outside, he would get as low as possible on my hand and nuzzle his little face in my palm. And when I put him in the grass, he would freeze and look up at me, waiting for me to put my hand back to within bolting distance, and as soon as it was close enough, he’d come scurrying back into my palm. It was adorable.

It’s amazing, seven months later, how attached I have become to the mantid we eventually named Santiago (for no other reason than we liked the name). He sits on my computer when I work. At night he sleeps on the curtain in my room.

These days he only eats from my hand and is quite the discerning gourmand. He no longer hunts, refuses bugs, and instead insists on fish, chicken or some type of fruit. I worry if he hasn’t eaten in a while. And I make sure he doesn’t get too far out of my reach (because if I can’t get to him to feed him now, he will likely starve). And I have to make sure none of the other predators (birds, spiders, lizards) get to him, especially the female mantid that lives in the bush just outside my door. I’ve caught her checking him out now and again, and she has been informed that my ‘child’ is off limits; no eating him. She keeps her distance, but on occasion she does pop up on the window to say hello. He freaks out, rears up on his back legs, opens up his wings (the ONLY time I’ve even seen his wings since they sprouted, fyi) and puts on his best threat display. She is not phased in the slightest. He looks ridiculous, but he thinks he is protecting his family, so he gets points for trying.

mantises eyeing each other up

I hope that one day Santiago becomes a household name, an ambassador for the smaller, less attractive members of the animal kingdom that often get overlooked or demonised because they are so foreign to humans. A beacon for the creatures that aren’t traditionally cute and cuddly. (Santiago does NOT like to cuddle, fyi. You wouldn’t either if cuddling reminded you of being caught and eaten…)

So in going back to Jane’s life lesson, Santiago has shown me that teachers come in all shapes and sizes. And they don’t always teach you the lessons you think they will teach you. With Santiago, I have learned not just about bugs (particularly how to care for a mantid), but about my ability to see everything as valuable in the world. I have been reminded that we all must be more tolerant of what is so vastly different from ourselves. I have also been reminded that beauty is a feeling, not a face. And even the smallest, most unlikely bits in this world can steal your heart and make a lasting and profound impact in your life. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.

#vivasantiago #onlyinafrica

Here are some choice shots of the little guy doing what he does, which is mostly preening, eating, and pretending to be a mantid model.

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, Education, praying mantis, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African lessons and another Jane Goodall-ism: You can get more done together

baboon snuggles

hugging it out in the forest

baboon bosom buddies

sticking together

Given what is going on in the world, I thought it best to focus on this particular Jane Goodall life lesson (you can get more done together) in this post. South Africa is riddled with violence at the moment, xenophobia cropping up and challenging even the most balanced and tolerant people. Baltimore is on fire, racism rife and intolerance overpowering. Nepal is under rubble, thousands of people with no homes, missing loved ones, and doing everything in their power to retain a semblance of hope. And there’s plenty more.

Every day I read headline after headline of some kind of trauma or drama: heartache, disaster, war, death, you name it. So little is dedicated to the good in the world (and yes, it is certainly out there, though most media outlets would appear to be allergic to showing it). That’s why I felt the need to talk about togetherness. It is time to speak of Ubuntu.

For those of you who’ve never heard the word, ubuntu is a philosophy that embraces and espouses human kindness, tolerance, understanding and connectedness. It is the thread that connects each and every one of us, a kind of social pact that posits that because we exist, we all matter and, as such, we deserve the respect of our fellow beings.

The fact is, whether it’s in a small town, a big city, or the middle of the bush, we all need to know we can rely on someone other than ourselves to survive. We are social beings; we need each other. So why we build up walls and do our best to separate, segregate and dominate one another baffles me.

I do realise that deep down we are all animals. On a fundamental level, we exhibit many kinds of animal behaviours we often like to think we are above. But we aren’t. We can be the lowest of the low when we want to be. However, we always have the choice. And when we choose to be amoral, cruel, bigoted, sexist, take your pick, we drive a wedge between what we are and what we can be. We turn our back on our tremendous ability to do great things and to rise above and take responsibility for ourselves.

Living in the bush has taught me many things. One is that I tend to be happy alone. I can spend weeks on end just me, myself and I. But when I think about it, I’m not really alone. I’m actually surrounding by life. I’m just not necessarily around other people.

However, at some point I do need to get a dose of human life, and it is in those moments where the bush can be unforgiving or bountiful. When you are stuck in the middle of nowhere, you can’t be picky and choosy about with whom you socialise. You don’t have a choice. So you either learn to drop the pretense and dig in with everyone, or you lose out. And given the dangers out here (those literal and metaphorical, as getting lost in the wilderness can mean many things on many levels, after all), that can mean losing out on a grand scale.

I’ve seen people who started out in the bush with their nose held higher than the peak of Mt Kilimanjaro. After two weeks, that nose dropped back down into the stratosphere and then, in many cases, that nose was eventually rubbed in the dirt, not physically, but psychologically. If you think you are better than anyone, you have no business in the bush. It’s a hard lesson to learn, especially for people coming from cultures that traditionally seem to think they ARE better than the rest of the world (and my experience has been that Brits and Americans are two of the worst offenders there). But once the isolation hits, a lot of the holier-than-though attitude melts away and people fall off their pedestals. Hard. Sometimes it’s a very long drop, too, so it ain’t always pretty. But I’ve yet to meet a person who lived in the bush and didn’t come out changed for the better. Nature does that to you, the supreme equalizer that it is. And it’s yet another reason why I feel people need to spend more time in the great outdoors – to keep egos in check and priorities straight.

What it boils down to is that we are not islands, as much as many of us would like to think we are sometimes. Yes, there are many things we could each accomplish on our own, but it’s always so much faster (and often the results are better) when you have more hands, heads and hearts helping. And so I hope that this message spreads to the people of South Africa who are hurting (those targeted and those doing the targeting, because both sides are in pain at the moment), and to the people in Baltimore and the greater United States (because though often violence isn’t the answer, when you’ve been robbed of everything else, sometimes it seems to be the only thing you have at your disposal), and to the people of Nepal who are holding onto hope in the midst of such despair. In fact, I wish this message spreads to everyone out there in the world.

I hope we can all take a moment to look at ourselves in the mirror and remember that every one of us is fallible, and every one of us deserves love and understanding. There is nothing scary about a different accent or skin colour or sexual orientation or religion. And unless we are willing to work together and accept one another, we fail individually AND collectively.

As the amazing Dr. Goodall is fond of saying, ‘The best way to deal with your enemy is to make them your friend’. And when you do that, you no longer have any enemies. Which is a pretty nice way to live, if you ask me. We are all part of one big story. So perhaps it’s time we start acting like we all belong in that story.

Ubuntu. Thina simunye. We are together. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.

Categories: Africa, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Practicing Compassion, Even When You Want to Slap Someone Silly

monkeysinaction18
Life, while fascinating and different every day, is never easy. So, in light of a recent post about one of my heroes (the inimitable Jane Goodall), I just couldn’t resist sharing some of her words of wisdom with you. I’m going to do a series of posts, one for each of the 15 life lessons she speaks of in the link I’ve provided near the bottom of this post. I’m going to start with practicing compassion, as that is one of the lessons that stands out the most to me.

I find myself questioning my level of compassion often, which some people may find odd, considering how much I love wildlife. Yes, I am clearly compassionate about wildlife, but often I’m not as compassionate about humans, and that doesn’t make much sense, since we are ALL wildlife. And while I certainly feel empathy for many people, I think that because I am a human and I understand what it is to be a human (or at least I’m pretty sure I do, though some days I’m not positive I have it right), I am less tolerant of the things we humans do to ourselves, each other, and the world around us. We always have a choice to make good decisions, and when I see people choosing poorly, I find myself losing compassion. And that’s not necessarily fair of me, as I’m not the judge, jury and executioner here. But I also realise that I am human and fallible, and even people like Gandhi and Mother Theresa had their detractors and deficiencies.

I don’t expect myself to be perfect, and I don’t expect others to be either. But I do expect us all to be decent to one another and to our home, the planet. Some days I wonder if that’s too much to ask.

At any rate, living in the bush has tested my compassion for people on a huge scale. One woman I worked with stole compulsively, using as her excuse the reasoning that her employer didn’t pay her enough, so she was entitled. While I agree she was paid poorly, I certainly didn’t agree with her stealing OR her reasoning for it. Entitlement is a scary thing. It blinds us to what’s real and what’s a dream. And feeling you are entitled to anything is a lot like living in a dream. Having self-esteem and believing in yourself is fine. Feeling like the world owes you? Not so much.

I’ve also watched an assortment of wealthy people pass through the camps, some of whom walked around like they lived on a permanently forward-moving pedestal, looking down their noses at everyone and everything else around them. They thought the world existed to serve them. And I had to wonder what they were doing in the bush, some of them training to be customer service agents (which is in many ways what a field guide does) for others.

I’ve seen guests who won’t even make eye contact with people of a different colour. And I’ve seen employees do the same to each other. While there are some cultural differences there (in some tribes it is actually considered rude to look someone in the eye), 90% of the interactions I saw were flagrant examples of people purposefully turning their backs on others.

I’ve seen people who are paid to protect wildlife go out and poach it. And I’ve seen people who say they are conservationists go out and shoot endangered species (all under the auspices of a ‘legal permit to hunt’).

Often I am confused, which isn’t surprising, since humans are such complex creatures. But it doesn’t make me any less frustrated by the situation. So every day I have to remind myself to practice compassion. Compassion because there is a man who has to run home because his daughters have been left alone and he is petrified that they will be raped. Compassion because there is the woman who works 14-hour shifts on the reserve doing hard labour and still manages to get home to raise chickens so that she and her family have enough food. Compassion because there is a man who sneaks over barbed-wire electrified fences, walks 12 kilometres in the middle of the night through a reserve stocked with lion, leopard and hyena, to see his girlfriend, because the reserve does not allow anyone who doesn’t work there to enter the property. Compassion because there are rangers who spend their days and nights taking care of the orphaned baby rhinos whose mothers have been poached and who can’t survive on their own. I have to have compassion, because if I didn’t, I would not be able to continue doing the work that I do. I would lose heart and hope. And then what would be the reason to be alive?

Anyway, here’s the link to the list. Don’t say I never gave you anything:) Oh, and because I haven’t included a song in a while (and practicing compassion definitely deserves a song), here’s an oldie but a goodie. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.

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

Today’s Animal-Friendly Quote, Brought to You by Abe Lincoln

“I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.”


Given this is the month of the great man’s birth, I think it fitting to share some stories about Mr Abraham Lincoln, and since this blog focuses on wildlife and conservation, I’m linking to some eye-opening pieces of history about the man, the myth, the legend that was Abraham Lincoln! Whether he was an animal rights activist or not, he still clearly had a soft spot for wildlife. And in my book, that stands high on my list of honourable traits in a person.

Click on this Today I Found Out link for more information.

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Why I came to Africa – It all comes back to one of my heroes

a fly on the wall

a fly on the wall

We cannot live through a single day without making an impact on the world around us — and we have a choice as to what sort of difference we make… Children are motivated when they can see the positive results their hard work can have.  – Jane Goodall

When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. At the time, the show was only on on Sunday nights, so if you missed it, you missed out. There was no DVR, and episodes weren’t replayed twelve times a week. You were basically just SOL (shit outta luck). I would plan my days to make sure I didn’t miss an episode, and I was broken up if I did (especially if the episode was about animals I loved most, like sharks, apes, big cats, or elephants).

What I recall most vividly about those documentaries were two things: 1. they were so much less sensationalised (nay, they weren’t even REMOTELY sensationalised) than much of the crap that Nat Geo and Discovery air now – Shark Week, for example, has devolved into a joke, much to my dismay; and 2. there were women involved who were doing things other than painting their nails and shopping. They were tromping through mud and swamps and desert, bundu bashing, 4-x4ing their way around remote locales and hidden paradises. They were living in and among the natural world, connected to something I felt so separated from in my little NJ home by the sea.

My little heart yearned to join these women, to step away from what everyone thought was my pre-determined life, to flee the shackles of what was expected of me. My body ached with the desire to breathe the air at the top of Kilimanjaro, or to swim with whale sharks in Madagascar, or to stealthily slip through the dense brush as I searched for some new species, or to climb the steep ravines and hillside tracking gorillas in the mist like Dian Fossey. I wanted out. And I wanted outside.

I met Jane Goodall through those documentaries, and she changed my life.

Now, the reality is, I’ve never ACTUALLY met Jane Goodall. I would love to meet her one day, but I haven’t yet. I HAVE read so much of her work, and I’ve learned tremendous amounts about animal behaviour from her. But more importantly, I learned that I, as a female, could go hang out in the bush with the animals and IT WAS OKAY. Not only was it okay, it was awesome!

Thanks, Jane, for inspiring me to toss behind my life in America and drop myself into the colourful madness of South Africa, with nary a job in sight doing the kinds of things I wanted to be doing. But it all worked out in the end.

I’d like to think everyone in this world has their own Jane to push them, to remind them to live out their dreams, to inspire them to care about more than just themselves. I hope that maybe I am a Jane to some people, that I’ve done something or been someone who has inspired others to live their best life. One can only hope.

I doubt I will ever achieve even an iota of what this remarkable woman has achieved. But that will never stop me from trying.

Thanks, Jane. Though we may never meet, know that you have touched another life profoundly. By the way, how cool is this book? Me…Jane

And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.monkeys at play

Categories: Africa, American, Bush, Conservation, Education, Expat, nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Many Faces of Insomnia, in South Africa and Elsewhere

eye shine, and not much else

eye shine, and not much else

I’ve battled bouts of insomnia since I was little. Bleary eyed and befuddled, I would drag myself from bed in the morning, fumbling through days I barely remembered, and collapse into bed that night, only to find myself staring at the ceiling for hours. I must’ve counted millions of sheep (and whatever other species I could think of) in my lifetime. Note: counting animals does not work.

Reading, music, meditation. I tried them all. Nothing works. My mind is a permanent hamster wheel, and on more occasions than I’d like, the hamster is in and churning furiously. These days I just accept it and adapt accordingly.

Insomnia in the bush is very different for me than insomnia anywhere else. When I am in the city, in the country, wherever, I simply can’t sleep, and not for lack of trying or desire to get some decent shut-eye. Civilisation rattles me. It throws dark thoughts in my head: doubts about whether I’m ever going to accomplish anything of meaning, questions about why I am on such a different path from my friends and family, stresses about whether I zigged when I maybe should’ve zagged. I find myself frustrated, angry, sad, confused, and anxious. Even though I make it a point to try to see the silver lining, when evening falls my mind unconsciously chooses to focus on the black clouds.

Civilisation reminds me that I don’t fit into it very well. I don’t buy into a lot of what makes society what it is. I’m not interested in a consumer culture. I do not buy into divisiveness and partisanism (if that’s even a word). I prefer to see people, not race, gender, culture or creed. I am, admittedly, intolerant of two things: intolerance (which is hypocritical and a bit of an oxymoron, I know, and so very Goldmember), and ignorance (especially when people CHOOSE to remain ignorant). And when I am back in civilisation, I find myself surrounded by a lot of this. It is anathema to me and what I care about and believe in.

This isn’t to say I think I know everything. Far from it. But I choose to educate myself and learn. Many people, I find, choose not to. They choose to ingest celebrity trash instead. You know, because that’s so useful and productive not only for themselves, but for the bigger picture.

Civilisation also reminds me that many people don’t care about the world outside of their teeny tiny sphere (unless it pertains to aforementioned topic of celebs). Nor do they know (or even care to know) anything about it. And though I am told I shouldn’t care, I do. And every time I meet someone who doesn’t care, I feel like a part of my heart and soul wither away.

                                                                                          Because: 

The interrelatedness of it all

The interrelatedness of it all

I don’t know how many people I’ve met who didn’t even know that South Africa was a country. I’ve also have to explain to many people that Africa is a continent. And that no, I am nowhere near Somalia. Or Nigeria. Or Yemen (which isn’t even on the same continent anyway!). That gets me upset, because this world is all interconnected. We all SHOULD care about stuff outside of our miniature microcosm. Because the bigger world is certainly being affected by our little microcosms. Incidentally, this also keeps me awake – worrying about the state of the world, something over which I know I have little control, but regardless, I still don’t want to give up on helping. It is exhausting and draining, and not in a good way.

The stress from all of this then manifests itself in my inability to find a peaceful-enough place in my mind to drop off into sleepy time. And even though I am in the zombie state of exhaustion, the more tired I am, the more I can’t sleep. I walk around as glazed as a donut, and about as sharp.

I’m not trying to put the blame on everyone else. I am simply stating my experience. I’ve been told time and again that I should stop caring. But I can’t. And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. So for those of us who DO choose to care, please stop telling us not to.

In the bush, I WANT to stay up. I love hearing the night sounds that surround you out there. I strain to hear hyena whooping. I get chills when a leopard chuffs and saws nearby. I play out mini battles between Scops owls and nightjars, counting to see who calls the most often. And I listen to the chorus of frogs and toads rising to crescendo and then falling to silence again and again throughout the evening hours. Some nights I could swear I hear the planet breathing.

And the smells – the raw earthiness of dirt and trees, the peaty-ness of puddles and ponds, the various musty odours trailing behind animals as they pass you by – fill my nose with happiness.

In the bush, I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to miss anything. I just become a sponge, letting my other senses take over from my normally overused eyes. I feel like I come alive. Unfortunately especially when I should be sleeping. Some days I think I should’ve been a researcher of nocturnal creatures…

So in terms of insomnia, though both situations – bush and civilisation – mean less sleep for me, I eagerly fall into the insomnia of the bush and flee from the insomnia of life outside the bush. Funny how one condition has such different effects on the same person in different circumstances .

I had a few videos of the night sounds of the bush, but they seem to have disappeared when my hard drive crashed. I tried to improvise by recording some stuff this weekend, but I can’t seem to upload video to the blog. So I will simply have to give you links to other people’s videos. Ah well.

The first one is a cacophony of frogs:

This next one features a hyena calling for her mom:

Here’s another constant in the bush – the nightjar (this is a fiery-necked nightjar), a little bird that has a penchant for hanging out in the middle of the road and flying out of the way just in time to not get hit, but not in enough time as to not produce heart palpitations in the driver trying to avoid hitting it.

And a male lion calling:

This last clip features a leopard I’ve actually met before. His name is Maxabeni (pronounced Masha BEH Nee), and he’s wookin pah nub in this clip.

Oh, and the photo at the top of the page? That’s eye shine from a lion munching on a carcass in the dark. I can only guess at what he’s eating, because I could see next to nothing. In fact, if someone hadn’t caught his eyes with a torch, I wouldn’t have even known he was there. Such is the mystery, magic and excitement of the bush, and a main reason I am happy not to sleep when I am there.

Categories: adventure, Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

More and more monkeys!!

I love these photos, so I’m sharing them with you today. The conservation landscape has been a dark hole lately, and I feel a need for some light. I give you monkeys being monkeys!

Life in (Still) Motion

Okay, as you may or may not know, there are more than just baboons in South Africa. Vervet monkeys and samango monkeys (also known as Sykes’ monkeys) are both found in the country, but not in all the provinces (unlike baboons, who seem to pop up everywhere). These two smaller species seem to prefer the more tropical, humid parts to the dry, colder areas. Not that I blame them. I too prefer tropical. Two species of bush babies (aka greater and lesser galagos), which are primates as well, also live in South Africa, but they will show up in another gallery at another point. So, monkeys…here are some of my other primate neighbours.

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Rhinos – when my heart is a lonely hunter

full frontal rhino I imagine you may be wondering why I chose this title for this post. I will get to that later. Let me first tell you about my day and what spurred this post on in the first place.

I saw a video today of a rhino that had been shot in the spine (what is known as the anchor shot, which immobilises the animal so it cannot move, but yet is still capable of feeling the pangas and saws that chop into its head). It then had its face essentially cut off while it sat there in agony, unable to even try to get away. The poachers had hacked away so much of the face that you could actually see the tongue THROUGH the thin layer of pulpy mush that was left of the nasal cavity.  I am sparing you the pictures and the videos, though to be honest, I would almost LIKE for you to see this creature in its miserable state, not because I am mean, but because if you have any semblance of decency in you, you can’t see something like this and not immediately get fired up to help.

This animal suffered horrifically and for a long time before it finally died.

I thought I was going to throw up while watching the video, not because of the gruesomeness of the images (though I’ve never in my life seen anything so awful), but because of the utter disgust I felt at the people (those on the ground and those funding it) capable of doing something so profoundly evil and cruel. I have seen poaching first hand via working with the wild dogs and cheetah. It is gut wrenching and soul destroying to see how base humans can be. Rhinos, elephants, pangolins (which most people reading this post have probably never even heard of), the list goes on and on.

The illegal wildlife trade is massive, and it touches every part of this planet and its people. Everyone wants to blame the Chinese (and by all means, please do – they are huge offenders in this situation), but you know what? There are Americans, Europeans, South Americans, Middle Easterners, Africans, etc, ALSO fueling the trade – by buying the products made from these animals, they are aiding and abetting these atrocious acts of violence. It seems as though NO country on this planet is exempt. And, as such, it is EVERY country’s responsibility to get involved.

Please, do not sit back and play armchair politics. Get off your butt and find a way to help the cause. I know many people care. But caring gets you nowhere if you do nothing. We are getting dangerously close to ‘caring’ these creatures into oblivion because we talk and talk and talk, but so few of us do the actual walking.  “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.” Everyone can make a positive impact and save not just the rhino, but ALL the species that are in danger of disappearing off the face of the earth. And they can save the people who are literally putting themselves in the line of fire every single day to protect these creatures.

We have this vast resource called the internet at our fingertips, where we can research hundreds of ways we can play a valuable part in this fight. If you’re reading this, you have a resource in me. I can help to direct you to places you can donate to, things you can do, etc. Just ask.

If you live in South Africa, pick up a MyPlanet Rhino Fund card. It costs you nothing, and every time you swipe it, the vendor donates a percentage of your purchase to help with rhino conservation efforts. This is just one simple step you can take. You can make a difference. Please, please, please do.

As for the title of this post, it may seem odd given the subject matter, but I use this title (which I admit I swiped from a book by Carson McCullers) because some days I do feel like a lone soldier out there on a very large battlefield, hoping against all hope that I can somehow save the wildlife (and, by extension, the world) I so desperately love. Often I feel as though my one little heart is all by itself in this mission, and that it isn’t enough, and that I can’t do enough. One single soul of hope standing against an ever-rising tide comprised of complacency, ignorance, corruption and greed. I frequently feel like my heart is going to burst because of how deeply I feel this intense pain and suffering humans have caused the creatures involved in the illegal wildlife trade. (And those targeted for trophy hunting, but that’s for another post.) I wish I were exaggerating. But I’m not. This whole situation actually hurts my heart.

I also often hear so many people SAY they care, but then they do nothing about it. I know so many people who are aware of the issue with rhino and elephant poaching, for example, but who have done nothing to help combat it. And I can’t understand it. Why?

I know there is a lot of suffering in this world. I know there are so many worthy causes, and that it’s hard to know what to donate your efforts to (be it time, money, emotion, whatever). But the fact of the matter is, without wildlife, we have nothing. And that is the God’s honest truth. The rhino is not just iconic species. It is a keystone species, “a species whose very presence contributes to the existence of the ecosystem in which it lives.” And the rhino is just one of many.

And you know what? Even if a species ISN’T a keystone species, it has incredible valuable, because everything on this planet exists in balance, and that balance is precarious at best. When one thing gets thrown off, we teeter ever closer to tumbling down into an abyss that we can’t crawl out of. Money won’t save us when the lifeblood that keeps us in existence is gone. And we’re running headlong towards the edge of that abyss. The rhino situation is just one example.

Here are the recent rhino stats, if you’re interested: http://www.savetherhino.org/rhino_info/poaching_statistics

I’ve held off on writing about rhino because even though I had so much to say about them (and about the poaching crisis), I couldn’t seem to articulate all the thoughts and emotions going through my head. I still can’t. But today I simply cannot help myself. What I saw actually caused me to sob, unable to control the fountain of emotions I’ve held back for years while working with these and so many other amazing creatures. I truly felt I had to sit down and purge my feelings onto the page. So here it is, in black and white.

There is a quote from Chief Seattle that made a tremendous impact on me as a little girl. It will forever be embedded in my brain. I can only hope that people read this and not only take its words to heart, but also commit it to memory, share it with others, and act on it:

“This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

We can’t do everything, but we can all do at least one thing to make a positive impact. I ask that you choose to take an active part in protecting these and all the other incredible species on this earth. Out of respect for the anonymity of the animals and the people putting themselves out there to protect them, I’m not going to post a big gallery of photos. Yes, it might seem extreme and you may be thinking, “How many people do you actually think are reading this?” but that’s not the point. Even though I’ve limited the tagging on them, each photo has meta tags embedded in it indicating where the photo was taken. I would like to protect the location of as many of these animals as possible. The sad thing is, I have no idea how many (if any) are still alive.

Categories: Africa | Leave a comment

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