Monthly Archives: January 2015

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

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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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.

 

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

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.

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Why I Love Hyenas (And I Hope One Day You Do Too)

Hyena ears

See? Someone Who Can Validate That It Isn’t Just the Cute and Cuddly That We Should Care About

I saw this article (see link above) and it made me think of a past post, about how we love supporting the cute, cuddly stuff, but not the ‘ugly’ stuff, even though every creature – big or small – is important.

I love hyenas. I don’t think they are ugly, I don’t think they are nasty, I don’t think they are useless. In fact, I find them completely the opposite. I think they are fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of all because they are one of the few species where the female is the dominant figure in the clan (yup, a group of hyena is called a clan). The sexes are incredibly difficult to tell apart (though the female is often bigger than the male), and they all make the most astounding vocalisations.

Hyena really do giggle. I’m convinced that the sounds used when Stripe was hatching in the movie Gremlins were actually hyenas. And if so, it’s yet another example of people misunderstanding and misrepresenting these incredibly intelligent animals. I feel a need to help change this negative perception. I also have to admit, two of my most treasured memories of Africa include episodes with hyenas (one where a male came up to my fiancé and I and drank from the bathtub less than 4 meters in front of us – that’s about 12 feet – and another, where a mother and her two cubs slept on my front lawn – looking and acting so much like domestic dogs it was eerie – and let us sit with them for a good hour).

Hyenas are not dogs and they are not cats. Though their behaviour is more in line with canines, they’re actually more closely related to felines. However, they are actually their own little family (Hyaenidae).

I’ve checked this out in a few different places, and it appears that no one can make up their mind as to how many species of hyena there are. I’ll go with there being four species of hyena – spotted, brown, striped and, of course, the family misfit (because every family needs one) – the aardwolf. And the aardwolf – threatening as it may sound – is insectivorous, pretty much living on termites. A little bit of a letdown there. With the exception of the aardwolf, whoever named the different species of hyena suffered from a severe lack of creativity. And even their Latin names are boring. Crocuta crocuta? Hyaena hyaena? Really?? At least the brown hyena and the aardwolf got a little more variety, Parahyaena brunnea and Proteles crostata, respectivelyI wonder if they might get more love if we renamed them. The Golden Spotted Hyena? The Mahogany Hyena? The Zebra Hyena? Sounds much nicer than plain old spotted, brown and striped. Anyway…

So, one of my beefs with the bad rap hyenas get has to do with lions. Everyone praises the lion. The incorrect perception is that lions are the mighty hunters, while hyenas do nothing but steal everyone else’s food. Yet as far as scavengers go, lions scavenge much more than hyenas do. In fact, spotted hyenas in particular are actually quite good at hunting and catching their own prey. It’s often the lions who come in and take the hyenas’ food, not the other way around.

My most recent hyena adventure involved a den with mom, two baby cubs, a handful of adolescents chewing on the scenery, and a few yearlings. I sat by the side of the road and watched them play for over an hour, always keeping one eye out for any adventurous youngsters attempting to eat my tyres (it’s happened before) or rewire the underside of my car (that happened too). The mom, like most mothers I’ve met, had infinite patience for the brood of babes tumbling over, gnawing on and pawing at her. It really took everything I had not to reach out and touch one of the tiniest ones. Which leads to one of the hardest aspects of being out here for me – you can’t touch anything. Not if you want to keep your limbs intact, at least. Anyhow, I’ve posted a few photos below. You have to admit – they can be awfully cute.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. Here are some good sites if you want to learn a bit more about these fascinating, misunderstood creatures. I imagine you’d be more inclined to trust the ‘experts’ over some girl from New Jersey…

Oh, and they spell hyena like so in South Africa: hyaena. Eish, somebody needs to start a petition to make all spellings of English words consistent.

African Wildlife Foundation

Hyaenidae

Okay, I’m not sure about the expertise of this last link, but I still think it’s a good read: Another Land

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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More than half the world’s species gone in less than 40 years? Say it ain’t so!

Run away, run away!

Wildebeest fleeing waterhole

But apparently it is, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Check out this article:

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/29/earth-lost-50-wildlife-in-40-years-wwf

Humanity’s “ecological footprint” (‘the scale at which it is using up natural resources’) is growing faster than the shoes the earth has available to fit it. According to the article: “Currently, the global population is cutting down trees faster than they regrow, catching fish faster than the oceans can restock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them and emitting more climate-warming carbon dioxide than oceans and forests can absorb.” This is scary. And what’s scarier is that I see it every day now.

The first time I visited Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, in northern Zululand, I was bowled over by the number of elephants, buffalo and rhino I saw. In some ways I was not surprised by the many rhino, as this park was the main reason the southern white rhino and the black rhino still exist, thanks to the efforts of Dr Ian PlayerMagqubu Ntombela and the rest of the dedicated park team. (As an aside, for more on Dr Player and team’s monumental efforts, check out this NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/glogin?URI=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2014%2F12%2F04%2Fworld%2Fafrica%2Fian-player-conservationist-who-helped-save-white-rhinos-dies-at-87.html%3F_r%3D0) However, a few weeks ago I returned to HiP, after 2 1/2 years away, and I was shocked at what I saw. Three buffalo total. About ten elephant. And a handful of white rhino. No black rhino. But it wasn’t just that. It was that I barely saw any wildlife, period. Even the antelope were scarce.

Where have they all gone? We know the answer, to some extent, when it comes to the rhino and the elephant. But it isn’t just poaching. It’s loss of habitat. It’s ignorance and greed. It’s rampant consumerism at the cost of our natural resources. It’s overpopulation. It’s unsustainable practices. The list goes on and on. I’m sure you’ve probably heard it all before.

In South Africa, I see verdant green hills, sapphire-blue seas and myriad brambles of thorn. But I also see piles of trash on the side of the road. I see power outages because of poor use of electricity and theft (among other issues). I see leaky pipes wherever I go. When I really start to look around, I see this article everywhere. And if you stop and look around, I guarantee you will too. This WWF article is hitting like a prizefighter in the final round. Houston, we have a problem.

How do you feel knowing that we’ve lost so many species in less than a decade? I know it makes me feel pretty terrible. And it’s the reason I make the choices I make each day to do little things that I know can go a long way. I can’t change the world completely, but I know I can help. Each person matters.

We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. – Mother Theresa

So what will you do to help put an end to the mass extermination of the planet’s life?

There are plenty of ways to get involved as well as plenty of things you can do on your own, each and every day. And it doesn’t have to mean donating to causes (though that does help, provided it’s a viable cause that actually puts the money to proper use – more on that at a later time).

Here’s one big thing you can do to make a positive impact: stop and pay attention.

Pay attention to your actions: where you source the items you buy, from food to clothes to electronics, etc; what your habits are when it comes to using (and/or abusing) resources; what your level of knowledge is about the world around you, and what you choose to read/listen to/watch. I bet if you paused to consider your actions and then wrote down what you did every day for a week, you’d be very surprised at the end of those seven days by what you saw. You might not be pleased. I know I wasn’t when I did it. I was shocked at how much I wasted. So I made changes.

Here’s another one: don’t buy what you don’t need. Seriously. I know it’s nice to have the latest gadget/pair of jeans/car, but really? Do you need it? Why? Stop and ask yourself that every time you go to the till to ring away more of your hard-earned money.

Another? Turn off the lights, the TV, whatever, when you aren’t using them. Simple as that. You leave a room? Turn off the lights. Turn off the television. Wasted electricity comes from somewhere, so even if you think, “Well, I’m paying for it, so what does it matter if I waste it?” the reality is that every time we waste something in one place, it negatively affects someplace else. It is the butterfly effect.

Did you know that anything plugged into a socket is wasting energy, even if it isn’t on? If you can afford it, install switches on your sockets that allow you to turn them on and off. Unplug stuff you aren’t using and turn the switches to ‘off’ when they aren’t being used.

Turn off the tap/faucet/’whatever you call it where you live’ when you are brushing your teeth or washing dishes. Don’t leave the water running. Take shorter showers, and ones that aren’t stiflingly hot. (That one is a challenge for me – I am a glutton for long, hot showers.)

And please, if you are going to plant gardens, plant sustainable ones – plant flowers that SHOULD grow in your region because they are adapted to the climate of your region, not ones that don’t belong there. There are two reasons for this. One is that a plant that is adapted to survive in the Cotswalds will need a lot of water, so if you put it in the middle of the Sahara, you are going to need to water it ALL THE TIME. Second, there are many species of invasive plants. We struggle with Port Jackson here, which was brought in a few centuries ago and wreaks havoc on the local flora. Bamboo does the same. So please, don’t go to the desert and suddenly plant an English garden. It’s beautiful, but it’s selfish and wasteful. End of story. If you choose to do what you want, don’t complain when things happen, like Colorado River drying up. Because it is. Quickly.

These are small things you can do that make a HUGE difference. Each person has a choice to help. As my friend Braam Malherbe says, you can either choose to be an asset or a liability to the world. Choose to be an asset. Please. And if you don’t want to listen to me, listen to the little monkey below. He is asking you as well. Oh, below the photo I’ve included some links to articles that offer more suggestions.

Monkey hug

baby clings to mom in the face of potential danger

50 ways to help

Tips from the New England Aquarium and National Geographic (these are both geared more towards water-based conservation, but I’d rather people do SOMETHING than nothing)

David Suzuki Foundation – What you can do

Mongabay (this particular link is geared towards kids, though the site overall is geared towards all ages)

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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