adventure

#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

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

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

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