Big 5

#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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s today’s buzz from the bush.

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

The ‘Truth’ About Hunting, in South Africa and Elsewhere

Okay, I imagine everyone reading this also saw some mention of the American hunter (or huntress, as one commenter wrote, though that seems a little too Xena, Warrior Princess to me…) posed over the lion she shot in South Africa, which was undoubtedly followed by thousands of vitriolic comments you may have read that ranged from simply banning her from entering an entire country to wanting the woman’s head on a platter. This all because she did something that is, unfortunately, COMPLETELY LEGAL and then had the (some say) audacity to flaunt her prize. And, if I’ve read a lot of the comments correctly, because she happens to be a woman, it is apparently an even worse crime. ??? Bear with me here as I tackle all of this. I’m still trying to make sense of it all.

Here’s the rub about the whole situation – she didn’t actually do anything wrong, according to the law.  And now anyone named ‘Melissa Bachman’, or any variation of that name, must hire armed guards and prove to the ravenous mobs of angry (and in a lot of cases misinformed or, worse, uninformed) posters that they are not, in fact, the ‘guilty party’ (who again, I must reiterate, is guilty of nothing but being a pompous ass with a large ego and misdirected sense of self).

Now I do not agree with trophy hunting. And I REALLY don’t agree with canned hunting, which, if I’m reading all the reports correct, is indeed what this woman’s hunt was. But the fact of the matter is, trophy hunting (even canned trophy hunting, which is conveniently called ‘captive hunting’ now) is legal in South Africa, as it is in many places in the world, including the United States. There are South Africans whose SOLE profession is as a professional hunter (or PH, as they are called here). There is a society dedicated to these people (http://www.phasa.co.za). Hunting is big business here. In fact, according to PHASA’s site, hunting tourists contributed R811 MILLION to the South African economy in 2012 alone. And most of the hunters who pay the money to hunt the game? They come from outside of the country (mostly the US and Europe). Now, whether the money ACTUALLY goes to conservation is another story, but the fact of the matter is, it does make money. And for many people, that’s all that matters.

PHs also hunt the wildlife many of these internet proselytizers so vehemently call for ‘protecting’. Yet it’s one woman people are directing their anger towards, not all these other hunters. This one woman, even if she got REALLY good at hunting, could still never do the amount of damage that South Africa does to itself when it comes to its wildlife. The same can be said of the US, and many other countries around the world. We hunt our own majestic animals, and then we rail against anyone with the nerve to do something we do ourselves. And we are okay keeping the cattle, chickens, and pigs we eat in miserable, miniature pens. Go figure.

I’d like to point out several facts that people should know before they continue on the witch hunt.

1. The same people who call for the ban of hunting are also often the people who want to visit the petting zoos so they can have a chance to cuddle a lion cub.  And then this happens: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/south-africa-lion-park-attack-5805070  And people then want to put all the blame on the lion. Why? Because it wasn’t tame? Because it did what lions do? There are signs all over that park telling visitors to keep their windows closed.

And as for the other lions in these types of places, the little cubs? What do you think happens to those lions when they grow up? You guessed it – they get used for canned hunts that bring in tens of thousands of dollars to the South African economy. So tourists ply money into the country via aggrandized petty zoos filled with adorable fuzzy predator kittens, and then other tourists come and shoot those kittens when they grow up. It’s a pretty sick cycle, but it is a cycle nonetheless, and if you want to hate on the hunting, don’t be the hypocritical idiot who goes to pet the baby lions. I know; I’m one. I had NO IDEA that this stuff happened. Now I do. And I will never do it again, nor will I encourage anyone else to do so. If you think I’m exaggerating, check out this article (http://www.lionaid.org/news/2013/11/the-furore-about-melissa-bachmans-lion-kill-in-south-africa-continues.htm) and spend some time on the LionAid website (www.LionAid.org). Africa Geographic did another article worth a read, if you feel like educating yourself even further (http://blog.africageographic.com/africa-geographic-blog/hunting/how-lions-go-from-the-petting-zoo-to-the-dinner-plate/).

Oh, and this current point goes for the place I used to work at as well, that abomination of an establishment that pretends it practices conservation, all the while abusing the wildlife it pretends to protect. I’m still debating about whether to just out the lodge, to be honest. Especially since now they have baby rhinos that they let guests pet. Yes, pet. You know, rhino? The critically endangered animals about to go extinct because of poaching? Yeah, they ACCLIMATE the animals to people. Makes it easier for a poacher to just walk up to one and shoot it, doesn’t it? Really great CONSERVATION work, isn’t it? Oh, and they charge serious ducats for the ‘privilege’ (with the rhino and with the cheetah) to interact with an animal they keep in captivity forever. But that’s another story for another day…back to the trophy hunting.

2. As I said, while the practice may not be nice, it is legal, and so was she. So instead of aiming your tomatoes (or daggers or abusive language or whatever else you choose to hurl) at her, aim them at the entire industry on the whole, and don’t restrict it to South Africa. If you hate trophy hunting and think it is a despicable practice, then take EVERY PLACE and EVERYONE associated with it to task, not ONE measly woman! She doesn’t deserve that much credit! Get pissed at the game farmers who raise animals to be shot for fun. For food, fine. For fun, not okay.

3. No one is actually doing anything but gossiping, for all intents and purposes. Get off your butts and do something. Instead of ‘Like’-ing a post from someone, create a petition that calls for the banning of trophy hunting. Get a few million people to sign it (if the petition in reaction to this Melissa chick is any indication, I’m sure you could get an actual USEFUL petition signed by even more people). Then get it out there. Contact places like the World Wildlife Fund, CITES, Panthera, and all the other conservation and/or lawmaking groups out there. Petition the governments of the countries. Make a difference, not a snide comment.

4. The conservation industry and the hunting industry are rather uncomfortable bed buddies. For a long time, the two have been intertwined, and many people believe that hunting HELPS conservation because it brings in money for the wildlife industry to pay for stuff like anti-poaching units and animal relocations. This causes serious issues, because people WITHIN conservation believe in trophy hunting as a fine and dandy practice. Not all of them, but some do. Also, it’s still up for debate as to where the funds actually go, but again, another story for another time.

And for a little lesson in conservation: the Kruger Park, one of the most beloved and beautiful places on earth, was STARTED as a hunting concession. The land was delegated as protected area so that game stocks could have a place to replenish. Because of uncontrolled hunting way back when, Paul Kruger and some friends decided that the best way to preserve the wildlife and restock the supplies of game was to set up a protected area for them. That way the animals could reproduce, gain in numbers, and then – drumroll, please – be HUNTED! Kruger, the epitome of conservation? Yup, that same Kruger. I kid you not, dear readers. So if you wonder why this topic is such a challenge, now maybe you’re starting to get a fuller picture of how difficult it is to separate the conservation industry from the hunting one. In the last two centuries, they grew up and developed together, those funny little animal-obsessed industries that they are.

5. From the myriad posts I saw, an awful lot of them were aimed at this woman more because she was a woman than because of what she did. This is something I find very interesting. Why is it that a female hunter is an abomination, but the gazillion male hunters who do this same thing every day don’t face the same vicious backlash? Wtf? Don’t be sexist about it. Choose to be either against something or for it, but don’t be a hypocrite who draws the line based on the machinery ‘down there’.

6. The other thing I noticed is that there was much less furor over other pictures on the internet of people killing other wildlife. Why is it that the lion gets so much attention, but the other animals – who are equally as important in the food chain – do not? Is it simply because the hunter is posed proudly next to her kill? There are plenty of those to be found online. What about people killing foxes in fox hunts, for instance?

Again, we can’t choose to champion one animal while we allow other animals to fall prey to more hunting simply because those other animals aren’t as ‘majestic’. Or we can, but we are once again proving to be hypocritical. And it’s very easy to poke holes in hypocrisy when you’re a lawmaker. Or a hunter. Or a poacher. Or a local desperate to feed his family. Or really anybody. It sort of ruins the foundation of your argument, you know? So by all means, protect lions. But protect hyenas as well, and vultures, and sharks, and…I don’t know…golden moles. You get the point.

7. It’s speculated this Ms. Bachman’s hunt was a captive, or canned, hunt. Canned hunts are perhaps the most shameful kind of hunt imaginable. They require pretty much no skill. I’m going to quote directly from the Born Free website here (www.bornfree.org.uk) to give you a better idea of what they entail: “Canned hunting, the hunting of wild animals in a confined area from which they cannot escape, is not only legal in South Africa, it is flourishing.  Hunters from all over the world, but notably from the United States, Germany, Spain, France and the UK, flock to South Africa in their thousands and send home lion body parts, such as the head and skin, preserved by taxidermists, to show off their supposed prowess.

The animals involved are habituated to human contact, often hand-reared and bottle fed, so are no longer naturally fearful of people. Such animals will approach people expecting to get fed-but instead receive a bullet, or even an arrow from a hunting bow.  This makes it easier for clients to be guaranteed a trophy and thus the industry is lucrative and popular.”

If you want to be nauseated a bit, check out the video of an actual canned hunt, courtesy of The Humane Society:

Another note about this? Lion parts are now being sold off to Asia to fuel the illegal wildlife trade, which then fuels demand, which then fuels poaching, etc. So yet another reason to not support the activity.

8. Many of the lodges here tout animal skins and heads as chic decor (the lion seems a very popular decorating item, in fact). It seems that to qualify as African decor, many a lodge feels the need to display pieces of dead animals all over its property. In fact, I’m sure if you did a little digging, you’d find some of those lodges online, with spectacular glamour shots of their animal-laden interiors. People still go to these places. And in many places, they pay stupid amounts of cash to go them. And that money is very rarely reinvested into the conservation industry (or the local community, for that matter). But you don’t see people ripping apart those lodges, their owners and their interior decorators, do you? You don’t see people boycotting them, or banning them from existence.

9. Most posts I’ve seen neglect the fact that the largest threat to animals overall is us. Not just hunting of the wildlife. Or over-loving it. Nope, it’s a simple numbers game. Our burgeoning and out-of-control population leaves little space for the rest of the animal kingdom to live. But no one seems ready to give up all the comforts they have to alleviate the situation. People just keep buying and wasting and expanding (in more ways than one). So again, I’m all for people getting aggro about this hunting situation and for taking notice of a situation that really is ugly. But unless you actively DO something about it, why bother getting mad? Why bother spending time firing verbal bullets at a woman who was doing what she had every right to do? Why not use the time to make a positive difference that matters? Volunteer, donate money, get off your butt to get laws changed, but for the love of all things wonderful in this world, please educate yourself before you start throwing lightening bolts at the next target. And walk the walk if you’re gonna talk the talk.

Okay, and with that, I’m off my soapbox.  I know I have more points to make, but for now, maybe chew on that cud for a while. There’s a lot to digest, and plenty more where it came from.

Like I said, I don’t agree with trophy hunting. In fact, I don’t agree with hunting at all unless it’s for food, it’s fair game (meaning the animal can actually get away) and it’s legal. But I also don’t agree with this whole circus surrounding a woman who was, for better or for worse, within her rights. So if you have a problem with this practice, forget about the bimbo posing next to her kill. Go to https://www.change.org/petitions/stop-canned-hunting-in-south-africa and sign the petition to ban canned hunting in South Africa. And if you want to expand your banning to other locales, go for it! You can create your own petition on the website. It isn’t everything, but at least it’s a start. And it’s a start in the right direction.

I’d like to include some other links that would be good reading about the topic of mistreating wildlife, but rather than overwhelm you, I’ll focus on one specific post that I thought was quite interesting, given the fact that we seem to pick and choose how we like to interact with our wildlife.

Check out the newest venture of a Hilton Hotel in Hawaii, which is introducing sharks into its dolphin interaction lagoon. Dolphin interactions are also the antithesis of conservation, by the way. They do nothing good for the wildlife and a lot of good for the lining of the pockets of the people who force the wildlife to interact with humans. If this article doesn’t make you sit up and say, “Huh”, I don’t know what will…

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/hawaii-hilton-sharks_n_4305392.html?ir=Travel

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Conservation, Education, Habituation, legislation, Lion, poaching, rehabilitation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Interlude #1 – Animals I’ve Neglected

Okay, so after two weeks of avoiding the baboons (yes, I actually HAVE been avoiding them as much as I can), I’ve realised I need to get back to some of the other wildlife out here. And there’s so much of it. Considering we haven’t covered the Big Five in depth yet – and that’s what most people want to see when they come here – I’ll begin there, starting with….Trunk and toes Elephants! elephants29

Some notes on Loxondonta africana (also known as ellies) – they live in matriarchal herds, with males splintering off when they hit puberty (somewhere between 7-15 years old) to sow their oats. You will often find bull elephants puttering around in twosomes, an older male mentoring a younger male (and also keeping the younger male in check). In fact, if you come across a solo male, odds are there’s another male somewhere in the area, which is useful to know when you have to drive around blind corners and in dense vegetation.

You’d think you couldn’t possibly miss seeing an elephant, but even a several ton being blends into the bushes in a matter of seconds. However, you certainly won’t miss smelling them, and doubtful you’ll miss hearing them. An elephant, much like a rhino, has a very earthy smell, not surprising since they eat nothing but greenery. They are the largest vegetarians you will come across on this fine planet of ours. And their digestive systems aren’t exactly the most sophisticated, meaning they leave a lot of undigested their food behind in their dung. In fact, when you come across elephant dung that’s been sitting around for a few months, you might be inclined to dismiss it as a hay bale that simply fell off a truck a while back.

Like rhino (who also leave behind piles of undigested goodies), elephant are hindgut fermentors, which means they don’t digest cellulose. When you eat nothing but plants, that means you don’t digest a LOT of what you eat. Rabbits and horses are the same. In fact, some of our hindgut fermentors even practice coprophagia, which means they eat their poop. No joke. But not elephants. They just keep eating and eating. In fact, they eat for about 20 hours a day. According to the African Elephant Specialist Group (http://www.african-elephant.org), these heavyweights eat somewhere between 100-300kg a day (220-600lbs), and they drink a small river system’s worth of water, somewhere around 200 litres (or 50 gallons) a day. They can drink this all in one sitting as well, which is pretty impressive, considering they could also probably mow down a city immediately afterwards if they got sufficiently pissed off. In fact, a single trunkful measures somewhere in the 4-8 litre category. It would appear that unlike me, who might as well hibernate because I’m so bloated after drinking a measly 1.5 litre bottle of water, elephants could theoretically go out clubbing after one of their slurps and not have a single cramp.

While I’ve fallen in love with many of the sounds of the bush, I have to admit, the elephants make one of my all-time favourites. No, not the trumpeting. While that’s nice to hear when you’re trying to track them, it’s also a little disconcerting when they’re close by and running straight at you, ears flapping madly and eyes burning like little copper fire bolts. Nope, the sound I love is the low-pitched rumbling sound they make, an almost therapeutic baseline that literally reverberates through your body when you’re in close proximity to them. They make a whole range of noises even lower than the rumble, but it’s so low as to be out of our range of hearing, which is pretty common with animals, I’ve found. We miss a LOT of their communication because our ears are simply not as fine-tuned as theirs. In fact, their ears are so fine-tuned, they can hear each other rumbling up to 20 miles away. The rumbles travel is seismic waves, and the elephants can actually hear them with their feet.

Elephants are probably my favourite large animal to sit and watch, mainly because their level of social interaction is fascinating to me. And the little ones are so playful and funny, especially before they’ve mastered the use of their trunks (which takes a few years to get under control, considering there are a few thousand different muscles in there to control). Of course, when you have one appendage that acts as hand, arm, nose, straw and vocalization device, you need it to be a highly developed body part, essentially a well-oiled machine of versatility. So it’s not surprising it takes a while for them to get every part of it to work together. Once they get it down, though, they are capable of lifting items as heavy as 250+kgs (or 600lbs).

On top of that, elephants actually play with each other. They knock each other over, they whack each other with their trunks, they nudge each other and roll over each other. And they shoot water at each other, their trunks a modified version of water pistols. In fact, elephants in water are a joy to watch. You can actually see the change in their behaviour when they encounter a waterhole, even if it’s a small puddle. They LOVE water! And considering the babies can suffer from sunburn, water is also a nice opportunity for them to cool off from the sun’s intense rays.

I had the privilege on many occasions to sit and watch elephants, both in giant herds, in duos and trios, and solo. After a while, you learn to read certain behaviours about them and can get a good sense of when they’re happy, when they’re aggravated and when they mean business. Of course, you are never right 100% of time, which is why they (as well as any other animal) should be respected. Keeping a healthy distance and letting the animal come to you as opposed to you coming to it is always the rule of the day.

Oh, and don’t try to outrun one. They’ll trump you every time. No pun intended.

Learning how to drive a manual transmission is also a joy when elephants are a potential road obstacle. Unlike potholes and tree branches, elephants aren’t easy to avoid, and they move (often towards you) when you try to get by them. My fiance and I almost had to ram a car behind us once when we were driving through Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve and we came upon two bull elephants. (By the way, like cattle, ellies are bulls for males and cows for females.)  The elephants were casually chowing on some trees on the side of the road, minding their own business. We stopped the car and watched, my fiance filming and me just enjoying the moment. Eventually we realised that a pile of cars had lined up behind us. We were blocked in.

The bulls started to tussle, the larger one asserting his dominance as only an elephant can – slapping the crap out of the younger one with his trunk and tusks. The younger one started moving backwards down the road straight for us. And no one in the other cars thought it might be a good idea to reverse. We slowly started moving backwards, hoping the car behind us would get the hint. But nothing. And the elephants were closing fast. They were now both facing us and running straight at our front bumper.

I was getting a little worried, since not only was I new to the whole ‘driving a manual’ thing, I was new to driving around elephants. My fiance waved frantically to the car behind us, signaling them to move. With the gap between us and the now pissed-off elephants closing more quickly than I imagined possible, my fiancé turned to me and said, “Put the car in reverse and just go. If you hit these idiots behind us, they’ll get the hell out of the way.” They finally got the memo and, probably realising that the elephants were now a mere meters away, gunned it out of there.

As a side note, if you are ever driving around elephants, you shouldn’t gun the car. Ever. Not in reverse; not in drive. They will chase you, and for such giants, they’re lightning fast. Better that you try to get out of the way, not run away.  And if you’re going to drive in areas where they roam, do yourself a favour and learn a bit about their behaviour before you do, such as their warning signs. It might save your life. Really. Several tons can do a lot of damage to a car, and even more to you.

Incidentally, I should mention that poaching of elephants has increased significantly in the last decade. Numbers are going down quickly. Once again, it appears ivory is on the menu, and in spades. I hope one day all humans learn to respect our natural resources…which include the rest of the animal kingdom….and prefer those resources intact and alive instead of dead and in pieces on a mantle somewhere, or bedecking someone’s wrist as an ivory bangle.

Okay, off the soapbox now. If you have a hankering for all things elephant, check out some more information at: http://www.elephantconservation.org/elephants/african-elephants/ http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/html/elephant_conservation.html http://www.elephantcenter.com http://www.elephanttrust.org

Here’s a little gallery of some pachyderms I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in my journeys thus far. Enjoy!

Song for the day: It’s a tie between ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ by Henry Mancini and ‘Nelly the Elephant’ by Toy Dolls

At attention

At attention

shielding baby Bull elephant coming to say hello peanut sniffing the air

Looking out my front door

Looking out my front door

Optical illusion of ellies

Optical illusion of ellies

This is my waterhole!

This is my waterhole!

Just about to fade into the scenery

Just about to fade into the scenery

tying the knot

Sharing a laugh

Sharing a laugh

tapping heads, elephant-style

tapping heads, elephant-style

Little ellie showing who's boss

Little ellie showing who’s boss

Look at how nice they look!

Look at how nice they look!

elephant at the riverside dust bathing

any way you can get it

any way you can get it

Baby close-up

Too many years in the sun with no sunscreen

Too many years in the sun with no sunscreen

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Conservation, Education, poaching, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

South African Adventure #617 – How finding beauty is about finding yourself

In light of the recent horrific events at the Boston Marathon, I felt compelled to turn to the good things in life.  It’s so easy to see the bad everywhere. Our media worldwide thrives on it, focusing on the pain, the misery, the misfortune. Misery loves company, right?  And I’ll be honest – I’ve fallen into the bottomless pit of the half-empty glass, wallowing in the endless streams of broken hearts and dreams. But not today.

While I’m usually the first person to seek out evil and string it up by its toenails, at this moment, I can’t think that way. Because fighting fire with fire is useless.  We need water to put out the flames, not more flames.  So yes, we should be angry, sad, frustrated, confused. But we should also remind ourselves of good ol’ Mr. Rogers, who so sagely said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in this world.”  There is beauty, and in spite of the darkness, we need to remember the light that always finds a way to shine through even the darkest nights.

In the wild, animals don’t wallow in misery.  They wallow in mud. And they love it like a mole loves a hole. That’s the kind of wallowing I want to focus on today. Which is why I’ve decided to focus this blog on beauty, and not the skin-deep kind.

What is it that makes something beautiful to you?  I just did an exercise asking me to name 10 beautiful things. It felt like such a loaded question, and I swear I sat paralysed for the first few moments as I desperately sprinted through my brain to think of anything pithy, profound or perfect to say. I don’t know why I cared what I came up with, since no one but me cares about what I think.  Plus beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we are taught, is it not? So what I find beautiful may not be beautiful to you or anyone else.  To each their own. Still, I stressed out about this a little too longer for my own comfort. What does that say about me? That’s another blog for another day.

What I found most interesting about this question was that once I started coming up with my answers, I found most had a unifying thread woven through them (or in some cases were the equivalent of a full-on tapestry).  We seem to find beauty in pockets, in oddly linear elements that we probably don’t recognize on a daily basis, yet this predilection we have for certain things (colours, smells, juxtapositions, emotional puppy dogs licking our toes, whatever you want to think up) is a fundamental picture of who we are, what we hold dear, and what makes us tick tock around the clock.

Why do I bring this up in a blog about living in the bush?  Well, a part of that answer is obvious – I find the bush a whole entourage of beauty. But also I find that discovering what tickles our fancies offers tantalizing clues to who we are as individuals. And damned if I’m not somewhat obsessive about understanding human nature, the most difficult nature to unravel in a vast sea of challenging natures.  Living in the bush challenges you to see things differently. It challenges you to question yourself, your motives, your beliefs.  It tests you to see if you are worthy to share in everything it holds. Some days I wonder if I’m worthy. And some days I say, “Hells yeah, this Jane belongs in this Tarzan movie!”

I think because I’m an artist, I see beauty quite often in shapes, patterns, colours and random elements taken out of context. That’s not to say I don’t find the whole of a fever tree blissful, with its vibrant green snot bark, and its broad (but not too much junk in the trunk) canopy. But what I find myself most drawn to are the little nuances you can’t see in the big picture – the one gnarled root at the base that looks like it’s trying to claw its way out of the earth and break free, or the way the tree still glows a paranormal green even in the darkest night.  I am in love with an elephant’s eyelashes, and the wild, amber colour of its eyes.  I get goosebumps from seeing the mist rising off the ground or over a body of water early in the morning. Actually, any water, even a filled bathtub, gets me goggly.  I get teary-eyed when I see a baby rhino squeaking and galloping about its mother, almost skipping along and oblivious to the concept of ‘poaching’, which I also hope it never has to learn. And most importantly, I find beauty in the way it all seamlessly ties together everything – life in all its trials, tribulations, ups and downs. Out here, you learn to see beauty even in things you never imagined you could find beautiful, simply because it all brings to light how amazing our little blue and green floating ball is.

So what is it that you find beautiful?  Then think: What does my appreciation, my love, my admiration of these things say about me?  Cherish what is beautiful to you, whether it’s a single moment or a lifetime of them.  And always be on the lookout for more flashes of beauty, like those sparklers you can’t blow out, to keep with you in your heart for those times when hope fades a bit (or a lot, depending on the situation) and darkness creeps back around.

On this note, I dedicate this blog to the beautiful people of Boston, and all those who travelled to that wonderful city to either run in the marathon or cheer the runners on. And for everyone else who believes there is beauty in this world, despite those who do their best to convince us otherwise, I say, “Keep fighting the good fight.”

There are so many songs that come to mind that would fit with this blog, but I’m going to include just a handful. Take your pick. I hope at least one of them will fill you with a warm, happy feeling, which I think many of us could use right about now.

“A Wonderful World”  – Louis Armstrong (or Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole)

“The Fighter” – Gym Class Heroes

“Beautiful Day” – U2

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – Diana Ross

“Good Life” – OneRepublic

and because it just seems necessary

“Imagine” – John Lennon

 

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Conservation, Education, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

South African Adventure #303 – Reality, check please!

Mmmm, Wisconsin people are delicious!

Mmmm, Wisconsin people are delicious!

First, an apology for my lapse in writing.  A small family of insects made a personal empire in my laptop, and I needed to get a new one. And then I had to get it set up and get internet sorted and blah blah blah. This does make a good segue for this post, however. Coincidence? Or just bad luck? You decide.

Let me take a moment to wax poetic about nature and how these days we are completely ill-equipped to deal with it on just about every level.  Let me discuss how we’ve rendered ourselves useless in the natural world by erecting walls, fences, and boundaries of any kind, and built up our reliance on weapons rather than on our brains to defend ourselves.  Oh wait, am I talking about man in relation to the wild, or man in relation to anything in general?  Hmm, guess it could really fit both scenarios if you think about it.  But let’s stick to the ‘man in relation to the wild’ situation here since that’s what I’m dealing with these days. When I’m not in Jo-hazardous-berg, of course.

Living in the wild humbles you on multiple sensory fronts.  We’ve spent so much time honing our sense of sight that we’ve neglected all the other senses, to our own detriment.  Problem is, you can’t see shit (and I mean that literally as well as figuratively) out here.  Every single living creature is camouflaged and has made a killing (again, literally and figuratively) out of being impossible to see.  I realize I, with my dark hair and olive skin, probably blend in a bit more with my surroundings than the fellow gingers and blondies of English and Dutch lineage around me, but that isn’t exactly saying much, since I’m still so dangerously unaware of all the potential pitfalls that surround me on a daily basis.  Grab a tree for balance while walking through the bush and you may unwittingly lay your hand on a boomslang or other deadly arboreal snake, and possibly not live to tell the tale of your rendezvous.  Walk through the bush with earphones in your ears and I promise you, you will not hear the ‘pff’ of a puff adder underfoot before he strikes, or the soft whisper of the grass as a lion stalks you from behind.  And yes, I HAVE seen tourists walking through the bush with headphones on, or typing on their phones, or doing some other thing that renders them completely oblivious to their surroundings.  I’ve decided either they are too dumb to realize the dangers surrounding them, have a death wish, or are seriously that out of touch with reality.  It’s possible it’s all of the above.

I admit I may have a slight advantage over other city folks who venture into the bush, and I can attribute that to my unhealthy fascination with all things that can potentially eat me, many of which can be traced to a childhood ingesting Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic.  I’ve spent a lifetime studying these creatures and locales on paper, so now I’m finally putting to good use the random facts I’ve learned about elephant behavior, hyena feeding habits, and Worst Case Scenario Guidebook-type info that has proven useless while traipsing around NYC and LA. I’m still out of my element.  I think the most stealth thing I’ve had stalk me was a pigeon in Central Park who was hell bent on snatching a french fry from my lunch.  While I admit it was a sneaky little bastard, it was still a pigeon.

Out here, lion and leopard are very real dangers, and they have a habit of creeping about camp at night, doing annoying things like nibbling on fire hydrants hung outside your door and scaring the crap out of you when you open said door to walk to the bathroom at 2am.

They say the most dangerous leopard is the one you don’t see.  Well, considering I’d been here for almost 6 months before actually seeing one at all, yet I’ve heard and seen spoor (tracks) and scat (poop) for many more, there have been PLENTY I clearly haven’t seen.  And that’s a little scary since I admit I’m always looking.  In fact, having literally been standing next to an ELEPHANT that I couldn’t see, it still unnerves me how often sight is a useless sense out here.  Unfortunately, as I said before, this is the exact sense we’ve spent millennium fine-tuning at the expense of our other senses.  Well, I can safely say that in the bush, you will learn to use your nose and your ears.  Otherwise, you will end up looking like something that saw the wrong side of an airplane propeller. If there’s even that much of you left.

They don’t let you carry firearms out here unless you have the training, and to be honest, when an animal moves at 22km a second or faster, the gun probably won’t do a whole hell of a lot anyway, since you won’t be able to get off a round in time before the animal is literally on top of you.  A knife won’t help you a whole lot either, at least not when it comes to killing anything.  While it’s nice to be able to hack away some of the rather sticky foliage in your way, it won’t do a damn thing against a pissed off mama anything, or a bull elephant in musth, or a buffalo that is simply having a bad day (which is most days in the buffalo world).  Females protecting their young out here do so with a life or death mentality because that’s exactly what it is – either they beat the life out of you, or you take their baby.  Of course they are going to attempt to pummel you!  So don’t think you will have access to bullets (unless you want to carry around the shells and ping the animal in the head as it charges you, hoping maybe that might confuse them into stopping their attack, although more likely it will only act to further piss them off).  And don’t think you’ll go all Chuck Norris on the wildlife either.  I’ve seen people get f*&ked up by Bambi out here.  Imagine what the animals with claws and fangs will do.

In the wild, you take away all your creature comforts and replace them with bugs, humidity, isolation, etc.  Once you strip it all away, all the soft blankets, the heated floors, the screens to keep out the mosquitoes, the refrigerators that actually seal so the cockroaches can’t get inside, you find out what you’re made of.  And I will be honest, for the first month or two, you realize you are made of Jell-O.  You have no backbone.  You whine and get angry at how inept you feel.  You curse the local people because they are clearly the reason your phone doesn’t work.  You curse EVERYONE and EVERYTHING because you are well out of the comfort zone and instead stuck having to rely on yourself to literally survive.  Yeah, that teeny tiny MagLite torch (sorry, flashlight for us Americans) isn’t gonna cut it when you need to venture out into the blackest night to take a leak in the bathroom a good 300 feet from the ‘safety’ of your room’s four (semi-) sealed walls.  And those high-tech boots and Gore Tex pants will do nothing against an infestation of pepper ticks, those itty bitty tick nymphs the size of a grain of pepper (hence the name, of course) who LOVE LOVE LOVE to suck you dry while a few try to infect you with tick bite fever.  In short, you just have to accept the fact that you are not king of the jungle when it comes to the jungle, savanna, thicket, or really any biome in Africa.  You are simply part of the food chain.

Now before I go any further, and since I’m now guessing most of you are crossing Africa off your bucket list, please keep in mind two things.  One, this is all in reference to life in the bush, NOT life in the rest of the country.  South Africa is not all wildlife.  In fact, much of the country is agriculture and mining, and there are cosmopolitan cities that will certainly suit any gourmand’s or social butterfly’s needs.  Two, that which does not kill us….you know the rest. But honestly, stick with me here. I promise you this place is worth the humbling experience.

So back to the bush.  The other luxury you don’t have out here is time. Nothing happens for hours on end, but when something does happen, it happens in a blink. You barely have enough time to register what just occurred, let alone have the reaction time or presence of mind to catch it on film.  Your mind simply cannot process that quickly, which is ironic, since we make a life out of snap judgments.  But when it comes to anticipating the natural world, we are at a loss.  Eventually, you slow down, but it takes effort and time, and until you do, you will inevitably miss that cheetah kill, the fish eagle swooping down on its lunch, the leopard who slipped past your car without your even slightest detection.   People argue with me on this point often.  They can’t fathom how you could possibly not see a lion sitting in the grass next to your vehicle.  How can you not see a multi-ton elephant in the bushes beside the road?  Well, the reality is, unless you know how to look (and even then sometimes you have no luck), you will miss it entirely.

Understanding animal behavior is one key to being able to follow their movements and finding them in the abyss of the greens, tans, and grays of the bush.  If you watch a lion as it stalks, you start to learn how its body moves in the grass, how the grass shifts and whispers with each gliding muscle movement, and what it means when the grass stops moving and speaking entirely. You will hear things you didn’t hear before, like the shrieking of the francolins and the bark of baboons, when a threat is nearby.  You will learn to identify and follow the spoor, and eventually even be able to detect whether the animal whose spoor you’ve come across is walking, running, or stalking.  But that takes time, and as I said, time is a luxury out here that few people have.  So if you can’t dedicate years, or even months, of your life to studying this stuff, do what the rest of the world does and bow down to the people who DO know it.  Learn from them.  They have much to teach, young Jedi, and you have much to learn. And tip them well. To say this industry pays peanuts is giving it credit.

Lastly, remember: while you should keep your eyes open at all times, take a moment to close them now and again and let your other senses in on the fun.  But make sure you have someone else with you to watch your back when you do it.  Just in case.

Song of the day: “Wild World” by Cat Stevens

Of course, the theme song from The Pink Panther fits as well…



King in the brush

 

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

 

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Camp, Conservation, Education, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: | 3 Comments

The reality behind a lodge and reserve that calls itself a conservation and rehabilitation center

I took a job as a cheetah caretaker in what I was told was a cheetah rehabilitation center.  I was supposed to be helping them set up a breeding program with the intent to introduce new cheetah to the wild in an effort to increase their ever- dwindling numbers outside of captivity.  I was also supposed to monitor the collared cheetah, which were supposed to be released into the reserve.  I did none of that.  I walked cheetahs on a leash, foisted them upon guests as they ate their breakfast and lunch on the lodge’s lawn, and essentially put on a cheetah show.  This was not what I came to do.

I loved the cats.  There were five ‘tame’ ones kept in what the lodge refers to as ‘captivity’.  There were ten other cheetah, two of which were also kept in small enclosures, but they were at least away from the lodge.  The ‘captive’ cheetah were kept so close to the lodge and its guests, they could practically dive in the lodge’s swimming pool from their enclosure.  They were also living in non-ideal conditions.  Among other problems, the lodge facilities for everyone but the guests (and sometimes even for the guests as well) often don’t have water, so the cats’ enclosures don’t get hosed down as they should.  Ever.  In fact, cheetah poo is barely cleaned up at all because of the lack of water or sanitization equipment.  We were even asked to dilute down any cleaning products to make them go as far as possible because the owners apparently felt they were spending too much money to buy the stuff.  We were barely using the disinfectants and such at ALL, given that we didn’t have the right conditions to use them properly (eg., a way to scrub with them and then hose it all down – hard to do all that without water), so I can’t quite make out HOW, exactly, we were abusing the disinfectant.

In terms of HOW the cheetah were living, even the worst zoos in the world would be disgusted.  Two adult pairs of brother and sister lived together; each pair had its own enclosure.  Siblings of opposite gender should be separated by the time they are two years old.  These pairs were 3 and 6 years old.  Well past their separation due date.  And the males were starting to try and mate with their sisters.  Last I checked, this was not only bad for a population of animals with bad enough genetic diversity as to render every cheetah on earth virtually a twin of every other one, but bad for the concept of conservation and rehabilitation in general.  If they succeed in mating, the lodge will have succeeded in breeding a genetic disaster, possibly with two heads and five paws.  Maybe that’s the goal? After all, a genetically mutated cat might bring in more money for the owners, and money, I’ve found, is the ONLY thing this place was about.  Bring on the circus act.  I mean, it’s clear that’s what they’re going for here anyway.

Two of the cheetahs were purchased from a breeder who had supposedly been keeping them in bathtubs and toilets.  I can’t really tell you the real story, since I got about twelve different versions, including one from the proclaimed other cheetah ‘expert’ – who had been here when the cats arrived – and a totally different one from the owner, who bought the cats.  NOTE: If you were really interested in conservation, buying animals from that type of unethical breeder is the LAST thing you do.  You don’t GIVE MONEY to people who breed animals illegally and/or unethically.  In fact, you don’t BUY animals at all.  It is the antithesis on conservation.  Please keep that in mind when you buy animals from pet shops, and do serious research on your breeders as well.

Two of the cheetahs were born on the reserve and then taken into captivity under the premise that the owner wanted to perform surgery on the male, who was born with a leg deformity.  However, they didn’t bring the mother, and they never released the male and his sister back to her either.  They kept the siblings in their tiny enclosure.  THIS is conservation and rehabilitation?

Another cheetah died because she ate an employee’s Croc.  Another was kept in a tiny, windowless closet for two months because there was no place to keep her while she recovered from a broken leg (suspiciously, no one seems to know how she broke it).  The lodge has no appropriate place for injured animals.  Yet they call themselves a rehabilitation center.  And they have no vet on site.  And the vet they DO use (as apparently the local wildlife vets are subpar in their book) lives in Hoedspruit, which is a several hour FLIGHT away.

The caretakers before me had no experience working with cheetah.  The person who set up the program had no experience working with cheetah, nor did she have any expertise with rehabilitation and conservation.  There was no program in place.  I actually put one together while I was there, though I’m pretty positive they never actually enacted it, since they never listened to me about anything with the cats anyway.  They said it was okay to feed them mangy, mangled rabbits they bought and did not care for in the slightest.  It was the head ranger and I who decided to set up a rabbit breeding facility so that we could breed healthy rabbits for the cats.  That fell apart after he and I resigned.  Nobody cared.

When there were no rabbits, the cats were fed bad organs from a butcher, which often had to be thawed and then refrozen because there wasn’t a working refrigerator available to keep the meat in.  There was only a deep freeze available.  There was a time when I was told to cut up a horse that had died a few days prior and had already started to decompose.  The organs had been left in the sun for a good day before they even got to me.  It was rancid and already crawling with maggots.  But I was assured the meat was fine and ‘fresh.’  Seriously.

Cheetahs are not like a lot of other predators – they aren’t big on carrion.  I don’t blame them.  The meat they were often fed was either freezer burned or past its expiration date.  There would be days when the cats only got just animal hearts or just animal livers, which is horribly unhealthy for them.   The cats were constantly suffering from diarrhea.  Often I would find vomit in their enclosures as well.  Like the poo, couldn’t clean that up without water.  It just sat and baked in the sun, eventually becoming part of the ‘furniture’.

The ‘wild’ cheetahs also live in a form of captivity.  Each day, they were lured to a part of their enclosure equipped with a protected viewing stand for lodge guests ‘on safari’.  The cats were taunted with a tasseled object tied to the end of a string.  A guide pushes a button and the lure gets yanked down what is essentially a cheetah runway, enticing the animals to run after it and put on a show for the guests.  Oooh!  See the cheetah run!  See it get thrown an old, desiccated and sickly chicken for its efforts.  Guests were told that this ‘run’ is supposed to induce the females to go into estrus so they can then breed.  While cheetahs do in fact need to hunt and (the females at least) need to drive up their temperatures for mating (the males, however, shouldn’t run, as it burns up their sperm), only two of the cheetah run (always the same two), and they were all essentially too old to breed now anyway.  Several of the cheetahs were ten years old, well past their sell-by date for ideal breeding purposes.  As far as I know, this is all simply a gimmick to get people to pay to come here.  While two of the cheetahs had tracking collars, no one is tracking them, and there were no plans for the lodge to release them in the larger reserve.  In fact, until I showed up, no one employed by the lodge even knew HOW to use the equipment to track the animals.  The collars had been on for so long already, the batteries in them were most likely flat, meaning the entire collar had to be replaced.  The reality was, though no one would admit it, the collars were all for show. Those cats weren’t going anywhere.

The ‘wild’ cheetahs did not live within the main reserve.  They lived in a small enclosure WITHIN the main reserve, their own separate area that, while larger than the pens back at the lodge, was wayyyy too small to house 7 cheetah.  And like their ‘captive’ counterparts, the group consisted of a mix of males and females.

A few facts about cheetahs – the females are mainly solitary, except when they have cubs, or are looking for a mate.  They actively seek out the males for mating, and choose which one they want.  Not the other way around.  In fact, if you introduce a female cheetah to a male cheetah and she doesn’t like him, she may beat him up.

Males, on the other hand, will often stick with the brothers from birth, living in a form of coalition.  Sometimes another solitary male will join their group, but regardless, usually before they reach their second birthday, cheetah siblings of opposite genders have gone their separate ways.

Now, these ‘wild’ cheetah, because of their abnormal social dynamic with males and females being kept together too long, developed a super coalition and have actually attacked people.  Cheetahs don’t normally do that.  Cheetahs were usually afraid of their own shadow.  They were the low man on the totem pole of cats, lacking the strength to defend their kills and cubs from other, larger predators like lions and hyenas (and even wild dogs have been known to kill cubs).  As such, rather than defend, they were more apt to flee.  And as far as humans go, they would rather bolt than take the chance for injury or worse, death.  So the fact that these cheetahs attack people says something is not right in Kansas.  Or shall I say the Karoo?

Two of the captive cheetah also had a habit of attacking their handlers, with one cheetah in particular being a bad seed.  He even looks like a shady character, which is ironic, since that’s his name.  I had the pleasure of having his tooth through my pinky finger once.  I felt sorry for him, as well as the other cats, and the rest of the animals on this reserve.  Because of poor regulation within the conservation industry and within the sale of exotic animals, this lodge can continue to lie to guests and pretend they were practicing conservation, when in fact all they were doing is lining the pockets of the owners at the expense of the employees and their exotic ‘pets’.  I resigned after a month.  Oh, and by the way, the lodge still refuses to pay my medical bills from problems with my hand that are a direct result of the bite.  High-class establishment, right?

Places like this should not exist, and it bothers me to no end that there are so many writers out there who, instead of doing do diligence and getting the facts on a place, prefer to be lazy, pampered and essentially bribed and blinded rather than uncovering the reality.  By writing good reviews about a place without doing the homework to find out if the place really is what it says it is, a writer is then complicit in the disgusting things that go on in such a place.  Non-fiction writers have a responsibility to provide the truth.  Writers who praise this place for its ‘work’ are neglecting their responsibility.  And they are contributing to the problem.  The guests are no better.

I plan to report them to the Labour Department.  Another employee reported them to the SPCA.  Hopefully someone will actually make the effort and close the place down, though given how rife this country is with bribery and corruption, I sadly don’t have high hopes.

The lodge just bought two baby rhino that they say they are going to release into the reserve, but I just saw a picture of a guest playing with them.  Um, really?  Here’s a species that is being wiped out by man.  Why, then, if you are truly a conservation center, would you HABITUATE THESE ANIMALS TO PEOPLE?!?  What, so when a poacher shows up, he can walk right up to the rhino and lead it off the reserve with a carrot?  Clearly this is yet another example of animals that will be kept in captivity perpetually under the guise of ‘conservation’ and ‘rehabilitation’, but while actually being used to make money for the owners at the expense of the wildlife.  Sickening, seriously sickening.

By the way, this place advertises itself as Big 5 and has been doing so for months, if not years.  The Big 5 includes the following: elephant, black rhino (NOT white), leopard, lion, and buffalo.  This reserve has NO black rhino (thankfully), they didn’t have elephant AT ALL until a few months ago (and those elephant showed up WELL AFTER they were advertising the reserve as Big 5), the lions they DO have are in a small, separate reserve and are so overfed, they look like hippos that were shoved into lion skin, and no one I’ve spoken to has EVER seen a leopard on the property.  And I asked people who’d been working there for YEARS.  Big 5, my ass.

It took every ounce of restraint I possessed to keep from leaving the cheetah enclosure doors open the day I left.

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, cheetah, Conservation, Education, Habituation, Karoo, legislation, rehabilitation, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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