Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Also check out this Guide to South African Slang

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

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

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

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

mantid photo shoot

mantid photo shoot

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

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

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

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

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

So I stayed away from the insect world.

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

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

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

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

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

mantid and his grape

Santiago and dessert

And then there are the mantids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mantises eyeing each other up

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

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

#vivasantiago #onlyinafrica

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

 

All rights reserved. ©2014-2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

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

a fly on the wall

a fly on the wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

My South African Adventure: Continuing On My Soapbox to Appreciate All Things…

Who said hyena are ugly?

a little chocolate drop of cuteness

Hyenas Are Fascinating, Not Disgusting

I saw this article and it made me think of my recent post about how we love supporting the cute, cuddly, and/or vegetarian creatures. But everything else?  Nope. Does it fit our perception of what is considered “pretty”? No? Kill it. Wait! What??? How would you feel if someone said that about you? What if you were a fugly baby and your parents looked at you and said, “Oh well, let’s try again,” and then threw you out the window? Every creature – big or small, cute or fugly – is important.

Hence why this article made my smile. I love hyenas. I think they are fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of all because they are one of the few species where the female is the dominant figure in the clan (yup, a group of hyena is called a clan). The sexes are incredibly difficult to tell apart, the female is often bigger than the male, and they all make the most astounding vocalisations.

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

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

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

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

Anyway, enough of my rambling. Here are some good sites if you want to learn a bit more about these fascinating, misunderstood creatures. After all, better to come from the experts than some girl from New Jersey…

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

African Wildlife Foundation

Hyaenidae

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

And my hyena anthem would have to be: Beautiful, by Christina Aguilera, because honestly, words can’t bring you down, little hyena. Rise above!

 

Creature of the night

Creature of the night

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, Conservation, Education, nature, South Africa, 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

Images from Varying States of Work in the South African Bush, or Yes, I Really Do Live in South Africa

I know; this is big. Two posts in one week. The world must be ending. So since I couldn’t include a picture with my last post, I thought I’d compile some silly pictures of me doing what I do best in the middle of the wilds of South Africa – which is look like an idiot. Between showering outside fully clothed because it was the only clean water available, and shoveling cheetah poo when the cats were focused on their morning meal, I certainly haven’t lacked in the ‘glamourous’ side of life out here. This post is specifically for the people convinced I don’t actually live in South Africa, and that what I really do is imagine these situations, cull images from the Internet that fit my tall tales and post it all as my own adventure, hoping no one ever notices. Well, though I prefer to keep pictures of myself to a minimum when there are much better things to look at here, I thought maybe it was time I revealed a little bit more of me to you. Which doesn’t sound right. Anyway, here is a gallery of me in various locations and doing various tasks. These are all family-friendly photos, I promise. There was also a video of me feeding goslings (no, not Ryan, sadly), but the file was too big and reducing it is currently well beyond my technological capacity and Internet bandwidth. Maybe someday you’ll get to see me doing my best Mother Goose impression. But I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Education, Elephant, Expat, Lion, Rhino, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

South African adventure follows me wherever I go!

I think my parents aren’t sure if I’m their child anymore. On Saturday night, my cousin and her husband came down to visit my mom and dad (and by extension, me). Tuckered out and ready for their hour-long drive home, they said their goodbyes, got in their car, and (we thought) drove off. Then the doorbell rang, and there they were. They had a flat.

Now, I’m not sure if any of the other females in my family have ever changed a tire (and by the way, it’s spelled ‘tyre’ in South Africa), or would even have the first clue how to do it, but I’m pretty positive they would’ve never done what I did next. There I was, wearing raggedy old jeans with more holes in them than a sieve, a t-shirt with Toilet Duck swimming across the chest and sitting barefoot on the asphalt at 11pm in the pouring rain, jacking up the car, loosening bolts and taking off the tire.

As part of the field guide training my fiance and I used to do, we had to teach the proper way to change tires. Flats and blowouts are common occurrences in the bush, and if you can’t change a tire on a Land Rover or Land Cruiser or other behemoth safari vehicle you’ll likely be driving around, you probably won’t have much luck finding a guiding job. It’s not like you can really ask your guests, who are paying a quarter of their year’s salary to stay at your lodge, to help.

Of course, in the bush you have to be able to do this with ginormous SUVs, under the watchful  eyes of half a dozen guests or more, and with the threat of large, toothy wildlife at your back. And you have to be able to use a high-lift jack, which makes these puny little jacks that come with your car look like metal toothpicks. If the high-lift jack breaks, it can kill you. Not only do you have to worry about a several-ton vehicle dropping on you like an elephant sitting on a flea, you have to steer clear of the jack itself, the likes of which have dismembered people on a good day. It’s a little more high-pressure.

Though I was indeed changing a tire for an SUV on Saturday night, the only eyes I had watching me were my family’s, and I’m sure they were in varying states of disbelief seeing me fearlessly brandishing a wrench and sublimely focused on the task at hand, completely oblivious to the dirt and grease smeared on my cheeks. My fiance would’ve been proud. After getting over their initial shock, I think my family was as well.

My cousin called the next day and said she was going to rename me Jake, the mechanic.

I wish I had a photo for you to accompany this, but alas, no one had the foresight to produce a camera, and my parents sure as hell do not know how to operate a smart phone (or even know what one is, for that matter). If I can set the stage for you to use your imagination….start by picturing a woman barefoot, in torn jeans and a sopping gray t-shirt with a graphic of Toilet Duck swimming across it, sitting Zen-like next to an SUV,  a wrench in one hand and balancing a tire with the other. Then expand your image out to encompass the bedlam surrounding her in the form of four adults in their 60s/70s bobbing and weaving in circles like confused chickens. You’ll be on the right track.

So many songs come to mind for this one, but this time around I’ll let you choose your own soundtrack.  Until next time….

Categories: Africa, American, Education, New Jersey, Training, United States | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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

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