Practicing Compassion, Even When You Want to Slap Someone Silly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

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

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


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

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

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

a fly on the wall

a fly on the wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

The Many Faces of Insomnia, in South Africa and Elsewhere

eye shine, and not much else

eye shine, and not much else

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                          Because: 

The interrelatedness of it all

The interrelatedness of it all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first one is a cacophony of frogs:

This next one features a hyena calling for her mom:

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

And a male lion calling:

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

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

 

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

Rhinos – when my heart is a lonely hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

Hyena ears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

African Wildlife Foundation

Hyaenidae

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

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

Run away, run away!

Wildebeest fleeing waterhole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monkey hug

baby clings to mom in the face of potential danger

50 ways to help

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

David Suzuki Foundation – What you can do

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

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa | Leave a comment

Should We Promote Conservation and Environmentalism as ‘Sexy’? A look at some ad campaigns geared towards saving the planet, one way or another

Leave only footprints

a long walk up a high mountain of flaming red sand

I’m not sure how I feel about the Endangered Wildlife Trust‘s (EWT) latest campaign, “destroy your environment, destroy yourself.” While I certainly believe in the premise, I’m not sure how, exactly, the visual they’ve chosen to use as their canvas (a model’s naked body) adequately reflects their core message. I’m including a link to the campaign here and here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQwc8bdwXDk) if you haven’t seen it and would like to check it out.

Incidentally, I’m also linking to the pdf EWT put out in support of its campaign. Again, I agree with the premise and I applaud them for putting SOMETHING out, but I’m not sure about the execution of the message…What do you think?

My main beef is that they use a naked woman for their canvas. Why is this appropriate? To me, it’s a bit like enviro-porn. And no, I don’t flinch in the face of naked bodies. I just think in this case it comes across as sexist and inappropriate. Why not use a baby to project the images on, since our growth as humans is dependent and inextricably linked to the condition and health of the planet? I worked in advertising; I know that ‘sex sells’. However, is ‘sex’ going to convince people that being environmentally friendly/aware and living sustainably are important practices we should all follow? Considering overpopulation is a major issue that negatively contributes to environmental issues, I think we need a little LESS sex, thank you very much! Or at least less unprotected sex… Kind of a misstep on their part, in my opinion.

A situation where I think they did get the message correct is the campaign from UNODC, “Wildlife Crime: Don’t Be a Part of It.” The people behind this seem to have balanced the right amount of understanding and education with honesty and realism. However, I take umbrage with the fact that they only talk about ‘protected’ wildlife. There are plenty of species that aren’t considered ‘protected’ and yet are suffering huge losses as a result of wildlife crime. Again, an interesting take, though. And good on them for putting something out there to highlight and educate people about the problem.

I also really like the World Wildlife Fund efforts in terms of getting the message across clearly and without too much sensationalism. And they are on point. They have an entire channel dedicated to their series “Stop Wildlife Crime.” Each installment features a different animal at risk (though it does only focus on the known, ‘sexy’ ones, like tigers, rhinos and elephants). Any effort to help curb and hopefully eradicate the trade is good in my book, though. Here’s the first episode, which gives you some background on the series as a whole: http://youtu.be/Ss58fP7qxEA

But my favourite so far comes from Conservation International called “Nature is Speaking”. Narrated by celebrities, the mini films highlight the fact that nature doesn’t need people. People need nature. Though I feel that some of the clips are more powerful than others, in combination I think they create a crucial statement, and it is this: the world will continue, with or without us. It was here before the dawn of homo sapiens; it will be here long after they are gone. The planet will survive, barring something like a run-in with a meteor. In what state it survives, however, is our responsibility. And whether we and the other spectacular species that currently exist survive with it is ALSO our responsibility. As far as I know (and please, correct me if I’m wrong), no other species on the planet has caused the extinction of another (without our hand and help in the matter – see cane toads in Australia, for example). That’s blood on our hands, and we can’t blame anyone or anything other than the good ol’ human race. Shame, we are such beautiful cogent creatures with the capacity for such good, and yet we so often err on the side of selfish, stupid and vicious actions. Anyway…

Many people I speak to seem to think this is solely the problem of certain areas, particularly in Africa, in the countries touched by the mighty Amazon, and in the countries of southeast Asia. It isn’t. It is a problem for everyone. It matters to everyone because this isn’t a partisan issue. It isn’t a cultural issue. It isn’t a religious issue. It is a humanity issue. And last I checked, if you are human, you belong to that latter grouping. And you should care, not because I’m telling you you should, but because as a being on this planet, you are just as responsible for its stewardship as the next person. So feel free to pass this on to the next person too. Tis the season for giving, after all.

You may think I’m biased about environmentalism (which, by the by, encapsulates conservation and preservation of wildlife and natural places and spaces). Maybe I am. But this is your planet too. Shouldn’t you also be biased? Shouldn’t you also care about the health of the world you live in and on, that your children live in and on, and that future generations of yours will also live in and on? And if you don’t, what DO you care about? And how is that more important than taking care of your ‘home’? Would love to hear what you think. Please drop a comment with your thoughts.

illegal wildlife trade

from wikimedia

Categories: Africa | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #23 – Wildlife in the Wiring

 

Excuse me, I smell a rat

nyala officer checking the bonnet

One of the challenges of living in the bush is keeping wildlife out of your electrical equipment. This includes your car. Because you work for long stints at a time in one place, you can often go for weeks without having to move your car. Given that real estate for wildlife is at an ever-higher premium these days, animals use any and all space they can find to build a home. That can sometimes mean under your car’s hood (or bonnet, as we say in SA). One of the guides I know had a family of rats take up residency within the wires of his Golf Polo, and this unlucky couple got hijacked by a hitchhiking python in Kruger.

This isn’t unique to South Africa, or to the bush for that matter. Nope, this happens all over the world. In Australia, people find massive king brown snakes wrapped around their car’s internal organs like giant, venomous rubber bands. The snakes, like all creatures, are attracted to warmth, and the car’s engine gives off lots of it. They crawl up underneath the carriage and make themselves at home. And, like a giant, scaly tapeworm in the car’s guts, they aren’t easy to get out.

However, with any wildlife that decides your personal mode of transportation should double as their penthouse, situational awareness is paramount. Starting your engine and frying a 3-meter snake should be mutually exclusive, but if you aren’t careful, that stuff happens. You end up frying the snake TO the engine and blowing out the engine in the meantime. So, with that in mind, it’s always a good idea to move your car periodically, even if it’s only to drive twenty meters, turn around and come back.

Also, checking under the car is very important. Most wildlife ensures its survival by staying hidden, and what better place to hide than in dark, hard-to-reach places like under your car? In Simon’s Town, a suburb of Cape Town, there are even signs warning people to look under their vehicles before they drive away, lest they run over a penguin. No joke. I’ll see if I can rustle up a photo of one of the signs.

Leaving windows even slightly ajar is a definite no-no. Myriad little creatures – spiders, scorpions, geckos, etc – can crawl up 90-degree angles and wiggle their way into even a minuscule crack. When it’s winter and the sun-warmed inside of your car is accessible, they will beeline for it, I promise you. And they don’t appreciate it when you, not realising you have company in your car, sit on them.

Computers are no less vulnerable. I have to keep mine sealed up in bag, lest a colony of ants march their way into my motherboard. And considering I’ve inadvertently transported more than a few refugees out of the reserves (a toad in a shoe, several geckos (a few of which even hatched in my bag), a mouse snuggling in a shirt, among other things), I’d go as far as to say that you should just keep everything closed in the bush. Zip up the bags, roll up the windows, seal off the computers. Even my bed is on lock-down – I have a giant mosquito net that hangs from the ceiling, covering every inch of my sleep space and tucked underneath the edges of the mattress to form an impenetrable seal for even the most clever of creatures. Thus far, I have remained unscathed in my sleep. No unwelcome malaria-carrying mozzies buzzing me in my sleep, no bats cuddling up next to me, no snakes under my pillow.

animals_hitching_rides2

Moral of the story? If you value things like your car, you computer, your clothes or your immune system, create a bubble around those things. And remember, as soon as you leave that bubble, you are likely to get ambushed. Which means be on alert at all times – in the bush, you are always at risk of a stowaway escaping to the bright lights of the big cities.

 

Penguins Passing

Please be advised – stylish birds about

 

I haven’t been doing these in a while, so I thought it was time to bring it back. Today’s song of the day is an oldie but a goodie – Come Go With Me, by the Dell Vikings

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

 

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South African Reality Check – And This One Goes Out to the Tourism Industry on the Whole

Wasting precious resourcesOkay, I’m not going to even bother editing. I’m just going to write this out. Because I’m pretty positive if I read what I write, I’ll go back through everything to edit it down and make it nice and neat and it will lose all semblance of the vitriol this post deserves. I’m not even going to apologise for calling these places out. It’s appalling what they do, and everyone should be aware of what’s really going on  in this industry.

Without further ado –

Let me tell you a little secret that many of the lodges in the tourism industry of South Africa don’t want you to know. Slave labour is alive and well, and it’s serving you your breakfast at that fancy schmancy lodge you’re paying a grand a night per person to stay at. Want to know what your host is getting paid? Or your guide? Or your room attendant?

Let me give you a little insider breakdown, so you know what actually happens in the hospitality industry here in South Africa. Guides get paid a paltry few grand a month (in Rands, don’t forget). And when I say a few grand, I mean 3-4k on the higher end AT MOST 5-STAR lodges!!! They rely on tips, which the lodge doesn’t tell the guests about, probably because they don’t want the guests to feel obliged (they have, after all, just shelled out two month’s salary to stay at said swanky lodge), and they also don’t want people asking why gratuities – which, by definition, aren’t required – are so necessary for their staff. I don’t know. Maybe because they don’t want people to know that all the money guests pay goes to the owners of the lodge so they can drive their top-of-the-line Land Cruisers and fly their private helicopters and send their children to the top boarding schools in the world? Just a guess.

Staff get paid pittance, and the lodges use the excuse that they ‘provide for housing and food’ while staff is working. The important part of that sentence is ‘while staff is working’, and I’ve heard every excuse in the book as to why they suddenly CAN’T provide decent food and housing, or food and housing at all. The housing is usually appalling (I’ve seen AND lived in it first-hand; I know). You live in a room, sometimes with its own bathroom, sometimes not, sometimes with a roommate, sometimes not. You have no way of keeping food, so you have to rely on the lodge to provide it. And they don’t. You often miss meals because you are too busy working to get food “at the required meal time”, and you end up going to bed hungry. At breakfast you get cereal and milk. Ask for anything else and you are out of line. They let you fend for yourself. God help you if the kitchen staff doesn’t like you…

The last lodge I worked at paid me R5k a month, and I was supposed to share in the communal tips the lodge received. The owners, however, had not paid out tips since April of that year (and I started working there in August). I left in October, and tips still hadn’t been paid out to staff. The owners took the money and pocketed it themselves.

At this particular lodge (which is supposed to be 5-star, by the way), we had to buy our own food, pay for our own electricity, pay for our own internet access, and they even tried to force us to pay for tea, coffee and water. I’m not joking. This was a lodge that often didn’t have running water, period. Which meant there were days when I had nothing to drink unless I bought it from the lodge. And more often than not, I had no water to shower with. I worked with cheetah, cleaning out cat enclosures and quite literally shoveling shit. But after a long, sweating day, I often could not even so much as wash my hands. And my housing at least had a private bathroom, even though it usually didn’t function. More than half the staff didn’t have that ‘luxury’.

For the first week, I lived in a room. I had no way to cook or feed myself. And I was given problems by the owners, who resented that the kitchen had to feed me until I could be provided with proper housing. And my place was a palace compared to the staff quarters for the non-white staff. And yes, it was certainly split white/non-white. The majority of the staff was not even South African (me included), and they lived in two other areas. Their rooms didn’t have kitchens or even bathrooms. They had communal bathrooms. Down the road. Again, this is not abnormal. It’s apparently acceptable to treat the people who keep your lodge running like this.

I should also point out that they ‘encourage’ you to leave on your time off (which is another issue altogether, but we’ll get to that later), which politely means you HAVE to leave the premises and find somewhere to stay for two weeks. Hopefully you have your own means of transportation. Otherwise, you have to find a way to get to a bus and then go…where? Pay rent for an apartment that you aren’t in for 6 weeks at a time? Go stay with mom and dad or some other family member, wherever they may be? And all that money you get paid is immediately down the toilet just getting you where you need to go, because you have NO HOME.

Now let’s chat about ‘time off’, shall we? You work in cycles in the tourism industry. Most places I know of do six weeks on, two weeks off. That’s 6 weeks straight, 7 days a week, and usually 14- to 16-hour days (in some cases longer). Then you get your two weeks off, of which two of those days are spent getting wherever it is that you call home. So really, you get twelve days off. Now do the math. There are 52 weeks in a year, which means 52 weekends, right? That’s 104 days you would normally have off in any other industry, just for weekends – not including holidays, vacation days, etc. Do the math for a lodge cycle. You get 84 days off. That’s IT! That’s 20 days LESS than there are weekend days in the year. AND you don’t get paid extra for working on a holiday, and you don’t get holidays off. And some lodges don’t give you any extra days for actual leave, which is not only wrong, IT’S ILLEGAL! And yet it continues to happen. And even better? I’ve worked in a place that tried to take away people’s leave days. They would overbook and understaff and then expect employees to give up their leave time, WITH NO COMPENSATION.

Here’s another fun tidbit. My fiancé, who now works at one of these shitshows, is not allowed to have me visit him unless I use one of his bed nights. Bed nights are nights given to staff so that they can have guests come stay at the lodge. Staff get one per month or more. It might seem like a cool perk except THEY GET ONE A MONTH. AND if a room at the lodge isn’t available, I get to shack up with my fiancé and his roommate in their little tiny hovel AND THEY STILL TAKE HIS BED NIGHTS AWAY FROM HIM! So, essentially, unless my fiancé comes to see me, I don’t see him for months at a time.

People ask me why I don’t get a job where he and I can work together. Been there, done that. After working in that industry and seeing what I’ve seen, I’ve had enough of it. I won’t go back. And he doesn’t get paid enough to come visit me. Which means I spend most of my year not seeing my fiancé. Great situation, isn’t it?

When staff have tried to form unions to ensure they get paid a decent wage and are treated better, they’ve been threatened by lodges (who have all the money, so it’s a tough battle to win). They’ve been fired. They’ve been bad-mouthed by the lodge (which is also illegal, by the way) and banned from working in the industry. All kinds of bad things came of people asking to treated decently.

I write this not because I’m lazy, greedy and don’t want to work, and the people who work in this industry are also not lazy, greedy or don’t want to work. I write this because this industry is absolutely disgusting and people in it are afraid to speak up. Government certainly isn’t doing anything about it. There is no legislation that makes it mandatory for these lodges to provide their staff with higher wages, no legislation that denies them the ability to use their staff like slave labour, no legislation that protects these people and requires that they have decent housing, food and pay. And somehow the lodges manage to get out of the legal requirement that employees work a maximum number of days per year, which is being grossly overstepped in this industry.

I get a lot of people saying to me, “Well, you know. That’s the industry. If you don’t like it, get out.” Really? So, you think the thing to do is to run away and let it continue happening? Because by saying that, you are perpetuating it. You are saying it’s okay; just don’t make it your problem, right? No, it’s not okay.

Lodges spring up all the time. Lodges that purport to be any number of stars, though they more often than not pose as five-star, yet don’t offer anywhere near a five-star experience. They sure charge for it, though.

These lodges do not deserve to be in business. They are using up valuable resources and space and not providing anything in return, except money to line their own pockets. They often employ people who are not South African (me, case in point), so they aren’t contributing to the South African community. They spend more money on marketing than on paying their staff and keeping up their places.

People need to know what goes on in this industry, and something needs to be done. I’m tired of seeing friends of mine work their tails off, hoping to scrape by on tips, and then having guests not tip them because they don’t know any better. And the fact of the matter is, the guests shouldn’t HAVE to tip these guys for them to be able to make a living. In some cultures, tips are considered rude. How dare these lodges lay the onus on the guests, who are already doing their part by paying to stay there!

I’m not saying people shouldn’t tip. But I am saying that the lodges are making out like bandits, not paying their staff enough, and taking no responsibility for the fact that they take total advantage of their staff. While I know I am only one person, and I’m also aware that there probably aren’t a whole lot of people reading this, I do hope those who do read it will share it. This needs to go viral in a big way. This practice needs to stop. And I need you guys to help me. Please consider passing this along.

Thanks for listening to me vent.

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa | Leave a comment

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