Posts Tagged With: animals

#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

 

 

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Categories: adventure, Africa, Big 5, Conservation, Education, Elephant, environmental management, Jane Goodall, Life Lessons, nature, poaching, science, South Africa, trophy hunting, Wildlife, wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s today’s buzz from the bush.

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

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

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Jane Goodall, Life Lessons, South Africa, Wildlife | 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

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.

 

All rights reserved.

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

All things big and small – grace among the wild things

Lenny climbs out of his crib

Leonard, the little castaway

Lenny climbs to get a better view

Lenny climbs to get a better view

I read an article today that actually caused me to stop what I was doing. I focused. This doesn’t happen often. It was called “When Nature Speaks, Who Are You Hearing?” The reason I mention it is that something about what I read compelled me to start writing. For this, I apologise. There’s a good chance that no matter how hard I try to keep this post from rambling off into the stratosphere, it probably will, despite my best intentions. I blame my befuddled brain.

If you’re wondering where I’ve been, to be honest, I’ve been struggling to write lately. Too much work, too little energy, too much pressure on myself to produce something of Pulitzer calibre. Which, let’s be honest, is not likely. I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever let my fear of not saying something profound keep me from saying something anyway. But lately I’ve been feeling…I don’t know. Pensive? Apprehensive? Doubtful? Not sure what it is. Maybe it’s all of the above. But I haven’t wanted to write. Or, better yet, I haven’t felt I had anything to say that anyone might care to hear. I’ve actually been feeling lost in my thoughts. Like I’m in a full-on lexicographic labyrinth and I have no idea where I’m trying to go. I cannot find the magic words.

Since childhood, I have had a tenuous and tumultuous relationship with writing. Throughout life, I found myself using writing as an outlet for every ounce of darkness and light I had tucked inside me. And it seemed to scare people a little. Or a lot, if you were my parents. So it was something I was comfortable with, yet afraid of, if that makes any sense. It was yet another thing about me that made me different, and I was kind of tired of being different. I just wanted to be.

For as long as I can remember, I have found myself unable to grab the right word out of my brain to say exactly what it is I want to say. I don’t like public speaking for this same reason. And I always get told I speak too quickly, which is equivalent to being told you need to chill out, you need to calm down, you need to be someone you are not. I cannot help that my brain moves faster than my tongue is capable of keeping pace. But whether it’s something I can control or not, hearing those words has kept me from opening my mouth in the first place. And by extension, it’s kept me from opening my thoughts up to scrutiny. I’ve held in much I would’ve loved to have bled out over the page. Lovely image, I know. But a verbal hemorrhage is sort of what I feel needs to happen.

What does this all have to do with me being in South Africa, loving my wildlife, and writing a headline such as the one this post has? Well, perhaps all the energy I’ve kept tightly bound inside has finally broken through some poorly defended section of my brain. Lately, I’ve felt like my entire body is on fire, reverberating with these wild vibrations that are pushing against my insides and squeezing my heart and lungs ever tighter and tighter. I often can’t breathe. It’s the closest approximation I have of what it must feel like to jump out of your skin.

Sitting here, listening to clicking stream frogs sending their unanswered love calls into the cool night air, I wonder some times whether I feel so tightly wound because I simply do not belong where I am. I mean that in a physical and a metaphysical way. I love the pulse of a city, but I melt in the masses of people, industry, technology and closed spaces. I don’t belong in cities. In nature, I feel like my whole being suddenly feels a release. And yet in the bush I’m still bound. I can’t just wander off, unless I have a death wish. I must stay within the confines of a small space, still watching the world from what feels like a large, wide-open window. I’m stuck in between.

baby monitor lizard

Morning with a monitor

It’s in times like these that I relish the small things. And I really mean the small things: the lizards, the frogs, the birds, the rodents, and yes, even the spiders and snakes. I feel more connected to the animals and invertebrates that cluster around the warmth of my home than I do the behemoths of the land that everyone comes to Africa to see. By no means am I implying I don’t like the big guys. Elephants, lions, rhinos, buffalo…I love them all. But I am disconnected from them. I cannot reach out and touch them. In many ways, they are as close to me as are the stars in the sky. I can watch, I can admire. But I cannot connect.

The smaller creatures come into my world, sharing my space with me. They sit with me, they chatter away to me, they eat my soap and my mosquitos. They keep me company in what can be a very lonely, cold world. And this unlikely friendship, if you can call it that, blesses my life with a sweet, gentle grace. I feel alive. I feel part of something. I feel real.

These little things never get the attention of their much larger wildlife cousins. For some reason, so many other people I’ve met seem to feel they don’t matter. Or they aren’t good enough to care about.

Before Waldo became an indoor frog

Waldo’s wilder cousin

I think about my little baby gecko, Leonard. Most people I know would not enjoy having geckos hatch in their clothes. I love it. I think it’s amazing that, regardless of all the things humans do to keep our species separate from everything else in the animal kingdom, the animal kingdom still sticks up its middle finger to us and finds a way in. I don’t like getting bitten or stung, but I also don’t begrudge other life from sharing this spinning blue and green ball with me. I say “Good morning” to my resident jumping spider. I usher ants, crickets and scorpions out of the way. People look at me as though there’s something wrong with me for doing these things. Why?

Perhaps it is exactly this question that has kept me from writing. Why? Why do we not love all things, big and small? Why do we discriminate against the creatures we don’t find appealing (for whatever reason, whether it’s their scales, their multiple legs, their ability to eat holes through our bags of flour, etc)? Who are we to choose what’s worth saving and what isn’t? What’s important and what isn’t? Are humans simply that shallow? “Why” is a very uncomfortable question for a lot of people in this world.

Usually when I ask why, I receive anger. I receive vitriol. How dare I ask something that begs someone to think! To answer for their behaviour! To answer, period! Well, why not? People seem to have no problem demanding that of me. Why can’t I ask the questions?

So, with this in mind, I will have to find a way to keep writing. Because someone has to ask. Someone has to wonder. I hope you will wonder with me.

My morning alarm

my incessantly pecking friend

Friendly sea creature

in an octopus’ garden

Mantid vantage

World upside down

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Animal, Expat, Frog, gecko, nature, South Africa, Wildlife, writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I’m Ba-ack! And Full of New Animal Knowledge as Well as Headaches From Too Much Coffee Trying to Learn It All

Morning walk to work

Morning walk to work

Wow, many new developments since I last wrote. A giraffe gets killed and cut up in front of an audience at a zoo; another rhino sub-species goes extinct. Time is always marching on, often dragging me behind like a raggedly blanket.

You may have been wondering where I’ve been. Or maybe you haven’t. Maybe you haven’t missed me at all. That’s okay. We all have busy lives.

For those of you who actually DO want to know what I’ve been doing, this next section is for you. The rest of you can skip ahead a few paragraphs. Or you can go back to your regularly scheduled programming and skip the rest entirely.

I started a degree programme for veterinary technology. I figured if I’m working with animals, I should really know a lot more about them, from behavior to diseases to anatomy. I am also learning about how to administer anaesthesia and other drugs, which is the part I don’t really love (not that it isn’t interesting; just isn’t my thing). However, like any degree, there are classes where you blissfully race ahead in the reading (if only you could make more hours in the day) and classes where the reading is like a Sunday stroll through hell.  Or maybe I’m the only one who gets blissful about a class. Regardless, Veterinary Anesthesia and Surgical Assisting is my Sunday stroll through hell. However, Small Animal Diseases and Veterinary Medical Terminology are my happy places. Not sure what that says about me.

At this point, what I’m going to do with this degree is not really important to me. It is more for me to have the knowledge so that I can explore a few different options. One of my dreams is to run a rehabilitation center, so obviously this type of work would be extremely useful. And if I ever wanted to work in the field again, this would certainly give me a boost. Or maybe I’ll hit the zoo circuit. As is always the case with me, you never know where I’ll end up.

I’m also doing the degree for my own love of learning. I am a nerd. I admit it. According to Gallup’s Strengths Finder test, Learner is actually my top strength. If you can call that a strength. Two of my other strengths are Activator and Command. Activator apparently means I’m a catalyst for change and like getting things started (though I don’t necessarily care about finishing them) and Command is sort of self-explanatory. Command is the rarest one of the 34, in fact, especially in women. And Activator sits at #29. Which I guess means I’m a rare lil bird who commands people to action and likes to spend her days sucking up knowledge? It’s no wonder my resume reads like the route of a pinball.

In the meantime, I have been working full-time as a writer and editor, with four massive projects on my lap and a few lingering shyly in the wings, trying to take the stage whenever the big ones decide to clear out. Ten or more hours a day on that, plus four to five hours of study per night. And I try to squeeze in some sort of hike whenever I can, since my butt is starting to fuse to the furniture. On weekends I spend my time working at an animal shelter. Ask me about my social life. You can probably sum it up in one word – none. Though I do keep wine on hand for emergencies.

On top of this, my external drive (the one with all of my photos) got corrupted, so I spent a few weeks trying to salvage whatever I could. Luckily it appears many files made it through unscathed.  There were 130,000+, so you can imagine it took a while…Why didn’t I have back-ups? Easy. That WAS my back-up. I had them on my laptop as well, but I had to wipe the entire OS when my machine was having issues, so that external was the only copy I had.

I’ve also been running back and forth to the Department of Home Affairs, sorting out my visa (which did indeed get sorted out, finally – South Africa is stuck with me for at least three more years).  Home Affairs is not a quick process. In fact, it requires every ounce of patience a person can muster. There is no rhyme or reason to the system there (if there even IS a system), and you have to stand in line to stand in line to stand in line to get a piece of paper, because they won’t allow you to download forms from the inter webs. It’s a joy. But it’s done, at least for the next few years!!!

At any rate, I’m not exactly back on track, but I’m going to do my bestest to write as often as possible. Well, write as often as possible with something at least mildly interesting to say. I could write more often, but the space would be filled with a lot of dramatic pauses as I scour my brain for anything noteworthy.

That’s really it from my side today. I’m attaching some photos of the friends I made on a recent trip to Zanzibar (I admit it, I just like writing that word). It seems I make friends wherever I go these days. But none of them speak human. I’d say it makes the conversation a bit stilted and one-sided, but they have plenty to say. It just takes a little more effort for us to understand each other.

One thing I learned – fish love fresh coconut. And they have no problem trying to take off the tips of your fingers to get to it.

Oh, wait, two things – in Tanzania, they pronounce it Tan-Zah-Nee-Ah, with the emphasis on the Zah. Not Tan-Zuh-Nee-Uh, emphasis on Nee. Learn new things every day, you do.

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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 #6 – Wildlife Challenge of the Day

Here I am on my soapbox, about to pontificate and verbally gesticulate about all the reasons why I think we need to conserve, rehabilitate, and otherwise appreciate the beauty around us. But I won’t. Not really. I’ll just twist your arm gently.

My original title for this post was “Why Wildlife Makes Me Happy, and Why I Believe We Need to Cherish and Protect It.” I still think that is an apt name for the post, but what I’d prefer you to think of this post as is a challenge, a game.  t is an opportunity for you to step into my shoes for a few minutes and live like I do. You may run screaming at the thought of that, and I would understand. To some extent, at least. But what I’m proposing is something that I believe everyone should do everywhere in the world, no matter who you are. And it takes nothing but a few minutes of your time. So hear me out.

I swear if anyone took a moment to sit and watch a troop of baboons playing in a field, they could not help but to smile. Maybe not smile when the baboons jump on the car and eat the aerial or poop on your roof (which has happened to me on more than one occasion), but you still have to chuckle at their audacity, and their exploits as they toss each other around and genuinely enjoy life, even when they are getting beaten up by their more senior family members. Kind of like a human family, in fact, where the older brothers and sisters tease the younger ones incessantly and then go screaming off to whoever will listen as soon as the little one wises up and starts fighting back. In fact, baboons are uncannily like us. I’ll be honest – I kind of wish one would saunter up to me and start picking through my hair in an attempt to groom me.

I smile every time I see an animal, even the more mundane ones we take for granted, like squirrels and pigeons. Sit and watch them for a few moments before automatically judging them. Take a few minutes to observe without judging. The more you do this with wildlife, the more you will find yourself doing it with human life, and the more patience and compassion you will find you possess. It all starts with our ability to see things clearly, and not through the filters we’ve put in place through experience. The more often you allow yourself to see things without pretense, without judgment, the more often you will find yourself in a better mood. Better mood = happier people overall. I don’t know about you, but for me,  happiness is just about as good as it gets in my book.

So cherish wildlife. Appreciate it, take a moment for it, actually stop and smell those roses. No matter how busy you say you are, you always have time for it. I know. I lived and worked in New York, one of the most high-intensity places in the world, and I worked in media. If you don’t think I know a thing or two about being highly stressed, overworked, underpaid, and strung out, you are sadly mistaken. But I chose to make a change, one baby step at a time. And I always always always took a few seconds wherever I could to step back and bring the whole world into focus, stripping off the tunnel vision blinders I had been trained to use by a society so out of touch with ‘reality’ as to believe that we don’t need the outside world.  We do, and it needs us.  Just in the right balance.

So here’s my challenge for you – I challenge you to take five minutes today to sit quietly and watch a bird, a squirrel, an ant, whatever wildlife you can find. Watch, listen and don’t say a word, mentally or literally. If you do decide to try it, please, please share your experience with me.

 

All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

South African Adventure #58 – A Loo With A View

It isn’t every day that your toilet looks out on, and is open to, a game reserve.  No door, walls made of thin sticks clumped together – a lovely white porcelain throne overlooking the tranquil wilds of Africa.  Perfect for when you’re alone on the bowl and pondering life; not so perfect when there are other people around who can hear every little splash.  It’s humbling on multiple fronts, and the concept of ‘getting back to nature’ takes on new meaning. When nothing but some skinny strands of metal separate you, in your (quite literally) vulnerable position, from multiple possible death-inducing scenarios, and there is nothing to shield others from the less savory of your bodily functions, ego gets flushed down the pipes with the rest of the toilet’s contents.

The toilet I speak of (and there IS only a single toilet) sits quite literally at the edge of the fenced-in area in our campsite, about three feet (or around a meter for our metrically-obsessed) from a wire fence that doesn’t look like it could keep out a chicken, let alone lion and elephant.  I’m not even sure if it’s electrified, and am not volunteering to test it out regardless.  If the opportunity arises, I’ll just have to leave it to fate and put my survival skills to the test.  Would be kind of interesting to see how well, or not so well, I fared without a gun or other man-made defense accoutrement against true apex predators, but again, not going to make the effort unless I have no other choice.  Again, not volunteering.

I learned what I was made of on a recent sleep-out in Tembe Elephant Park, where I parked my vanity on the back of the Land Cruiser and embraced the rustic little village of pre-fab houses that made up our camp. Solid walls? Check. Bed? Check. Sheets? Nope. Curtains? Nope. Privacy? Zilch. I was glad I brought plenty of layers of clothing.  They might at the very least deter some of the vast array of insects inside the house from snuggling up in my armpits or in other areas I’d prefer not to think about.

While the accommodations were spartan, the campsite itself was full of life, courtesy of seven very happy people celebrating being able to let loose for an evening in a place where letting loose often means the possibility of losing limbs.  Letting loose here doesn’t happen often, and when it does, you cherish it.  You do what any self-respecting South African does.  You buy a whole bunch of meat and throw it on a grid set over a mass of burning coals, crack a beer or a cider, and braai.

Braaing is the SA equivalent to bbq-ing.  Sometimes lion, leopard and hyena come to the party, though, giving it a uniquely African element you simply cannot recreate anywhere else.  A pit is dug, filled with the appropriate type of wood – appropriate because the wrong wood being burned could land you in the hospital here because of the toxins it releases – and a small fire is lit.  Over a few hours, you sit around this ember-inducing circle, drinking, sharing stories, and waiting for the coals to heat up enough for the big event.

Once enough suitable coals are available, any remaining wood is pushed out of the way and a large metal grid goes over the coals, followed by multiple types of meat – steak, boerewoers (literally translates from Afrikaans to ‘farmer sausage’), burgers, whatever your fancy.  Meat comes from cows, ostrich, warthog, and just about every type of local antelope large enough to provide a decent cut.  A braai master is declared who is responsible for ensuring the meat is properly cooked.

Veggies aren’t really necessary.  Meat and alcohol are the only important elements here, but since we had a vegetarian with us, we needed at least one veggie option.  We opted for ever-popular corn (‘on the cob’ to Americans).  South Africans call corn mieles (pronounced ‘meelies’).  Why, I have no idea, and neither does any South African I’ve asked.

At any rate, corn is never a good thing for open bathrooms.  The first night wasn’t an issue, but the next morning, mieles were making waves.  Thankfully, we all ate the corn, so everyone was on the same embarrassing level.  It’s amazing how strongly you bond with people when you don’t have the luxury of shame or ego…

After a relatively early rise and a thorough clean-up of the camp, we packed up every last morsel, bit of rubbish and ounce of pride, and headed back to main camp.  We all observed each other’s need for silence on the trip back, hangover etiquette intact in reaction to the combined result of too many drinks, a bumpy drive on an open vehicle in very cold temperatures, and the need to pay attention because of the possibility of running into wildlife at any point.  Once we disembarked, we all fell into couches, chairs and beds, miserably clinging to pillows and covering our heads in an attempt to make the day-after pain subside.  By noon, we were all human again.

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

View from the loo, aka the toilet

camp toilet giving new meaning to going au naturale in the bush

 

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, Camp, Conservation, Education, Field Guide, South Africa, Training, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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