Posts Tagged With: baboon

South African Adventure #41: Life with Monkeys

baboon bosom buddies

sticking together

I’m skipping my life lessons because today I just want to tell a story. So much has been going on in my life that I need some space from thinking and theorising, and instead I want to relay a day in the life. You can extrapolate any profoundness you may find, or you can just read it for what it is. For me, it is simply a funny memory.

I spend a lot of time with monkeys, and not always by choice. They tend to go where humans are, because humans mean easy access to food. Easy pickings. I don’t blame them. I would opportunistically scour human campsites and lodges for ready-made meals rather than spend days on end picking through dirt and grass, hoping to scrounge up enough calories to get me through to the next day. When the options are between a buttery croissant and a prickly, stubborn pine cone, can you blame them for going for the croissant?

Unlike so many other species out in the bush, monkeys aren’t easily contained by fences and perimeters. They figure out ways to circumvent the electrical wiring, though on occasion one does get caught in the current. Then you hear a scream and a thud as it hits the ground, shakes off the shock, and hurls itself off into the cover of trees.

Monkeys are a challenge mainly because they are clever. Well, and they are naughty. Often both at the same time. You can’t leave anything unattended when a troop is about. Even a single vervet (standing probably less than ½ a meter high) can create a tornado’s worth of damage in minutes.

When I worked in northern Zululand, we had a standing order that you locked the kitchen and kept the windows and doors shut tight whenever you left camp. Eventually we had to up the ante and order mandatory lockdown unless we were actually PRESENT in the kitchen. This after a volunteer left the door unlocked one day and then took off on a game drive to monitor the wild dogs. While I was left behind at camp, I was in my room and nowhere near the kitchen. Less than ten minutes passed before I heard clanking and crashing.

I looked across the lawn to see puffs of white powder billowing out the kitchen door like exploding cumulous clouds. Unsure of what I would find when I got close enough to see inside the doorway, I clapped my hands and yelled as I made my approach. A wave of ghostly shapes came pouring out of the kitchen and into the sunshine. Covered in flour, the barking dervishes shook their coats and scattered in every direction of the compass, leaving a haze of white in their wake.

If I didn’t know any better, I would say the kitchen had been ransacked by a marauding group of starving plunderers. These baboons were clearly on a mission, as though searching for Blackbeard’s treasure and fully convinced it MUST be hidden in the deepest recesses of the cupboards, specifically INSIDE the bags of booty (aka the flour, pasta, coffee, etc). Spaghetti, condiments, bread, fruit (or what was left of it, since they managed to carry off a large portion of the produce; and what they didn’t take they still made sure they tasted), it was strewn about in every direction. Some was even on the ceiling, no small a feat, since the thatched roof was a good 4-5 meters high).

It took two hours to clean it all up.

I was not amused when the volunteer sauntered back into camp, like the king returning to his castle. When I approached him and told him what happened, he shrugged it off, promptly put on his headphones and walked away. For a moment, I admit I secretly hoped a leopard would pop up and carry him off. But it didn’t happen.

Despite their mischievous ways, I still love monkeys. The jury’s out about how I feel about humans on any given day, though…

 

All rights reserved. ©2016 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Categories: adventure, Africa, Baboon, monkey | 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

South African Heartbreak #1

So today was a sad day, and though it isn’t really honest to say it was the first while I’ve been in South Africa, it certainly was one that hit when I was already pretty low. After some growing levels of frustration across several other fronts, I received some bad news that closed the curtain on a very brief shining role in my story.

My little wonder baboon, Dobby, passed away. What is even sadder is the manner in which she died – a combination of bad luck, good parenting gone wrong, male testosterone and human trash. While her mother was fleeing from a male from another troop, she ran through an old barbed wire fence hidden in tall grass and left to rust away, clutching her baby as she fled. Unfortunately, the gap she ran through wasn’t large enough, and Dobby got caught on the barbs. Her mother, desperate to get away from the baboon quickly closing in on her, pulled at Dobby, practically eviscerating the little thing as she ripped her off of and through the fence. One of the researchers apparently saw the events unfold, and said it was nothing short of horrific. Anyone nearby certainly caught the aftermath – the miserable screams of one little mutilated peanut who would last only a few more hours before she finally bled to death.

I left work early to say goodbye to the little engine that could. By the time I got to her, she had been dead for a few hours now, and she was almost white (not surprising, given she probably lost most of the blood in her body to her injuries). I found her in a small grove of pine, her mother keeping a watchful eye over her baby’s corpse. After seeing Dobby hop around and play on so many occasions, it felt foreign and nauseating to watch this little half-bald body flopping around like a rag doll as her mother carried her from patch of grass to patch of grass.  If I didn’t know any better, I could’ve easily mistaken her for a child’s plaything now, a toy that long ago lost its stuffing and was now just a limp pouch of fabric. Watching this pathetic scene, I sat down next to a tree. And cried.

I know people will think I’m out of my mind for getting so emotional over Dobby. Maybe I feel so strongly about her because she felt a bit like a mirror to my experience in South Africa over the last few months – filled with challenges, all which I hoped could be surmountable with the right attitude. To see her survive and not only survive, but survive with flair and such a spunky spirit when all the odds were stacked against her, reinforced my belief that I too was going to be okay. I wasn’t drowning on the other side of the world. My little balloon of hope lost a lot of air and altitude when I got the call that she died.

Dobby’s mother will still cradle her, grooming the little stumps of hair that had finally started growing back on Dobby’s head and body, and that will now fall out again from the literal wear and tear of being dragged around. As is habit with baboons, Dobby’s mother will carry her baby’s lifeless body around for another week or so before she finally leaves the stretched-out pinkish bundle behind. And then her mother will move on.

I could write to you about infanticide among animals, about territoriality, primate behaviour, troop dynamic, circle of life stuff, and how ‘this stuff happens.’ And at some point I probably will. But for now I will instead just post a picture of my adorable little friend, in memoriam.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone that it isn’t unusual for  these types of events to happen whenever you get to know something. You forge a bond; you build a connection. Even the most fleeting of ties can cause your heart to hurt when the ties sever. Today was one of those days. RIP, little Dobby, the wonder baboon.

The little munchkin with mom

The little munchkin with mom

Categories: Africa, Animal, Baboon, Bush, Conservation, Education, Habituation, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #742 – Dobby, the Wonder Baboon

Is that a human or a monkey she has in her hands?

Is that a human or a monkey she has in her hands?

They called her ‘Bleskop’ at first. ‘Bald head’ in Afrikaans. We renamed her Dobby. I think she likes her new name.

I’ve fallen in love with a monkey. Yup, there it is. She’s a month-old Chacma baboon. And I honestly have to say I’m totally in love with her! If it weren’t completely unethical (and if her mom wasn’t such an awesome mom to her), I’d smuggle her home under my shirt and raise her myself. And I was really tempted on quite a few occasions when her hair loss got really bad. Yes, she is also a balding baby baboon.

Apparently baboons can suffer from alopecia, just like humans, and the condition has been documented before in captive baboons. However, the only other time I’ve seen any record of a bald baboon outside of captivity is a female that lives in Kariba in Zimbabwe. And in yet another example of how similar these fellow primates can be to homo sapiens, she was shunned by the rest of the troop because of her looks. Admittedly, she is one of the scariest looking things I’ve ever seen, and I imagine she could be the basis of a few nightmares if you came across her in the bush. If you’ve never seen a photo of one, and you most likely haven’t, check out this link and you’ll understand why I was more than a little concerned about Dobby’s thinning hair (note – images are a bit haunting, so don’t say I didn’t warn you): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2271173/Hairless-female-baboon-spotted-bush-rejected-troop.html

I met Dobby when she was less than a week old, and she was already going bald. In fact, she was born monk-style, with a pale pate of skin on the top of her round little head glowing like a pasty Englishman on a Brazilian beach. If her mom held her just right, she looked like a human child.

As the days went on, she lost more and more hair, going from monk to overly hairy gnome in only two weeks’ time. No one could figure out why. She had no signs of mange or infection, and she appeared totally healthy otherwise. In fact, she was a spright little pixie, aware of everything going on around her and keenly interested in what the troop was up to while she stayed cuddled in mom’s embrace.

Now, I know many people don’t like baboons. Perhaps they’d look at her and think she wouldn’t last one of these cold, wet winters, and be happy about it. One less baboon, right? I am not one of those people. I love these critters. And I love her most of all. In fact, I was keenly concerned that she would die of exposure, no matter how caring and attentive her mom was, simply because without hair to keep her warm on these VERY cold winter nights, she was fighting a serious uphill battle. And points to mom, by the way, for being so incredibly attentive to her little peanut! As moms go, Dobby’s mom is pretty high up there in the offspring-rearing category.

We contemplated knitting Dobby a beanie and a sweater, but then realised baboons being baboons, her wardrobe would get pulled off of her by the other curious members of her extended family, and we’d be back to a bald baby baboon. Plus we thought she might get injured in the ambush if some of the juvenile baboons got too excited in the rush to play with the new alien items. So that idea got trashed. We also got worried when we saw some red cuts on her head from being over-groomed, but those healed as well.

Every day I couldn’t spend with her, I asked my boyfriend how she was, and every day I had a little knot in my stomach in anticipation of him telling me she’d died in the night, my frozen little missing link. But every day he reported back that she was fine, starting to play with the other young baboons and finally beginning to venture out of mom’s immediate reach.

In the last month and a half, Dobby’s become quite the little climber, summiting mom’s head and attempting to conquer some saplings. Her motor skills are still in development, but she’s right where she should be at her age, albeit a bit less hairy. She’s been abducted a few times by other baboons in the troop, but mom’s managed to rescue her without incident. The first time she ventured off on her own, another youngster grabbed her by the arm and dragged her back to mom’s safe keeping. She even got dragged around on her head for a bit when a juvenile wanted to play with her and stole her away. A few little squeaks and honks later and mom had her girl back by her side. In fact, it appears the whole troop wants a piece of the little bald wonder. They all come up to visit her, pulling at her arms and legs, tugging on her tail, lip-smacking stories to her. It seems everyone is in love with Dobby.

I was excited to hear that a week ago she started growing very fine black hairs on her head. Slowly but surely, she seems to be sprouting some insulation on her pip. I breathed a sigh of relief, no joke. I was happy to know she would have that extra necessary layer to keep her toasty during the miserable winter rains that drench this area from May through November.

It’s funny how attached you can become to something that is not only not yours, but something completely wild. I have no stake in this animal’s future or well-being (and to be honest, without breaking the law, there’s really not much I can do for her anyway), and yet I feel compelled to know her story. I feel compelled to spend hours sitting with her and her troop, watching her grow up. I hope you guys enjoy hearing about her escapades as much as I enjoy being a part of them. I’ll be sure to share more as she grows up. Dobby, the wonder baboon.

As an aside, yes, for anyone who doesn’t believe it can get cold in Africa, it does. I’ll admit, when I came here, I was shocked at this revelation. I had this perception that the entire continent of Africa consisted of varying degrees of sauna as far as temperature goes. Of course, logically, when you’re the last country on a continent before Antarctica, it would make sense that it gets a bit chilly at some point. And it does. We had a two-day hail storm here two weeks ago (after which I was convinced Dobby had probably kicked it). The surrounding mountains already have snow. You can probably imagine it’s pretty rough on the wildlife. It’s also the reason I’m convinced baboons here are the fluffiest I’ve ever seen. Well, except Dobby. For now, at least…

Song(s) of the day – Don’t Give Up, by Peter Gabriel; Titanium, by Sia

By the way, if you have any songs you recommend, feel free to let me know. Would love to hear what comes to your mind when you read these posts.

And without further ado, the little fighter…..

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Baboon, Bush, Conservation, Education, Habituation, rehabilitation, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #741 – Monkeying around with my new friends

Eat the leaf or go see if human has cheesecake?

Baby baboon catching a ride on mom's back

Baby baboon catching a ride on mom’s back

In the Cape of good old South Africa, people have a love-hate relationship with the baboons.  Actually, let’s revise that.  Some people love them; some hate them.  You don’t seem to get much in between.  I hear from one person that every baboon deserves to be shot (Deserves?  Really?).  Then I hear from another how we don’t belong in the baboons’ home territories, and because we’ve infringed upon their territory, we must accept them as part of the system we’ve injected ourselves into.  I fall into neither category.  I love the baboons, but that doesn’t mean I think they own the world, even if they were ‘here first’. And were they actually here first?

Here’s the thing.  We are all one species of animal or another.  None of us and all of us ‘belong’ in places.  The bigger issue is how we can find a way to live harmoniously.  Can we?  I’m starting to think the answer to that is no.  But it doesn’t mean I don’t harbour hope.

I spend a lot of time these days with the baboons in the Cape Peninsula.  For anyone who doesn’t know what that means (and that’s probably a lot of people, since I have to explain to a lot of people that South Africa is actually a country and not a region of the African continent, so I imagine even fewer people know what the Cape Peninsula is), the Cape Peninsula is essentially the end of the world as far as the African continent goes.  Though it is wrongly assumed to be where the two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian, meet, it is simply a very large peninsula at the base of Africa, and also happens to be the location of the second largest city in South Africa.  That would be Cape Town.

First off, for anyone who thinks wildlife roams the streets in South Africa, this is actually only really true in Cape Town, where the baboons do indeed have a sort of free reign (they are a protected species in this particular area).  There are baboon monitors whose job it is to keep these baboon populations out of the urban areas as much as possible, but these animals are smart and speedy, so really, if there is a way to get through any barrier set up for them, they will find it.  And they do, often.  Which then finds them sitting on restaurant dustbins, munching on croissants and half-eaten pizzas.  Or even better, they raid fruit trees that someone decided were a FANTASTIC idea to plant in their backyard, even though these same people KNOW they live in a baboon area. And then they get angry at the baboons.  Stupid?  That’s for you to decide.  I have my own thoughts about the matter, which pretty much side on the “hmm, they are idiots and hypocrites” end of the judgmental thought spectrum.  And yes, I have no problem admitting I’m judgmental about this stuff.

So the baboons in Cape Town (and in many parts of Africa) are Chacma baboons.  While they are all the same species in South Africa, depending on where you ARE in the country, they look different.  The Cape baboons are fluffy.  REALLY fluffy.  And they are not afraid of humans in the slightest.  In fact, they think nothing of walking up to a vehicle, grabbing the door handle, opening said door handle, and getting in a car with a complete stranger (who usually at this point has evacuated out the other side of the car).  I’ve seen a few knock people down to get at the food in their hands, or the backpack on their back.  It isn’t supposed to be funny, but it is.  I’ve had a baboon jump on me.  Once on my back in an effort to grab a backpack off my back while I was hiking; once when I was holding a packet of crisps (also known as potato chips for those non-British English speakers).  In fact, it was the same baboon.  I had to literally fling him off me.  And I might go down in history as the only person who was jumped by a baboon who didn’t give up the chips.  I love my chips.  Especially the Simba Creamy Cheddar Chips.  I was not letting anyone, not even a baboon with four-inch canines, separate me from my snacky snacks.

Suffice it to say, these baboons have no fear of humans.  There are several theories for this.  One stems from the fact that baboons, like humans, are a very social species.  These animals eat, sleep and breed in troops, or big groups.  In fact, pretty much the only time you see a baboon on its own is if it has gone on a raid to tackle a local dustbin, or it is trying to disperse to try its luck with another group. Or, in rare occasions, if it’s been kicked out of the troop (or more specifically, is so low on the totem pole in the troop that it thinks it’s better off on its own).

Baboons live in a very strict social hierarchy, so a low-ranking male will eventually get tired of getting the crap beat out of him and often will just take off for greener pastures elsewhere so he can try his luck with the baboon ladies from another neck of the woods.  Unfortunately, when these animals live in an urban environment, their paths to social networking get cut off.  In fact, for a baboon in Cape Town, social networking doesn’t really exist outside its small (and getting smaller every year) territory. They have nowhere else to go anymore.

Because of their close proximity to humans (genetically as well as spatially on a map), it would appear they’ve essentially started to think of humans as taller, less hairy extensions of their own species.  And since they steal from other baboons as part of their social life, they steal from humans, who’ve they’ve assimilated into their tribe, as well.

Another theory, and a very simple one as well, is that we just have more high-calorie food.  Why bother puttering around a mountainside all day, scrounging for enough calories to make it through the day, and then having to do it all again the next day, and the next, and the next?  Why not just steal a Snickers for the same amount of calories (and I’m guessing it might taste better)?  If I were a baboon, I would go for the Snickers and spend all that new free time writing a novel.  Because honestly, I wouldn’t put it past one of them doing that one day.

I can sit and watch the baboons for hours. In fact, I prefer watching baboons to watching people.  They are, in my mind, infinitely more interesting and a hell of a lot less stress-inducing than most of the people I’ve met.  I’ve had one hand me a weed once.  And a few have come sit down next to me on multiple occasions, just checking me out, smacking their lips in an attempt to chat me up, and even drawing pictures in the sand for me.  I could swear they show the same emotions and thought-processes we show, and I’m really not trying to anthropomorphize them.  You can see them thinking, working things out.  You watch them as they pick at their fingernails and clean out the dirt.  You can see how, when in a rather clumsy moment they fall out of a tree, they look around in almost embarrassment to see if anyone saw their failed attempt at landing gracefully.  They play with crickets.  Seriously play with them.  As I said, I can sit and watch them for hours.  And I have.

I’m including a few photos of my little furry friends.  For the next few posts, I’ll probably focus quite a bit on them, as I am lucky enough to know and spend time with the baboon monitors who manage them in the Cape Peninsula.  Getting this close and personal with an animal so like us, and yet so different, is a privilege and a curse.  I think it’s a good story for people to know, as it speaks volumes about the state of conservation, the state of people, and an overall lack of understanding of how important wildlife is to our own survival.  I hope you enjoy these guys as much as I do!

Today’s song choice – Simply because of all the baboon action that goes on in a typical troop, I had to go with ‘SexyBack’.  Sorry, Justin.

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

This is my pine cone...

This is my pine cone…

Snuggling with a sibling

Snuggling with a sibling

Dobby, the bald baby baboon

Dobby, the bald baby baboon

Categories: Africa, Baboon, Bush, Conservation, Education, Habituation, rehabilitation, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Fighter” – Gym Class Heroes

“Beautiful Day” – U2

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

“Good Life” – OneRepublic

and because it just seems necessary

“Imagine” – John Lennon

 

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

South African Adventure #2 – The Topic of Poo

So the question is, if a bear poops in the woods and there’s no one to step in it, does he really poop?  Or how do you know if it was a bear?  While you chew on that philosophical piece of literary magic, we will move on to discuss the validity and necessity of knowing how to identify animal poo.  This is a very useful skill to possess in the bush, especially when you come across still-steaming scat from a predator and you’re a kilometer from the closest car, building with solid walls, or even large tree.  You need to know what animal is nearby so you can accurately assess your situation.  If it’s a porcupine who made the tracks, you’re probably not going to run into a problem.  If it’s a lion, you might. You might run into several problems, in fact.

You also learn that predator poo is called scat.  Herbivore poo is called dung.  BUT omnivore poo is simply called, well, poo.  I don’t know why.  And I promise you, I’ve actually asked.

Spoor, which is another term you learn, has NOTHING to do with poo, though to me it sounds like it should.  Spoor is animal footprints or tracks.  There are trackers here who can read spoor like the Sunday paper and can tell you not only which animal walked by the spot in which you are standing, he can tell you when the animal walked by, whether it was actually walking, strolling, galloping, or bolting, and what the weather was like on that day at that particular moment.  I’ve honestly questioned some of them simply because I could not see where they were getting their information from when all I could see was the following: two tiny indentations, a small skid mark, and what looked like a dragging string that intermittently disappeared.  These trackers looked at that same abstract combination and said, ‘monitor lizard, female, moving east towards the river to get out of the midday sun’.  What???

I admit, I’ve gotten better, and now I can even spot the spoor, scat or dung AND correctly identify all of it from a car.  I don’t even have to be standing on top of it (and ideally am not standing on top of it anyway) to do so.  I can tell you that cat spoor (aside from cheetah) does not have the tiny indentations from claws because cats draw their claws in when they move about.  Cheetahs are the feline exception to this – they have semi-retractable claws because their preferred method of hunting depends on their running, and they need those claws for traction at top speeds.  Cats also have three lobe marks at the back of the heel pad – two bigger lobes on the outsides and one smaller middle lobe.  Don’t know why.  Sorry.

Members of the dog family have two lobes at the back of the heel pad AND claw marks.  Hyena also have the same set-up, adding to the confusion as to which animal species they fit into.  However, hyena are NOT a dog OR a cat – they are a species all their own.  And they are probably one of the coolest and most interesting animals out here.

Elephant spoor looks a bit like someone bounced a really large ball on the ground.   Each print of a full-grown adult is about twice the length of an adult human male’s, and about three times as wide.  And though the tracks do differ slightly according to species, both black and white rhino spoor looks like something from the Rorschach ink blot test.

Antelope spoor is dainty and pointed, like an arrow.  Level of pointiness is based on the species.  Zebra and giraffe spoor looks like varying degree of horse hoof.  Warthog spoor looks like the ‘track’ of a woman’s stiletto heel.  Interestingly, that’s also what they resemble when walking – a woman wearing stilettos.

Baboon and monkey spoor, not surprisingly, looks eerily similar to human hands and feet.  Otters, oddly enough, does a bit as well.  Then you get porcupine, polecat, mongoose, honey badger, monitor, and all other manner of small mammal and reptile.  Their spoor all has its own identifying features.  Porcupine in particular is interesting because it looks like a puzzle of varying- shaped splotches.

And then you have snakes.  Those tracks are VERY helpful to know.  Some resemble an ‘S’, which is the kind of a track you would probably assume a serpentine creature would create.  However, some snakes, such as pythons, move more like a caterpillar, picking their bodies up and sort of throwing themselves forward a bit at a time.  It’s called rectilinear movement.

Spoor I have a handle on.  Scat and dung, not so much.  The good thing is, I can at least tell you if it’s a predator’s poo based on whether there are hairs in the droppings, though I still can’t necessarily tell you WHICH predator left the present.  All of it stinks, regardless.  There’s nothing quite like the smell of half-digested meat, especially when some predators will happily feed on a decomposing carcass.  Of course, when you’re a lion and your kill rate can be less than 50%, plus your prey runs away from you, you can’t afford to be particularly choosy about what you’ll eat.

As for dung, I can tell if it’s an elephant (size is an easy indicator here – think small piles of oversized, brown softballs), or which type of rhino dung it is based on what the dung consists of.  Black rhinos are browsers with a prehensile upper lip.  They break off bits of their favorite munchies by tearing pieces off the branches, creating sharp, 45-degree angular spears, and since they don’t digest particularly well, their dung has plenty of these little daggers in it.  White rhinos are grazers and eat primarily grass, so their dung is fairly uniform and stringy.  Buffalo leave the equivalent of cow patties, and the smell is just as potent.

With antelope, I’m a lost cause.  Giraffe dung is about the same size as an animal half its size.  Duiker, springbok, nyala, impala – their dung is all almost the same size and shape, which is interesting since the animals themselves range in size significantly.

So many amazing ways to ‘read’ the local newspaper of who’s been in and about camp each day.  I will get it all figured out some day.  For now, the fact that I can distinguish between potentially dangerous game and Bambi is enough.  I’ll get there.

I’ve included some spoor/actual animal feet to help you understand a bit about this topic.  Unfortunately, through poor labeling, I can’t seem to find all the tracks I took pictures of over the months I’ve been in the bush.  So I hope you don’t mind that the picture pickings are slim.  I elected to NOT include scat/dung, just because.

On a completely unrelated note, because I’m not really sure if the term ‘spoor’ is technically a plural or singular, I’m not quite sure which tense should be used in many of these sentences.  Please bear with me on this editorial conundrum.  Sadly, I have actually given this a lot of thought.  You’d think I had nothing better to do….

Song of the day: “I Want to Be Like You” from Disney’s The Jungle Book

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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