Posts Tagged With: Conservation

 
 

Lemur Love – Madagascar’s Unique Monkey-types

In honour of #WorldLemurDay, I decided to skip posts about anything in the area where I actually live and instead focus on a trip I took to Madagascar in January.

Madagascar is as cool as its name suggests. It is wild, it is rugged, it is magical, it is bizarre. A true land of extremes, it features a slew of inhabitants that seem to exist in a vacuum, and, in many ways, really do. Most of the wildlife on the island is endemic, meaning it occurs nowhere else in the world. And, as is the case in so many places worldwide, those species are disappearing. Quickly.

Aside from a short takeover stint from France, which decided to colonize the country in the 1900s, the Malagasy, their ways, traditions, and language have remained firmly footed and constant throughout the country and the centuries. And both the Western and the Malagasy cultures have often been at odds with the local wildlife.

Home to both the world’s largest and smallest chameleons, the looks-like-a-mongoose-on-steroids carnivorous fossa, and the ONLY place lemurs occur naturally, Madagascar is a stunning land of contrasts, rife with conflict and challenges. In fact, it feels like a Hollywood cliche – a kind of biological lost world torn between the technological advances foisted upon it by Westerners and the ancient traditions that bind the Malagasy people to their past.

Like so many African countries, Madagascar suffers from excruciating poverty, resource gouging by outside interests, and a complicated history stemming from colonial rule and subjugation. Cultural beliefs also often act as a hindrance to the conservation of the local wildlife. Fady is one such example. Fady are cultural taboos and prohibitions, and they wreak havoc on species like the island’s quirky aye-ayes.

Aye-ayes are a type of lemur that looks sort of like what you might get if you crossed Yoda’s hair with the face of a perpetually surprised and alopecia-addled mongoose with Mickey Mouse ears. So they are not only one of the less adorable creatures of the animal kingdom (unless you are a fan of the fugly, as I am), they are also believed to be an omen of death. Which doesn’t win you a lot of friends. The story goes that if one points its bony little finger in your direction, you are as good as gone. Not surprisingly, the aye-aye is not a fan favourite for the locals. In fact, one might say that these poor creatures are persecuted. Luckily, they are nocturnal, making their dalliances with humans less frequent. Had they been diurnal or crepuscular, they would’ve likely gone extinct long ago.

Though I wish I had, I did not get to see an aye-aye while I was visiting Madagascar, but I did see quite a few other lemur species, including a pair of rough-necked lemurs who lived in the trees above a lodge I stayed in on the tiny island of Ile aux Nattes. These particular lemurs made a low, almost demonic barking sound as they bounce about from tree to tree, feasting on mangos and dropped both their scraps and their poop on whatever is below them. One of them was very inquisitive and friendly, climbing down from the tree tops for a scratch behind the ears from a willing human now and again. This particular lemur also took a shine to my toothpaste, which I had to wrestle from her surprisingly tight grip more than once during my stay. Crest, just so you know, your ProHealth toothpaste has at least one lemur fan.

In contrast to the ruff-necked lemurs’ somewhat unnerving bark, the indri (also the world’s largest lemur) sing a hauntingly ethereal song as they cruise about the forests of Andasibe. With a musical symphony that begins at daybreak, their calls reverberate throughout the trees, pinging from one section of the forest to another as the primates get their day going and start their search for food. Their calls remind me a little of whalesong, with that almost whimsical sine curve of sliding arpeggios swinging high and dropping low. Indris also have impossibly long eyelashes, which I’m sure has nothing to do with their singing, but it’s just an observation. And while they are no less inquisitive than the ruff-necked lemurs I met, they don’t come right up to you looking for an ear scratch. Which is disappointing to someone like me, who would probably touch every animal I could if I didn’t think I might potentially lose a hand (or at least some fingers) in the process. I was that child in the store who could not help herself from picking up EVERYTHING. It’s shocking I still have all my limbs.

Anyway, in celebration of these beautiful animals, I thought I’d share a few pics of some of the locals I had the privilege of meeting on my whirlwind jaunt through this mystical island. Enjoy! And please, if you’re interested in visiting this amazing country, message me. I’m happy to offer suggestions and advice. It’s an epic adventure worth the challenges and the price tag. And you’d be doing some good for conservation AND humanity because the local communities (human and wildlife alike) could seriously use the tourist dollars.

Advertisements
Categories: adventure, Africa, Animal, Conservation, Madagascar, nature, 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

South African Adventure #64 – King of the Jungle (but Maybe Not for Much Longer) and Another Jane Goodall Lesson (Treasure This Earth)

IMG_3348

Panthera leo. The king of the jungle. The lion.

The lion is considered by many to be the quintessential animal of Africa, a creature both elegant and dignified, gracing much of the iconography of the continent. To lose the lion is, in many ways, to lose the face of a continent.

Not very long ago, lion populations topped 200,000. Now there are reports that state their numbers are well below 30,000. Sure, 30,000 seems like a big number, right? Now think of this. There are over 7,000,000,000 people in the world. 7,000,000,000. Suddenly 30,000 doesn’t look like such a big number anymore.

Of course, lions don’t only live in Africa. There are lions in Asia as well. But not many. The Asian populations are doing even worse than their African cousins. And while everyone shouts about rhinos and elephants (and by all means, please keep shouting – those animals need as much help as they can get!), the lion is quietly disappearing right under our noses. As with so many other issues with our planet, we are not living up to one of Jane’s life lessons: we are not treasuring our earth. We are failing it and ourselves.

Last month’s debacle over the illegal hunting of #Cecil in #Zimbabwe brought the plight of the lion (and the controversial topic of #trophyhunting) to the forefront. And I’m glad it did, not just because I’m not a fan of trophy hunting, but because I think it’s about time people start talking about what’s going on in Africa, and how it isn’t just Africans but also the rest of the world affecting this amazing continent. It’s about time we realise that as a global community we are not treasuring our earth. And we are collectively letting it down.

I grew up in the US, a child of consumerism and the constant flow of opportunity, excess and – I hate to admit it – ignorance. I was pretty clueless about the ways of the world outside the boundaries of my fine country. Well, let’s be honest, I was pretty clueless about what went on WITHIN my birth country’s boundaries too. But I was always an avid reader, and I did my best to fill my brain with information from National Geographic, newspapers and whatever else I could get my hands on. I did my best to learn, to inform, to debate, to question and to gather nuggets faster than a starving chipmunk in a drought. Then the internet arrived and it was like the heavens opened up and dropped Christmas on me 24-7.

So.Much.Information!!!!

But here’s the rub. The more I knew, the more I wanted to learn. And when it came to conservation, I learned quickly that there was no easy answer when it came to preserving our wildlife and wild places. For whatever reason, we drew a line in the sand: humans on one side, all other species on the other. Hunting was a huge player in that divide.

Sadly (and perhaps ironically), though hunting was a main reason for the decline in many species of wildlife, it was also partly what brought these same species back. In some cases, it was because of hunters that land was set aside for conservation, so they could replenish stocks of animals and then kill them again – I know, odd logic, if you can call it logic at all, but that happened, nonetheless. As a result, conservation and trophy hunting became bedfellows, no matter how strange, contradictory and convoluted it may seem.

People spend a lot of money to hunt wildlife. I don’t agree with it, and to be honest, I find it appalling and neanderthal that in this day and age people still think it’s okay to shoot something for fun. In fact, why it was EVER acceptable blows my mind. But those are my personal sentiments. From a purely economic standpoint, trophy hunting brings in money, even if not a lot of it goes to the areas the industry says it goes to. It is still money that the armchair activists of the world are NOT bringing in.

I want to note that from what I’ve read, it would appear the trophy hunting industry certainly exaggerates how MUCH they are actually contributing to conservation and communities (see article “Economics of Trophy Hunting in Africa are Overrated and Overstated”), so the trophy hunting industry should perhaps stop patting itself so heavily on the back…

Anyway, while tourism of the non-hunting side still brings in significantly more money than trophy hunting (and, again, it is estimated that significantly more of the eco-tourism money actually reaches the local communities and conservation efforts), the two are still partners in crime in the battle to save wildlife. I may not agree with trophy hunting, but at the moment, until something better comes along, it is what it is. Money is king worldwide. If wildlife doesn’t have a price on it, many people don’t care about it. A fact I despise and am always trying to change but acknowledge, nonetheless.

The other thing is that a lot of hunting concessions are on pieces of land that wouldn’t be appropriate for photographic tourism, though they may be fine for wildlife to live on. In some cases hunting concessions provide buffer zones to national parks, which also helps to keep poachers away. Of course, that isn’t to say that poaching doesn’t continue to happen and that there aren’t trophy hunters who are actually guilty of poaching themselves, or of corrupting the system. In fact, that’s more of a reason to turn the spotlight on the industry now, as from what I’ve read, Palmer’s hunt was indeed illegal – it is illegal to lure an animal off a property, and Palmer’s hunting party did not have the proper permits in place to hunt a lion in the first place: all roads point to poaching. And there are documented accounts of people who’ve somehow been allowed to hunt more wildlife than they were legally permitted to hunt. Or where a single hunting permit somehow turned into 14 permits.

However, too often the hunting community immediately goes on the defensive as soon as people get up in arms about trophy hunting, thus obfuscating the reality that the industry needs a clean sweep. There are MANY issues with the hunting industry, and corruption within it, that need to be addressed – issuing illegal permits, hunting where hunting isn’t allowed, using illegal means and methods to hunt, etc. The hunting community also constantly rolls out the tired story that they are the ultimate conservationists, and if it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t be any animals. While that’s not entirely true, it’s not entirely false either. Though, honestly, how can anyone be expected to believe that anyone who hunts animals (particularly critically endangered ones) for sport is truly a conservationist? Sorry, trophy hunters, you’ll never convince me of that. But hey, if they want to keep large swaths of wildlife alive so that they can then shoot a few of them, at least they are putting their money where their mouths are. I am pretty fed up with animal activists and conservation-minded people complaining about the problems and then doing ZERO to change the situation. Posting about it on Facebook is not going to change the world. You have to actively get off your butt to effect change.

But back to trophy hunting. Trophy hunting is about ego, hence the name. Trophy hunters are doing it for a trophy. And even though I hear over and over that trophy hunters only take animals beyond their prime or that are sick/injured beyond repair, we’ve all seen the smug photos posted on the internet. These are not pitiful specimens on their last legs that these hunters are posing next to. They are beautiful specimens. They are creatures at the top of their game. Look at the professional hunting clubs. There are competitions to see who can bag the biggest and the best, not the sickliest and the most malnourished one about to keel over. In the wild, animals kill the weak and the young. Humans kill the strongest and the best. For sport. So let’s stop trying to wrap it up all pretty and pretend trophy hunting is anything but about getting a trophy, and the best one at that.

Whether or not I agree with or like trophy hunting isn’t the point, though.  What IS the point is that right now, trophy hunting is one of the ways that reserves (private and otherwise) bring in money. If a reserve has an excess of buffalo (which is not a threatened species and which is regularly consumed, at least in South Africa) and there is a trophy hunter willing to pay huge dollars/pounds/whatevs to hunt that animal, what do you think a reserve should do? If they let the animal just die, they lose out on much-needed revenue (revenue that keeps that reserve in business and, therefore, maintains a home for all the other animals on it). Or they allow a trophy hunter to hunt the animal and thus help defray the outrageous costs of running and maintaining a reserve. A reserve that ensures that wildlife and wild places thrive overall. It’s economics. Not only that, the wildlife needs a home. The reserves are the vehicle keeping many of these populations in existence. What do you do? People seem to expect these reserves and parks to run on good intentions alone. They also seem to think that ALL land in Africa is ideal for eco-tourism and photographic adventures. If only.

The fact is, there are too many people who consume too much and who are habitually encroaching upon wildlife populations in one way or another. People are greedy. We seem to have a global collective entitlement attitude that posits that every other animal on this planet exists for our fun, enjoyment, consumption. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to decimate populations, take away habitat and corral whatever we can round up into reserves. Then we have to ‘manage’ those populations, lest they trample or eat a villager’s crops (or a villager him/herself). Park staff have to shoot animals that have become “problem animals,” or when there are too many to control. We put animals in giant pens and then we regulate their numbers when we run out of room for them. This is how it is. And this is where trophy hunting fits in, for better or for worse.

On another note, I may have an ethical issue with trophy hunting, but I have no issue with hunting for food, provided there is a properly regulated system and the animal is not a threatened species. I eat meat. Not a lot of it, but I do eat it. I wear leather shoes. I am fully aware that the way a lot of wildlife is killed on a reserve is often significantly more humane than the treatment of the pigs, cattle and chickens Americans (and people all over the world) consume on a daily basis. And yet where is the outrage over that? The lion’s life is not more important than the pig’s.

But the death of this lion IS important, as it might be the trigger we need to open up a discussion, change policies and rethink how we see and interact with the other members of the animal kingdom. It might change how we manage land and our own populations.

There is a saying that states “If it pays, it stays,” and I hear people attribute that to animals and wildlife management all too often. But you know what? There are MANY people on this planet who do not ‘pay to stay.’ And we aren’t running around shooting them, are we? No. So why do we think that only wildlife has to pay rent while humans live rent-free, multiplying faster than rabbits, flagrantly wasting resources, destroying land and killing the rest of the animal kingdom for fun? And all of this is done not just at the expense of the rest of the animal kingdom, but often at the expense of other humans as well.

And by the way, what makes us think that wildlife doesn’t ‘pay’? The rest of the animal kingdom did a bang-up job of keeping this world in balance and functioning in tip-top shape. Then humans came along. Now look at it. No other species but our own has caused the extinction of another species. And not just one, but hundreds (maybe more, considering there are probably species we wiped out that we didn’t even know existed in the first place).

Here’s another fact – while there are trophy hunters from countries in Africa, it isn’t Africans who make up a big piece of the trophy hunting pie. It’s Americans. And Russians. And Europeans. And plenty of people from plenty of other countries not found on the continent of Africa. So while people around the world sit in the comfort of their home and type their loathing and outrage for trophy hunters and trophy hunting, their neighbours are out shooting the animals. And sadly it is the people who shout their outrage without knowing the full story that are doing more damage than the people pulling the trigger. Because right now, as stupid as it sounds, African wildlife needs trophy hunting. I wish that weren’t the case, but until people start doing and not just saying, it will remain that way.

Look, I would like nothing better than the end of trophy hunting. However, until we all learn to treasure our earth – start valuing wildlife for wildlife’s sake, start demanding that we put into place efforts (conservation and agricultural and population ones) that don’t kill wildlife (AND then donate a whole lotta money to those efforts) – that ain’t gonna happen. Many people would rather shell out hundreds of dollars for a brand new iPhone every year than donate that money to conservation. Or have smaller families. Or consume less. The sad truth is, many people would rather overconsume at the expense of wildlife than give up their unnecessary materialism. And every year, when they toss out that ‘old’ iPhone or no-longer-in-style pair of $300 jeans, where does their waste end up? In landfills. Which keep expanding. And which take MORE land away from wildlife. Think about that the next time you buy something.

I agree with the airlines who banned the shipment of specific animal trophies. I wish they would extend the ban to the shipment of ALL animals, Big 5 or otherwise (c’mon, guys – the pangolins could use a massive hand!!!). But I don’t agree with the ban because of how I feel about trophy hunting. I agree with it because until we can better police our borders, root out corruption, enforce our laws and effectively prosecute poachers and illegal wildlife syndicates, airlines are just another easy way for these criminals to get their goods out of the country and across borders. If we shut down the shipping of trophies via planes, we help to shut down the transfer of many illegal wildlife products. And THAT is why I am happy about the bans.

I hope that the incident with Cecil is the catalyst necessary to evoke change. I hope it is the driving force that shines a blinding light on corruption within the trophy hunting industry and forces much-needed policy changes and better policing. I hope it shows us that perhaps it’s time we start implementing OTHER ways to raise the much-needed funds to save our wildlife and wild places. I hope it makes people sit up and take notice about how THEIR actions are affecting events on the other side of the world. I hope it is the instigator that propels people into action beyond empty rhetoric.

I want to be optimistic and believe that the tragedy of one lion will open up people’s eyes, start a viable dialogue and usher in much-needed change (and money!). I want to think the world will collectively experience an about-face and we will all finally begin to, as Jane Goodall’s life lesson states, treasure this earth and all of its creatures.

But I have a sinking feeling that in a few weeks people will have forgotten all about Cecil, Walter Palmer, trophy hunting and the issues facing wildlife worldwide. It’s already starting to happen. It’s already getting swept under the rug. And that makes me fear for the future of not just Africa’s iconic species, but of ALL species on this planet.

On another note, I’ve been told that I should get off my soapbox about this stuff, that I shouldn’t say it like it is, and that I should ‘soften’ my approach because that no one wants to feel bad about their actions, even if those actions are wrong. Here’s what I think about that: reality bites (to steal a title from a 1990s film). The truth is the truth, even if we don’t want to hear it (hey, I know I’d often like to hide from it myself). If we all chose to ignore the evil or hush it up, we are the just as complicit in the evil-doing as the people doing the evil. If we continue to soften stuff until it becomes palatable, then we forget the horror of what it is. And then it starts to matter less. And then we start to care less.

People can feel however they want about what I have to say; it’s their choice how they react or whether they choose to read what I write. But whether someone’s going to like the truth or not is not going to keep me from telling it.

My thing is, we can either face reality and deal with it, or we can ignore it and continue to let a lot of bad things happen. The choice of what we decide to do is ours. I’m not okay with sitting back and pretending something doesn’t exist just because that’s the easier thing to do. After all…

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. – Edmund Burke

Or, as the eloquent and brilliant Lucille Ball says:

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

So, here’s to our lions, those magnificent creatures that will hopefully roam this earth long after I am gone. I hope I always have the truly special opportunity to shoo them from my doorstep. And here’s to all the other species out there, including the humans. Here’s hoping that we humans finally wake up, rise up and work together to fix the mess we’ve made of our beautiful planet. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush

 All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Lion, trophy hunting | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

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

Cool facts about cheetah and why I haven’t been writing about them

Ok, I know I’m remiss in keeping up on the posts here. I have plenty of excuses, including things like living in a place where I have to get internet vouchers to actually log on, and often there aren’t any available. Or even better, not having electricity. I really thought when I changed jobs that I would no longer have to deal with the lack of electricity problem. However, it seems to follow me like a fruit fly follows a moldy peach. If water had anything to do with internet access, I could use that as an excuse as well, since in the month since I’ve been at the new gig, I haven’t had water for half of it, and when I have, half that time it hasn’t been hot, or even remotely warm. But that doesn’t affect my internet, except to make me smelly when I’m typing.

Other than that, the only thing that has made keeping the blog updated difficult is the fact that a cheetah had its tooth through my finger, crushing my knuckle and severing a nerve.  I had no idea how valuable a pinky finger was until this point. Plus the injury affected the whole hand for a good week, owing to the massive amount of swelling, and the dew claw holes and infections on my forearm. Cheetah bites are dirty, but cheetah dew claws are even worse, a true cesspool of bacteria and evil monsters of infection. Luckily, my arm has survived, and my hand is healing, albeit slowly.

Sadly, the hand that got bitten was my right hand, and I’m right-handed.  Heavily right-handed. That made doing just about anything a challenge. But it’s amazing what your secondary hand is capable of when necessary. I have to give props to left hand for stepping in and not only doing right hand’s work but doing the work of TWO hands since righty was incapacitated for quite a while.

Anyway, enough excuses. On to some cool facts.

I had no idea that cheetah are the oldest of the big cats, and in fact originated in North America. As such, the North American pronghorn antelope, the cheetah‘s main prey, evolved to be the fastest antelope in the world. Then an ice age swept through about 12,000 years ago and wiped the cheetah out in North America and Europe, bottlenecking the species into Africa and Asia. It seems the pronghorn hasn’t realized the cheetah isn’t still chasing it, as it apparently hasn’t slowed its roll.

Cheetahs are also separated from the other big cats for a variety of reasons, one of which is their inability to roar like lions, tigers, and leopards. Cheetah chirp like little birds, one of many elements making them appear a little less formidable than their feline friends.  However, even though they often sound like little chew toys when they communicate, they’ve evolved a serious jaw for gripping, so if they do bite, they make it count. I learned about that personally when the cheetah that attached itself to my hand refused to let go. I could swear I even heard the jaw lock in place.

Having your hand in another animal’s mouth when said animal’s intent is not to play is a sobering experience, truly. Even though I could, in theory, toss a cheetah on its back (they don’t get much bigger than 65 kg, and that’s a BIG cheetah; our captive cheetah are more like 45kg, or 90 lbs), when I have one hand clamped between its teeth, I have to make quick decisions on which is the best plan of action for getting the hand out in one piece and with minimal damage. If I kicked the cat, it could run away, hand still locked in its jaws. If I poked the cat in the eye, it could still run with my hand firmly gripped between its teeth. I did the best thing I could think of, given the situation. I used my other hand to grip the cat’s throat and jaw, pushing inward to attempt to force him to open its mouth.  But freedom for my hand came from not from my efforts, but from an outside source, and thankfully that source had the ability to keep his wits about him and think fast.

My fiance, looking on horrified at the scene unfolding before him, was luckily with me, but on the outside of the enclosure. He grabbed a spray bottle filled with water and vinegar (which we keep for situations just like this) and was able to spray the culprit in the face, immediately prompting the cat to wince, open its mouth, and run off to the other side of the enclosure, sulking. Like most species of cats, cheetahs aren’t big fans of water, unless it’s to drink.

I wish I had taken a photo of my hand when it came out of the cheetah’s mouth. The base of my now disturbingly purplish blue pinky was about half the size it normally is, with a huge hole in it that went straight through from the inner bottom corner to the outside of the middle knuckle. It was surreal.  And for the first time in my life, serious shock hit and I actually swooned and almost passed out. While my fiance raced around to find a first aid kit (of which there were none to be found – law suit, anyone??), I literally sat on the floor of the cheetah kitchen, running my hand under cool water and washing as much of the saliva and other nasties out of my many new holes. My knees buckled. It was probably the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had. And I don’t wish it on anyone.

Just a word of advice for anyone who is bitten by an animal – instinct tells you to pull back.  Don’t ever do that.  You will shred whatever body part is being bitten, if not actually detach yourself from it.  I let the cat call the shots, forcing myself to not pull my hand back and instead, moving with him in whatever direction he moved.  Because of that, I only had punctures on my hand instead of shredded skin or, worse, no fingers at all.

Here’s a look at two of our kitties at play…note the claws on the front cat. Because cheetah claws are not fully retractable like other cats (though their dew claws do retract fully), their nails take a beating through wear and tear, though I doubt any cheetah ever cares about things like pedicures or dirty nails.

Cheetahs at play and photographer in the way

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Conservation, Education, rehabilitation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: