Posts Tagged With: education

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

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

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

South African Adventure #49 – Neuroses and Why They Need to Be Kept in Check in the Bush (Or, A Day in the Life)

Sorry for the delayed posting.  My laptop’s battery exploded.  For the third time since I got the computer.  With no power source, I can’t post.  Anyway, I’ve been asked from many people to describe my typical day.  Well, there aren’t any ‘typical’ days, per se, so keep that grain of salt handy.

Every day out here is different.  That’s one of the perks of living in the bush.  You never know what animal may make an appearance and cause havoc in camp, what piece of equipment will fall apart, what personal drama one of the staff, or any of the students will thrust upon you to fix (and we’ve had everything from quickly flourishing to even more quickly broken romances, thievery, drug possession, injury from seriously bizarre accidents, family deaths, a false alarm mamba ‘bite’ – the excitement never ends).   Even with strict rules, it seems humans can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to getting into trouble and doing exactly what they know they shouldn’t be doing.  My job is, as much as I hate to admit it, essentially the camp mom for a large group of people who often don’t think rules apply to them because they paid to be here.  Patience isn’t just a virtue out here; it’s a survival technique.

So as far as ‘normal’ goes, my normal day consists of an early wake-up (‘at sparrows’, as we say here) to what sounds like a chicken getting its head cut off.  That lovely noise can be attributed to our resident francolins and spurfowls, also known as heart-attack birds for their habit of rustling in the bush hidden from view, grabbing your attention through an invisible scuffle and a shudder of underbrush, and then bursting out at you, screaming at the top of their lungs.  You may remember I rescued a baby one of these a few posts back.  The little ones don’t scream, they whistle.  The big ones scream.  And they usually start screaming at 4am, which is well before my wake-up call.

After initially bolting upright from the shock and reminding myself what is making that awful sound, I usually fall back to sleep for another two hours before waking to the more palatable sound of every bird within a ten-kilometer radius singing blithely.  Funny, many birds make it a point to not be seen, but they ALL want to be heard.  Except for the woodland kingfisher.  When he’s around, he makes sure you know it on all fronts.

This brilliantly blue, white, and black bird has a bright orange beak and loves to sit on a tree branch just in front of my house, trilling away as loudly and as visibly as possible.  He’s only around for half the year, though, so while I welcome him when he arrives, after a few days I almost can’t wait for him to migrate his ass on out of here.

My 2nd morning alarm clock, Mr. Woody Kingfisher

The only sound louder than the birds stem from my insect nemesis, which rolls into camp in summer and never fails to provide me with at least one or two migraines.  When it’s summer, every other sound is drowned out by the cicadas, which are eardrum-destroying and always leave a horrible ringing noise in your ears for hours on end.  I have very sensitive ears; I do not like the cicadas.

Anyway, I drag myself out of bed (yes, drag – sadly, I have never been a morning person, no matter how hard I’ve tried), turn on the shower, rinse off, assess the weather outside and dress myself in a few layers (knowing I will probably peel most of them off in a hour or so, so better to be prepared).  I pack up my bag: keys, phone, eye drops for my ever-dry and dusty contacts, gum for my odd clean-tooth obsession, notebook, pen and camera – because you never know what you’ll see on the walk between my tent and camp.  Oh, and sunglasses.  Unless it’s actually raining, I never leave without the sunglasses.  They are my best friend out here.  The trifecta of my survival pack – sunglasses, suntan lotion and a mosquito net for the bed.

I always check the sand on the path outside my tent and on the way into camp for evidence of last night’s and this morning’s visitors, and spend most of the walk to camp with my head down, glued to signs on the ground.  Usually all I see are the frantic circles of manic francolins, spurfowls, and pigeons, and often there are mongoose and monitor tracks, but every once in a while I see porcupine, hyena, and on good days, leopard.  And of course snakes.  Thankfully those are usually closer to camp.  Except for the mamba, we actually don’t get snakes by our place very often, at least not that I know of, which is fine by me.

Once I get to camp, I set down the bag, hit the kitchen to say hello to the cook and cleaner, then go and tally up the previous day’s drinks.  This is always a challenge, as they never seem to add up to the number of drinks actually missing from the fridge.  Why and how people can’t count is beyond me.  After some mathematical gymnastics, I refill the drinks, go to my ‘office’ and start up the camp laptop.  Which usually won’t start because the generator isn’t on yet, and the computer battery doesn’t hold a charge.  If I’m lucky, it has enough life to last until staff and students get back from their morning walk/drive.  When that happens, I quickly say a prayer to the technology gods that the internet will ALSO actually work as I attempt to get online and pull up emails.  Usually I lose that battle, which then prompts me to utter any combination of four-letter words under my breath, turn the machine off, and go back to the kitchen to help with breakfast.

Twice I week I sit down with the cook, plan a menu and put together food orders.  Because of limited budgets, this often means getting creative, lest we eat the exact same thing every day, easy to do when you don’t have much money to work with and have to get permission to order things like yogurt because it’s ‘too expensive.’  I also help with cooking, always somewhat painful, since I really don’t enjoy cooking (probably due to my ‘need for approval’ complex and my desire to do things well, neither of which is ever satisfied when you stick me in a kitchen), nor am I any good at it, despite my best efforts.  Our cook is a bit heavy-handed with things like oil and butter, so to prolong my life, and the lives of the people at camp, I often intervene to try and keep the artery clogging to a minimum.  I usually get stuck with cutting up fruit, not so much of a challenge with apples and pears, but more of a mission when you add in mango and pineapple, particularly when the knives in camp are about as sharp as a baseball.

My normal cooking skills go towards satisfying the vegetarian/vegan/halal/kosher/gluten-free/every-other-allergen contingency, of which there are more than you would ever imagine.  I’m always surprised that people with strict food issues choose to go to a bush camp in the middle of Africa and expect to have their dietary needs/choices satisfied in a place where white bread, fake cheese, potatoes and meat are all about the only things affordable AND available.  Perhaps our marketing team sells them fairytales about what to expect?  The conditions here seem pretty difficult to miss if you look at the brochures and read the marketing material, but whatever.  All I know is I have to field the complaints about food all the time, even though there is almost nothing I can actually do about the situation.  I can only limit the oil/butter/mayo added to dishes.  With a fridge the size of a suitcase to house enough food to feed a few dozen people at any given time, two cabinets very easily accessible by rodents and insects, and the proclivity of our stocks to ‘grow feet’ anytime there is a staff changeover, I have to do what I can with what I have.  Gourmet meals are NOT an option, not that people, especially the Americans and the Brits, don’t still expect them.  The South Africans usually just want more meat, especially the South African guys.   Again, I do what I can.

Anyway, breakfast is prepared, everyone returns to camp, breakfast is eaten, dishes are cleared, washed and put away, and I go back to do battle with the computer again, this time with a more positive attitude, since at least the generator is now on.  If I still can’t get the internet to work, which is quite often, I will run errands, such as bringing the trash to the dump, washing laundry, reading up on some of the study materials, or sitting in on a lecture.  That lasts for about an hour, after which I’m back to the kitchen to make sure lunch is getting started, or to marinate something for dinner.  Three days a week our food orders arrive, so I recruit some students to come with me to the front gate, go through the food delivery and check it against our actual order, mark any errors, pack the food on the Land Rover and head back to camp, where we unload and put everything away.   I then have to send the head office a note documenting any errors in the food orders, and follow up with the suppliers to find out what went wrong and why certain things were missing when I was told they were available, etc.  Essentially all I do day in and day out is handle the problems in camp.  There is nothing glamorous about my job.  I’m the person everyone loves to hate.  It’s awesome, let me tell ya.  I’m the one responsible for making sure the wheels don’t fall off the bus, and I do it, despite the challenges, set-backs, and annoyances.  But people being people, they complain about it.  Some groups are worse than others.  Some groups you’d like to see walk off into the sunset and get eaten by the local wildlife.  Some groups are cool and make my job if not fun, at least tolerable.

My afternoon is spent sorting out lunch, any other myriad problems that come up (and the list for these is just endless), and getting dinner going.  Then I try and duck away for an hour or so, go back to my room, turn on my iPod and attempt to get in a little exercise.  My yoga mat is a sanity- and ass-saver out here.  Or, if there isn’t an afternoon activity for the students, and it isn’t raining or the river isn’t flowing, we play volleyball in the riverbed.   Actually, we do that sometimes when it’s raining too, depending on how heavily it’s coming down.  That is my break for the day.  Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can sneak onto one of the afternoon game drives, my only opportunity to get out of camp.

If I don’t get to go out on a drive, at about 6pm, I shower and head back down to camp for dinner. Or I shower earlier and then head back to the kitchen to help COOK dinner (and yes, we DO have a cook we employ, but she feigns incompetence when students have strict dietary requirements and she has to make more of an effort).   Mind you, she used to cook at a 5-star resort in one of the most exclusive bush camps in South Africa.  I know better, and so does she, but to be honest, there isn’t much else to do, so I help.

After dinner, my fiancé and I sit at the table talking to some students, or we sit with them at the fire pit, but usually we just head back to the tent and go to sleep.  It’s often the norm to be in bed by 9pm.  When you have no electricity, you don’t have many other options.   I don’t usually fall asleep until later, as I love listening to all the sounds at night.  But eventually I drift off, and the next day starts the same way.  On occasion, we get the excitement of a storm blowing through, which entails us (well, my fiancé, because I’m allergic to the canvas) running outside, pulling the canvas down over the shadecloth to close the tent up, and then frantically making sure we get everything off the floor as to avoid the inevitable floods that customarily inundate our home in the rains.  Otherwise, everyone is snoring by 10pm.  Exciting, I know.   Welcome to the glamorous life of the bush.

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

South African Adventure #1 – Bush Education

This post is numero uno in terms of my adventures here because to me, education is the beginning of everything.  With the exception of the bloody hand, which is simply an example of the types of wounds I’ve seen out here, these photos above are some of the animals that remind me of school and education, Africa-style – a mongoose, an owl (owlet, in this case), and a tortoise.

There is something fascinating about teaching people, especially people who come from vastly different backgrounds than yours.  We have students come and go, traveling from all over the world to train to become field rangers.  Some have no interest in actually pursuing it as a career, but instead just want to enjoy living in an entirely new environment, challenged by new and foreign surroundings.  Even many South Africans who pass through our training camp feel themselves in a completely alien world when they come to the bush.  If you come from the suburbs or the city, or even the countryside, you aren’t prepared for the bush.  You might have knowledge of it, you might have visited it, but you have no idea what you’re doing out there.  I get that.

I have now been in the bush for about two years, and I’m still a newbie.  I still look over my shoulder whenever I’m walking.  Hell, I am constantly looking the full 360 degrees, to the point where I get dizzy sometimes.  I doubt I’ll ever stop doing that.  I may gain years of information and experiences that are valuable for surviving in these wilds, but I will never feel too comfortable.  And that’s a good thing.  Comfort can get you killed.  This also means I’m always trying to educate myself.  If I can educate others as well? Two birds, one stone.

However, the type of educating that I’ve found the most rewarding is the haphazard, completely unexpected kind, like the kind I found myself doing with the staff at our camp.  One of the women (I’ll call her Linda) has been with the company for almost fifteen years, in the same role.  Fifteen years of doing the same thing over and over, year after year, with no change but the endless carousel of employees and students passing through.  While there is quite a bit of employee turnover here (and I certainly understand why, but no need to get into that), nothing else really changes but the seasons, and even those come round again every year.  As such, I asked my bosses if I could help with getting this woman some credentials behind her name.  Options, I thought, are at least something to get excited about, and would give her something to change up the monotony.    Plus they might enable her to get out of this kilometer-deep rut she was in.

Linda got pregnant in tenth grade and dropped out of matric (high school).  She never graduated.  She can read, but not particularly well.  She knows her way around a kitchen and a laundry, but not much else.  She doesn’t know how to drive and she certainly doesn’t possess a driver’s license.  I know this for sure, as I tried to teach her to drive one day.  We took a quick run up to the main gate to pick up deliveries, and I let her get behind the wheel on a straight patch of road on the way back to camp.

Driving a manual Land Rover in the bush as your first driving foray is probably not ideal.  We managed to not hit anything, though we did stop within a hair’s breath of a rather large Knob Thorn tree. Shaking, she turned to me and said, “Ok, enough,” and quickly got out of the car and ran back to the passenger seat. End of driving lesson.

If you want opportunities in this world, you need to be able to access them.  People say you make your own opportunities. Yes, but you have to have access to knowledge, and Linda did not have that.  She was stuck.  She was bored.  The most excitement she got was the weekly food order we did together, as it gave her a small bit of creative input to put together a menu plan. Yet because of how limited I was with budget, even that had ridiculous limitations. And with only one small fridge and one small freezer, and a large rodent population constantly finding its way into the cupboards, it’s hard to get creative.  You tend to stick to the same things over and over. Any time you try and go out of the norm, you get shot down by the powers that be who tell you that you are spending too much money on food for the people who are paying the salary of these same people. This is why I don’t do well working for other people, by the way. I point stuff like this out, which often doesn’t get received particularly well, especially when you work with people who want the pay without the responsibility. I’ve run into more than a few of those in my lifetime.

Anyway, I decided that, since we offer a First Aid course as part of our training, there was no reason why we couldn’t add Linda to the list. Makes perfect sense, right? I mean, if something happens to me or any of the trainers, there is no one else here who can administer basic life support. Most of the students aren’t trained. And what if it’s just Linda and her counterpart at camp? I proposed this to one of my bosses, and he thought it was a great idea. Problem is, there isn’t another First Aid course for another few months.  Linda asked if I could show her some foundational First Aid in the meantime.

I’m certified as a level two responder with First Aid, so at the very least, I could show her basic life support stuff like CPR, and how to administer first aid and bandaging for specific wounds. I bit off more than I bargained for when I said yes.

I’d like to think I have good communication skills. I’d like to think I’m great at explaining things, and at teaching and inspiring people. Of course, however much I’d ‘like’ to do those things, I may not actually be capable. I haven’t had to ever teach something like CPR to someone who didn’t even have a basic understanding of human anatomy. When I mentioned digestion, I got blank stares. What was digestion? What do the lungs do?  Wow. Back up.

Linda, the other woman who worked with her (we’ll call her Thandi), and I set up a table in the middle of the kitchen. I gave them two drawing pads and a copy of the First Aid manual we had at the camp. Then I set about going through the entire human body, drawing diagrams and explaining what each and every part of the body did, and how they all linked together. Imagine how this was received by two women who believe in beings like Pinky Pinky, who lives in toilets and sucks bad children down the drain, and the Tokoloshe, who is an evil spirit sent to haunt people and give them indigestion. I had to extricate theology, spiritualism, and tribalism from the concept of heartburn.

These women aren’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination. But they are ignorant of modern biology, a fact they willingly admitted to me. They plainly explained that I would have to change perceptions set in stone for hundreds of years by tribalism and lack of formal education. They voiced concern at the initially overwhelming amount of material presented to them, material so fundamentally different from what they had been raised to believe; they had every reason to think this might be a futile attempt. So did I. Among other issues, I’m no bio teacher, nor a philosopher, nor a socio-economics professor.   What I knew of these women and their culture came from them telling me about it. I could sit and watch all day and make incorrect assumptions, which wouldn’t help anyone, so I found it best to simply ask. And they did the same with me. Most of our lessons were about what I was taught, followed by what they were taught, and then concluding with any cross-over, and explanations of both sides of the same educational coin as we tried to find common ground where my information made sense to them, and theirs made sense to me.

Expecting anyone to ingest this much fresh information that directly opposed much of what they had been raised to believe was challenging in so many capacities. I was asking them to delete what they knew and start over. They were asking me to learn their history and inject it into what I was teaching them. But they didn’t blink an eyelid, just kept on absorbing whatever info I could possibly remember about how a gall bladder works, and I kept at it, determined to give them a fighting chance at learning and understanding basic life support, if only so they could explain to an EMT over the phone what was going on in the event of an emergency. Slowly, slowly, progress came about, one heartbeat at a time.

In addition to our health lessons, we tackled computers from the bottom up – complete with diagrams of what the different computer components, like screen, desktop, mouse, and keyboard, are. It was slow and meticulous, and we often had to go over the same material several days in a row, but like everything else you learn, you need repetition and practice for it to sink in. These women didn’t have access to a computer.  They didn’t have access to the first aid equipment. They had to rely on me to provide everything for them, and to then show them even the most fundamental elements, such as turning a computer on, or how to properly bandage a protrusion (and what a protrusion was and how you pronounce it, for that matter). In the back of my mind, I thought of all the times I spent teaching my mom how to use the internet, or email, or the answering machine, or the television remote. That was infinitely easier than this. And it reminded me of how lucky I am to have been born into a time when technology is de rigeur. I can’t remember NOT having a computer.

We laughed. A lot. We giggled over my terrible drawings.  But they loved it, and so did I.  Seeing their faces when something sunk in, when a light went on in their heads and eyes – it was tremendous.  I’m not sure if anything I’ve done has really made a difference for them. I do know it meant a lot to have someone take time for them and try to help them in a positive way. I know they felt a bit marginalized and were excited for even the slightest bit of exposure to new things. I’d like to think that if nothing else, I’ve expanded their worlds. They’ve certainly expanded mine.

Song of the day: ‘Learning to Fly’ – Tom Petty

….and for cheese factor and inspirational ability – ‘I Hope You Dance’ – Leann Womack

 

All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

South African Adventure #1000 – Flying Offices and Lucky Breaks

I went to bed to a raucous chorus of crickets and cicadas.  This morning, there’s a whole new sound – roaring water. We had a massive thunderstorm blow through last night.  Today, my office is in a tree.  It’s funny how big of a role geography plays in the ways storms affect things.  We’ve had several since I started working here.  They’ve made a muddy mess, but haven’t caused any real damage, which is lucky, since my thatch-roofed abode with the aluminum solar panel on top is a fire hazard from hell.  Last night’s was different.  Last night’s almost swept the entire camp away.

Had the storm blown in from any other direction, we would’ve gotten a proper soaking, but not much else.  Because it came in from the north, which is contrary to the direction the storms usually come from, much of the camp was exposed to the extremely high winds as well as the soaking rains.  Everything that wasn’t properly secured (which is most of the camp) suffered serious damage, from permanently mangled tent poles to irreparably torn canvas tents to an airborne office.

Because the storm system was quite severe upriver, we were literally ambushed by floodwaters that originated many, many miles from where we are. In fact, had we gotten no rain at all, we still would’ve gone from dry river bed, to a fully flowing Niagara deal.  Several water systems converge just slightly upriver from where we’re based.  Any water that fell there rushed downriver towards us and eventually pooled in the narrow channel right outside my door.  The waters filled the riverbed and rose about 20 feet in only a few hours.  Now I truly understand the potency and unpredictability of flash floods.

The image you see above is not a giant deflated balloon, but in fact my prior place of employment.  I still have a job, it’s just I no longer have an office in which to do said job.  Then again, it wasn’t much of an office to begin with, so maybe this destruction is for the best.  Okay, not maybe.  It is DEFINITELY for the best.

Bush Office

This is what happens when you work in a tent that isn’t properly secured…

That pathetic, drooping mess in the photo used to be an 8×10 foot canvas tent, sheltered from the blistering Limpopo heat by marula and jackalberry trees.  Small animals, birds, and insects regularly dropped by for some watercooler chat.  It was a nice, casual environment.  I was about 30 feet from the kitchen, about three feet from the lecture hall, and a short tumble down a riverbank to the dry riverbed below.  After last night, though, it isn’t a dry riverbed anymore.  In fact, it’s an actual flowing river now, complete with rip currents and small rapids.  It’s amazing that you can fall asleep to sand and wake up to water.  And it’s scary how destructive that water can be.

It took about 15 people to get my office down from where it was hanging in the tree.   Everyone in camp spent the day resetting up tents, cleaning, and rebuilding.  There was mud everywhere, including in my office laptop.  Again, another blessing, since that little dinosaur of technology was well past its use-by date.  Since my employers have no interest in bringing the camp up to the 21st century, but somehow expect me to work within the parameters of 21st century technology, I had to rely on luck to get the useless piece of history replaced.  Of course, this now leaves me with NO technology at all, but honestly, that isn’t all that far off from where I was a day ago. At least now I have what will be considered a viable excuse as to why I can’t do my work.  Without a computer, no one can tell me it’s my fault that the battery needs to be replaced, or that the internet doesn’t work (and yes, this stuff actually gets blamed on me, not on the lack of a working battery or almost nonexistent signal out here).  Of course, it also means I have no computer, plain and simple.  Luckily for me, I have a personal laptop that managed to avoid total destruction.  My employers don’t know that, though, and I’m not planning on telling them.  Sometimes I really feel you need to savor the moment and practice acts of self-preservation. This is one of those times when what they don’t know won’t hurt them, and will keep me sane.

I would like to add that the current flock of students did a tremendous job of putting the Humpty Dumpty camp back together again.  Everyone did his or her part, no matter how unpleasant, and we did eventually get the office out of the tree.  Of course, like the bedtime character, there was no way we were putting it back together again.

Now, until we get a new tent to replace my mutilated one, my office consists of a plastic chair, a notebook on my lap, and an unobstructed view of the new river.  Really, it could be a lot worse.  No rush on that office, guys, no rush at all.  Of course, as they say, this is Africa.  I’m pretty sure there would be no rush anyway.  And that’s fine with me.

 

Song of the day – as to be expected, ‘Africa’, by Toto.  Because today I am blessing the rains….

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

South African Adventure #77 – Waldo

Waldo, our foam nest tree frog, in his natural environment

Apologies for the delay on posts this week.  No power, no internet, no blog.  Anyway, I’ve saved one of my favorite topics for this particular post: WALDO!

Waldo greets me at least once a week, sometimes by throwing himself dramatically at me from the depths of the darkness of my tent when I open the door, sometimes dropping on my head while I’m brushing my teeth.  Sometimes when I’m sitting on the bed, working on my laptop, he quietly sidles up next to me and plops on the keyboard.  Always he is silent, and always he manages to blend into whatever he is sitting on.  I love Waldo.  He’s our resident foam nest tree frog.  He might be my favorite local, quite possibly because he poses no threats, doesn’t make any noise, and he keeps me company instead of hiding in the bushes or running away.  And he’s adorable, as frogs go.

Most of the other wildlife here turns and makes tracks before you even know it’s there.  The ones that don’t disappear are the ones likely to attack and quite possibly eat you.  I’m not sure if I’d prefer to see the wildlife, or take my chances with the Houdinis of the wilderness.  Waldo doesn’t fit into either category, though.  He disappears for days at a time, but then reappears and hangs around, watching us and keeping the mosquito population in check.  Again, I love him.

Most of the amphibians I’ve met out here are loud.  I didn’t realize how loud a frog could be until after the first rains, when it seemed every amphibian within a 10km radius suddenly convened outside my tent and decided it was time to defend territory/find a mate/auditioning for Frog Idol.  It felt like I was at the frog equivalent of a heavy metal concert, a surround sound barrage of deafening squawks and brrrps and tinks.  Waldo’s species does normally fit into that bright little chorus, but for whatever reason, Waldo does not partake in those reindeer games.  I’m guessing it’s because he is safe within the confines of our home, and doesn’t feel the need to announce his presence to the animal kingdom.  That’s good for us and for him.  Or her.  To be honest, I don’t know what gender he/she is, and because amphibians have the fascinating ability to change sex if necessary, he/she is a sort of hermaphrodite anyway, so I guess what I call him/her doesn’t matter.  I’ve settled on thinking he’s a he, unless I suddenly find little foam nest tadpoles flitting about in my sink.

I named him Waldo because, like his namesake, I always find him blending in to different places in the tent.  Until recently, every time I came across him, he had staked claim to a new little patch in some random location amongst my clothes, books and whatever other random possessions were sitting around in our ‘house.’  He stayed in each location for a day or two at a time before moving on to new territory.  Once he was sitting on the vinyl chair outside, slightly hidden under my fiance’s t-shirt.  Another time, he was snuggling in the wires of our solar panel.  Yet another time, he was in a shoe, which makes me wonder if frogs have a sense of smell, because if they do, his clearly doesn’t work.  A few times he perched on my computer.  Then he found a very comfortable spot at the top of the solar panel converter.  Seemed like an ideal place for him – high vantage point from which to catch insects, good place to hide from potential predators.  Visible yet invisible.  He stayed put for a whole six days, which eventually started to concern me, and I thought he might’ve been dead.  Then one day when I was walking by, he jumped on my head.

He has become my favorite part of being out here.  Quiet, unobtrusive, and yet always a companion, Waldo is like that friend who listens and who sticks by you, no matter what.  He seems to prefer to fade into the background, figuratively and literally, and yet he finds funny ways to remind you he’s there, and he has your back.  When you work in an industry where you have almost no modern conveniences (and usually they don’t work anyway), no privacy, no set hours for your job, and no real time to yourself, having a little buddy like him is priceless.  Mastercard, where are you when advertising opportunities like this come about?  You might need to hire Waldo for your next commercial.  I’ll even let you shoot the footage in the tent for free.

Waldo, it’s time for your close-up.

A quick note about frogs.  They breathe through their skin, so you should never touch them if you have anything on your hands (like lotion, bug repellant, and even soap residue and perfume).  In fact, you really shouldn’t handle them at all if you can help it.  If you must, do so with clean, wet, open hands, and only for a very brief period of time.  I only held Waldo a handful of times, and that was only to remove him safely from my head or shoulder or thigh after one of his theatrical leaping forays.  Otherwise, I practiced a hand’s-free policy so I didn’t endanger him, very tough for someone like me, who loves to touch everything.  To be honest, frogs aren’t all that keen on being held anyway.  Makes them feel like they are about to be eaten, I guess.  And some of them excrete toxins through their skin, making them a hazard to you as well.  Best to simply observe from a distance, no matter how tempting it is to pick them up.

 

All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, Frog, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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