Monday, October 04, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

What's Natural? - by Nick van der Leek

Over the past 8 days I have visited 4 different private game reserves, and the 2 game drives per day had become a routine.  Yesterday, driving back to Port Elizabeth, and the sea, through the grotty, litter strewn landscape of areas such as Motherwell, I felt a very deep paradigm shift.  Shacks piled onto the verges of open cesspools, flapping garbage on a landscape as far as the eye could see, and human locusts moving about through the slum.  The only thing I saw that left me with a little hope were solar geezers fitted to a few dozen shacks, with at least one of them already vandalised.  What was this paradigm shift you ask?

During just 8 days in the wild, barely a week, and just 1/50th of a year, I came to appreciate the plight of animals in nature that I'm not sure if I have before.  Against the background of Rhino poaching in South Africa [and on route to these reserves were advertisements for Rhino 'tip off' lines], I started to appreciate the daily toll on animals. 
For example in Shamwari we came across a slain adult male lion.  It had been killed by an enormous cat, a rival younger male, who did not countenance this last foray into his territory.  You must remember, all these creatures are driven by instinct, but they are buffeted by the limits [the fences] of a reserve.  If a territory is lost, a lion can't go off and find another one.  In any event, the old male [born at Shamwari] had its hip broken by the new king, the sounds of their 2am tussle heard by the rangers at Eagle's Cragg.  Later in the morning, the king breathed his last.

It is interesting to see the reaction the rangers and tourists have to a dead lion.  Lying in the road, I even felt disinclined to take photos.  The rangers also say that this is an animal they won't allow to just lie there; they will bury it.  Our ranger noted the extent to which the rangers become attached to individual animals, their minds filled with a cache of recollections - where these same animals enthralled celebrities and ordinary visitors.

It is not only the large animals that made an impression.  At a camp called Idwala a Rock Thrush repeatedly pecked at its reflection in my bathroom window.  A unit below mine had sunbirds doing the same thing.  One was so actively chasing its own reflection it found its way into the room and the next resident had to shoo it out.  These are birds are simply doing what nature has hardwired into them, an effective strategy to keep their species in the survival game.  See, being territorial is a personality trait which invites confrontation between the same species.  So if it isn't bad enough trying to survive the depredations of man, and other predators [for sunbirds it might be snakes, cats, crows and other raptors], they also have to stay fit enough to maintain their own territories against rivals.

On a game drive in Addo my guide played the beautiful call of an Olive Bush Shrike and sure enough, the shrike stopped its own song and cautiously approached the vehicle.  In spite of our presence, it was driven to find tghe intruder.  But the shrike always cleverly remained in the thick core of bushes, not once sitting in an exposed branch poking into the sky.  Bokmakkieries were even more aggressive.

At one point we witnessed 3 lions moving over a wide plains.  Zebra, Blesbok and one or two other species all froze in unison, and for around half an hour all activity, among perhaps a hundred animals or more, came to a compete standstill.  There was no eating, all horned heads turned to watch the lions.  All waiting for the move from a lion, and that would mean certain death for one of the herd.  The move never materialised while we were there, and at dusk, the lions were still resting.  But it occurred to me as we left, that while we could go home to dinner and a warm shelter, both the lions and the Blesbok [which were still near to each other] would go through the night - either the lions would go hungry or the Blesbok would have to find a way to get enough rest and stay alert.  Imagine that; having a killer occupying an area where you are meant to be sleeping.  Sleep too soundly and you're dead.  Sleep too little and the deprivation could ruin your ability to respond to an attack.  All the while you are exposed to the elements.  And even a small injury can be disastrous - cutting a leg on a piece of wire, or a thorn, or a sharp stone.  Catching an infection off a tick or a bird or another animal.

All of these dramas played out, and I had to remind myself that beyond the confines of a reserve the pressure would be even more immense.  Returning to Port Elizabeth I read about Andre Nel attempting suicide after his pregnant wife discovered he had been sleeping with several prostitutes.  Malema bleating greedily about mine nationalisation.  And not much else.  It occurred to me then, as it does now, how petty our individual wants and needs are, next to the ordinary but immense pressures of survival.  It seemed to me that many of the animals I encountered were happy.  And perhaps happiness is a fleeting opportunity to be young and strong, and in one's prime.  That is why we are here.  And when we ask ourselves, what is natural, the answers may be surprising.  Should we wash our teeth with toothpaste, when animals can live out the course of their lives without?  What should we be eating to discount the use of toothpaste then?  When we wash dishes, is it really necessary to use soap, given that immediately after cooking dishes are covered in soft water-based fluids and oils.  Each time we use soap we foul the environment at the end of the drain.

When I think of those fragile, long-beaked sunbirds flying into their own reflections, I cannot help but feel sorry for the animals, and the painstaking efforts and sensitivities programmed into them to assure their survival.  The presence of man creates havoc.  Think of moths that fly circles around lights all night.  As Richard Dawkins writes in THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, "The fact of our own existence is almost too surprising to bear."  But when one considers the existence of the other creatures that used to be part of our common experience, when one considers how our normal experience has been replaced with lights and signals and noise, we humans have become divorced from nature.  In the cities we develop injuries of the soul that never heal.  We only feel those wounds out here, with the animals.  But all too soon, we're back at our machines and distractions, forgetful of what is natural and good.

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