Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Land of (Vanishing) Plenty

Johannesburg - At first, I thought it was a belated April Fool’s joke. There in the travel section of our sister paper, The Sunday Independent, was a photograph of a lonely, scrawny bird, trotting along nondescript road.

It was the caption, though, that almost made me laugh: “A variety of wildlife, including pheasant, can be spotted at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the heart of North Dakota’s Badlands.”

If this is what Americans clutch on to as their idea of wildlife, they are seriously deprived. Then I thought a bit more: everybody outside this amazing, disturbing and frustrating continent (which we call home) is seriously deprived when it comes to wildlife.

The Aussies may display good ball skills and live in a well-ordered society with some considerable open space but, when it comes to animals… Please. A kangaroo? A dingo? A koala?

I guarantee that if you go to London right now and spend a week there, you will not see as many birds as you will parked on my patio in Northcliff.

You don’t even have to go inside to turn on the National Geographic channel to witness wildlife drama here in Joburg suburbia. I once watched as a coucal took sparrow chicks from a nest and flew off with them. I’ve looked on as loeries and other birds chased off a gymnogene, recognising it as a deadly predator; and found pieces of a pet “silky” chicken in the tree and around the garden, indicating it was killed and eaten by something like a genet.

On a trip to Cuba some years ago, the boat captain, ferrying us to a rocky island, was in raptures about the lizards living there. Iguanas? No – even a leguaan would chuckle inside his horny scales about the little Latino lizard.

Normally, around this time of year, we like to head to the bushveld. The Witwatersrand gets cold and dry and, despite our lovely gardens, makes you long for something real – and slightly warmer. And, wherever we go, we will see animals, in as natural a state as possible, given the spreading presence of humankind.

The word that comes to mind when we sit in the bush – sipping coffee and eating rusks at a waterhole, watching even the “mundane” like kudu – is “privileged”.

By privileged I mean not that we game park visitors are advantaged by our comparative wealth (we are, in a country where there are huge discrepancies in income) but that in this age, we are fortunate to see magnificent and varied animals in their natural habitat.

Almost certainly, it will not always be this way. Our grandchildren may still get the tail end of this wondrous time, but their children will probably only get to experience Africa’s animals in zoos or on their computer screens.

This doesn’t only apply to rhino – although they are under the greatest threat and will most likely be one of the first to disappear – all the creatures that inhabit our open spaces will be under pressure from humans as time goes on.

Is there a solution? I don’t know. For now, I take the lazy way out and prefer to live in the moment.

My suggestion for this week about how to make the most of your bush experiences: less is more. Stay in one spot for longer. Ignore the rush of cars around you and the tempting feeling that a great sighting is around the corner. It may be, but there is reward in hanging around and watching… a pride of lion sleeping, paws twitching in dreamland; elephants bathing in a river; even baboons cleaning each other.

If you see a francolin at the side of the road, check it out. Look at its sometimes scatter-brained way of moving. Then smile – because such a sighting would be the highlight of your visit in another country. - Saturday Star

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