cheetahWhen I use the word awesome here, I’m invoking the true dictionary definition of the word: inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear; causing or inducing awe: an awesome sight. You can watch as many documentaries as you’d like about elephant, lion and Wildebeest behavior, but you can’t get the full impact of it until the animal is yards away and practicing those behaviors on you. David Attenborough has told me numerous times that an elephant signals “back off” by staring at the intruder, fanning out his ears and nodding his head up and down. No film can capture what that means when you are fifty yards away from that elephant in an open safari vehicle, the elephant starts stepping toward you and each step covers six feet. You can be told that a lion is a top tier predator, but to see one saunter by, clearly in no fear of anything, and watch other animals pull back in a circle 100 yards wide around it, is to truly understand what that status means in an ecosystem. You can watch fantastic aerial documentary shots of Wildebeest migrations, but driving through thousands of animals running in unison, matching their zigs and zags at every turn is to comprehend what being part of a herd is all about.

Here, then, are the most awesome sights and experiences we’ve had so far:

elephants

We came upon a herd of nearly 200 elephants cavorting at a water hole, taking dustbaths and enjoying each others’ company.

Andy and I immediately started snapping photographs at a rapid pace. But as the elephants drew closer to the open safari vehicle and as we began to see their interaction with each other, we both put down our cameras. The experience seemed to demand a reverence — and yes, awe — at something so large yet so intimate. To watch a group of elephants for any length of time is to watch mothers using their trunks to caress babies, gently correct adolescent behavior, greet each other warmly and reaffirm friendships. Our guide even showed us an area that is an elephant graveyard. Elephants remember their dead and will carefully pick up the bones of their deceased and pass them among each other. A group of elephants was in this area stroking something on the ground. Their body language exuded sadness and remembrance. Our view of them was partially obscured by bushes. Our guide, Adas, told us they wouldn’t tolerate us getting closer and violating that space. We wouldn’t have wanted to.

elephants socialize

Within minutes of observing elephants, you can tell who is related, whose child is whose and which elephants are particular friends.

The bond between adult and young is particularly striking.

The bond between adult and young is particularly striking.

The constant caressing indicates an animal that understands the need for touch and reaffirming love and friendship.

The constant caressing indicates an animal that understands the need for touch and the importance of demonstrating and reaffirming love and friendship.

I’ve seen San Francisco Mommy and Me playgroups where the mommies know they have created a circle of safety in an urban playground, but only because they are vigilant to any approaching dangers and to the antics of each kid. I made that remark to Andy. He thought the elephant mommies were more consistent with their discipline and that the baby elephants were better behaved.

A large group of giraffes didn't impress us with the sagacity shown by the elephants, but their socialization behaviors were almost as complex and varied.

A large group of giraffes didn’t impress us with the sagacity shown by the elephants, but their socialization behaviors were almost as complex and varied.

Where the elephants used their trunks, giraffes use their necks to greet each other with a caress, to slap each other in rough-house play and to herd babies into safer directions.

A large group of giraffes didn't impress us with the sagacity shown by the elephants, but their socialization behaviors were almost as complex and varied.

While traveling in a loose herd, giraffes also seemed to want to pair off with special friends.

Although we also witnessed social behavior among the lions we observed closely earlier, it was their sheer size, density of muscle, and carnivorous power that was awesome. Two lionesses walked past our open safari vehicle and we could hear the heavy thud of their footfalls on the savannah. The sound frequency of a mother lion’s contented purr as her baby nursed reverberated in our chests.

A fraction of the size of a lion, every sinew of this cheetah, even in recline, said speed and elegance.

A fraction of the size of a lion, every sinew of this cheetah, even in recline, said speed and elegance.

As we’ve experienced all these encounters on this safari, here’s one thought that never occurred to us: gee, let’s shoot and kill one of those things.

However, that’s exactly what crossed the mind of the CEO of GoDaddy, and this smirky Minnesota hunting show hostess. Although this story was a fake, someone killed the elephant in the picture.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-hunting. If you want to shoot something, choose a species that is not under pressure, and hunt in a way that retains the animal’s dignity. Hint: that doesn’t involve shooting something from the side of the road.

I also realize there are tremendous challenges in preserving the priceless resource of Africa’s wildlife while villagers starve nearby — perhaps because of the natural actions of those animals. But if you are a Westerner with enough cash to go on a safari, you have no business flying over here to shoot a threatened species — no matter how you try to wrap it up in a veneer of philanthropy. By taking trophy animals, the largest and most impressive, you subvert the way Nature controls populations and weaken the gene pool by removing prime breeding stock.

However, my greater fear is that such people have no souls.

While the animals inspired awe, such people inspire fear in me. Who, when confronted by something so truly awesome, something that realigns your thoughts about your place in the animal kingdom, that makes you ponder everything from whether we are the only sentient animals to Nature’s intricate balance, just wants to destroy that awesomeness in front of them? I don’t know such people, but I never hope to meet them. I’d feel safer with the animals on the Serengeti.

Note: An interesting fact on the Minnesota lion hunter. She was found to have shot the lion legally in South Africa. The Game Manager here– a South African himself who is up on the conservation, hunting and regulations of a number of East and South African countries — explained that there is only one way to legally hunt lions in South Africa. They are derisively called Canned Lion Hunts. These are large compounds where lions are bred for the purpose of the hunt. Yes, they are still technically wild, but they have spent their lives in cages and know humans as things who toss meat over the fence for them. So when the lion is released for you to shoot, he doesn’t run away. You can stand there, with little effort and bag your lion. Some facilities even let you choose among the caged lions for the one you want to kill. It’s hardly a sport and I’m sure it’s benefiting few but the wealthy owner of the facility.

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