Africa and The Elephant

Driving east beyond the Cape of Good Hope and the true terminus of Africa, Cape Agulhas, where the convergence of the Indian and The Atlantic Ocean dance to support untold stories of life and struggle in the ocean – the land of South Africa opens up. For the wild beasts of the continent, roads represent interruptions in natural corridors, obstacles that herd, and grazing animals must transect in order to get to ungrazed lands, water, and mating grounds. The result is a smattering of civilization and wilderness in conflict at times, and wildlife management replaces the natural order.

Now, it is the dry season, and at this time, the few watering holes represent the gathering points for species in the wild. Here there are elephants, hippos, hyena, rhino, zebra, lion, gazelle, cheetah; all the usual suspects that remind me of my youth spent staring at the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom show on TV. A lot has changed since then.

Throughout the countryside, there are game reserves and game parks, the former, similar to national parks in the United States. In national reserves, there is no take, but in other places massive swatches of land are bought up to create the appearance of the wild, where hunters will come to track and kill large game. These areas are all fenced in with electric wire to keep the prized beasts from moving out. European, Arab, and American hunters alike will pay top dollar to kill large beasts. I’m told it costs up to 30k U.S to shoot an elephant. Lions can fetch up to 50k. Animals are specifically bred for this purpose and roam on massive hunting parks where hunters can hire a guide to track animals the old way, and claim their prize with a gun. Exporting of the tusks and such is difficult in the United States but I was told by a taxidermist in Namibia that other than the U.S, taking prizes home from these beasts is not as difficult.

In the Northwest of South Africa, Kruger National Park – the most healthy environment and one private game park, where no hunting is allowed – has emerged as model for restoring things to their natural populations. The place is called, Londolozi, started by the Varty family and is perhaps the most exclusive safari spot in this region. Dave Varty wrote an incredible book about the project entitled The Full Circle. Celebrities visit it often, and accommodation costs 1k per person per day. It is so wild that guests are escorted from their rooms to the dining area, as it’s far too dangerous even amongst the hotel buildings to wander the grounds, especially at night.

For the animals that populate the area, the natural order reigns, and the cruelty of nature is law. The game rangers are selected in Top Gun fashion and undergo a series of very rigorous and dangerous tests to be hired. The park is massive and a prospective ranger is asked to transect it with only a knife – and stay alive amidst some of the biggest predators known to man. If confronted by a lion, the ranger must hold his ground, staring the lion down. I’m told that the lion will often charge and stop, testing the ranger, sometimes up to three times. If it happens a fourth, typically the man is doomed. Another test is meant to teach the ranger the true difficulty of being a predator in the wild. Killing one’s food is one thing, but eating it is another. Many animals will compete for a hunter’s kill, and protecting one’s meal means surviving to the next one. To pass the test, a ranger is given a rifle with three bullets and is asked to hunt and kill an Impala, at least 1.5 kilometers from camp, gut it, and carry it back on his shoulders fending off any competitors. Killing an Impala farther away means more distance to cover. And the smell of fresh kills excites predators for miles upon miles. Night or day, the ranger must return and I was told of one story where a ranger, covered in the animals blood, successfully fended off a pack of Hyena tracking him.

On more of a budget, I traveled to Addo National Elephant Reserve, and took a driving tour with a guide. The herd was over 400 and the reserve was set up to protect the animals from poachers. Elephants were everywhere and would often walk with in feet of our vehicle moving to the next food source – in English, my guide referred to the tree as the Bacon Tree (which to me sounds magical) and told me that elephants can feed up to 22 hours a day in order to survive.

Leaving Africa means another month at sea for me, back to the plastic pollution work and a constant life of discovery. Blessed.

Editor’s Note: This is part 11 in a special series. Voyage with Stiv and catch the exclusive each week here at EcoSalon during his months-long journey into the heart of the South Atlantic Gyre and beyond.

Image: flowcomm, Sara&Joachim