Human Interference

Human Interference

I had a beautiful experience recently. I strongly believe in the principle that, in these wilderness areas, guides and operators should not interfere with nature. There are times when compassion tests that principle but, in my career out here, I have always managed to trust it, even when a vulnerable and lost buffalo calf came and pushed its wet nose against the car in the hope that it has found safe company. Helping the buffalo can be to the detriment of lion cubs. On average one in twenty lion cubs survive, and one of the biggest reasons for the high mortality is malnutrition. Life as a predator is tough. For the mother to find enough food to replenish her deprived body and still produce milk for all those hungry mouths - coming and going between her hidden cubs, her long and patient hunting outings and taking care of her water needs - is a tall order and a commitment that only a mother could make. So I believe that it is an important principle to recognise that our compassion, while helping one, deprives another. 

I have always managed to stick to that principle… until recently that is. I was out driving around with guests and we were about to stop and have a sundowner drink. I slowed down to stop in one place and then said, no, let’s go just a bit further. So we continued to a slightly higher point where we had an elevated view of the sunset; the long grasses besides us just allowed us a view of a drying pan below. As we were about to get out of the vehicle, through the grass we could see that there was a female impala deeply stuck in the wet clay of the pan. Her head and long neck were swaying from side to side to try to free her body. But her body was well and truly stuck and it was going to remain that way for a prolonged and agonising death, either from starvation, cold or from hyenas stretching their muzzles and canines to reach her rump, trying not to sink into the mud themselves. 
 
I have watched an impala die this way before. On that occasion she was chased by a pack of wild dogs into a pan of water. The dogs would not enter the water in their innate fear of crocodiles and I watched the impala remain in there, waiting them out for three days, until she eventually died of cold. 
 
On this occasion there was not predator in sight. Just an impala suffering a slow death while we had gin and tonics up on the hill looking at the sunset. I looked at her, I observed my principle, and then I said no, I can give her another chance. So I walked down to the edge of the water and clay, jumped to almost clear a wet section, and sunk in just as she had. I pulled myself out, with shoes, hands and pants covered in clay, and then I walked slowly up to her. She was tentative but seemed resigned to the fact that she could do nothing, or perhaps in some way knew that I (an apex predator) meant no harm. I placed my muddy hand gently on her head to reaffirm that, and I knelt down next to her. 
 
I have seen resignation in animals before, in the moment before death, when the prey species know that their struggle against the jaws of the predator is futile and they are beat. She had been struggling for a long time and was weak. Who knows the detailed states of mind and emotion that she had been through, over that long and ineffectual struggle, to get to this point at dusk. She was aware of her powerlessness and in this moment seemed resigned to fate rather than death. She did not fight me at all, neither as I approached nor as I tried to free her.  Her big, liquid black eyes did not dance between hope and despair, they just remained open. 
 
I gently kneaded her neck, placed my hand on her back and then tried to free her legs. She was surprisingly stuck. Working with one leg at a time was proving, even with my help, ineffectual. I straddled my feet on either side of her, slid my hands behind her front legs and pulled upwards from under her rib cage, managing to free her front legs and place her down with her knees and ankles folded back underneath her. I tried to free her back legs, from the hip and thigh, but they were even deeper and more firmly gripped by the thick clay. I placed my hands under her belly, concerned about what organs I might be compressing and pulled… but with not enough pressure. Taken with impressions of this creature, and watching her for signs of discomfort or pain, I pulled harder… and yet harder again. Her back legs began to slowly slide forwards and free of the dark brown clay, until I had her out. I helped her up onto her wobbly legs, and with the first glimmer of hope, she panicked and ran… straight into another pool of muddy water. Flop. Now wet as well as dirty, and I about to be so too, she was in the same predicament as before. I got down to my elbows in watery mud and lifted her out but when I placed her down this time I decided that I would carry her out of the depression and into the cover of long grasses. With my two arms under her torso, I carried her fifty kilograms up into the grass and place her down on her legs. She stood there for a while and then wobbled off, away into the grass, and into the rest of her days. 
 
What remains with me now is her nature... sweet and benevolent, as is apparent from a distance, but more so. Her soft and silky coat that she had kept so clean, her perfect complexion and markings, the shape and firmness of her long, muscled neck, the smallness of her head and its triangular crown, the apparent health of her belly and its vital organs, the athletic muscle that had kept her, and her soft nature, thriving and open, in such a treacherous wilderness. 
 
The opportunity to touch a wild animal, to sense its lineage, and to be with it, just the two of us, for a moment of its life, impresses more detail than can be placed on a page - and I’m sure for the animal too. 
 
For the next couple of days we passed through the area, looking amongst the herds for a female impala who was caked with grey clay soils… but saw none. It is a huge wilderness, with varied geographical features and vegetation, tall trees, long grasses and vast areas that we cannot get to but on foot. Plenty of places to hide, for predators and their prey, in their quiet quest to gather strength under the same full moon.
 
The guests said there is a saying in France “Only fools never change their minds”. 
 
Despite this beautiful moment that seemed to do no harm, I will continue to stand by the principle that, in these settings, if human interference has caused harm to an animal, we are justified to step in and assist. Otherwise we should allow nature to be our teacher. Perhaps the principle has degrees and like with anything there are no black and whites, and there is room for some humanity in the wilderness. I can no longer be high and mighty about the principle, but I do recognise that we can forgive ourselves the occasional human exception. However we do need to take care, because without the black and white principles we can easily allow too many vehicles too much grey area. Given too much freedom, our compassion would intrude upon the harsh reality of some of nature’s ways.
 
In the preceding few days I had witnessed the harsh and beautiful reality of three lion kills: a buffalo, an impala and a waterbuck each falling victim to cunning lions. I think the lion cubs in that area are doing just fine, at least they were this week.

Patterns

Patterns

Nature is full of patterns: slow patterns of dry, cracked clay soils beneath our feet, the tall lines of the mopane forest ahead of us, and the winding course of the dry riverbed that has been etched between them. The seasonal patterns of rainstorms, rivers that rise three meters in a matter of hours, vast pans of water that only yesterday were not there, and green leaves that appear in the blink of an eye.
 
Months later those waters are gone, rising slower than they fell: up, into the trunks of trees, rising out through the new leaves, to be blown away in the shapes and patterns of clouds - or carried in the cells of thirsty animals. As the waters leave they patiently draw new lines into the clay soils, different to last year’s but exactly the same, ready to catch, in their cracks, brown leaves that fall, one by one, and blow in the winds of August… until, that is, they are collected by termites and stored in the safety of their towering mounds, awaiting the universal destiny: as nutrients in the soil that will build new trees from a seed that has fallen too.
 
Of a thousand seeds that fall only one will rise up as tall as a tree and drink water from the falling rain. For through these patterns animals tread, leaving perfect imprints of their own in the sand. They move through the landscape chaotically using their brains to avoid bumping into things. Perhaps chaos is a word for patterns that we do not remember… or cannot yet understand.
 
Animals are harder to find than you might think. They move silently, and none more so than the elephant. They carry deliberate patterns on their coats and leave a trail of intelligence behind them. Like the leopard who walks on light feet in zigzag patterns to throw us off its path, and watches silently as we, the most intelligent of all, pass only meters away from the speckled coat that vanishes on fallen leaves.
 
But these tracks under our feet, as we walk down the dry Mwamba riverbed, alongside a mopane forest, are from yesterday’s buffalo: a herd perhaps eight-hundred strong that we followed and found, spilling out from the trees and long grasses into a drying oxbow lagoon, like a long line of ants, each weighing six hundred kilograms. We are back on their trail, and though these tracks are yesterday’s news, they tell us more of the story that we are ever trying to catch up with - in our quest to live amongst the patterns of nature. 
 

Story and the Wilderness

Story and the Wilderness

We don’t always discover things in the order that they have happened. The wilderness is too vast and detailed to have an all-encompassing experience of the events of life out here. Chance encounters and evidence collect, in a random sequence, and link in our mind to form a story. It is not the mind that made the story but the story that made the mind. It’s called neuroplasticity, the formation of mental pathways and linkages: our thoughts and experiences literally build the physical matter of our own brain.

If storytelling is a uniquely and deeply human form of communication, then it is the wilderness that has made us human (of which there is no doubt). By the way, I can think of at least one other creature that tells stories.

It is the out of the ordinary that catches one’s attention in the wild.  This week when out on foot, an African Hawk Eagle took off from under a gardenia bush that we were passing. The ground is not a safe place to be at night and a bird has the option of being high up in a tree. This magnificent raptor must have had a reason for being on the ground and hiding under a thick bush, early in the morning. Though I had a strong sense of the significance of this, I was fascinated to investigate the reality.

There is feeling of familiarity when everything is behaving just as one expects. We see it and can appreciate it, but if it fits in its place then it requires no further mental investigation. But when something is out of the ordinary and it is not yet resolved in our neural interpretation of the surroundings, our seeking, inquisitive brain circuit is stimulated. All animals are the same in this way. Given the vast and diverse degree of behavior and interaction in the wilderness, it is a stimulating and fascinating place to call home.

As I suspected, the African Hawk Eagle had stashed a kill: a clean plucked and partially eaten guineafowl (their most common prey), hidden from the keen eyes of other raptors and scavengers, under a gardenia bush.

African Hawk Eagles pair up for life and are co-operative hunters. One bird will fly in and flush a flock of guineafowl and as they scatter into the air, the second Hawk Eagle flies in, from close behind, to snatch their shared prey.

I scanned around for a second Hawk Eagle but could not see one. The single raptor was up in the tree waiting for us to depart so that it could return to its meal; and so we did.

The following day, while out walking, we came across a pile of guineafowl feathers. I knelt down to investigate the method used to de-feather the bird (whereas mongoose, genets and cats will often use their carnassial shear to swiftly cut away the wing feathers, raptors only have the apparatus to pluck the feathers.) These wing feathers had been plucked.

It was only in that moment that it dawned on me that the location was not far from the Hawk Eagle’s stashed fowl. I looked over and that same bush was a mere hundred meters away. This must have been the kill site! The guineafowl was deliberately flown from here - once dead, plucked, and probably partially eaten - to the thick gardenia bush over there. I wonder what stimulated the feeling of vulnerability, providing enough concern to spend the energy to move the kill?

Threat could have come from the sky or from the ground. All carnivores will scavenge a kill from a creature that they can overpower. Amongst many others, a pirate could arrive in the form of a python or reptile, a small or large cunning cat, other raptors, or any of the infamous scavengers.

We continued walking and after another hundred meters, as we got to the bank of a dry river bed, there was a Bateleur, the most infamous scavenger eagle, down on the ground… clutching the dried flesh and bones of a guineafowl carcass.

I have no doubt that this was the same carcass, pillaged from the Hawk Eagle. Though the dense foliage of the gardenia bush would have hidden the carcass well, it was obviously not enough to hide it from the keen eyes of the low flying bateleur.  Perhaps the behavior of the hawk eagle had given it away?

Old world eagles and vultures locate carrion and prey by sight and sound alone. Their sense of smell, as it is with most birds, is poor and, for some, almost nonexistent. New world vultures, on the other hand, such as the turkey vultures, have a highly developed olfactory sense for locating carrion (as do honeyguides to detect bee hives, and cave swifts to help with navigation in poor light conditions).

However, the cone cell concentration in the retinal fovea of raptors is, on average, eight times that of the human retina. Not only do they see eight times the resolution that we do, they see an image that is magnified thirty percent over ours. To hide something from them, it had better be, and stay, well hidden.

Competition for resources in a living system is fierce; no detail goes unnoticed by hungry eyes and ears. The evolution of the senses of these creatures has been driven by a continual desire for more sensory information. Their survival depends upon it.

Just as for the creatures, the key ingredients to knowing the wilderness and its goings on are: attentiveness, fascination and time. In other words just place yourself here: the rest will come naturally.

The wild is one great big story of life, of which we will only ever have an individual’s experience. As stories are revealed to us, through non-sequential evidence, so, little by little, we form new associations and become familiar with the intricate behaviour and intimate lives of creatures. Knowing them in turn reveals a vast world, which our absence, unfortunately, neglects to witness. Thankfully the creatures remain: and thus, no detail, of the sacred and perpetuating world of interlinking life, goes unseen.

Unlike our stories, to this story there is no end. But if it must have a title and a conclusion then let’s call it: precious meat, contested ownership and life after the death of a guineafowl. 

Interpreting the trail...

Interpreting the trail...

Tracking is believed to have been an early foundation of our scientific mind. Gathering evidence, proposing a theory and then testing the theory, to either prove it or disprove it.

The art is not as simplistic as following paw-prints, one after the other, to find the animal living its present life. On a good patch of sand one may discover tracks and with experience determine whether they are fresh enough to follow by foot speed. By observing the landscape, the direction of the tracks and the well-worn animal paths, one should be able to propose a direction and perhaps even an initial theory. Knowledge of the lay of the land, the location of water points, a behavioural understanding of the species involved and a history with the pride’s or individual’s habits will all contribute to the success of the theory.

We had been on the trail of a male lion for the last two kilometres. So far our job had been easy: he had walked a well-known path, and by his direction we were reasonably certain that his tracks were headed to a nearby water source or otherwise would pass by it on the way to the open plain beyond.

This allowed us to circumvent his tracks and move ahead on the route, giving us a chance of closing the gap to his current location. Our theory proved correct as we rejoined the animal path and soon picked up his tracks again.

Upon nearing the only surface water on the bend of a dry river, we found no evidence of him descending to drink. This gave us further insight into his thought process. The path he walked was not about water. Predators, including humans, are not like prey species that meander about the landscape, picking here and there at their food: they have an intention in mind and they move upon that agenda, taking the most efficient route to get there.

With the sun at thirty degrees over the open plain, we found his fading tracks turning from south to west along the edge of the plain and then disappearing onto difficult terrain. The possibilities had left a single, defined path and opened up, leaving us to regroup with what we had so far. 

If he continued in a westerly direction, as suggested by his last clear track, then he would have taken an inefficient path to get to where he was going (there was a more direct animal path that would have led him to a location west of here). Lions are not known for inefficiency and for using energy unnecessarily. As he did not drink water, there would be no reason for him to use the path that he did - other than its efficiency to get to a destination. Why had he turned west after following an animal path that led him south?

Previously, just before sunrise, we had heard distant lion calls approximately five to six kilometres away from camp. It seemed likely that he was trying to locate his pride and was responding to their calls. Having walked approximately four kilometres, we assumed that the calls had originated further south of where we were. Facing in that direction, in the middle of the plain was a large wooded island. If he was trying to to bypass the island, from this location it would have made sense to round it along the western edge. Rather than follow west, we speculated that he would soon turn south again and cross the plain on the western side of the island. If he was going for shade on the island, then his tracks would have headed directly south, rather than first turning west - thus supporting our theory that he was moving to rejoin the pride.

During the kilometre walk across the open plain, the sun continued to rise and our conviction to the proposed theory began to melt with the heat. The terrain was difficult for tracks and he could have walked on any given bearing through the uniform expanse; however, we had not seen so much as a scuff mark. Could he have heard the calls of the pride upon reaching the open plain and turned west towards their direction? His tracks that had led us into the open plain suggested a constant gait, no stopping or deviating from the path to investigate hunting opportunities. This strongly suggested that his movement south was in response to their calls and therefore turning west must be a deviation. However, had he possibly caught sight of the pride on the move upon reaching the plain, and then turned west towards them? Had they called from the wooded island and then moved off west? Or was he perhaps moving upon their scent rather than yet responding to sight or sound of them? Alternative scenarios littered our attention. We only had enough time to investigate this one possibility; we stuck to our original theory and rounded the island to the far side of the plain. The rising heat was reducing the possibility that we might find the animal still on the move and with the amount of long grass around, it would be very easy to bypass a sleeping cat. Without any sign of tracks, he could be anywhere by now.

Then, as we crossed a small sandy patch on an animal path, we found one faint track of a lioness. Our optimism spiked. These must be the pride members that he was trailing. Not a hundred metres further and we came across his tracks, bisecting her orientation and continuing south towards the edge of the plain. Perhaps the pride had turned towards shade? We scanned the tree-line but found no sign.

We advanced and, within a few steps, impala alarm calls alerted us to predators on the move. We quickened our pace towards the impala, and there they were, reunited: a lioness and two male lions striding carefree from the southern edge of the plain back towards the wooded island for deeper shade. They had not seen us. We watched, motionless, as the impala snorted alarms and twitched nervously. The lions paced their direct line, unfazed by the commotion. We gazed upon the tension and the beautiful contrasts of nature – the relationships between predator and prey and the pattern of their tracks cutting through each other’s lives.

Drama

Drama

The African wilderness can be many things. As I sit here it is a place of bird calls and harmony. One might even be forgiven for asking where all the animals are.

But, being in the wilderness is not all about dramatic sightings. It is not always possible to be in the right place at the right time, and if it were we would certainly miss the rest of the moods out here.

The magnificence of life plays itself out everyday across the expanse of the wilderness – from the immense diversity of its micro-relationships to its grand cycles, patterns and seasonal changes.

The privilege of coming to the wild is openness, experiencing life for what it is. Though it is often drama that makes its way to the page, the silence and subtlety that intersperses it is of equal grandeur.

That said, if each of the months were a mood then October would be the month for drama. The heat alone is an experience of Africa. As it builds up to sustain temperatures of forty degrees Celsius, so the waters dry and creatures from far and wide leave their seasonal pans to make their way, in great thirst, towards the banks of the Luangwa. Their weakening bodies are barely sustained by the dry straw grasses, who hide their nutrition in their roots - in their own quest to survive this harshest of months.

The patterns of movements of the various herds of buffalo begin to overlap to such a degree that they eventually merge into a mega-herd, numbering perhaps a thousand animals strong, circling their remaining water-points in a kaleidoscope of ever tighter patterns.

Over dry soils the great herds kick up clouds of dust that can sometimes be seen a few kilometres off. The dusts in the sky set the drama in glowing orange sunsets, in the moment of harmony before the eerie sounds of the night begin.

One can be sure that lions are never far behind the great herds, trailing their scent and sounds, constantly following, dropping back and coming forward… looking for thirsty and weakened stragglers and occasionally ambushing, rushing in to create chaos, before the herd can form its defensive ring of horns. The lions may not be visible, but it doesn’t mean that they are not there.

To be amongst this drama on foot is a great privilege. However, even on a walking trail, the sightings sometimes come to us and we literally wake up and find ourselves surrounded - right place at the right time.

This morning we woke to a sea of buffalo on the open grasses in front of camp. It wasn’t simply their movements that interrupted our sleep though, but rather their apparent unease. The panic of a thousand buffalo is a startling way to wake, to say the least.

The buffalo herd stampeded across the plain, crashing into the wooded thicket alongside camp. Then, following them, the reason for their panic emerged from the trees: a lioness… two…three… eight lionesses and a male lion trotted behind - to the terror of the buffalo. At the back, a young cub trailed but accompanied the siege.

The lions turned on the attack and singled in on an outlying female buffalo. The attack went out of sight crashing into the thicket. The empty field resonated with booming growls from the lions and bleating buffalo distress calls. But soon the herd thundered out onto the field again and, in front of them, the lions had turned and were fleeing for their lives.

The sun was rising behind the scene and the disturbed dusts surrounded the drama with golden light. The buffalo cleared off, leaving the lions standing in the glowing orange sunlit field. They ambled away from the buffalo and back towards the trees. However there was no sense of dejection or finality about them. Their quest was not complete.

A male warthog was not paying attention and trotted onto the apparently empty field. The lioness stalked and then charged. The warthog came running directly towards camp, tail in the air and legs spinning, squealing as he ran. The golden backlit dust spewed up behind him, connecting him to the lioness on his tail. The squealing chase continued into the trees, and just before it went out of sight, the lioness knew she was beat and abandoned her snack.

She sauntered back towards the rest of the pride and sat fifty metres across from us, watching us drinking our morning coffee. After enough time had passed they got up and again moved in the direction of the buffalo herd, preparing for the next onslaught.

We readied to leave camp to relocate the pride on foot and within ten minutes we had them in sight again, from behind a bush. They looked out in the direction of the buffalo. One of the lionesses spotted us and, as we had hoped she might, calmly regarded us; our presence was not a surprise to them after seeing us observing this morning’s scene. Suspicious behaviour from behind cover can unnerve animals though, and so we chose to come out slowly from behind the bush.

The pride regarded us and then casually moved off and into the thicket. It seemed that the buffalo had gone too far, for the time being. We watched as the lions moved out of sight to pass the heat of the day in the shade - and perhaps to trail the buffalo through the cover of night. 

Thud

Thud

As I look out now, the herd of impala busies itself around a small waterhole. Tails flick in the hot sunshine and the territorial male licks the air, testing the scent of the anticipated offspring, a few weeks from due, in the belly of his pregnant females. 

I am watching them closely, trying to interpret their graceful and spritely demeanour. Looking for signs of nostalgia, I question whether they carry any memory of the startling scene that faced them in the early hours of morning. The sight, in the half light of dawn, of deadly beauty, the feared coat, as it sprung from the grass, like black magic, centimetres away from any one of them… the chaos… the smell of the cats fur… the family member taken by the neck and thrown to the ground with ferocious power… her world down with a thud; the upside down view of her tightly crowded herd, snorting urgent alarm calls in her direction, too late for her, not for them; her black, liquid eyes, wide with surprise, fear and then finally resignation, surrender and trust. Death.

Can they really remember the startling scene and yet now, so soon, so nearby, continue life with complete acceptance of their daily circumstance? Whose mother was she, whose child, friend? No sooner than I have asked the question, the dominant male and two females look up simultaneously and cast their vigilant, and perhaps reminiscent, gaze back in that direction. Survival.

We were around the fire, warming our comfortable world with a pre-dawn cup of coffee, when the intensity of the herds alarm calls pierced the stillness.  We set off on foot immediately and as we walked, vervet monkeys joined in the warning, chattering loudly of a predator in the area.

Up on the bank of the dry stream, alongside a patch of medium length grasses, we located a female impala that had been living her life only ten minutes prior. Her head was at rest. One eye lay attached to the sand; the other, still glistening, was frozen in thought, and looked up, past the tall trees, and to the sky.  Her liver and intestines were spread about and a few chunks of her bright red rump was devoured on the upper side. There was no predator in sight.

It was clear from the pattern of feeding that this was the shady artistry of a leopard. Somewhere, from within the combretum bushes… or perhaps the small patch of knee high grass in front of us… was a pair of watchful eyes, silently present and observing our behaviour. We scanned the area mindfully. The air was still; there was no sway or movement, though birds continued about their morning ways. We stepped forward to look for tracks and then, as if like liquid, she emerged from the grass, not five meters in front of us and fled - disappearing into the thicket.  

During that day we would see three leopards, and find a half eaten Reedbuck kill of a forth. All across the nine-thousand square kilometre South Luangwa National Park, countless impala flicked their tails and vigilantly cocked their heads before drinking water, and leopards lay in the shade of combretum bushes, in wait of the moonless night.