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.