Not your average travel blog
North of Johannesburg is an area famous for a few hot springs. It’s a local tourism hot-spot and nearby is a group of game reserves, holiday accommodations and “wilderness” areas for the creature-comfort-loving nature viewer. It is commercial – with dozens of guides and rangers in each reserve all driving around in well-used vehicles, showing the general public as much wildlife as possible. They radio-signal to each other about where rare wildlife is and although they have some quite sensible approaches to viewing, so not to overcrowd the beasts, it can be a rather false approach to a wild experience and tracking. However, in my friend’s time-share chalet, over-looking the squat-tree-covered hills, the grassy landscapes and the dry, dusty bushveld, it is strikingly beautiful. It is hard not to appreciate the location and home-comforts that await you.
Daily, we are taken on a drive to see the wildlife and it’s both relaxing and interesting to take part in the experience from “the other side” – being guided rather than guiding. Naturally, there is a wealth of information specific to the area we are in which is new to me and although the guides and I share information about various species, I have many questions. I’m also regularly surprised about how little most of the guides/rangers know about the rest of southern Africa – nothing beats experience when it comes to gaining knowledge. Every day is still a school day for us all and from a learning perspective, I love it!
It is hard sometimes to go from the extreme wild at “home” in and around Malawi to a more man-made version. There are often a lot of controversial sights, sounds and processes that are difficult to come to terms with but with as much knowledge and common sense as we attempt to utilise, there is a place in the world for the reserves and giant-zoos that have unfortunately become the last safe-havens for the most critically-unsafe creatures. “Safe-haven” is a very relative term.
Controversial statement, but there are no truly wild areas in South Africa where big game roam (including Elephant, Lion, Cheetah, Rhino, Giraffe, Cape Buffalo, numerous antelope and even certain birds like the giant Ground Hornbill). All species exist in game reserves or national parks, by whoever or whatever organisation they are managed. There are 19 national parks in South Africa and as far as I am aware, they are all fenced lands – even the Kruger National Park which covers almost 20,000 square kilometres. The only truly wild animal of the Big Five left seems to be the leopard, some of which have not been fenced in. That’s not to say that all the creatures should not be respected as wild beasts, but they are bought and sold, used for science and breeding programs, and live or die often by man’s management, not just left to be themselves. It’s easy to focus on certain well known animals, but while so interested in the complete ecosystems, it’s impossible not be effected by the rarity and struggle of creatures like the caracal, civet, serval, genet, various birds, amphibians, reptiles, bugs which play such a huge part of the life cycle, and the most trafficked animal of all – the gorgeous and heartwarming pangolin.
I am in a reserve of over 12,000 square hectares (120 square kilometers) which has essentially been returned to the wild (following an intensive farming period). The 8ft predator fencing surrounds the entire reserve and attempts to keep both endangered animals in and dangerous poachers out. A small lion pride is managed in a separate “enclosure” which is over a couple of thousand square hectares. The malaria-free reserve is a very controlled and managed balance of ecosystem – it must be, in order to sustain the wildlife numbers. On the surface, it works. It brings the importance of wildlife and tourism together. It educates and develops respect and consideration for the creatures and the environment. It aids in breeding programs and where there is so much friction between man and beast, where politics, human development and poaching encroach so violently into the wild world, these reserves offer some solace to the beasts which are modern-day pioneers in keeping their species alive.
On the flip side we interfere with landscape to sustain certain species for human benefit. We alter soils, exile plants and trees or force them to grow, contribute to troubled food sources and manage wildlife numbers to suit the size of landscape which we create. In essence, we attempt to play god. It’s easy to be nonchalant or gloss over this fact, but it is evident once you begin to look at our involvement into the environment. True wilderness isn’t free from our impact either. It is the victim of everything we do – and is something which I fail to ever sit comfortably on. Without this approach and these types of reserve however, in a world far less than perfect, we would undoubtedly be without many of the species that are hanging on.
Due to the pressures of poaching, farming and habitat loss, controversial processes and human-intervention into the survival of troubled beasts, mentioning the exact location of endangered species and exact numbers isn’t something I am willing to divulge. Most of the information surrounding specific species isn’t shared by the reserves and is also kept secret from many of their staff. It is fair to say that when any private reserves encounter poaching incidents, there is almost always information that has been shared from inside sources. Many reserves and wildlife rehabilitation centres continue to be the victims of horrendous and horrific attacks, solely for the value of wildlife’s physical trinkets. Recently, 16 baby, orphaned rhino were slaughtered in a rehab centre, their barely developed horns were hacked from their heads, while some of the staff on site were beaten to death. Only last year, the rhino enclosure in Paris Zoo (France) was broken into. The rhino were shot and horns brutally taken. I never mince my words over these atrocities – it is war.
I saw rhino with complete horns for the first time and it was overwhelmingly satisfying and humbling. Despite my stiff upper lip Britishness, it was emotional. Even mores because while travelling throughout the range of rhino in southern Africa, across multiple countries and through their ideal habitat, you just don’t see them. Their trails and spoor are absent and it is upsetting. Those you occasionally see in rehab centres have bandages around their faces or have sole-destroying, saddening stumps where their entirely-defining and proud facial feature once was.
South Africa is home to 70 percent of the world’s 29,500 rhinos. Humans can pin-point probably every rhino left on this earth, and the tourists in these reserves who witness these protected rhino most often seem to be the most removed from the fact that they simply don’t exist in the true wild anymore. We own them.
There is a vast array of scientific evidence and multiple conservationist facts that cover the rhino’s plight. It is almost extinct and we are, without doubt, monumentally responsible for this sad situation. From someone that adores the wild in its rawest sense, the fact that we can locate and count every single one of these so called “wild animals” is heartbreaking. These are no longer wild creatures of the earth – they have become a number in our books, a catered-for commodity which we have stripped habitat and home from. Compare this to say, a warthog, or even a British badger, where the wild is still their home, where they are not labelled for their value or noted on a tally chart, they are not being kept alive by armed guard or homed in a giant zoo – they are wild in the truest sense. Like children in a new school, Rhino can now be easily counted…and they now live, and often behave, by our say so. I question daily when in the bush, who’s home is it?
To say rhino still exist, out there on their own, beyond the fence, off the grid and absent from “the register” is inaccurate. The wild simply doesn’t have any rhino to boast of and people are unaware of this. They only exist in relatively large, heavily-protected pens which mimic actual wilderness. They are happy, they appear wild on their own terms – albeit with regular interaction and sightings of humans, ogling at them from cars. We have a very, very long way to got to witness absolute wild rhino again and I truly hope that further from the heavily-protected and resource-heavy South African reserves it can happen.