Body in Motion

Cry Freedom
June 2, 2009, 6:36 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized, wildlife

When the guide tells me there are more Bengal tigers in South African than South Asia*, I almost fall out of the safari truck.

I can’t quite explain why I was looking at a Bengal tiger in a cage in South Africa. I was staying at a game farm for a workshop and thought the Saturday morning “game drive” seemed like a reasonable way to kill a few hours. But I was wrong.

There wasn’t much that I found “reasonable” about the so-called game drive which consisted of a tour of predators’ cages and a few free-range antelope. The adolescent Bengal tigers cried against the chain-linked fence of their cage smaller than my living room. Apparently two Bengal tigers were introduced to the “wild” on another South African game farm but were re-caged after going on a kudu killing spree their first night out. No one else has release plans anytime soon.


Nursey-raised lion cub

The leopard wouldn’t come out of his sleeping hut. We’re told he had to be separated from the female because he kept killing the cubs. I couldn’t help thinking it was a mercy killing.

The lions were white Kalahari lions, bred as novelty animals. They sat in pairs in their cages and roared all night. They had forgotten what it is like to creep through the night in search of a kill. Or perhaps they have never known.

The contrast to the following Saturday couldn’t have been more vivid.

Sundown in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. An adolescent male climbs down from a weeping tree and crosses a meadow to join the pride of 5 females and adolescents. I saw him as a cub last July, creeping through the brush on his mama’s footsteps in the early evening. Today, he greets the pride silently as his compatriots loll sleepily in the grass, poking playfully at one another.


Born free

Day turns to dusk and then to night quickly in this part of the world, and it’s not long before the pride is up and streching, before they are loping silently through the darkness. We struggle to see them moving through the bush in front of us. The split up and fall into hunting formation. As the dark deepens, they become almost invisible except for the slightest slip of movement in the nighttime.

They lie in formation, in wait for some time, each with his or her eyes and nose pointed uniformly in one direction. There is hardly a sound until the warning cry of another antelope who has spotted the group through the darkness.

The hunt is off; the lions lope off together in unspoken unison, waiting for safari trucks and antelopes to sleep so they can hunt in peace.

*I can’t verify if this is true.

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Joining the Cult
March 6, 2009, 3:25 pm
Filed under: wildlife

There are things I didn’t think I’d do in my life that didn’t entirely surprise me when they happened: eating dried mopane worms, hanging out with soldiers, and a few things I don’t care to mention publicly.

But I never, never thought I would become a birder. For starters, I’m a self-identified intellectual snob when it comes to animal companions. I have deep respect for elephants and dolphins and there’s no question that chez moi, the cat reigns over the house. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s no doubt in my mind where the term “birdbrain” came from. Let’s face it: when it comes to beauty versus brains, we know where the bird falls on that spectrum.

Now I can hear some of you saying “But wait! Crows are smart – they can play tricks on other animals. And no one ever doubts an eagle’s intelligence.”

Intelligence isn’t the only reason birds have historically ranked low on my own personal species list. On most occasion, I don’t even refer to them by name, but rather just as vectors.

Vectors?! You ask. Why yes, says the public health professional. Birds can and do spread ailments from the yucky to the dangerous: cryptosporidium, avian flu, West Nile virus. And if you heard that immigrants were bringing cholera into your country, would you stand for it? So why stand for migratory birds from East Africa starting cholera outbreaks in Russia?

So why have I become a birder, despite evidence that birds are well, for the birds?

Faced with a public holiday and not much else going on, I decided to spend last weekend at one of Malawi’s lovely national parks. This weekend last year, I went to Kasungu National Park and spent 2 days examining tsetse flies plastered to the outside of my vehicle. So this year, I figured Liwonde National Park, gracefully lining the Shine River, might be a better bet.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, this isn’t the best time of year to go in search of big game. In fact, it’s generally agreed to be the worst time of year. The rains have been plentiful so there’s food available throughout the park and in the surrounding areas. This means animals like elephants, zebras and antelopes have a wider range of land to feed off of and more brush to hide in. Translation: there really isn’t a hell of a lot to see on safari in March, besides birds.

The rainy season’s a great time for bird-spotting. Birds from the northern hemisphere (yeah, the ones carrying cholera to Eastern Europe) are wintering in warmer climes and take great joy at all the flowers and fruits in season.

So I spent three days looking at birds. The weather was gorgeous and it wasn’t too hot but I must admit, I have a long way to go when it comes to spotting tiny critters in the tops of trees. Trust me: an elephant is much harder to miss.