Rare & Endangered Conservation Efforts

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The pangolin, courtesy of REST, is rarely seen in the wild or in captivity
Avital locked in on it from day 1 – we could not leave Africa until she saw a pangolin. Sure, I encouraged here to pick her ‘must find’ animal – but was it really fair for here to pick what is arguably the most rarely seen creature on the entire continent? After telling the story on afternoon, Jackie hesitantly said she knew where we could find one. Driving on the road near Otjiwarongo a while back she saw a white woman walking – a rare sight around here. The second time she saw the same woman she saw something else too – the pangolin she was following. The woman was Maria Diekman, whose Rare & Endangered Species Trust is helping to study and conserve several of the most critically endangered species of the area (and the world as long as the Chinese keep insisting that their scales are valuable to them). She was lucky to have been around this pangolin since it was born and it lets her follow it every day through the bush (which means at times crawling through thorny thickets and worse) as it forages for food – allowing her to record more about their natural behavior than has ever been studied. Pangolins are not just rarely seen in the wild, they are nearly impossible to keep alive in captivity and we know very little about these fascinating creatures – no two sources can even agree on the basics like their gestation period.

Lion Close By
We were so close to the lion I needed the widest angle I could get out of my lens
With that information in hand I reached out to Maria. Unfortunately, after having a contract in place that was supposed to allow her to buy the land she has established the Trust on after five years (that being now) the farm owner has decided instead to evict her. It is a sad situation currently in litigation and if she isn’t able to find a new home, and raise the money to buy it, soon the pangolin and her other creatures are in real danger. Even sadder for us, it meant she was unable to take public visitors at the moment – our best, probably only real, opportunity to see a pangolin in the bush was slipping away. So I had a suggestion, we were going to be in the area anyway, why don’t we stop by not as visitors but as friends – ‘one can never have enough friends’ she replied. She gave us directions to where she would be, told us to let the gatekeeper know we were friends stopping by for a visit, and off we went. Luckily, when we arrived nearby the pangolin was foraging near the road – so we were easily able to find our new friend and her rare creature. The pangolin is an incredibly cool animal – its scales are made of keratin like our fingernails, it walks on its back legs (which are similar to elephant pads) and uses its front legs to dig, its tongue is as long as its core body and moves incredibly fast as it feeds on termites and ants. We spent over an hour tracking the pangolin with Maria, talking about her efforts and challenges, the pangolin and how little is known about it and the future prospects for her, the pangolin and her other rarities. It was an incredibly lucky opportunity for us, and a memorable highlight of the whole trip – at the same time, it is a bittersweet reminder of how fragile the wilds of Africa are and how incapable our current institutions are at conserving it.

Giraffe Mother and Child
The tall mother giraffe looking after her shorter baby
Our next stop was four nights in Etosha – one of the premier parks in Africa. What could be better to combat that bittersweet feeling than this wilderness filled with wildlife. It did not take us long to encounter the wonders of Etosha; heading towards the closest waterhole to the Andersson Gate, Ombika, we started to see the masses of zebras, springbok, gemsbok – oh, and there is a lion. Not 15 feet from our vehicle under a small tree was a large male lion to welcome us to Etosha. It stayed with us for ten minutes or so before tiring of our company and walking deeper into the bush – not a bad start. It would only be topped with our last sighting on the morning of departure – getting an early start rewarded us with watching two male lions performing their morning ablutions not 10 feet from us, also known as striking distance.

Damara Dik Dik
The tiny damara dik dik not only has the coolest name but the coolest hair of all antelopes
We would go on to see lion, elephant and rhino every day – along with multiple sightings of hyena, cheetah, cape foxes, mating jackals, large herds of springbok, impala, zebra, wildebeest, kudu, gemsbok, giraffe along with herds of elephant 50+ strong and even dik-dik (my favorite small antelope). And of course there was the nightly rhino stage show at the floodlit waterholes of Okaukeujo and Halali. On the first night there were 6 rhinos including a very ornery male who seemed pissed at everyone and eventually got so mad at another male talking to his girl that he did a full speed charge right at him – his girl was so embarrassed by this display she pretended not to know him the rest of the night. On the second night, there were only 4 rhinos with one male who refused to take no as an answer from a woman (who was there with her kid) and they spent the night playing an awkward game of ‘hard to get’ that managed to keep two hyena and multitudes of jackals from getting too close to the action. On the third night we again saw four rhino, two of which (mother and child) were afraid of their own shadows, they were scared off by birds, jackals and their own imagination – it almost makes you wonder if they had seen a poaching at some point (something which used to be unheard of in Etosha but has become increasingly problematic; yet another good example of the our institutions’ inability to cope with market demand’s impact on the environment) and were skittish because of the camp noise.

Rhino at Night
This rhino was not having a good night first he did a full charge and then his girlfriend ignored him
So why does it still feel bittersweet? Like Kruger, Etosha is (understandably) very popular with tourists and relatively accessible, thus crowded – though the crowds at any given sighting (even the lions) were nothing like Kruger and it was easy to be alone on the side roads. This was particularly noticeable at the floodlit waterholes in the camps where it did almost have a zoo-like feel at times. It connected back to what Bossie and Andrew has said about the tourists these days – they aren’t looking for the real Africa like the trip we had back in the day, they want a sanitized version they can tweet about while ignoring what is going on around them and not really engaging the experience. Two moments captured this for me – the first was watching a lady, who got herself a front row seat to the rhino show one evening, spend the entire time texting on her phone looking up at the scene maybe twice, and the second was the common photo opportunity of ‘me with the elephants in the background’. What about that shot that people love to take everywhere they go? To me it signals two things. First, they are literally turning their backs to the experience, removing themselves from the moment as if it is the background noise and they are the center. Second, it appears as though they aren’t really interested in the experience (which they have turned away from) but only in the (tweetable?) image of them being there.

Cheetah in Etosha
This cheetah was just one of the many extraordinary sightings in Etosha
On its own, people wasting experiential opportunities isn’t really a problem – it’s their life to waste after all –but the ramifications of this dominant attitude raises a serious challenge. If this is the experience that (enough) modern day ‘travelers’ are looking for then this is the experience the market will provide – and that means contrived, artificial ‘lion walking’ with a young cub who will be shipped off to a hunters camp as soon as its too much of a liability to walk with clients (which is very soon) will prosper while critical conservation efforts like Maria’s, where visiting may require you to crawl through the bush to see a pangolin – way too much effort for a Facebook post that won’t impress your friends – can be evicted without much thought. Clearly, our institutions as they stand are not equipped to address the conservation challenges here (not to mention the economic and social ones) as they rely too heavily on the perceived benefit of third-party funders – be they the ‘do-gooders’, ‘religious evangelists’ or the ‘nature tourist’ – which only aligns with the need by coincidence. This isn’t the first time this has come into raw focus for me, and I have yet to come up with any ingenious solution, but it is again a reminder that the experiential opportunities I have enjoyed (and am now introducing my children too) may themselves be endangered.

Aardvark at Etosha Pan
Meet Aardvark – she will hopefully guide us all the way to Johannesburg
All that said, we still enjoyed Etosha – and really enjoyed our time with Maria, REST and the pangolin – and will continue to take advantage of the opportunities before us while they are still here. We are going to start heading east again on our way to Botswana exploring some of the wilderness of the Caprivi area. We are doing so in our new Hilux – at some point I will compare the experience to the Defender, but so far she has been a good ride and we are quickly adapting to the new layout. In the tradition of our people we named her Aardvark, after her deceased predecessor (Aardavi was instantly rejected by 75% of the family) – though Eliav prefers to see her as the widowed spouse of Aardwolf; may she lead us safely for the rest of our journey.

One Response

  1. David
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    Just catching up with your news (working backwards from the Pangolin — thanks for your arresting thoughts on the institutional environment for conservation). My best wishes to Karen, glad she got adequate care.

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