Two years ago, I was travelling in Africa. I did not write much about it because for about two years I was not quite able to make up my mind about the continent, its people and this vast diversity I saw on the sole stretch of East Africa from Tanzania to the Horn of Africa and up to Nubia and Egypt. But now that I finally digested the experience and figured out how I feel about Africa, let me tell you about the coolest kids in the savanna. Because, you know, safari tours is why most travellers even dare to step on African land.
My closest encounter with a buffalo happened in Queen Elisabeth National Park in Uganda. When you are out there, in the wild, there are several options for overnight stay. People like me always go for the cheapest one, because it is more fun and because they do not have money. While my travel companions slept in the huts near the visitor center, I pitched my tent in the middle of the Park’s campsite.
From what I read in online reviews, the campsite was supposed to be a jolly place where you sit with other campers around the bonfire, look at the stars and listen to spooky animal sounds in the darkness. This was all true, except for the ‘other campers’ part. Perhaps because of off-season travel, I was completely alone at the far end of the enormous campsite, with a pile of wood for the bonfire and determination to see some stuff lurking in the dark. So I sat there, fighting sleep, like a brave padawan, until after midnight. Then it started drizzling, the fire was gone, and I crawled into my tent hoping that in the mighty jungle the lion sleeps tonight, instead of stalking its prey.
When I woke up in the morning, a large horned beast was grazing outside my tent and looking at me with indifferent eyes. Buffalos are actually one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, in a group or alone, due to their unpredictable mood swings. But that is if you bother them first. So don’t. Myself and a few cyclists in Hell’s Gate Park in Kenya once had to make a 3 km loop through the field around one place on the road where an injured buffalo was stranded. Buffalos can normally fend for themselves, in a group or alone, with gore attack and pointy horns. Their character is probably one of the reasons why human population of Africa never managed to domesticate these fantastic creatures.
Real-life Pumbas are hairy, poke their snout everywhere and run around with loud squeals. So yeah, Pumba. They are much hairier than Disney wanted you to believe, although by the look of it their hair feels more like toothbrush than cuddly fleece blanket. Warthogs have a very cool superpower: they can go without water for up to several months, but when they find a dirty pool they would sit there, covered in mud, to cool down and repel annoying insects. Oxpeckers and other small birds sometimes hitch a ride on top of a warthog and pick the insects off its skin as a thank you.
Warthogs are frequently hunted by large felines and birds of prey, but they are lucky to be not cute enough to end up on top of the list for human game hunters. Although adult warthogs have two pairs of tusks, they usually cannot be bothered to fight their attackers, but prefer to peacefully escape by sprinting away into the bush and lying low. They do the same when facing safari tourists: give you a piercing dirty look and disappear in the cloud of rising dust.
Elephants are some majestic bastards. As if being the largest land mammal on Earth was not enough – nature graced elephants with some other cool features. Like the ears, for example. Not only they are shaped like Africa, but also help the elephant stay cool throughout the day, despite the heat, insects and annoying tourists with cameras. Their magnificent trunk, on the other hand, is a multifunctional device for smelling, showering, and well, also a hand. African elephant habitat spreads as far north as Malian desert, where the animals migrate according to season in search of water. But of course, 22-month pregnancy cycle, dying of thirst or being mauled by a pack of predators is the least of elephants’ concerns.
The lucrative business of international ivory trade has been going on for many many centuries, before it was proclaimed illegal in 1990. Illegal status of elephant ivory trade, however, did not stop the poachers from slaughtering the animals for their tusks. If the starting price for a pound of ivory (the one that poachers get for hunting down, killing the animal and cutting off the tusks) ranges between $50 and $200, by the time said ivory arrives to the black market in China, USA, Middle East or Europe, the price per pound skyrockets up to $1,000-4,500.
The channels for bringing illegally poached ivory to the buyers pass through the most unstable countries on the African continent. This comprehensive research by National Geographic shows that ivory trade is not just about killing animals, but also about financing terrorism of militia groups like LRA and Janjaweed, perhaps even Al Shabaab and Boko Haram. Although some might disagree on the actual scale of contribution that illegal ivory trade makes to terrorism, around 20,000 African elephants are slaughtered every year, East Africa being the major poaching ground, while smuggling routes to ports of export lie via Sudan, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Chad, Somalia – the most war-affected countries on the continent.
Rhinos, sadly, were the only large African mammals that I never got to see with my own eyes. I sincerely hope that by the time I revisit Africa they will not be wiped out by poachers completely. In Africa, one can find several subspecies of rhinos. The most critically endangered of them, northern white rhino,
has only 4 living rhinos left,(just as I posted this, another one of them died in a zoo in the US, so now there is only 3 of them left) 3 of them in Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya. Of southern white rhinos, there are about 20,405 living in the wild. Another species, the black rhino, consisting of three remaining subspecies, is considered critically endangered, with overall 5,055 mammals left, according to Save the Rhino website.
Why are these giants on the brink of extinction? Well because of humans, of course. Nature programmed rhinos to care little about their surroundings and take it slow. Of course, if you are a 4,5-meter tank that weighs over 3,500 kilos, why would ever look out for predators? Except when you have kids, which for individual rhino females happens every 2,5-5 years. Young calves live with their mother for at least 3 years before becoming an independent 4,5-meter tank that weighs 3,500 kilos.
From Greek natural history writers to prominent travellers with excessive imagination like Marco Polo, rhinos were described in a bit of a confusing way. Long story short, they turned into unicorns.
Who knows how these massive beasts came to be depicted as mythical elegant horned horses that can only be approached by virgins. But if you are looking for a slogan for your next ‘Save the rhino’ campaign, I suggest bringing up the unicorn topic. Internet loves unicorns, and LGBT communities will all rise up for our cause.
But horns, indeed, is the main reason rhinos are being poached. Dating back over 1,000 years is the Chinese and Yemeni tradition to use rhino horns to decorate sword handles, ceremonial chalices, clothes. But more important on this issue are ancient books of Chinese traditional medicine that prescribed powdered rhino horn for everything: from headaches to mental illnesses (devil possession). The funny part is that no original sources of Chinese traditional medicine ever stated that rhino horn was good for horniness (i.e aphrodisiac), hangover or getting high, but perhaps the rise of social media helped to spread these hoaxes in the early 2000s when the poaching of African rhinos soared across the continent. In our days, powdered rhino horn is apparently an upscale party drug in Vietnam, an aphrodisiac in China, and what not. As for the actual medical research, it mostly proves that eating, drinking or snorting powdered rhino horn has as much effect on your body and mind as eating, drinking or snorting your own powdered fingernails.
Giraffes are the tallest mammals on the planet, and although their shape does not seem very agile, they can actually run at 50+ km per hour and fight with their necks. What is even more cool, is that a newborn giraffe falls 1,5 meters out of its momma right on the ground, lies there for about half an hour, adjusting its light settings and spatial orientation, then stands up and starts walking like a boss, grazing on acacia trees and frolicking around. Baby giraffes are badass and ain’t need no momma to helicopter-parent them for a couple of decades, like it often happens with humans.
Although an average lifespan of a giraffe in the wild is 25 years, so I guess they really try to make the best of these years by starting off as early as possible. Local communities have valued giraffe’s hides and tails for practical purposes and as a lucky charm, and game hunters still shoot the majestic animals in hunting reserves for their lovely spotted skins and meat. As for me, I really think their ossicones look a lot like alien antennas that allow giraffes to maintain contact with their intergalactic overlords.
Long before ‘The Lion King’, long before lions began nearing extinction, young Maasai men of Kenya and Tanzania had an initiation ritual, the rite of passage that proved their agility and strength and granted them attention from potential brides: a young warrior would go alone into the wild and kill a lion with nothing but a knife and his hands. I heard that some modern-day Maasai boys, even if they live in big cities and haven’t ever been in the bush, sometimes brag to foreign chicks that they have once skinned a lion with their bare hands. Statistically, I am not sure how well it works on foreign ladies, but killing a lion in modern-day Africa is illegal (unless you are a loaded scumbag who can pay for it, and two scumbags who are willing to help).
As for the Maasai traditions, quite recently local NGOs came up with a brilliant idea to replace the ritualistic lion killing with Maasai Olympics, an alternative way for young Maasai warriors to prove their worth for young ladies and other members of the tribe.
My greatest memory about Kenyan lions was seeing a pair copulating in front of approximately 30 safari vans. Armed with enormous cameras, at least a hundred tourists were glowing with joy while snapping a series of cat porn pictures they would show to their friends back at home.
Leopards are nocturnal ninja cats that hunt from trees, store their prey among the branches, or even go for crabs and fish if they need to diversify their diet. Different species of leopard are spread across Asia and Africa, and many of them are endangered or threatened due to changes of their natural habitat and attacks by humans. Of course, a lot of humans seem to want a piece of leopard skin, unable to grown their own.
On a safari, you ought to wake up early in the morning in order to catch a glimpse of this elusive introverted cat as it finishes its breakfast up on the tree after a fun night of stalking its prey. Its white-and-golden skin is covered in black rosettes, blending with the colour of dried grass, speckled branches and yellow sand. Leopards are solitary creatures and mostly want to be left alone by others of their kind. They mark their territory and hunt within their own grounds, trying to avoid trespassing, except for mating season. While females normally raise young cubs on their own, hiding them on trees, the biological father would protect them if another male leopard invades his territory. The only thing cuter than a baby leopard is two baby leopards. Leopards also purr when happy and well fed, so keep your ears sharp when you are out in the wild watching these magnificent ninjas.
Cheetah is a motherflippin’ rocket with the fastest acceleration in the animal world. Cheetah running contests in zoos resulted in a record-breaking run at almost 100 km per hour, and we may assume that in the wild, while chasing their prey and enjoying freedom, these four-legged missiles can develop even faster speeds. That is, do not mess with a cheetah unless you are riding another, even faster cheetah. Often confused with leopards, cheetahs are actually easier to spot on a trip across the savanna. They usually hang out with their pals, sleeping in a snuggly heap under a tree or stalking you from a distance. At least that’s how I usually saw cheetahs, and they were quite far away to snap a good photo.
Hippos are awesome. They look and sound like gigantic inflated pigs, but they are so much more vicious than any other creature in the savanna. And oh boy, quite a few tourists get snapped by hippos every year because they try to take pictures too close or even approach a baby hippo. Right behind every baby hippo, however cute it might seem, stands an evil beast, the hippo momma. Her jaws open over one meter wide, filled with sharp blades of teeth, and she is fast and stealthy like a Japanese train.
They might look fat, awkward and slow, but hippos can easily outrun a human and sometimes walk distances up to 20km to get from one body of water to another, surviving out in the open. The only time when a hippo can actually be threatened by something, is when it is still a baby. Crocodiles may grab them at a river crossing, lions might catch it while the hippo momma is looking the other way. Otherwise, hippos are pretty chill: nothing and nobody bothers them as they sit all day submerged in the cool water, only a pair of piggy eyes poking on the surface. And yeah, you do not wanna dive in a lake next to a hippo either: they are great at swimming too. They’re almost indestructible, like savanna’s own Captain America.
Hyenas are lovely, no matter what lies Disney cartoons have been feeding you all these years. Of course, all we remember from “The Lion King” is Shenzi, Banzai and Ed, three pretty moronic, giggling and gluttonous creatures with the voices of Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings. Of all characters from the cartoon that defined African wildlife for generations of Western children, hyenas are perhaps the only fellas that do not evoke any compassion. In reality, hyenas are bloody fantastic.
Here’s some cool facts: genetically hyenas are related to felines, but their behavior is more consistent with that of the canine family – they hunt in packs, do not climb trees and attack with teeth rather than claws. Paleonthologists say that species must have originated in Eurasia and originally did climb trees, but eventually lost this ability. Wild hyenas actually hunt much more than they scavenge, and hunger makes them a great team (that’s where “The Lion King” was right). Spotted hyenas are fearless fighters even against someone bigger, while striped and brown hyenas play dead when attacked. There’s also civet hyenas that do not bother hunting at all and eat larvae and termites because they are cool like this. In mythological tales all across Sub-Saharan Africa, hyenas play an important role: from solar deities to witch companions. Parts of their bodies are said to be good for magic potions, and some hyenas can actually turn into people (werehyenas?).
Hyenas are mainly nocturnal animals. My best encounter with the beasts happened in the weirdest city of Ethiopia, Harar. Some 50 years ago, when food was scarce in the region, hyenas started attacking the chicken coops and stealing small cattle from local families. In order to placate them, Harari citizens started putting food leftovers and porridge in the street outside their houses so that hyenas would come and feast instead of stealing. The tradition survived until our days, and the two families who run it (a Muslim one and a Christian one) are making some money out of the show: they come outside the city walls every night at 8PM and feed the hyenas with strips of meat. Every bystander is welcome to come closer and try feeding the animals from hand or mouth. Mouthfeeding a hyena is definitely something to put on your bucket list.
Although all the hyenas that are Harari regulars seem to have a name, and the feeder actually calls out for them at the start of the evening, they are far from being tame. That is, feed them as you like, but no touching or hugging. Most of the hyenas in Harar are a bit like stray dogs: they run around at night and scavenge stuff from dumpsters outside the city walls. I was told that they sometimes stroll around in the streets, too, but never got to see one during my midnight stargazing escapades.
The point is, hyenas are fluffy and great, and could have been on Simba’s side if he had not been raised a bit of a prejudiced racist.
Animals are amazing. They are the best gift Africa can offer. Unfortunately, such outdated colonial practice as trophy hunting still exists, and many animals fall victims of human vanity and bad taxidermy. Some argue that the money hunters pay for the privilege of hunting at game reserves goes towards conservation efforts, but I doubt that the lions would be satisfied with such explanation.
Nevertheless, when it comes to safari tours, private conservancies are probably a better option than a national park. While in the national park you will likely be one of about a hundred cars surrounding every single noteworthy animal, private conservancies only allow the guests who stay at one of their lodges on a game drive. Moreover, private conservancies offer some off-road driving, evening and night drives, which also guarantees more diversity for you to observe and photograph. Finally, privately owned game reserves have a better record of maintaining their grounds poaching-free than government-run reserves, and this is something to be grateful for.