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Africa brings vision of modern-day Garden of Eden

I recall attending a Sunday school class as a boy where an earnest and hard-working teacher sought to present Christian concepts like the Garden of Eden. Mostly I was fidgety and distracted. At the time, my concept of Eden went no further than endless reels of Westerns and war movies fortified by large amounts of popcorn and penny candy. Yes, I am old enough to remember when a penny actually purchased something.
I have dim recollections of religious pictures of long low valleys and rolling hills with occasional trees and vast fields of waving grass. A bright but not too harsh sun shown down on the landscape populated by endless numbers of animals of all kinds living in peace.
Well, with one exception I will take up later, I have visited the modern version of that Eden. Its location is the game reserves of Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa. I’ve been lucky enough to have done some international traveling but I found this trip to be unique. Others focused on historic sites or scenery or quaint people, but this was the first and perhaps only time where at the center of the experience were animals in great variety and numbers. Nowhere else on earth today can you see so many animals close up and living almost exactly as they did 10,000 years ago. For once the term ‘awesome’ applies.
And the weather. Even though the Equator ran directly through one of the tented camps where we stayed, the altitude of about 7,000 feet kept the humidity low with warm days and cool nights. We also picked the right time of year to visit ‘ just after the rainy season, so everything was fresh and green.
As for animals, we saw a river of wildebeests flowing down the hills and across the road both in front and behind our vehicle. After half an hour we drove slowly through them only to be stopped again by more wildebeests a few miles further on.
There was a pride of lions draped on the limbs of a roadside tree watching for opportunity. Big herds of elephants surrounded us, and our car followed a hunting cheetah across the open plains for some minutes as he tried to ignore us. We smelled the overpowering result of a huge group of hippos wallowing in a small pool, and we were the subject of hard-eyed stares from the big males in the herds of the dangerous and powerful Cape buffalo.
How many different kinds of animal did we see? I counted 37 mammals from black rhinos through baboons and warthogs to mice and bush babies. I noted 15 reptiles, from Nile crocodiles to a brief glimpse of a juvenile African spitting cobra. The birds were everywhere, and with our guides’ help I checked off 145 species including six varieties of eagle and the beautiful lilac breasted roller.
Is this paradise on earth? No. Development in both countries is pressing in on the animal populations especially on migration routes. Roads are mostly a disaster, air pollution in big cities like Nairobi is suffocating, and political corruption linked to ineffective government is an ongoing problem. There are huge numbers of poor people who lack both job skills and education. It is much the same list that might be presented for most of Africa, although both governments appear to be working hard if not always effectively to make things better.
These countries have at the very least correctly identified what needs to be done. For example, they know they must protect their biggest money earner ‘ tourism. So they have taken strong measures to ensure the stability of game populations. In the 1970s and ’80s there was a large amount of organized poaching, particularly of elephants for ivory and rhinos for horn. In the Far East, rhino horn is ground up and consumed in the forlorn hope it will provide ‘male enhancement.’
Kenya now burns all elephant ivory, even that from animals who die of natural causes. The idea is to make any ivory for sale in the country illegal. In Kenya today, poaching can result in the ultimate penalty administered in the field. It continues but at a much reduced level.
Early in the column I noted the resemblance to Eden had one exception. The animal landscape in East Africa is not a peaceable kingdom but rests on tooth and claw and survival of the fittest. We need to recall that both the cuddly rabbit and the leopard that kills and eats it are part of the natural world and have equal claims to life.
Here I pause for a moment and go in a different direction. We saw only one leopard. He was lounging on a tree limb 50 yards off the road. As I watched him, I read in one guide book, ‘The leopard is the least specialized and most adaptable of the big cats. They persist even in settled areas substituting domestic animals and even people for natural prey, which includes all forms of animal protein from beetles to antelopes weighing three times its own weight.’ It is both chilling and magnificent to have such a large, dangerous and successful animal among us.
The idea of adaptability is the key. Everything is always changing, and those creatures which adjust to the new have increased their chances of survival. Unfortunately, extinction in the modern world too often is controlled by a man with a gun or a plow.
We traveled almost a thousand miles of washboard dirt roads but in the process we saw the movement of 1.8 million wildebeests, a large but not particularly bright or handsome antelope as they sought to maintain ancient migration patterns. Many didn’t make it. At one shallow water crossing, we counted eight carcasses. Predators also have it tough, with an estimated 50 percent of lion cubs not surviving their first year.
It has been said it’s all such a delicate balance. We saw huge areas of tall rich grass that was pretty much devoid of large animals except for giraffe and ostrich. At the same time, the short scruffy grass was home to large herds of Impala, and Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles. The reason: The tall grass may taste good, but it also provides cover for lions, leopards and cheetahs. Better to have short rations than a short life, and oh, yes, the giraffe and the ostrich are tall enough to look down on predators.
Actually both predators and prey need one another, the predator, of course, for his dinner. For the prey, the predator weeds out the weak and infirmed, improving the herd and helping ensure it will not overgraze available grass.
Some years ago the state of Indiana sponsored significant extra deer hunting in Brown County which upset some folks. The reason for increased deer hunting was the deer had become so abundant they were starving in large numbers in the winter. They were also eating the small hardwood seedlings as they emerged from the ground. If the pattern had continued, within 100 years forest cover in the area would have diminished to almost nothing. Since there are no longer large predators in Indiana, the job of control had to be done by hunters.
Thinking about the whole trip I connected the plains of East Africa with the Great Plains of the United States. A short 50 years ago we had ecosystems that were similar. Instead of zebra, gazelles and giraffe, we had buffalo, deer and prong-horned antelope. Our predators were mostly wolves along with cougars and coyotes. In the 30 years after the Civil War, men with rifles and plows killed off millions of animals and brought the buffalo to the edge of extinction. It gave us our vast wheat fields and beef herds but the cost might be debated.
Somewhat different dynamics operated in East Africa, and they have been able to change a goodly portion of their plains to their economic advantage. Humans often make choices that have lasting impact without being aware of it at the time.
In the end, my reaction to the trip was to confirm delight in the natural world whether in the form of a wild turkey in my backyard in Harrison County or a hunting leopard in Tanzania. The natural world may frighten you or conceivably kill you, but it will never bore you.
Thanks for reading.