By Anthony D. Barnosky, Professor in the Department of Integative Biology, Curator in the Museum of Paleontology, and Research Paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. His new book Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth (University of California Press, Fall 2014) explores in more detail how people can keep wild species and wild places on Earth.
(This is the third of six blogs about my reflections on wild places and wild species—what they are and why they are important—written as I traveled through parts of Africa this past summer.)
Sitting in the Nelspruit airport waiting for a flight to Zambia, I'm still troubled about this wild thing, maybe even more so after last night. Last night we returned to the place where the leopards hang out.
On the wild side was this: we came across that big bull elephant in rut, seems like the same one we had the encounter with on foot a couple of days ago. This time we were in our land rover, but even so he was about twice our size. He had a standoff with another land rover that was ahead of us. From a distance, we watched him glare at it, wave his ears, stamp his foot, and then start to move forward. The land rover moved backward as fast as prudence dictated, executed one third of a three-point turn, and headed off in another direction. Our driver knew enough to just sit there awhile, let the big guy turn around and amble down the road a bit, and then we followed, keeping enough distance between us and him, maybe fifty yards or so. Though our prime view was of his rear end, every now and then he'd swing his head side to side, enough to give us a clear view of a dark stripe of pungent ooze dripping out of his musth gland.
The bull at one point stepped off the road, put his shoulder against a tree that was three times his height and with a trunk the girth of his leg, and then began to push. You could see him strain, the tree began to bend, creak, and crackle, but it held. He tried again, same result, and then he wrapped his trunk around it and began pulling. The tree wouldn't give in though, which I guess speaks to how deep and extensive its root system must be. At last the elephant gave an audible sigh of disgust, and contented himself by reaching skyward with his trunk, wrapping it around a branch about as big around as my leg and twice as tall as me, and with one good tug he splintered it off. Then he got down to business chewing off the sweet bark, using his trunk to gently rotate it as he threaded the branch through his jaws. The portion of the branch that went in one side of his jaws was covered with rough gray bark; he'd work it with his trunk to push it sideways into the void of his mouth, and it would come out the other side clean and gleaming creamy white, kind of like de-barking a tree in a sawmill. Eventually he had enough, and resumed his slow, deliberate stroll down the road.
On the tame side. A sundowner stop, gin and tonics, and an orange African sunset silhouetting black trees, their branches like intricate river networks gathering stars from the darkening sky. Eventually the trees faded into the black of the night, the Southern Cross lit up, and the Milky Way shone spectacularly bright.
It was under that night sky we returned to the wild, or at least what initially seemed that way. Word came again on the radios: the leopards had been spotted. We were bushwhacking through dense underbrush to follow them. Three land rovers, each with their spotlights, now totally off road, crashing and snapping through the thicket where the leopards were hunting cane rats. By then in my mind, the leopards were fugitives on the run, and we were the yahoos with dogs about to put them in chains.
And then, there they were. There was no snarling, panicked attempt to get out of our spotlight beam. Instead, the male stretched out on his belly and crunched happily on a cane rat he'd just caught, not a care in in the world. The female patiently lay a few yards a way, with what I soon came to realize was a dreamy look of anticipation in her eyes.
And it wasn't anticipation for a bite of cane rat. She had something far more primal on her mind. After the male ate every last morsel, he licked the blood off his paws, going through very much the same ritual as your house cat after a meal. Suddenly he stood, and in two or three strides he was on the other side the female, whereupon he once again plopped down in the tall soft grass, head up, calmly checking us out.
As he'd gone by the female, she'd given a soft growl, something like a loud purr, but more menacing. Now she was up, brushing by the male, making body contact, giving him a good whiff of her hind end. He growled, she moved off. But in a minute or so, the same routine. Next thing we knew the male's on top, a sound like leopard laughter, he's biting the back of her neck. In less than ten seconds it’s over. We've just seen leopards mate. In the wild?
This is where it gets tricky for me. We watched three rounds of that mating routine, and we weren't the only ones. Three land rovers surrounded those leopards on one side, a tracker in each shining their bright lights on the whole event. It was eerily like the leopards were in the spotlights on a grassy stage, a thorny thicket as the backdrop. And us, and the twenty other people observing the show, we were like paparazzi, the number of camera flashes intensifying pretty much in rhythm with the fireworks presumably lighting up the leopards' synapses.
If it all sounds a bit like the porn version of Wild Kingdom, with us as the both film crew and audience, well, that's pretty much what it was. Afterwards our guide told us that those leopards have become completely used to the land rovers over the past few years, and that the after-sun-down chase has become about as familiar to the leopards as your evening cocktail is to you. It's just what happens right after the sun goes down. That wasn't too hard to believe. Certainly the leopards noticed us just about as much you'd notice a fly on the wall; we may as well have been another tree as far as they were concerned.
Except right at the end. The male finally had had enough, whether of the female, or of us, I have no idea. But he rose to his feet, and walked towards our land rover. For one brief second, maybe two, he lifted his eyes and stared into ours, and in that second, it was absolutely clear that he was predator, we were prey. He suddenly turned, our tracker lifted his feet out of the way as the leopard passed under them, and then both leopards melted back into the dark. Show over.
So, did I experience the wild? Certainly it was thrilling, and probably a once in a lifetime experience. I wouldn't trade it. But wild?
Now I'm on the plane flying north towards the next destination, Victoria Falls. It's a bigger jet this time, so I'm far above the fray on the ground. I did notice as we took off though, there was a dammed river below, and they were being careful about controlling the flow: the riverbed below the dam was almost dry. All around the reservoir, flames from more-or-less controlled burns were sending their smoke to the sky, the haze largely responsible for that beautiful orange sunset I'd so much enjoyed the night before.
Reflecting on it all, two images come to mind. One is sitting on a tour bus, driving through the streets of Soweto, a world much more foreign to me than the African, or any other backcountry. I was nothing but a voyeur in Soweto, while being shown all the classic sights: the gold mine tailings, the old miners barracks, Nelson Mandela's house, the site of the 1976 tragedy when the police opened fire on marching school kids, the nicer homes that have started to spring up in post-apartheid times, and pockets of truly destitute slums, where goat pens were right next to tattered-tarp family dwellings. When we stopped for lunch there, some dancers dressed in traditional Botswana knock-off costumes performed for us.
The other image is those mating leopards. I was nothing but a voyeur there too, staring down from above in my land rover seat.
Maybe there's a difference between those two experiences, but I'm not sure yet what it is. One thing I do know. What I yearn for in the wild is being in it, not just being shown it.