By Sherry Marr
In 1972, I saw three movies within a few weeks: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Born Free and Siddhartha. Jonathan started me on my journey of personal freedom and my odyssey to the sea. That year, I walked out of my marriage and into the rest of my life. Siddhartha ignited my wide-ranging spiritual quest. With Born Free, Africa claimed a corner of my wild heart forever.
I never got to Africa, but my friend did. She said when she was sailing across the Serengeti in a hot air balloon at dawn one morning, she thought of me. And so, vicariously, I experienced what must have been one of the stellar moments of her life.
There is the Africa of my dreams, set in the past, when it was wild and the great beasts roamed the land. Reading in the soft glow of the lamp at night, I was with explorers inside their tents, listening to the lions roar, to the song of the nightjar, the laughter of the chimps, the call of the great apes. The Africa of my dreams is the Africa of Out of Africa and I Dreamed of Africa. And, sadly, there is Africa now, writhing in heat, drought, flood and famine, many of its wild ones on the verge of extinction. It is a deep sorrow to see what human carelessness and greed have done – in a few short decades – to the wild and glorious land where life began.
One of my favourite books is Cry of the Kalahari by wildlife researchers and environmentalists Mark and Delia Owens. Even in 1972, they were hearing distressing reports about Africa. They realized that, if they didn’t go then, there would be little left to save with their research and conservation work. They had very little money but made the leap in 1973, spending seven years in the Kalahari.
The area was then largely uninhabited, since it was so far from water sources, materials for shelter, and other human populations. Their neighbours were the wild ones who, at that time, did not perceive Mark and Delia as the threat humans so soon became. The couple were accepted in a way few humans experience. Sometimes they woke in their sleeping bags to find a pride of lions sleeping all around them. They relate wonderful stories about the animals they named and lived with and were privileged to observe so intimately.
The Owens formed the Central Kalahari Research Station and published numerous articles and scientific research based on their work there.
The Africa they loved no longer exists. It was disappearing even as they lived there. They watched the impact of ranching, fencing and game hunting decimating the animals. One of the worst things they witnessed was the fencing ranchers built across the greatest antelope migration in the world. The antelope, following their imprinted migratory path, and stopped by the barricade, slowly died of thirst looking through the fence towards the river.
By the end of the Owens’ seven years there, the land was being ravaged for the oil, diamonds and minerals that lay under the ground on which a million creatures depended. Game hunting was growing into a lucrative industry. Even worse is “canned” hunting, where big game hunters can, for $35,000 and a piece of their soul, shoot lions trapped in an enclosure. Rhinos are still being slaughtered for their horns, and other animals are trapped, poached or poisoned to “protect” domestic stock. While the Owens were still in the Kalahari, Lake Xua, the lake the wildebeest migrated to, had gone completely dry. But the wildebeest still migrated there, as was their pattern for millennia.
The Owens’ research was devoted to devising a program for conservation of the ecosystem. They left Africa in order to work towards this end in places where they could better campaign, to raise funds and awareness. On their return to the United States, they worked for their doctorates in Animal Behaviour and were appointed editors of International Wildlife Magazine.
We could have stayed in Deception Valley for the rest of our lives,” Delia wrote, “But such an indulgence would have accomplished little for the Kalahari. We had to process seven years of data, and publish our results for science and conservation. And we had to make the people of Botswana and the rest of the world aware of the wilderness treasures that lie in the Kalahari.
We had lived through some difficult times in the desert, but the most difficult task of all was leaving Deception Valley.
Sadly, while their work was important and did raise funds and awareness, African wildlife has continued to decline alarmingly. The World Wildlife Fund released a report in 2020 stating there has been a 68% decline in all wildlife species since 1970. As always, scientific data that should alarm and enlighten us, has not led to change among the dominant species, who continue to believe we are the primary species that matters. Yet the decline in other species will ultimately impact our own survival. We are following their course just like the wildebeest, on their way to a dried up lake.
The cheetah, such a beautiful big cat, is at risk. The African elephant is critically endangered, brutally killed for its ivory tusks. The black rhino is also critically endangered, though the white rhino is responding to a recovery program.
African lions, the animals the Owens loved so much, are listed as “vulnerable”, not currently endangered, though three-quarters of their population are in decline. There are only 600 Asiatic lions left in the world and fewer than 30,000 African lions in the sub-Sahara. Between 8,000 and 12,000 African lions are “farmed lions” (two words that should never appear together) – bred and kept captive and suffering in South African facilities. Increasingly, there is less habitat and prey for wild carnivores.
(Honestly, relaying these facts makes me feel nauseous – and appalled at human arrogance and greed.)
A report on the impact of climate change on life in Africa states the country is one of the regions in the world most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Burning fossil fuels and changes in land use are modifying the global climate, with temperature rises and rising sea levels projected for the next 100 years.
West Africa has been identified as a climate-change hotspot, impacting crop yields and production. Some areas of Africa are already experiencing famine. Oxfam and Save the Children issued a report recently stating that more than 23 million people are experiencing extreme hunger in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya – up over 10 million from last year. The region’s worst drought in 40 years is exacerbated by regional conflicts and the pandemic. There is growing food and fresh water insecurity.
Greta Thunberg has stated,
We are in a global emergency, which affects all of us. But everyone is not suffering its consequences equally. Africa is being disproportionately hit by the climate crisis, despite contributing to it among the least. Africa is a key in the fight for climate justice and now faces both huge risks as well as many opportunities to develop sustainable societies which put people and planet first.
Africa is one of the lightest polluters, yet is the country most heavily impacted by global warming. It seems as if people and governments everywhere are so busy responding to what they view as a series of one-time events, we are failing to see it as an interconnected systemic breakdown across the globe.
So where do we go with our challenge this week? As always, it is the plight of the animals that speaks most loudly to me. Humans have more resources than animals do; animals, who are suffering largely because of us, have no voice. They depend on us to right what has gone so wrong.
Your challenge: Give voice to any of the great beasts of Africa who captures your admiration; give voice to their plight. Or, alternatively, write about how human-driven climate change has impacted this country, still so beautiful and wild.
spoke to her
Its red tongue flicking an ancient lingo of omens and signs
Saying, come unpick mysteries of yesterday’s world
The blood stained desert sands wore dry riverbeds like scars
And at night the dunes flowed like a seamless red ocean
The Kalahari spoke to her
The desert lions hunt tonight, it whispered
And she saw them hidden in the shadow of camel thorn trees,
Eyes glowing green under the bright full moon
All around her
The spirits of the ancients rode the night breeze,
And timeless stars painted ancient stories in the sky,
When she knelt down to kiss the art imprinted on rocks
She heard them whisper the breathy voices of the past
This is how the Kalahari spoke to her
– Jody Sky Rogers
THE BUSHMAN SPEAKS
This desert is our life.
From the dry earth we gather roots and melons.
Over the endless sands we hunt the gemsbok and the springbok.
Sometimes the ga roots are shriveled and bitter.
Sometimes men are sick with thirst and hunger.
When there is water we drink and sing and clap our hands.
When there is food we eat and dance and clap our hands.
The eland does not come to us and ask to be eaten –
one must know how to make the arrow and poison it
and where to look and how to hide and shoot….
What man is so foolish as to expect more? To expect
the rain to be always falling, his eggs full of water and
his stomach full of meat?
You have strong animals to carry you.
You have much food and water.
Your digging sticks are hard and sharp.
Your shooting-sticks are like lightning.
You are a powerful man and a good man.
I can see that in your eyes.
But what you offer is a dream.
You can give us water and meat.
You can fill our hands with tobacco and perfect beads.
But you cannot give us happiness.
A man can only drink so much and then he is full.
If a man is always eating honey, he tires of it and becomes sick.
And even if all life were sweet –
what man is not food for lions and dogs?
A man who has tasted in his life no bitterness will find death very bitter.
My mouth longs for sweetness
but sweetness brings bitterness
and in the end they are one.
So I ask you:
Take your digging sticks and your shooting-sticks.
And do not leave them behind.
Go to the green lands you came from.
We shall walk in this desert as we always have.
The thirst of desert
blinding dust and wind
Collide of wave and tide
Females carry the tribe
Their large flappy ears
Fan them cool
Their sunshade and lemonade
Their long trunk, their utensil and instrument
The herd graze on green bushes
Barge their way through thick trees and weeds
For grand and small
Giant footprints and dung mark their tracks
It’s dung a beetle’s nest and feast
The labor of a mother’s womb
Trumpets sound to celebrate
Prey to an open field
Darkness cast upon its young
For it is done
Hearts pump and
Trunks join to commemorate
Rumblings from afar detect danger
They form a protective block around the calves
Their ears on alert
Their trunk and feet test the waters
They wait ‘til it passes
They lock trunks to bond
At the patience of the lions
A son grieves its mom
Guards over her corpse
And leaves with the survived
Blazing fires rise
The earth crack
The land is barren
The river is drenched
An underground stream arise
They find relief
All come to drink
– Marckincia Jean