Impressions from an African Safari

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I recently completed a six night safari in Tanzania (in addition to three nights at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro hiking around). I enjoyed the trip very much, in part because it was unlike any other travel experience I’ve had. Cities can blur together: I’ve been in a million churches, gone on a million city tours. Traversing the African Savannah is something else entirely.

At the most macro level, being in the wild among the animals brought to mind one phrase: state of nature. Every wild animal is simply trying to survive. Well, that, and trying to breed healthy offspring. To achieve these two goals, they’ll attack, ally, retreat, advance, betray, and coordinate. Sound familiar? It’s impossible to be on safari and not think of how similar we humans are to the animals in the wild. How so many of our base instincts are exactly the same as the cheetahs and vultures and elephants: we’re just trying to survive. And we like to have sex.

In the wild, it’s a brutal, Darwinian life. There’s always a chance the wrong predator comes upon them at the wrong time and it’ll be over in a poof. In such an environment, you have to always be on guard. We saw lions trying to sleep but every 10-15 seconds the would pop their heads up and look around carefully. We saw zebras standing in a special group formation with their heads turned in a certain way so that, between the four of them, every angle was covered in case an enemy attacked.

One of the best ways to survive in state of nature is to coordinate with your allies. Indeed, complex social hierarchies exist within every species in the bush to facilitate how they move across the plains, how they split up food, how they defend against an attack, and more. Seeing broad-scale coordination made for the most interesting moments on safari. One day, in Serengeti National Park, we witnessed extraordinary acts of coordination among lions and among buffalo. We were driving along and came upon a rocky hill upon which a pride of twelve lions were lying, about 50 yards from where our car stopped. Meanwhile, a little to the east, more than 300 buffalo were migrating across the low-cut grassy fields, presumably in search of water. The buffalo were walking together, two abreast, in a long line that stretched as far as the eye could see. They walked in a large troupe to make themselves more formidable to their enemies. Unfortunately for them, their route was taking them right next to the rocks the lions were perched upon. As the buffalo approached they smelled the lions and stopped. Lions are the strongest and most feared animals in the wild; it felt like every time we asked our guide about a given animal’s enemies, he answered: “…and Lions.” A lion beats everything. That said, even a large pride of lions can’t handle hundreds of horned, ~800lbs buffalo at once. So the lions didn’t attack. Similarly, while 300 buffalo could easily scare off a single lion a large pride was too much — they’d suffer too much loss — so they were scared as well. Both sides had teamed up and it led to a multi-hour standoff: they just sat there, staring at each other in a ready-to-fight position.

One of the lions slipped off the backside of the rock and departed the face-off. About 20 minutes later, about 150 yards away, there were loud animal screams that we could hear from our safari car. The lion who had left earlier killed a zebra. Upon hearing the news, all but one of the lions methodically retreated from the rocks by slipping down the backside to go eat the killed zebra. The young ones interposed themselves between the strongest males and females in the line for protection. When the lions arrived at the scene of the dead zebra, they began roaring and gently fighting with each other like all siblings do at the dinner table, eager for the bigger portion. Meanwhile, the buffalo formation near the rock formation ultimately turned around began to retreat. Well, most of them anyway. It had been a couple hours and we needed to drive on, but our guide predicted that one or two of the buffalo would be slow to leave the scene, or would simply ignore their leader’s advice to retreat. The lions would snatch that last, lonesome buffalo when his family/friends had gone too far ahead.

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The state of nature is brutal. But it’s also a thing of beauty. Of course there’s the surface level beauty of bearing witness to a giraffe munching the green leaves of a tall tree or watching a zebra rolling around in the dirt to mark its territory or spotting an elephant nuzzling with a newborn baby elephant. More than that though, there’s simply taking in the fact that gazelles and giraffes and crocodiles and salamanders and leopards and a thousand bird species are all living together in one complex, interdependent ecosystem. We learned how every living organism in the African savannah eats a particular grass or animal, gets eaten in turn by some other animal, relies upon various flies or birds for cleaning, and so on. Pretty amazing.

Cecil the Lion is in the news. It’s upsetting in part because of this ecosystem interdependency. As described here, when poachers kill the most grand lions or the biggest-tusked elephants, they’re not just killing a single animal. When you kill a male lion, infighting in the pride will lead to the killing of other cubs. When the lion population declines, the population of wildebeests and zebras grows larger than normal. When there are too many wildebeests, there’s too much grazing of grass. This means less vegetation for the birds to eat, and so on and so forth. Millions of years of evolution has refined the food chain. You can’t mess with one part of it without messing with all of it. Here’s my previous post on what happened when wolves were taken out of Yellowstone.

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The vastness of the parks of East Africa, the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, the decentralized coordination and allying among the animals, and of course the physical beauty of the animals and the landscape: all were sources of awe for me on the safari. Awe is a good thing and any trip that inspires it is a trip worth taking.

2 Responses to Impressions from an African Safari

  1. Craig Mische says:

    A safari is a life changing experience, isn’t it? I had similar thoughts, while not quite as deep and thougtful as yours, after my first safari in Tanzania. I haven’t had a second yet but can’t wait to return for another. Even if I had not viewed any wildlife, it would have been worth the visit as it is so beautiful.

    Reply
  2. Peter says:

    Just got back from Tanzania. Managed to make it all the way to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa! 🙂 The last day’s climb was a really tough one, especially because of the altitute, but the sense of accomplishment after having finished is really cool.

    Also went to the Serengeti and saw lions eating a zebra, cheetahs preparing for attacking impalas, but failing and all those great circles of life. Nature is amazing!

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