by Thomas Elliott
Aaaah-woooee, Aaaah-woooe. I will never get used to the sound of hyenas at night. There is something unsettling in the cries of that animal. I saw a few the other day; they are strangely beautiful. Their backs slope down from powerful, muscular shoulders making them look like bodybuilders on all fours. I’m separated from them by a fence, but to most animals, a fence doesn’t mean much. It isn’t rare to have all sorts of things break through.
But this is life at Wits Rural Facility. A few days ago, I awoke to the sound of rustling leaves. As always, I ran through my mental checklist. Impalas? No, couldn’t be. They wouldn’t be in the trees. Vervet monkeys? Naah, they’re usually a bit louder. So that just leaves… Giraffes! I was right. I looked out my window, and there they were, three giraffes just standing there, eating, a few feet away from my house.
Interactions with the animal kingdom are a part of my daily routine. On my way home from work, it’s not rare for me to see herds of wildebeest, or kudu, sometimes even solitary nyala or bushbuck. The worst, of course, are the monkeys. If I walk away from my house with the door open, even for just a few seconds, I’ll come back to find two or three monkeys climbing around on my bed and closet.
All of this may seem crazy, but none of it could have prepared me for what I have seen in Kruger National Park. Situated about a 30 minute drive from where I live, KNP is one of Southern Africa’s largest game reserves (three times the size of Belgium!). I first visited the park about two weeks after I arrived here, and it very quickly became a special place for me. Within 30 minutes of entering the gate, we had seen all sorts of antelope, hippos, elephants very close up, a white rhino (which I’ll come back to) and even a pride of lions. Three of the big five was nothing to sneeze at, and I would see buffalo later on in the trip.
What made the rhino sighting so special is that they are in grave danger of becoming extinct. Since my arrival here I have noticed signs of an over-arching mood of anger towards the poachers. There are billboards shouting “Poach the poachers,” many police stops to check for rhino horn, and I attended a benefit concert called “Rocking for Rhinos” (predictably, the music was questionable). Most of these poachers come over the border from Mozambique, heavily armed. They kill the animal, saw off its horn, and return home before sending the horn on its merry way (usually to Vietnam), where the possession of horn is very fashionable amongst the Nouveau-Riche. This situation has essentially caused an arms-race between the park rangers and the poachers, with military grade training and tactics being employed on both sides. Nevertheless, the tourism industry still booms within the park and its surrounding game reserves. All of this chaos and the near-martial-law situation made what I was able to do in the park even more breath-taking.
In my first few weeks here, I befriended a pair of American journalists on an assignment from the National Geographic Young Explorers Program. Naturally, in my free time I offered my services as a “production assistant.” I would travel along to carry and set up equipment and transcribe interviews. This has gotten me into the park, for free, two more times, both times through an unmarked gate that no tourist has ever entered, and one of the times at night. The sight of the gates of this conservationist’s heaven swinging open towards the glaring lights of our car was surreal.
Twice we interviewed one of the park’s head rangers, Steven Midzi, and once he took us in the back of his pickup truck through the park’s virtually non-existent roads. The aim of this mission was to find, and film, a pride of lions on foot. Unfortunately, it had rained (the first rain of the year, figures) the night before, so all spore had been wiped out, making proper tracking impossible. Still, walking through Kruger National Park, with an armed ranger flanking us on either side, is something I will never forget.
This Thursday I will be making my next foray into The Kruger, just for fun—NOT as a production assistant. I still haven’t seen leopard or cheetah, two of my favorite animals. I’m hoping the Safari dice will roll in my favor this time.