Everyone knows that a South African adventure must include a safari. While our main focus in South Africa was with our archaeological colleagues in Cape Town and Johannesburg, we managed to squeeze in visits to two important conservation parks of the nation: Addo and Kruger.
Situated in completely different environmental settings, yet confronting the same challenges of land degradation and ecological threats, both are providing space for the amazing animals that once characterized the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa.
With all the hunting of pre-Colonial times, nothing compares with the resource depletion that came with the expansion of European settlements. In Addo, only 100 years ago there were active enterprises aimed at exterminating the elephant! In some areas, the efforts were so effective that there are none today. Trophy hunters had reduced the largest animals to near extinction.
Called “the Big 5” as they were the most difficult to hunt, these include the elephant, rhinoceros, cape buffalo, lion and leopard. And even with the 21st century’s recognition of the vital importance of biodiversity, the dangers for these animals are ever present.
The precious tusks of elephants are still in demand for ivory carving, and the rhinos in particular have become the target of unscrupulous poachers looking for their magnificent horn. These horns, made of nothing more than the material of our fingernails, is powdered to sell as a cure for cancer and a powerful aphrodisiac. Today, both white and black rhinoceros have been pushed to the edge of extinction.
With the evident poverty and unemployment in the nation, professionals in the illegal trade find desperate souls who, for a small price, will risk their lives in finding the rhino. Paid in the order of thousands, the procured rhino horn will fetch the illegal trader millions. Now, at some game reserves around Kruger, horns are cut off to protect the animal. The horn regrows and in some five years will be cut again. What are the choices?
Both Addo and Kruger were once used as pastures, with sheep and goats in Addo and cattle in Kruger. Both reserves have suffered from overgrazing, and the impact is marked across the land with entrenched gullies, the absence of topsoil and a lack of land cover.
Much effort in the Addo area is under way to address restoration with the planting of the native spekboom (Portulacaria afra), a succulent we might recognize in our gardens. Hillsides recently denuded have been replanted with spekboom, re-establishing the native thicket that the animals, and in particular the elephant, thrive on.
We were able to visit a nonprofit group called Living Lands that is involved in the conservation and development of the Baviankloof wilderness area west of Addo. They have developed learning programs with local farmers who are now investing in ecological restoration and conservation, particularly with spekboom, and encouraging the growth of other native plant species.
What animals have we been able to see? Lots. Of the 78 African ruminants, we have seen the largest — the giraffe — and some of the smallest — the duiker and steenbok. We have seen eland moving in herds; they are the largest antelope in the region and were particularly important to the indigenous San who depicted them generously in their rock art. We saw the beautiful springbok, which lends its name to the national rugby team of South Africa. Wildebeest are also abundant; the odd-looking antelopes leap around whisking their tails playfully. Also abundant were the ugly warthogs. Zebras were also visible in small and large groups, and we learned that the females were black with white stripes and the males white with black stripes!
These wonderful outdoor experiences all come with a moment of reflection. After an afternoon of driving, rocking and rolling, hanging on, looking across the vast expansive landscapes, we arrive at a quiet moment watching the sunset with a glass of wine. Maybe we’d see the elephants in the distance or the crocodile swimming in a pond; it might be a herd of waterbok, a flock of helmeted guinea fowl crossing in the forground, and we might hear the distant roar of a lion staking his claim.
Whatever the surroundings, we could sit and reflect on the memories of the day. Later, as the stars of the night sky illuminate unusual constellations where Alpha and Beta Centurion glow below the reclining Southern Cross, we can feel the remarkable quality of the nature that is at the heart of the culture of Africa.
— Anabel Ford Ph.D. is the director of UC Santa Barbara’s MesoAmerican Research Center and president of Exploring Solutions Past. Ford, UCSB’s resident expert on Maya archaeology, discovered the ancient Maya city-center El Pilar, which bridges Belize and Guatemala. By decoding the ancient landscape around El Pilar, she is creating a sustainable model in conservation and agriculture that can regenerate the threatened Maya forest. With investment and support, her model can assist environmental efforts worldwide. Click here for more information on El Pilar. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.