The other day we saw four leopards. Three adults and a cub at the top of a koppie in Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape. Beautiful big cats, preparing to hunt, while a little up the hill a traffic jam of excited wildlife spotters watched from the safety of our vehicles.
Addo is the third biggest of our South African parks, yet compared to the whole territory we call the RSA, it’s a small clod of earth, dung beetle against elephant. Just as we artificially decimated our wildlife, so the slow process of rewilding is an artificial business. A few hundred kilometres away the Landmark Foundation in the Western Cape encourages farmers to protect their livestock using leopard and jackal-friendly methods. They’re not always successful. In the Koo valley, Shorty the leopard was tagged in his journeys around the mountains – till he was shot by a sheep farmer. Leopard-friendly wool and mutton labelling, anyone?
A day after Addo we slept in the Baviaanskloof, a beautiful wild valley. The wildness of Africa is still tangible compared to most of Europe. From spiders and scorpions to circling eagles to the hidden mammals in the ravines and rocks, the animal life is symptomatic of an energetic hum of life, of spirit, that still echoes off the cliff edges. Yet, aside from the elusive leopards, the big game here have gone. We can experience the wildness of the Baviaanskloof without fear of an elephant crushing our tent or a lion killing our loved ones. And if we are going to really allow the wildlife back out of the parks safely for them, we’re going to need to get a lot more in touch with those animals than most of our ancestors.
The Bushmen of the 18th century Free State apparently had a great trick that protected them from lions who attacked the Bantu of the region regularly. Max Du Preez in ‘Pale Native’ recounted stories that they used to watch for when a new alpha male took over a pride, then scared the hell out of him when he was found sleeping, using shouting and percussion noise, then left him in peace. He invariably got the point and left them in peace too. But perhaps in future there wil be more profound tactics used for communication. Anna Breytenbach’s image-based animal communication is both extraordinary and a fulfilment of a common dream we have for really being latterday Dr Doolittles. We are slowly but surely beginning to understand the language of plants. And perhaps it will not be too long before we understand the language of the minerals themselves.
Perhaps then the lion really will feel like laying down with the lamb. While the old sheep of the flock offer themselves up in sacrifice, much as wild game was believed to do by traditional San hunters. We have yet to solve the mystery of how animals became domesticated, given our failure to do so with wild creatures of any serious size in modern times. The humble opinion, which science seems to be echoing in modern experiments, would have to be that something in those animals very nature gave themselves to humans. Certain modern scientists might reduce that to “genetics,” but I would argue there is a more mysterious, archetypal quality in these animals’ soul journey that led them to link up with humans. The ancient Indian reverence for the cow, or the ancient native American reverence for the bison, would seem to be a recognition of this incredible choice.
Our collective gratitude for this is today stifled amidst the feedlots and broiler farms of our hellish modern meaty thirst. Those conversations with animals will need to begin with a lot of begging for forgiveness. Of course, amidst all this there are curious signs of hope. The penguins at Boulder’s Beach or Stony Point are a strange response to our actions over time, only coming ashore in recent decades when it became clear to them that few onshore predators were left – and that the humans had become strangely benign, in relation to penguins at least. I felt rather less benign, of course, about the rat that broke in while I was away, kakked in my sacred items, and threw my compost on the floor. Sterner conversations might be had with rats and ants and mosquitoes. The struggle for existence continues.
And then, beyond all these land-based challenges, there are the whales. Thank heavens for the whales.