Year in the Wild Blog

Goodbye to Kruger – and the meaning of wild places

Saying goodbye to loved ones is never easy. I feel the same way about leaving Kruger. Pafuri and its beautiful camp was the perfect climax to an unforgettable month. I will always remember exploring South Africa’s largest and most famous nature reserve. This past month has only deepened my appreciation and gratitude for Africa’s natural heritage.

(This was highlighted for me when I drove out of the park at Pafuri Gate and into the poor rural communities, where goats, donkeys and cattle wandered the litter-strewn road, the degraded mopane woodland devoid of life.  I felt very privileged indeed to have spent a month in one of Africa’s finest protected areas. It confirmed for me how important it is that local communities benefit from conservation – as is starting to happen in Pafuri, where South African National Parks, Wilderness Safaris and the Makuleke people are working together. Yet so much is still to be done…)

I feel at home in the wild places of Africa, as if I belong. There’s a sense of “connectedness” to life. Here in Kruger I can live in the moment, appreciating my surroundings and studying its wonders. I can lose myself here, yet find myself completely. I admit, it may sound idealistic, but I reckon that our continent’s wild places would instill idealism in even the most jaundiced of cynics. (It’s one of the reasons why people travel to wild areas…to be reminded of what’s truly important in life.)

After a month in Kruger, I am beginning to think that if I did nothing else except marvel at the elephant, the lion, the fish eagle, the matabele ant, the lilac-breasted roller, or the rising sun on a cold winter’s dawn, or the smell of wild sage…there is so much to admire, and if one does nothing else, except pay respects to the miracle of Africa’s wilderness and its denizens, then surely that is enough?

But in fact, it isn’t enough to be just a fan of the wild places – we have to work together to protect these wildernesses and their animals. As the American conservationist Edward Abbey wrote: “It is not enough to understand the natural world. The point is to defend and preserve it.”

After all, being human is an enormous privilege, as well as an enormous responsibility…we are the only species that can appreciate the meaning of our existence, and decide for ourselves which path we wish to follow. Do we follow the path of consumption, waste and degradation, or do we follow the path of care and awareness, respecting our fellow earthly wild citizens who roam this lonely plant with us? The choice is ours.

I also need to see what I can do to lower my impact on the earth…what changes should I make in my life which would reduce my impact on the earth? So much of what we consume inadvertently leads to the damaging of the earth’s natural areas. I am, for example, driving a big 4×4 (albeit with relatively low fuel consumption) around the country, using plenty of diesel…my lifestyle is far more damaging to the environment than the average person.

South Africa protects about 6% of its landscape with national parks and provincial nature reserves – at best, we have transformed, if not damaged, 94% of our nation’s wild areas, with farming, mining, urban sprawl, plantations and roads. Is this fair? We are just one species out of several million, yet we behave and act as if we’re the only species.

How would someone feel if you moved into their home, and asked them to hand over 94% of their property? They could stay, but they would have to live in the remaining 6%. More than that, we have not cared for what we have taken (is “stolen” too strong a word?). We have damaged and sometimes destroyed that which does not belong to us. That’s what modern humans have done to our continent’s wild animals and their habitats.

At high school, I studied Latin (not that I remember any!) Anyway, my Latin teacher – a brilliant, cantankerous old man who inspired fear and admiration in equal measure – walked into class one day looking sad and dejected. He told us one of his best friends had died that morning, and that it had made him question everything about his own life, and the meaning of it. For several minutes, he sat at his desk in the front of the class, not saying anything. Then he looked up and asked us young men a seemingly simple question, which in fact is not simple at all: “What or who would you die for?”

At the time, I didn’t have a clue, and I remember being dumbstruck when it was my turn to answer. The question cropped up in my mind every so often, and still does. It is a question which can be put another way: “What would you LIVE for?”

More and more, I am starting to believe that the earth’s wild lands and oceans and its animals are sacred and deserve to be protected at all costs. They don’t belong to us. If anything, we belong to them. We – as animals too – are one of them. What we do to them, we ultimately do to ourselves. We are part of nature, not separate from it.

The wild animals and its plants are true miracles, to be admired and respected fully – which human could ever conjure up something as magnificent as an elephant or a baobab tree, something as beautiful as a leopard, an animal as bizarre as a pangolin, or something as ingenious as a dung beetle? The earth’s wild citizens would be unbelievable if they weren’t real! Yet they are very real, and we are privileged to bear witness to them. And they have an inviolable right to exist independently of us, unaffected by our misguided and harmful ways.

To continue damaging them and their environment is not only a sure path to our own physical destruction, for they are crucial links in a healthy ecosystem on which we rely for water, air and nourishment. But long before we have farmed or mined the last wild area, chopped down the last jackalberry tree and shot the one remaining elephant, our souls would have eroded away irreversibly.

Even with all the world’s money and modern entertainment, we’ll be the poorest and saddest generation ever.  This must not happen on our watch – or any future watch. The stakes are high, and the battle must continue to be fought – within ourselves, as well as on behalf of the wild places and animals of Africa, and the earth.

I quote environmental educator David Orr, who made a poignant speech about the role of education, and the choices one makes, and how they affect the earth. Read the whole speech here

If today is a typical day on planet Earth, we will lose 116 square miles of rainforest, or about an acre a second. We will lose another 72 square miles to encroaching deserts, as a result of human mismanagement and overpopulation. We will lose 40 to 100 species, and no one knows whether the number is 40 or 100. Today the human population will increase by 250,000. And today we will add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere and 15 million tons of carbon. Tonight the Earth will be a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare.

The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity.

It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs. Elie Wiesel made a similar point to the Global Forum in Moscow last winter when he said that the designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust were the heirs of Kant and Goethe. In most respects the Germans were the best educated people on Earth, but their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity. What was wrong with their education? In Wiesel’s words: “It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience.”

The same could be said of the way our education has prepared us to think about the natural world. It is a matter of no small consequence that the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any length of time could not read, or, like the Amish, do not make a fetish of reading. My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival – the issues now looming so large before us in the decade of the 1990s and beyond. It is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more “successful” people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.

I’ve met several healers and restorers on my Year in the Wild so far: people like Buyisile Mkulungu and Siyanda Mgidlana, two rangers from the Eastern Cape, who spend every day of ever year tracking and protecting black rhino in the Great Fish Nature Reserve. It’s a tough, thankless job, and not for the fainthearted, yet after spending a few days with them, I was struck by their enthusiasm. For them, it’s more than a job…it’s a vocation and a calling. There are many rangers across our country who do the same…working long hours, on low budgets and with little recognition, in trying and sometimes life-threatening circumstances. We should do all we can to support them in their work, and be grateful for their efforts.

Magqubu Ntombela, the Zulu friend of Ian Player, had a basic western education, yet he still made one of the greatest contributions to preserving our country’s wild areas. Of working as a conservationist, he had this to say: “This is the work of God that we are doing. We are working for the creator.”

For more, go to vh275.dev-ls.co.uk and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Thanks again to my sponsors for making it all possible. CapeNature, South African National Parks, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Eastern Cape Parks, iSimangaliso Wetland ParkFord, Total, Evosat, Conqueror TrailersVodacom, Digicape, Lacie, Frontrunner, Safari Centre Cape TownK-Way, EeziAwnNational Luna, Nokia , GarminGoodyear, Global Fleet Sales, HetznerClearstream ConsultingEscape Gear and Trailcam Adventures.

One comment

  • Hi Scott.
    Just want to say that I agree whole heartedly with everything you said here!
    I believe firmly that the solutions to the current economic and ecological problems may be found in Africa. We as Africans are in a unique situation where we still have intact ecosystems left. If we can identify ways to improve people’s lives through sustainable activities while also preserving ecosystems at the same time, then we can lead the way to a shift in mindset worldwide with regards to the value of wild places. Not only the economic value but also the spiritual value. That is why it is essential that initiatives such as Transfrontier Parks MUST succeed. All the best!

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