The rains had watered an ever-present carpet of bright green foliage, and everywhere there were bright yellow flowers. The golden sun, the rolling hills. Shrubs and trees evenly spaced. I could see a cheerful springbok, a suave zebra, a gentle wildebeest and a temperate elephant. A lone giraffe watched the sunset. These animals were familiar to me. But what blew me away is the totality.
“The Paragon of Animals!” We found ourselves surrounded by huge herds, herds and troops. I could see a hundred springboks gathered, alert but calm. And dozens of zebras, peacefully munching the grass in their striped finery. A troop of thirty baboons passed by. Before human intervention, these animals were even more numerous. Nature is abundant.
But what surprised me the most was the fact that the animals seemed so relaxed. There was plenty of water and grass. Animals live in their pantry, food always at hand. The species of herbivores and omnivores in front of us were all mixed together, interbreeding and coming together, totally at ease with each other. The carnivores – lions, leopards and hyenas – had left their mark but were conspicuous by their absence.
I spotted a lone male wildebeest hanging out with the herd of zebras. Mike explained that some animal species actively support each other. The wildebeest is warned of predators by the sudden movement of the “rival” zebra species. Fascinatingly, the zebras mow the long chaotic grass with their nimble lips, leaving an even lawn for the blocky wildebeest. There is symbiosis at all levels of life.
The totality is the complex interrelationships between all the species, the whole ecosystem. It includes an incredible variety of herbs, mushrooms, flowers, trees, insects, birds, and large and small animals. Each ecological domain deserves its own safari. And it’s all there, right in front of our eyes. I feel like I’ve seen and learned so much, and we haven’t made it to camp yet.
That night, in my tent, safe from the camel spider and the scorpion, I reflect on what I have witnessed. What we can learn from nature and natural processes has long been discussed. Herbert Spencer lobbied Charles Darwin to insert the phrase “survival of the fittest” into later editions of About the origin of species and since then society has been discussed through the prism of scarcity and competition.
The male elephant enters the musk, is overwhelmed with testosterone, and regains control of the female herd. The alpha baboon is the biggest, toughest. He fights any rival and is rewarded with coitus – and offspring. But the stories we tell about animals have always been stories we tell about ourselves. The male is the subject with agency: the female and all of Nature are his object.
But that’s just not what I saw on our game drives the following days. In fact, I saw the evolution from the woman’s point of view.
Springboks mainly live in large herds of females. Males are driven out to the periphery during adolescence. Females select which male can join the group at mating time, and in doing so unwittingly choose which genes will continue.
It is the same for the elephant. We saw a bull showering in mud and water, chewing grass and walking alone in the bush. Solitary, seemingly content. The males sometimes group together. Females live in herds all their lives. They often allow only one adult male in their tribe. Its presence allows young adolescent males to moderate their hormones and behavior.
Moments later, we find ourselves flanked by a huge troupe of baboons, wandering across the country like a troupe of traveling Shakespearean actors. The females are the heart of this long caravan. Some have tiny infants clinging to their bellies. The mothers gallop with the little ones on their backs. They tumble in the grass, having fun. They chat. I see a juvenile picking a mushroom, smelling its scent, then throwing it into the bushes. This is where the action happens.
And then there are the alpha males. They stay on the sidelines of the group. They are isolated, silent, alert. No one pays them much attention. They are older, tougher, abused. They remain stoic as they scan the horizon. They know that if a predator attacks they could be eaten or survive with excruciating injuries.
Where others see patriarchy, I see matriarchy. And academics agree. Cynthia Moss of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project said: “Our studies show how absolutely crucial matriarchs are to family well-being and success.”
During our last evening walk, we encountered the largest herd of elephants to date. There was an adult, then a juvenile and then a baby. The baby was no more than a week old. He was pink behind his ears and had little control over his trunk. The baby was protected under the mother. He started nursing.
Sunset. The zebras were velvet red in the evening light, their stripes even more stylish. They also have very small ones. Newborn wildebeest are tiny and as tough as old boots. There are baby river hogs.
For so many living beings, most of their activity is devoted to reproduction through the cycle of sex, birth and education. The “fittest” species is the one that guarantees the success of the next generation. Life has been defined by philosophers as autopoiesis – the act of making oneself. This is true for the individual, for the species, for the ecosystem.
There is infinite variety in Nature. We choose which social structures of species to imitate and which to ignore; and so we make human choices. But there is one thing that is true for all of Nature. Every living being is busy producing and reproducing as well as its offspring. I’m not saying everyone should have a child – personally I don’t. My point is this: humans as a species must be concerned about the well-being of all future generations.
It’s our last day of safari. This is our last chance to track a lion in its natural habitat. But just as we are about to begin, I abandon my group to spend half an hour alone watching a humble weaver bird bustling among the branches of a tree.
The male of the species spends three days building a nest: a wicker sphere, hollow like an egg. The female, according to local tradition, will inspect the nest. If he is deficient, she will reject him. The male will then start the next nest, building up to 25 in one season. As a community, weaver birds create hundreds of tiny homes in the branches of a single tree.
The weaverbird builds its nest within a community of equals, amidst abundant materials and food. I think of the orangutan, the “person of the forest”, building its nest in the forest canopy. And the ability of humans to build and rebuild. The world we weave must be a gift of wholeness created by the current generation for the enjoyment of those who come next.
Brendan Montague is the editor of The environmentalist. The safari experience described in this article, including flights, accommodation and guiding, was provided free of charge to The Resurgence Trust by Natucate and its partner EcoTraining. Learn more about www.natucate.com/fr