Text: Pieter van Wyk | Photographs: Pieter van Wyk, Morne Coetzee, Jacques Proust
I’m sure we are all familiar with this phrase. The words are often used in attempts to reassure personal safety when confronted with fear in the presence of creatures ranging in size from the small creepy crawlies to the monolithic pachyderms. It’s said it so many times I’ve started to contemplate whether or not we believe it. The words of Shakespeare come to mind; “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much”. Do we truly believe that we are the alpha predators or are we trying to convince ourselves that we are? Are they really more scared of us? I think it is fair to say that sometimes this reassurance is uttered more convincingly than other times. Snakes for example are undoubtedly more afraid of us and will always try to escape first, only attacking when left with no other option, hence the saying “snakes don’t bite people, people get bitten”. But are lions and elephants really more afraid of us than we are of them?
The phrase itself reaffirms and even celebrates our position at the top of the food chain but it also carries an undertone of primal fear. After some thought I’ve become inclined to think that those questions themselves are not important. Rather, it’s the fact that we’re even asking them for in that uncertainty lays a sinister truth about our species, Homo sapiens.
Until quite recently humans were slap-bang in the middle of the food chain. For millions of years we lived as hunter-gatherers but for most of that period our prey was limited to smaller creatures. Larger predators in turn hunted us. It was only about 400,000 years ago that certain species of humans (yes, we weren’t alone!) began perfecting the techniques involved in hunting large prey. We’d already learnt how to make fire but it was only 300,000 years ago that we were using it on a daily basis. Importantly the domestication of this powerful force was not limited by an individual’s physical abilities. Cooking was arguably the best thing that fire did for us as we could now consume a wider variety of foods and spend less time digesting it. It is also believed that the ability to cook led to shorter intestinal tracts and bigger brains. By 100,000 years ago our species (Homo sapiens) had ascended to the top of the food chain- a quick jump if you consider how long it took other animals to get there. Nature was given time to develop checks and balances as lions slowly became deadlier over millions of years. This gradual ‘arms race’ allowed hyenas to cooperate better, impalas to run faster etc. Our rapid rise to dominance did not allow nature to adjust and perhaps more dangerously, didn’t allow us to adjust. Instilled in other top predators during their slow rise to dominance was a sense of self-confidence but we didn’t have time to overcome some of our many fears and anxieties. As a result we became extraordinarily cruel and dangerous, many deadly wars and ecological calamities resulted from this.
So yes, lions and the like came to learn that humans had become the dominant species. The animal that walks upright and on two legs could no longer be seen as a potential meal or challengeable competitor. No, our hasty jump to the top didn’t even warrant the appropriate respect that comes with the position. Like a banana republic dictator we evoked fear and that has only recently begun to change.
Go to any part of the world today, where animals rarely see or are persecuted by humans and their reaction will be same as it’s been for millennia. They will run for their lives at the very sight of us whether we’re on foot or in a vehicle. On the rare occasions when they do attack it’s almost always in self-defence.
In 1964, thanks to the vision of Mr Michael Rattray, MalaMala Game Reserve became the first to make the switch from hunting to photographic safaris but the world-renowned viewing we enjoy today didn’t come overnight. Animals still feared us and hunting continued beyond our borders- the only way guests could get a good look at lions back then was from a ‘tree-house’ with a carcass placed on the ground as bait. As the industry grew the wildlife gradually became more accustomed to the presence of our vehicles and over time learnt that it wasn’t something to fear. Today it’s quite common for these animals to walk right past our Land Rovers without even looking at us! This is a privilege that I never take for granted- the ability to view wild animals in their natural habitat, going about their daily business as if we weren’t even there. Exposure to vehicles occurred relatively recently so the initial fear generated by the sight, sound and smell is easier to overcome as opposed to the deeply entrenched fear of a human being.
Unlike a domestic dog for example, the wild animals here seem to see a vehicle and us in it as one being. It’s easy to prove this… A while ago I was viewing a pride of sleeping lions with a fellow ranger. They were about 40 meters away and completely disinterested with our presence. I gently opened the door and put both feet on the ground. Immediately their ears pricked up and they looked towards the vehicle. I took a step away from the vehicle so that they could clearly separate the outline of my body from the vehicle. The cats instantly shot up and retreated a short distance before turning to face me again. I calmly got back in and then the strangest thing happened. The lionesses cautiously approached, they were looking towards the ground where I had stood. They looked behind the car, they glanced under the car, one looked right at me and then scanned the surrounding bush. Nothing. In their minds the human they’d seen had simply vanished.
It’s safe to assume that the wildlife here perceives humans and humans in a vehicle as two completely different animals. They haven’t figured out our little secret and we won’t let them. Let’s look at a current example: the Kikilezi female leopard’s two young cubs are growing up with Land Rovers. They’re seeing them pretty much on a daily basis and as with most animals they take queues from their mother. She has never taught them that this thing is something they can hunt nor is it something that they should fear. She also hasn’t taught them that a car is something they can climb up on. As the cubs get older they’ll get more curious and will walk right up to the vehicle for a closer inspection. They will probably try to touch it and might even look as if they’re considering climbing in… this is when a slightly raised voice or gentle clap of the hands comes into play. It’s just enough to discourage them without completely frightening them off. And so we teach them that although we come in peace, they must respect our personal space as we respect theirs. Now some people may feel that if we’re not respecting their space by being there in the first place. I personally believe that this in nonsense and I’ll explain why but first I’d like to say that if that were the case then all reserves should be human free. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this will be dangerously counter-productive. In the words of Sir David Attenborough, “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced”. Respecting someone or something’s space doesn’t mean removing your presence altogether. We humans have our ‘personal space’ limits and if someone breaches that we react, either by passively moving away or by confronting the intruder in a more aggressive manner. Animals are no different. If the Kikilezi female feels that we are intruding she will either move away with her cubs or she’ll tell us, in no uncertain terms, to back off! Neither scenario benefits either party. The 2 Matshapiri male lions provide us with a different example as they were never raised with vehicles around them. When they arrived on MalaMala over a year ago we couldn’t get within 200 meters of them before they’d run off. Today they barely even lift their heads when we approach them. This is with thanks to the training, procedures, patience and ethical considerations that our rangers employ when approaching game, which I’ll cover in another blog. Sufficed to say that the vast majority of animals here are very comfortable in the presence of our Land Rovers and we have a negligible impact on their daily lives. But what about when we’re walking?
As I mentioned earlier, the fear of humans is hardwired into most animals and thus it’s a lot more difficult to wash away and replace it with mutual respect. For tens of thousands of years we’ve specialized in genocide. It’s an ugly truth. Take what happened to the America’s fauna around 14,000 BC. Back then it was markedly richer than it is today, that is until Homo sapiens arrived. Fast forward 2,000 years and we’d helped wipe out 34 of 47 species of large mammals in North America and 50 of the 60 in South America. Gone forever. Prior to this a similar mass extinction occurred in Australia when 23 of the 24 animals weighing more than 50kgs were lost forever- some scientists have tried to exonerate us by pointing the finger at climate change. It’s hard to believe that our arrival in Australia and the complete transformation of its ecosystem that followed was coincidental. No, when we set foot on new shores our footprints are immediately washed away by waves but the mark we leave on the environment is permanent. Even today many species face extinction because of us. Fortunately a small part of our collective conscious has recently become ‘greener’ and a lot of hard work is going into conservation. Part of this hard work involved the establishment of protected areas and today many game reserves like MalaMala have banned hunting and offer walking safaris. This means that almost no animal on MalaMala today has encountered humans walking around trying to hunt them. Although not always completely comfortable with our presence at least they don’t sprint off when they see us from two hundred meters away. Progress. Certain animals have adapted faster than others and on walks we can safely view them at closer distances. But the quality of a walk should not be judged on how close one gets, that is asking for trouble. As rangers we are taught and understand that a perfect sighting during a walk involves finding, approaching, viewing and leaving an animal without it ever knowing we were there. The techniques used here will also be covered in another blog.
Are they more afraid of us than we are of them? Generally, yes. But it does vary greatly depending on each animal’s degree of exposure to us as well as the nature of that exposure. I do feel it is of the upmost importance that wild animals continue to recognise and respect that we are the dominant species. But perhaps more important is our ability to recognise and respect the position because with great power comes greater responsibility.