Last week I wrote about nature’s choreography, how the different species worked together (but not in agreement) to take what nature provided. The behavior of each species was crucial to its survival and the survival of the park. Nature behaved flawlessly.
But, like humans, nature isn’t perfect.
It was hard not to be in awe of nature at Kruger National Park in South Africa. We rose before dawn, grabbing whatever warm clothes we can find in the darkness to dash to our waiting Land Rover. No one was late. No one wanted to miss the African sunrise.
The sun rose quickly, a fierce red ball blazoning the cloudless sky. The dried landscape welcomed its arrival and the dry, cold air, quickly warmed. Africa smelled different, its pollution-free, dry air carried a musky scent from bushes, animals and plants that held the soil in place until the rains arrive in December. The sun spread its warmth and light onto the landscape and its creatures, most resting from their night of foraging and hunting.
With the exception of wild dogs, most species hunt at night. Lions and leopards lay in wait for the spectacularly camouflaged antelope, resting warthogs and unprotected babies.
At dusk, hippos rose from their cool river sanctuary to spend the evening consuming grasses. Their skin would blister in the hot sun and their bodies overheated quickly, so during the day we could only observe their bulging eyes and pink nostrils on the surface of the watering hole. When the air cooled, they emerged from their watery refuge. On our evening game drive, we heard the splashes of their large but agile bodies and listened to their deep grunts and groans as they began their feast.
Hippopotamuses have been cartooned as adorable, fat creatures wearing tutus, a wide flat-toothed grin and a sweet, clumsy nature. Never has an animal been so mischaracterized.
Hippopotamuses are the most dangerous animal in the bush, an estimated 500 people are killed by hippos each year. That’s right, more dangerous than lions, leopards, elephants and even rhinos. Those flat teeth you see have been sawed down by zookeepers.
Why are they so dangerous? Hippos are grouchy, unpredictable and quick. One afternoon a young impala leaped into a watering hole to evade a pack of wild dogs. Annoyed that this poor guy jumped into the river, the hippos simply drowned him…just because. The dogs would have eaten him, but the hippo herbivores just killed him. Hopefully his body made it to the shore in time for other carnivores to be fed.
But hippos weren’t the only ones who flouted nature. During our 6-day safari, we were able to observe a number of leopards. Leopards are a solitary bunch, the mother has the sole responsibility for childcare and as soon as the cubs are grown, they leave their home and have only sporadic reunions.
We observed a newcomer to the park. He was an ominous, young, magnificent, powerful male leopard. He had already seized territory from other leopards…but that wasn’t enough. We watched him obsessively sniffing, wandering, clearly on a mission. Our ranger explained that he had caught the scent of young leopard cubs and was searching for them…to kill.
From nature’s perspective, it made no sense. There was nothing to be gained by killing these cubs, there was plenty of territory with few leopards to occupy it. And if he was unsuccessful, he would likely mate with the female cubs that he was trying to kill.
The next day, we saw the mother relaxed and resting after consuming half of a large Kudu that she snared singlehandedly. We searched for her cubs, but she wouldn’t give away their hiding place. Several years before, she had been beaten by a male leopard and had to watch him kill her twin cubs. She was older now, and we left hoping that she was wiser, too.
The most endangered species in the bush are rhinos, but in Kruger, we were able to see almost a dozen. Rhinos are so seriously endangered that anti-poachers risk their lives every night patrolling the park (to date over 1,000 anti-poachers have been killed by poachers). Still, many male rhinoceroses die each year from injuries sustained during a fight with another male.
It shows that nature can be as slow to adapt as we are. Despite dwindling numbers of leopards and rhinos, they haven’t changed their aggressive behavior. And hippos, they kill just because.
Oh well, we all make mistakes.