While Satara lacked the soft song of a river and the hippo grunts that had faded away to the north, evenings in camp were quite enjoyable.
Our rondavel circle was visited by a wide variety of exotic birds in late afternoon and when the night closed in, we sat in our camping chairs and watched the ring of fire come alive. Most people braaied with dry wood and their flames systematically rose higher than ours since we used hardwood charcoal. We joked about it while our ritual lamb chops and boerewors cooked, and ate them with great delight, sipping South African Shiraz, discussing the wild and its mysteries by candlelight and star-shine.
One day, Marie cooked bread in a cast iron pot by covering in with hot coals. She had refined the technique during our Namibia trip and while it had then cost us a pot, the results are always fantastic. Baking bread while on the road is a rare luxury that is hard to explain if you have not yourself smelled the hot bread’s deep perfume swirling within the many scents of the bush.
We spent our three days driving around morning and afternoon, looking for big cats, trying to stay away from the app’s mad dashes and hoping for our own victories. One evening we came to a stop behind a couple of old ladies with sharp eyes watching a beautiful leopard in a tree through binoculars.
On two other occasions, we caught a glimpse of rhinos. Other than that, the threatened species was well hidden. And yet, we later learned that at least one rhino had been killed by poachers while we were driving around the park.
The rhino poaching crisis is the quintessential proof of human stupidity and greed. The main market for rhinoceros horn is Asia, with China and Vietnam the main culprits. The lure is a hypothetical medicinal agent, though many clinical tests have failed to confirm any real value. But cultural and social re-enforcing maintain the demand and millions of dollars are made by criminals who orchestrate the poaching.
In the field, they employ locals – poor, uneducated and expendable. These people cannot understand the risk for the species and simply see this as lucrative hunting. After all, they have been hunting in these fields for millenia. But nowadays, poachers are equipped with high-power rifles, tranquilizers, night vision optics and helicopters. Brutal butchers, they are enticed by the promise of easy money.
The middlemen must be even dirtier. They get rich retrieving the goods and sneaking them through a loose net of law enforcement. Then at the top is pure evil. The shadows who control rhino poaching are mostly unknown and yet they are the head that must be severed for this to stop.
Estimates vary widely but one kilo of rhino horn is valued between $40,000 and $100,00, higher than the cost of gold. The street price is said to beat cocaine’s, a kilo of ground horn being worth $700,000 in China according to one source.
Sure, a desperate effort is under way to try and fight the poachers, involving volunteer organizations, the police and military, park rangers and civilian reporting.
Drones are used to patrol the park and identify suspects – so are dogs, sadly. We saw SADF soldier presence in some camps, and back at the Orpen Gate, when we first entered the park, Marie had commented of the ranger’s coldly analytic gaze at us and the car, saying that no one had ever looked at her like that, as if looking right through her and into possible mischief. SANParks planes and helicopters were flying low around Satara and Olifants on multiple occasions.
The defense is on high alert. But what can they do? Corruption at all levels, unfortunately, compromises the results and the battle for now appears a losing one.
South Africa is home to an estimated 80% of remaining African rhinos. In 2012, 668 rhinos were killed there. As of writing this, the year’s death toll is already at 553. There has been a 3000 percent increase in rhino kills since 2007. This proves that rhino horn is not simply an old, culturally acknowledged element of traditional Chinese medicine, but the result of clever and unscrupulous advertising to ignorant people.
While neither white nor black rhinos have been declared endangered yet, continued poaching could easily accelerate the process and bring the species to the brinks of extinction.
What’s the solution? As with drugs, nobody knows for sure. One theory is that legalizing the trade of rhino horn might help. All parks could then de-horn their rhinos safely and sell them to saturate the market. Rhino farming would become a lucrative endeavor, even though no one is talking about what would happen to the poor animals once they have been separated from their valuable parts.
Sadly, poaching is an age-old plague that is unlikely to go away as long as there will be wildlife and people blind enough to consume it.
So the Kruger sighting boards no longer have colored chips for rhinos – and both times we actually spotted rhinos in the park, I caught myself looking around me nervously for signs of suspicious human activity. The poaching-related death toll in Kruger is mounting and now includes human lives.
But, as French singer Zazie wrote it so well,
J’étais là pour compter les morts,
J’étais là et je n’ai rien fait.
But back to our story. We had to know what the fuss was about and did go on an evening round-trip down the S100 and back. We did not see a single feline whisker, however on our way back the road had indeed turned into the infamous dust bowl and while we could not see any traffic around us, we were immersed in an eerie, out-of-this-world fog-like layer of dust that was suspended perfectly still, an alien world scene Cameron would have been proud of.
On day two of our Satara stay, it was Marie’s turn to pick a destination for our morning drive and she directed us north on the main road. I must have frowned because the sighting boards had not reported much feline activity in that direction and the tar road was in my head less likely to be frequented by lions. We drove for a while, cameras at the ready and radars actively pinging but soon our senses went numbed by the mopane that seemed to re-appear as soon as one drove north.
Marie was at the wheel. She eventually had to slow down as a large herd of buffaloes was crossing the road from right to left ahead of us. We let them pass and idled forward, having to stop over and over again as more animals came out of the bushes. Finally, all buffaloes having migrated to our left, we got under way again.
Then Marie slammed on the brakes, pointing right. There, in tall, yellow dry grass, two lionesses were walking parallel to the road. They were stalking the buffaloes.
Casually, patiently, they were trailing behind the herd, ears and nose guiding them, barely out of visual range. We killed the engine and let the felines follow their course. They pretty much ignored us, came close, stepped onto the road ahead of the car, crossed, and resumed their slow chase.
Marie and I looked around us, unbelieving. Despite the app’s curse, we were alone. We had been lucky enough to intercept this short act of a grand play right when it met our path.
Up ahead, the herd started crossing the road back to the right side. I thought this was strange as I imagined the general motion of a herd to be as steady as tides.
Then the buffaloes that had crossed to our right came back again. But this time they were not grazing. There was a sense of urgency in their movement. In groups of three or four, they broke into a run across the road. “Something’s up,” Marie mumbled. We wondered if the lions might have followed them and could be chasing them back. Chaos was erupting.
But the lionesses were still on our left flank and waited a long while as the herd on that side had walked into thick vegetation and slowed down.
While we paced, another car arrived behind us. Using the old technique, they soon figured out what we were looking at. Then another car arrived, and another. Discontent with their position in the line-up, the cars all passed us to keep up with the motion and positioned themselves closer to the lions which were now hard to see through the bushes.
All action seemed to have moved out of sight and we readied to move on, quite annoyed by the disrespectful presence of the vehicles, some of which obnoxiously kept their engine running.
Suddenly, we heard great commotion in the bushes and instinctively knew that drama was unfolding. Someone in the little car ahead of us stuck an arm outside of a window (I almost wished a hungry lion had seen that) and pointed vigorously at the invisible scene, as if winning points for having heard the noise first and claiming copyright. The poor people were probably simply high on adrenaline and out of their comfort zone.
There was something quite spooky about the terrible noises of distress coming from a hidden but very close arena. It was obvious the lions had attacked and the prey was not going down silently.
Probably focusing on a young or older animal lagging behind, the two lionesses had sprung into action. They were completely hidden to us, but cries of terror or fury echoed from the buffalo herd and painted a bloody picture. The animals that were still on the opposite side of the road started charging back towards the scene at full speed. Only then did we realize that sensing the danger, they had already been coming back to help, rather than running away from a threat.
We found ourselves unwillingly positioned right in the middle of the action. Huge buffaloes were running across the road in panic mode, but rather than fleeing, they were charging to the rescue. “Let’s get out of here,” I said, worried. “We’re in the way and they are freaking out.” As I spoke, I happened to glance over my right shoulder and saw a group of buffaloes in full gallop headed straight at us. “Punch it!” I yelled to Marie.
The Landcruiser doesn’t have much of a punch, really, but it got us out. Of course these charging beasts had not been after us, but I sure did not want to find out what happens when a car stands in the way of wild animals responding to sheer instinct and wanting to kill a threat. These guys have real-ly big horns.
Eventually, the two lionesses came out of the bushes trotting and looking over their shoulders. They crossed the road to safety, almost nonchalant in their retreat. Neither was bleeding nor looked hurt. We had no way of knowing whether they had succeeded or been defeated but in all likelihood, they had killed or injured their pray and were now taking a break away from the anger and suffering they had caused. Death would probably take its toll swiftly and they would go back and feast.
We watched the buffaloes for a while. They were obviously traumatized and large males guarded the bushes in which drama had unfolded. We had turned around to be facing them again and stayed at a careful distance. But more buffaloes were appearing closer to us and while they were clearly watchful of the lions, they looked at us in a very unfriendly way.
“Back up,” I said to Marie, “I don’t like it here.” But the driver of the little car that had been frantically waving at the fight had now maneuvered right behind us across the road, completely blocking our retreat. I fail to imagine what he could have been thinking and it is likely that his brain had actually turned to mush. We vehemently gestured to him that we wanted out. We had had enough.
Driving back to Satara the way we had come, I felt torn between feeling sorry for the herd and feeling sorry for the lions. Everyone has a right to live, yet everyone has a right to eat.
Once again, the world was reminding us that be it greed or hunger, aggression is the single most important factor in the known universe. It preserves life by taking it. Energy is recycled, atoms exchanged. Nothing lost, nothing gained.
But boy does it suck when you’re at the bottom of the chain!
«Slingshot to Kruger» Series
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Marie’s recount: Kruger National Park