Some stories just need to be told. When you travel around the
world you see a variety of interesting things, meet numerous
interesting people and have a wide range of interesting experiences.
But once in a while you see a situation that is more than just
interesting. It can be downright tragic.
Alan and I traveled to Africa for
a second time in the fall of 2005. Once again, we were on photographic
and editorial assignment
for Simon and Baker Travel
Review. We traveled to a variety of
luxury safari accommodations, this time concentrating our efforts
exclusively in the country of Zambia. I was also there to study
and photograph the enormous variety of wildlife that lives in the
vast Zambian bush.
Zambia, like so many countries
in southern Africa, is sparsely populated and poverty is a constant
of the majority who
live there. The countryside is lightly dotted with tiny villages.
Miniscule grass huts huddle in small clusters on the dusty ground
with occasional scrub trees, palms and pencil cactus scattered
around these areas. A “store” where one can purchase
fresh produce may consist of a few boards pounded together with
meager nails, perched on the edge of a little village by the dusty
roadside. In some villages, these “stores” are the
only way to buy anything that the families have not grown for themselves.
The main means of transportation
around and between villages is one’s own feet, or if you
are very lucky you might have an old bicycle. Bicycles are special
rare and some carry more
than one passenger on them. One in particular that I saw had four
people piled on, riding in an assortment of uncomfortable positions
making the job of the woman who was the main source of power and
steering particularly difficult. This bicycle, with its overtaxed
tires and driver swayed loosely back and forth along the roadside
in a wide, arcing zigzag pattern, I was sure I saw it trembling
slightly under the weight of so many passengers. Some of the roadside
stores also sell old clothing and even bicycle tires. After all
a bicycle tire that is flat is an equalizer, creating the inevitable
end result of walking, just like everyone else.
With acute poverty as a backdrop
it is easy to see how the stage can be set for disaster. Desperate
often spawn desperate
solutions. In the past, the surrounding wildlife was worth a great
deal to the local people. They would hunt animals simply for their
own needs of dietary protein in their villages. An antelope would
feed an entire family for several days or even weeks. But when
the national park systems were set up and animals suddenly were
protected, hunting, once legal…became poaching.
With the protein source of the
villagers suddenly cut off, poverty grew even deeper. There was
monetary gain from the numerous
antelope that roamed about and livestock was difficult to keep
because of the varied predators that haunted the villages after
dark. But in the 1970’s the winds of change brought a new
opportunity for people brave and desperate enough to take advantage
of it. Thanks to the sometimes misguided beliefs of ancient Chinese
medicine, there was one animal that now stood out from all others.
This animal suddenly had become one of the most valuable living
creatures on the planet. To kill this animal was to illegally poach
it, but the rewards were great. In fact the rewards were tremendous…perhaps
even worth dying for…
The unfortunate star of this tragic
story is of course, the rhinoceros. In the early 1970’s and before, rhino were quite abundant
in the country of Zambia, numbering in the 5000’s, maybe
even more. There became an ever increasing demand for rhino horn
which the Chinese believe to be very effective as an aphrodisiac.
This horn (which is actually nothing more than hair fibers that
are woven tightly enough to form a hard, solid mass) was and still
is, worth an absolute fortune. The animal was shot and only the
horn was removed, leaving the rest of the great creature to rot
in the African sun. Within less than two short decades this prehistoric
beast who had survived ice ages, drought, famine and disease since
the dawn of time, was completely gone. The one obstacle that the
rhinoceros could not overcome was the greed of man. By the mid
1990’s the rhinoceros was completely extinct in the country
of Zambia and nearly so in most other African nations.
It was the tireless work of many
conservation organizations but most notable, CITES (Convention
on International Trade in Endangered
Species) that found the source of most of this unbridled greed.
Necessary steps were taken to slow the poaching. It was a long
and arduous task and complete success has not yet been realized.
But the steps that have been taken are in the right direction.
With continued work the rhinoceros may have a future, albeit an
uncertain one. We owe a great deal to the dedicated individuals
in these organizations who often put themselves at enormous personal
risk while working undercover, to ensure that our great-grandchildren
will know what a rhinoceros looks like.
rhinoceros, fading from reality into memory
There are now two rhinos in the
country of Zambia…yes, TWO.
Having been imported from South Africa, both reside in a small
but bountiful park called “Mosi-Oa-Tunya” (“the
smoke that thunders”) not far from Victoria Falls. There
is only one way to keep rhino in Zambia now, and that is under
armed guard twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. These
two animals are never left unattended. They wander wherever they
within the park. It is up to the guards to keep up with them
and watch their every move. These white rhino are so precious
their food is even supplemented with alfalfa during the dry season.
Nothing is left to chance as this country attempts to heal the
deep wounds of the past.
During our stay, we were fortunate to visit these two rhinos,
who are nearly celebrities in their own country. They are a perfect
pair, a male and female, and they spend all of their time together.
The guards that keep them safe are almost completely disregarded
by these huge beasts, as the men have become a permanent fixture
on the landscape of their lives. When the guards reveal the supplemented
alfalfa, the rhinos come running, like dogs to a bone. These four
souls, two rhinos and two guards move about as one living organism.
It is a symbiotic relationship spawned by greed.
keeper of a species
While visiting Mosi-Oi-Tunya National
Park, we had a new guide in training accompanying Alan and I
regular guide. Although
Mwila had grown up in a nearby village and had gone through the
intensive study required to be a safari guide, he had never in
his life seen a real rhinoceros. He had learned all the facts that
he needed to know about the animal in order to answer any questions
safari visitors may ask, and he could pick one out in a field guide.
But up until the first day we spent together, for Mwila seeing
a real rhino had only been a dream. Most children in the United
States have at one time or another made a visit to a local zoo.
To see a rhino in the flesh is not a particularly notable event
in the life of an average American child. But it was a magical
moment we shared in the life of this young safari guide as he rested
his eyes for the first time on a dream. It was a magical moment
for me too, as I witnessed an almost spiritual passion, and an
enthusiasm unlike anything I had ever before seen. That day changed
Mwila’s life. It also changed mine.
All this talk about rhinos is certainly
not at the expense of all of the other fabulous animals we viewed
while in the beautiful
country of Zambia. We watched countless mammals and birds. We witnessed
new beginnings with the springtime births of hundreds of tiny impala.
We witnessed the sad endings of animals being brought down in a
kill, in a way that only nature can excuse. Africa is full of excitement
and contradiction. It is an exaggeration of nature in the rawest
form, and is perhaps the best example of how man fits in to this
scheme, for better or for worse. The plight of the rhino really
struck a chord with Alan and me, and brought into sharp focus the
tragic drama that plays out as specie’s struggle for their
place in a world now so dominated by one, who is perhaps not so
wise. How it will work itself out in the end is anyone’s
guess. But I have an optimistic vision of the future, as we learn
from mistakes of the past, and slowly gain the wisdom we need to
be worthy landlords of this fascinating planet.
The animal life of Africa is what this land is most famous for.
But one cannot overlook other extraordinary attributes as they
visit this great continent. The following is a photographic tribute
to the stunning skies of Zambia: