Africa Week One: Addo Elephant Reserve

I’ve now been back in Africa for a little over a week, and what a week its been.  Last Tuesday I drove out of Addo Elephant Park by the southern gate, a far more pleasant route than the one I took to get there.  I’d entered through the main gate which required driving past several litter strewn townships which was very depressing. The poorer urban areas of South Africa are drowning in a sea of plastic that is growing by the day.  I believe the best way to resolve the plastic litter crisis – and it is a very real crisis – is to monetize it.  Pay local children a few rand (cents) for each pound of plastic they collect, then compress it and ship it to some of the country’s very impressive recycling centers and businesses.  Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane founded Repurpose School Bags which is a fabulous concept, and up in Kenya Lorna Rutto started EcoPost which makes fence posts out of recycled plastic (Thanks to my webmaster extraordinaire Judy Shasek for bringing these to my attention). And in Jeffrey’s Bay the JBay Recycling Project is doing great work.  These are just a few examples. But we need to do more, and we must act soon or this scourge may just overwhelm the whole country.

That said the real object of the past few days was to give the vehicle (aka Assegai) a good test in some off road conditions. Happily she performed really well.  She handles like a charm and the extra shocks and springs she’s outfitted with made for a stable and relatively smooth ride.  There are a few puzzling electrical issues that the staff at Schroeder Motorhomes are working on but I’m hopeful they’ll have everything resolved soon and I’ll be back on the road sometime shortly.

addo-rhinoWith a surface area of 630 square miles Addo is South Africa’s third largest park and is the only one that includes a marine conservation area as well.  Their claim to be Africa’s only Big 7 Park is based on the fact that within its boundaries it has lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, elephant, great white sharks and whales. It was certainly an eye opener in many different ways.

It’s run by SAN Parks, the government entity responsible for running all of the country’s nineteen national parks. It’s a big organization that is not without its problems and maintenance of the multitude of park facilities is not their strong suit.  However they’re working on it as evidenced by the fact they have now contracted  out all of their restaurant operations to Cattle Barons who are doing a much better job, certainly offering far better fare than we had during our last stay in Kruger. addo-wb

What’s truly amazing about Addo are the number of elephants that congregate together in huge numbers.  Each day I counted herds of well over a hundred and twenty all eating, moving and watering together – by far the largest herds of elephants I have ever seen anywhere.  It’s hard to believe that when the original section of the park was founded in 1931, there were only eleven elephants left in an area where they had been hunted almost to extinction.  These days Addo is home to over six hundred of them which is an amazing success story and a testament to the ability of wildlife to recover given the right surrounds and decent protection.

On one hot afternoon I arrived early at Hapoor Dam, a favorite watering and bathing hole for many of the park’s elephants. At first they came in groups of ten or so, and then the groups grew larger and larger until there were literally hundreds of them. Anyone else hoping for a drink at this spot – named after the most dominant male elephant in Addo’s history – was out of luck as the ele’s completely took over.  In addition to a concrete lined drinking pond, there’s a fairly large and deep muddy swimming hole that most of the larger elephants played in with wild abandon, squirting each other and mud wrestling with great glee. addo-elephants1

The smaller ones, and there were lots of them including some that couldn’t have been more than a couple of weeks old, watched anxiously from the banks, unable to negotiate the slippery mud slope down into the water.  Although some of them came close to trying I was relieved that none of them did as clambering back out would have proved too much for them.  As it was it took a real effort from all but the very biggest to get out and it was very amusing to watch all the different techniques employed. The most successful was the “drop to your front knees and slither out” method using their splayed out back feet to propel them along. Hilarious!

After several hours of drinking, playing and standing idly in the hot sun flapping their ears to cool off, some begin to head off up the distant hill from whence they came.  More and more followed and within a relatively short time they were all gone.  With my binoculars I spotted a glint of white half way up the hill and when I focused in on it I discovered an enormous old bull and his guardian mate watching the returning herd.  The white glint I saw was an enormous pair of tusks, several feet in length, quite possibly the biggest I’ve ever seen.  He’s obviously lived a long life by following the mantra discretion is the better part of valor, and I doubt very much that he’d make his way down to the watering hole until well after sunset.

The previous day’s highlight started just after first light. I was one of the first out of camp at 5:30 and just by chance decided to take a small dirt road I hadn’t driven down before.  Coming over a small rise I almost ran into a spectacularly well muscled female lion walking along the road followed by her two large cubs, about six months old I would guess.  Upon seeing me she headed up the bank followed at a distance by the two youngsters.  Then I heard a grunt off to my right and looking up the hill I spotted a magnificent black maned lion watching us all intently from the prone position.  I’ve not seen that many black maned lions and he was spectacular!  A huge specimen in the prime of his life with a long flowing mane that framed his huge head as he looked down of us.  The female passed behind him and disappeared into the thick brush while one of the cubs headed directly up to him and gave him what could only be described as a huge hug before he followed his sibling and mother into the brush.

Now all my focus was on the male and I determined I might get an even better view of him if I backed up and took an alternate route up the hill that would give me a good side view of him.  Just as I got there he started roaring followed seconds later by more roars from another location up above and behind him.  There were two of them and from my new position I could now see them both! He too was adorned with a fabulous black mane leading me to think they are probably brothers.  Both of them were quite content to lie and watch the action augmented every now and then with some hair raising exchanges of roars and grunts.  Happily I was able to record the end of one such exchange which I’ve attached for your enjoyment.  Trust me if you’ve never heard a lion roar while you’re out in the bush, its sound and an experience you’ll never forget!

I left Addo – as I often do after spending time up close and personal with this continents incredible wildlife  – feeling absolutely blessed.  Seeing these animals in their natural habitat is such an extraordinary experience it never gets old.  It reinforces my desire to do everything I can to help preserve them for future generations to enjoy as well.  It’s no easy task as their habitat is under increasing pressure from human encroachment not to mention the poaching epidemic that continues to decimate the ranks of rhinos, elephants, lions, cheetahs and pangolins, and sadly many others too.

It seems to me that there are three priorities that we need to address if we are to save our wildlife, and they all have equal import.  We must dry up the demand for poached animals of any kind.  The demand is primarily fueled by the Chinese and Asian market many of whom continue to believe that rhino horn has medicinal qualities which is patently false, and also by those who see ownership of a small bit of horn as a status symbol which is even more repugnant.  There are several prominent Chinese athletes and celebrities doing all they can to persuade their fellow countrymen that their insatiable appetite is driving these animals to the brink of extinction.

We must protect the animals from the ruthless poaching gangs that operate almost with impunity in some areas.  People on the front lines risk their lives as they confront the poachers who all too often have officials in the highest offices, including the very security forces running the anti-poaching squads, on their payroll.  Payoffs, bribery, and corruption are commonplace throughout Africa but nowhere is their impact felt more than in the wildlife conservation arena.

We must persuade the indigenous African youth that the wildlife of Africa is a unique and special heritage that exists nowhere else on earth and that it is well worth preserving. Many of them grow up in poor urban households that have no exposure to wildlife at all.  Others in rural areas regard it as a threat; a snake bites a family member, an elephant tramples their crops, a leopard or lion kills the family’s only goat.  Persuading them to take a benevolent approach to wildlife requires providing them with alternatives to killing it out of hand.  They need to reap the rewards through increased employment opportunities and profit sharing plans.

In my travels around Southern Africa and my meetings with leading conservationists and local leaders, I plan on discussing these issues to see how they feel and what they believe can and must be done.  It’s all a part of The Quest For Hope and I’ll be doing my best to keep you all updated on my progress, no easy task for an old man who is anything but a technophile!

Thanks for following along, and thank you for all your support and encouragement. Onwards…..