African Notes: Animal Activism, Instinctive Apathy

Gershom Gorenberg

Above us, two eagles fought: One swooped ahead, the other caught up and dove, the two of the them locked together, plunged, let go, and flew again. “They’re fighting about territory,” said Brad, our guide. “One has entered the other’s territory, and is being warned to leave.”

Elephants emerged from the trees into open grassland near the river bank, a line of dark beasts, moving silently in the late afternoon light. We sat, awed, in the small open truck on a dirt road through the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Brad explained the cushioning of their feet, which allows them to move like apparitions through the bush. He pointed out at a small elephant and said it was a young male. “They reach sexual maturity when they’re 12-13, like humans,” he said. “Then his mother will force him out of the herd, which will be quite traumatic for him.” For the next 10 years, Brad said, the young bull will live on its own. Then it will start fighting the older bulls for breeding rights.

Elephants, Brad said, are very emotional creatures. “They don’t like death at all. When one dies, the others try to lift her up.” The elephant population in the reserve is rising, he said, and eventually will have to be “culled.” The experts say that whole families have to be “culled.” They’ve learned experience: When only adults were “culled,” the young ones were traumatized. They were much more aggressive, attacking humans more willingly. Some mature bulls had to be brought in from elsewhere, and after a very long time were able to impose order.

At dusk, three rhinoceroses – mother, father and little half-ton child – ambled onto the dirt road in front of us. They like the heat rising from the packed dirt of the road, Brad said. The mother’s long lower horn and shorter upper horn were both curved and sharp. The father’s upper horn was short and dull, apparently broken off in a fight with another male. The females’ horns stay complete, Brad said, because they don’t fight each other. No, said someone in our party of four, they just gossip viciously about each other for many years. Eventually, as Brad moved our truck inch by inch closer, the rhinos rambled back into the trees.

We didn’t see any lions or leopards. Brad had warned us not to expect any. The big predatory cats are elusive. If I heard him right, he also said that they are not bothered by seeing death. They see it all the time. They create it.

The big beasts remind you of the beauty of creation and of its cruelty. They fight over territory, and expel intruders. The males fight over females. The females choose the winners of battle, the powerful and overbearing, who will mate and wander back into the bush. There is a reason we call certain behavior “beastly.”

Read moreAfrican Notes: Animal Activism, Instinctive Apathy