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  • Max Stearns

Reflections on Travel in South Africa and Beyond: Safari! (Part III)

I began my first post in this three-part series observing that the best kind of travel experiences, like the best books, make you think differently about the world. After three days and six separate excursions, I’m persuaded that few travel experiences do so more than a safari. The safari is at once a microcosm, metaphor, and instantiation of life, in all its beauty, richness, wonder, tragedy, and pain. Without the last two, the first three aren’t possible; after all, that’s what life’s circle is all about. But the safari offers more than insight into the circle of life. It opens thinking into evolution, sex roles, environmentalism, the outsized role of people in the lives of all creatures, and, for me at least, the rules of kashrut.

Our safari was in the Pilanesberg National Park, a reserve located about three hours from Johannesburg. The excursions ventured out twice daily, early morning (6:30-9:30 am) and late afternoon (3:30-6:30 pm) in a specially suited open van that accommodated up to eleven people, driver included. Our expeditions were not merely in pursuit of the “big five”—elephants, lions, leopards, water buffalo, and black rhinos—but also of many other animals and wildlife, large and small, including giraffes, white rhinos, zebras, wildebeests, impalas, springboks, hippos, hyenas, cheetahs, wild dogs, and innumerable birds. We even surveyed notable vegetation, and, although I doubt calling this a “species and feces tour” would improve marketing, we even saw some intriguing poop. We ultimately managed to see the big five, with the highest rated viewing (5 on a 5-point scale) for but the elusive black rhino (1 or 2 out of 5.) White Rhinos, although still rare and protected, along with Black Rhinos, to the point that no rhino siting may be "called in" for fear of listening in by those who might hunt their tusks, seemed comparatively abundant. We saw most of the other listed species, excluding cheetahs and wild dogs, which are quite also rare. And yes, we saw white hyena poop, which results, after its initial green debut, from the consumption of calcium rich bone marrow. We even had two rare caracal sightings, which excited our wonderful and deeply knowledgeable guide far more than any other species we viewed.

More than anything, the safari teaches how much there is to learn about animals and their habitats. When I imagine how I might spend massive sums of money, if I had it to spend, I now think that sponsored trips for middle or high school aged students to safaris just might change the world. When I met with the Village Chief, he explained the importance of living with the animals in nature, even those we consume, and respecting them and their habitats. This becomes all the more meaningful with the kind of experience a safari provides. Only by seeing animals roam across countless acres in a given day is it possible fully to appreciate the havoc and devastation our species has wrought in ruining so many habitats, along with the profound sadness such grand creatures must suffer when confined in zoos.

Earlier on our trip, we had met an eighteen-year-old man from the US, soon to start his Army basic training, and, later, his grandfather, with whom he was traveling. Both were traveling Africa to hunt large game, and the grandson identified them as conservationists who love animals and who hunt elephants, lions, rhinos, and giraffes, among others, because the animals consume too much habitat. Although the hunted game is also deployed for meat, the claimed justification is culling excess animal populations for environmental purposes.

To a person each guide with whom I shared this anecdote immediately rejected the claimed justification of hunt-based culling. The problem is this: trophy hunters systematically compromise the genetic lines of hunted species by killing off the animals who are among the strongest and thus most likely to pass along best genes, all in the pursuit of vain trophies. Hunters pay massive sums, upwards of $45,000 for particular kills. such as lions. One recent black rhino kill was reported at a whopping $400,000! And yet the funding rarely benefits animal habitats or even local residents. Instead, it lines the pockets of politicians or bureaucrats who give access, sometimes illegally, to the prey.

Personally, when I see pictures of such trophies, with the hunters’ broad smiles as they stand over dead majestic prey, I am deeply saddened, even to the point of tears. I simply cannot fathom how anyone derives pleasure in destroying these beautiful creatures. These impressions were only strengthened by my experience on the safari. The trophies are not limited to pictures; they also include horns, notably including those of Black Rhinos. The Trump administration just made easier to import these into the US. Some believe that Rhino horns hold magical properties, in curing disease or even as aphrodisiacs, but as our safari guide rightly observed, such horns are produced of keratin. For those holding such beliefs, you might try biting your fingernails instead. They are made of the very same thing.

Although I continue to eat vegetarian, I want to be clear: I don’t eschew hunting for meat. Along with our safari guide, I agree that it is hypocritical to eat meat yet condemn those who hunt for it, rather than buy it in grocery stores or butcher shops. Hunting for meat allows animals to live in the wild, whereas farmed meat animals—even if slaughtered humanely, including under Kosher laws—endure the sounds, smells, and quite possibly sights of death and slaughter, producing almost certain emotional, and perhaps physical, distress. And of this is all on top of life-long confinement in unnatural conditions. Hunting, properly done, targets the most rapid, meat-saving kill, which might well be more humane than at least a good many conventional modern slaughtering techniques employed by the meat industry. In addition, hunters often claim to use all parts of the animal, avoiding the substantial waste that arises in much of the farmed meat industry.

To be sure, the wild is not an idyllic home for animals; nature is an often-brutal place. Part of the brutality involves the hunting for meat within the animal kingdom itself. Carnivores routinely hunt for prey, and although my family didn’t witness any actual kills, we did see a leopard in a tree eating the remains of an impala, and we saw a den of lions in high grass enjoying the remains of a giraffe. There are several critical differences, however, with trophy hunters. Such kills most often target the weaker prey, not because of concerns for genetic lines, of course, but rather because that’s how the circle of life works.

An old joke: two men are running from a bear, and one says to the other “it’s pointless; no person can outrun a bear,” to which the other replies, “no it’s not; I only have to outrun you!” Likewise, carnivorous animals catch the easiest prey, with the consequence of removing animal prey that is injured or weak, as opposed to those that are most photogenic, such as exhibiting the most impressive horns. (A similar tragic result arises from those who hunt sharks in pursuit of fins.)

Nature’s cruelty also has much to do with sex. In nature, sex is defining, even existential, with males and females leading sharply divergent lives. Some large males, such as elephant bulls and lions, traverse the vast landscape alone, whereas others, such as young male giraffes, will join in small groups until they more fully mature or divide up in pursuit of mates, often fighting with other males along the way. Unlike birds, which often mate for life or practice serial monogamy, in much of the animal kingdom, the sexes meet up only to impregnate, with the females raising the offspring entirely alone or in groups with other females.

Sex encounters themselves can seem cruel. Our safari required no age-specific warnings, which would not have been necessary for my grown children in any event. Our guide explained some of the challenges. A newly sexually mature two-ton female elephant might find herself mounted, including climbing on her back, by an older seven-ton elephant bull. The challenges are not limited to the females. In alpha-male dominated species, one bull impregnates all the herded females, leading to menacing, even deathly, fights among males for prized sexual access, as each seeks to pass along its genes. We witnessed some fights among birds, and some play or practice fights among young male impalas. Such behaviors are ubiquitous in the wild. There’s a reason why game theorists describe such famous movie scenes as the drive over the cliff in Rebel Without a Cause, as a game of chicken. Male-female birth ratios are almost always roughly equal, and, as a consequence, alpha-male mating practices in the wild threaten to leave most males sexually abandoned.

Western culture has long valorized monogamy as liberating women from seemingly oppressive practices witnessed in polygamous cultures, as seen, for example, in some breakaway LDS communities or in fundamentalist Muslim communities in certain Middle Eastern countries. While there is much to commend this perspective, the explanation is almost certainly incomplete. If we take polygamy as a starting point, monogamy democratizes opportunities for sexual access among mature adult men, ending the sort of alpha male dominance routinely observed in the wild.

The safari also implicates habits of dining. Giraffes are are ruminants, meaning that they have chambered stomachs chew their cud, and they also have split hooves. Even though giraffes thus meet the two requirements that render them kosher, they do not form part of the Jewish meat-eating diet. Some contend that the long necks create insurmountable slaughtering challenges under the kashrut, but another account claims giraffes are simply too difficult to restrain. Other mammals that we saw, including elephants or zebras, have single-chamber stomachs, as do we. Animals with single chamber stomachs, and which therefore do not chew their cud, are far less efficient eaters. Chambered stomachs allow animals a second opportunity to chew after initial steps of digestion have taken place, thereby enabling them to extract more nutrients from consumed vegetation. In contrast with leaf-eating giraffes, elephants mercilessly chomp their way through the bush, leaving havoc in their wake, and wasting as much as sixty percent of the vegetation they consume, digesting only what remains. One wonders if kosher cud-chewing anticipates modern feed-conversion ratios, encouraging early Jews only to consume animals that, if farmed, avoid excessive environmental degradation.

Finally, the safari implicates the ever-fascinating, and ever-controversial, topic of brain-sex differences. The sharp divergences in animal sex roles find reflection within simpler, or primitive, cultures. Are humans alone exempt from present day cognitive consequences arising from earlier evolutionary periods? The era of evolutionary adaptation almost certainly witnessed considerable sex-specific specialization, with females undertaking overwhelmingly disproportionate child rearing, and with men specializing in other tasks. The harder question is whether there remain divergent effects for the sexes in the modern era, a topic so fraught that it has led to great angst in elite academic institutions. There is a bit of irony in all of this. We increasingly recognize the value of divergences, especially when considering the vital role that non-mind-blindness plays in complex interpersonal dynamics, correlated with skills that, in large numbers, women may more strongly possess than men. Of course, it is critical to acknowledge that large number differences can never speak to the specific capacities of individual women and men, for which there is tremendous variance. Individual women and men should always be assessed based solely on their specific skills and talents. Even so, the question remains: Is it possible to appreciate the value of these vital skills without also recognizing that, again, in large numbers, differential developmental paths might also have had differing offsetting costs for men and women?

The safari ultimately raises more questions than it answers, and so it seems appropriate to end where I began. The safari was not at the top, or even particularly high, on my planned travel list. We went for somewhat fortuitous reasons. I’m so glad we did. I would now place this at or near the very much at the top of the travel experiences I have had the privilege to enjoy. It is transformative, or so it was for me. I cannot recommend it highly enough. And if you have children, that should only strengthen your resolve.

I welcome your comments.

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