Denis said later, on the way to Sharpeville, he thought that game rangers always go on a bit too much about the sexual habits of animals. Personally, when it comes to animals, I am really not sure if “habit” is the right word. I always thought of a habit as something you can change about yourself, with enough determination, on January 1. Unless of course it is a good habit, then you can write a book about it and others can acquire it, and hopefully you can make a bit of money.
And perhaps that is an interesting thought right there. “The sexual habits of highly effective animals” may be a best-seller yet.
I have been on a couple of game drives in my life. I don’t need my fingers AND my toes to count them, but still. A few. On this specific drive I retained most of the information dished out by the ranger, which was atypical. I usually forget that stuff as soon as we sit down to breakfast, or pour the first whiskey, depending on the time of the drive.
Perhaps THAT made the difference. There was no breakfast and no alcohol involved afterwards. Or maybe that was not it. After what could only be described as an abridged version of a game drive, we stepped into a zoo to see two lion brothers mating in captivity. So, everything about the morning and the animals we saw was slightly surreal. The whole experience was also tinged with guilt: I kept on thinking that if Bob, my friend the conservation nazi, were there, he would have had to drink a lot to make the memories go away.
(And with that I just painted this blog black, where I really intended for it to be funny. But I am going to soldier on. I can always change it later – as the 10th commandment goes: thou shalt rewrite.)
But back to the bush.
The game farm, all 200-odd hectares of it, that belongs to the Casino Resort has a variety of game. Springbok, impala, eland, rhino, blue wildebeest, zebra, yellow mongoose and Gerry the giraffe. We found him sitting down, among the trees, keeping the eland company. This was very unusual as one almost never sees giraffe sitting down, Pieter-the-ranger explained. The neck becomes an easy target for predators. I think after a few years at the resort, however, Gerry cottoned on that although the lion was roaring, it was not coming to eat him. Hans (the entertainment manager at the resort) was also quite exited. Later I thought that the Gerry-sitting-down-thing was more than just another bead on the string of strange sights that morning.
We started at the enclosures, where we found some Arabian Oryx and other animals that neither belonged in South Africa, nor apparently on earth for long, as some of them were nearly extinct. Dave got out to film us and them, and an emu started courting him. The bird (male, we had to have a bit of a go at Dave about that) clearly did not think of humans as its natural enemies.
We moved on to the small herd of buffalo, also in a kraal. The fence at the river, Hans explained, was not strong enough to keep the buffalo in the reserve. There was something of the parallel universe about the scene: my eyes really wanted to see cattle in that space – it was the species that belonged there. The buffalo were all lying down, the big male separate, but not far from the females. Pieter told us that the area on top of the head, where the horns came together, was as hard as cement, and that a bullet would simply ricochet off it. Apparently you have to shoot a charging buffalo in the brain to stop him. A shot in the chest or the heart would not do the trick. It was quite fearsome.
On a lighter note, he pointed out that in the wild, the male would be a daggaboy (pronounced “daggah-boy”). I always thought that “daggah” was part of the South African building vernacular, so I asked about the spelling. Apparently this is right – you write it like the local word for marijuana , but pronounce it like the local word for wet cement.
According to our guide, the older bulls get a bit bored with the constant challenges to their authority from younger males, so they wander off to join other bored, mature bulls in a nirvana of bachelorhood. I think they sleep late, drink beer and watch as much sport on TV as they like in a peaceful manner, undisturbed by the requirements of the nuclear family specifically or the Woollies society in general.
The daggaboy can then, when he gets horny, return to the herd and get laid as he sees fit, as the herd still belongs to him, he just cannot be bothered to take care of it.
The blue wildebeest had a different approach. The males would let the females wander off… more concerned with defending prime territory from challengers than with keeping a herd together. They would live alone like this for months, trusting that the females would wander back at some stage, as he would have the “three things they need to breed: water, shade, food”. I asked Pieter if, when it came to breeding, there was not something missing in that mix, and he said yes, maybe the bull had FOUR things required for procreation.
If the females did not come back (maybe they found someone with a bigger house, car, and entertainment potential) he would eventually, months later, go wandering off looking for them. Now is that a general male species thing or what?
When it comes to aberrant sexual behaviour, however, I think the zebra took the prize for the day. As we spotted them Pieter pointed out the breeding herd on one side of the road, and three singles on the other. As is the norm, when the young males get too frisky, they would get expelled. The two we saw had managed to separate a female from the herd, and was keeping her, so to speak. If she tried to get back to the herd, they would bite her ears… and so on. I asked if this was a captivity thing, but Pieter assured me that it also happened in the wild. Natural or not, I thought it was disgusting.
The whole experience was a dream, really. I cannot quite explain the nature of it, sometimes it was disturbing, sometimes it bordered on wonder. We had an astonishing moment with the rhino – they came so close to the vehicle I could have reached out and touched one. There was quiet tension, Pieter keeping his voice low and level, reminding us not to make sudden movements.
I thought about Bridget, always saying that she preferred her men to be like rhino: bad eyesight and a big horn. Although their eyesight, apparently, is not that bad. It is only bad for ANIMALS, so if you think you can hide behind a tree, make it a solid one.
The size of the park meant that we saw all the animals they had in about 45 minutes. And then we went on to the zoo where we saw wild dog, hippo, the incestuous lions and the cheetah… perhaps the saddest of all. Their tails were shorter than they should be, and they were slightly squint. Hans pointed this out: it comes from inbreeding, and living in captivity.
Bob explained to me once that all confined elephants are demented. They look normal and content to people, but that is just because we do not know how to recognise the signs. I imagined that if these elephants WERE people, they would be the drooling, docile, unfocused ones in an asylum somewhere.
The brother lions were doing each other, and I think Hans and Pieter were a bit embarrassed. When we left, I made a quip about the sexual habits of men and other animals, but it was not really funny. I thought about Bob a lot. The idea of zoos make him apoplectic. I thought about the film industry, and the times I have had elephants on my own set. All very bad, it turned out. Bad for the animals.
But how does one, I wanted to ask Bob, then educate people who will never get to the Kruger Park about conservation and animals? Picture books? Video? Film? How does one teach kids to believe in the need for conservation, and get them to experience the proximity of wild animals that could inspire this? I am not sure that I would like the answer, and I think I may have to have that third whisky at Giles on Friday night before I ask.