Unnatural Selection

In 1859 Charles Darwin put forth his theory of natural selection—the non-random process by which biological traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential reproduction of their bearers. 

In other words, nature ensures the biggest, strongest and fastest animals are “selected” for survival and the propagation of the species.  Sadly, these same animals are also the primary targets of trophy hunters.

On a recent trip to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, we were struck by the conspicuous absence of lions with full dark manes.  The reason?  These cats don’t abide by the parks non-fenced boundaries and frequently cross the Luangwa River into the adjacent “Game Management Area” where trophy hunting is legal.

Genetically superior elephants with large tusks, and big leopards are also targeted.  Consequently, the park has smaller leopards, lions with shorter or non-existent manes and an ever-greater numbers of tusk-less elephants.  To make matters worse, when hunters slaughter these magnificent creatures they also alter the complex social structure of these animals, especially among lions and elephants.

The African bush is unlike any place on earth—it is truly magical.  Words cannot convey the physical sensation of having every organ in your body vibrate when a big male lion roars just twenty feet away.  The sound cannot be replicated—only experienced.  It’s primal, guttural and terrifying.

While the bush is raw and unpredictable, its authenticity washes over the visitor in ways one can’t imagine, making it easy to become addicted for those fortunate enough to have the time and resources to travel there. 

My wife and I have watched a leopard ambush

an impala in a ‘lugga,’ wild dogs pull a wart hog from its den, cheetahs sprint at 65 mph to make a kill, and lions bring down zebra at a river crossing.

We’ve seen an hour-old elephant calf shielded by the herd, ostrich whelps emerging from their shells and white rhinos at a water hole just meters from where we were eating dinner.  And once while in a makuro (a small canoe type boat) a hippo gave us a not so subtle warning when it surfaced mouth agape and tusks bared.  (Yes, it frightened me.)

The lions of the Disney movie “African Cats” have passed within a foot of our vehicle.  They were enormous…and each had a full dark mane.  It’s probably not coincidental that we observed this coalition in Kenya where hunting is illegal.

A bull elephant once paid me a visit in my outdoor shower, we’ve had a leopard conceal itself under the floorboard of our open Land Cruiser, and watched elephants swim using their trunks as snorkels.

In one heart rending experience, we witnessed two lionesses defend their cubs against a pride of eighteen, an experience that remains with us today.  We were transfixed watching the drama unfold as one of the lionesses took on twelve of the rival pride.  This was Africa at its most raw.  The lionesses successfully defended their cubs but one of the mothers was fatally mauled.  Expect the unexpected in the African bush. 

Early one morning we were watching a male leopard resting on a branch of a large fig tree as four bull elephants feasted on the tree’s fruit.  The moment was magical.  All seemed right with the world when the spell as broken with the unmistakable “crack” of a .375 magnum rifle. 

I looked at our guide and asked a question I already knew the answer to.  “Is that a gunshot?”   Our guide pursed his lips, cast his eyes downward, shook his head and said, “Yes.”  In an instant, I knew a magnificent creature on the other side of the river lie dead.

Words cannot describe the emotion of that moment except to say the thought of someone putting a bullet through the heart of a resting leopard or the brain of one of those feasting elephants sickened us.  

Later that evening, I suspect some courageous hunter was telling the tale of how he “bagged” a big cat or elephant that day—how very, very sad.  Africa was once a sea of animals interspersed with islands of people; today it’s a sea of people with ever-smaller islands of animals.

Safari goers understand the enchantment of watching a herd of elephants make a river crossing or gambol in a water hole with their calves.  And to those who have never been, if you have the resources may I suggest you go now before it’s too late. 

Friends frequently ask, “What’s your fascination with Africa?” to which my wife and I respond, “You have to experience it.”  As someone once said, “If you can travel to just two continents in your lifetime, go to Africa twice.”

And to those who must prove their manhood with a .375 magnum rifle, I ask two questions; how do you live with yourself after destroying one of God’s magnificent creatures, and how proud does it make you feel to know you have left this planet a poorer place?

 

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