Animal kingdom refugee

In winter’s dry season over 100,000 elephants migrate south and east to Botswana. Photo: Stephen Bailey

In winter’s dry season over 100,000 elephants migrate south and east to Botswana. Photo: Stephen Bailey

Road signs had warned of crossing elephants. Piles of fresh dung and bulldozed trees suggested this wasn’t a government trick to excite foreigners.

My tourist information flyer was more explicit: ‘It’s essential to keep your tent closed. Hyenas will come and bite your face off’
- Stephen Bailey

My tourist information flyer was more explicit: “It’s essential to keep your tent closed. Hyenas will come and bite yourface off.”

At some point in the night, a hippo’s croak woke me. Where was he? Was he close? It silenced the melodious birds and chora bull frogs.

Shutting my eyes, I heard the exploratory thump, the portentous snort, and a second commanding croak. Welcome to Botswana it said, the country where people are vulnerable refugees in an animal kingdom.

“We had to shoot one hippo last week,” the lodge owner told me the next morning. “It had been fighting with another male and entered the camp aggressively, with no regard for peoples’ tents.”

Regard for tents? We were in their territory. Invading the savannah with our pegs and poles, and pitching next to the rapacious Okavango River. What was I thinking? If I was a hippo I would be throwing my weight around, challenging anyone who dared to infiltrate the prime riverside.

Further down the river a different predator was rebelling against human encroachment. “One of our guests woke to a crocodile trying to drag his tent into the river,” the Botswanan chef laughed. “But don’t worry, that sort of thing never happens.”

Crocodiles! I could see one sunbathing within range of my quivering catapult.But what use was my souvenirbushman weapon?

I started dragging logs from the forest to build a defensive shield. The chef laughed again. “But that isn’t going to protect you from the lions.”

What was this place? Why was I here? In their own kingdom the predators ruled. Skilled, evolved, accomplished in the surroundings, they weren’t posing for mypoised camera.

I heard the lion roar, a potent message through the thriving grassland. But I never saw it, the stealthy hunter hidden in the desert greenery. The Kalahari is a desert. Precipitation is rare. But mountainous rain from Angola creeps southward, invigorating the Okavango waterways two months later, and slithering into the interior.

Trees flourish in this desert, endeavoring for obesity so they can avoid the elephants’ inexorable uprooting. For thousands of kilometers nature’s annual cycle is played out. Water stimulates growth; animals thrive on the destruction that keeps them alive.

If people are refugees here, the vehicles are aliens. On the edge of the Okavango Delta my lift drove into a swamp. The mud had the consistency of melted chocolate; appetising and enticing, yet sticky and useless. The harder we tried the deeper we sunk, unable to escape the glutinous sludge.

After two hours a tractor pulled us out. Adamant that the aliens had a place in the animal kingdom, the driver tried again. Melted chocolate sealed the cracks around the doors as another predator circled in the dusk light: mosquitoes. An inch wide, their blood sucking hostility forced us to continue to camp on foot.

But humans did have their small victories here. They were never going to be bottom of the food chain. Beef is one of the country’s chief exports, almost 20,000 tonnes annually distributed to the world. Depending on the cut, local prices range from €2.50 to €5per kilo.

In Botswana, if a steak weighs less than 700g it’s not a steak, it’s finger food at a children’s buffet. And I had to suck the bones dry. The last thing I wanted was tosend delicious wafts of protein to the congregating masses.

While I may be a refugee here, local bushmen have been surviving off the land for thousands of years. Each has their own language, but little uniformity exists as thetribes have a natural inclination towardsself-sufficiency.

Using traditional methods, their lifestyles aren’t hindered by governmental restrictions on hunting. Scampering barefoot, they track animals, following obscure footprints, instantly detecting a small overturned stone.

Under their guidance I’m able to detect the diminutive markers of the hunted. But I must stop, scour, analyse, deliberateand decide.

The bushmen’s proficient eyes and split second changes of direction help us keep pace with the zebra’s path, but my stumbling means we never get close enough for the arrow. In a kingdom of predators, the hunted have spent their entire existence escaping. My amateurism would neverbe sufficient.

If people don’t rule the kingdom which predator does? Lions, hippos, crocodiles? No. That prize goes to the wild African elephant. In winter’s dry season over 100,000 elephants migrate south and east to Botswana, searching for liquefied goodness.

“There are two differences between the African and Asian elephants,” I’m told. “African elephants are bigger, and haven’t been tamed.”

Herds numbering between eight and 20 roam through Chobe National Park, the abundance of youngsters indicating the health and supremacy of an animal poached in other parts of the world.

Slowly, unabashedly, they cross the main road. Those road signs were for real. Without burden they frequent isolated waterholes, frolicking in the mud, chasing away baboons, flapping immeasurable ears in shows of machismo.

Pitching beside Chobe National Park I spend a seventh sleepless night listening to the animals in their kingdom. What tonight? The croak of a hippo, the stealthy attack of a crocodile, a lion’s supreme roar, or the playful snorting of the elephant migration?

I didn’t care, as long as it frightened those invisible hyenas. I wanted to keep my face. I wanted to return to the humanworld unscathed.

Kalahari, Chobe, Okavango Delta… the Botswana animal kingdom is one from the wildlife documentaries. It’s the one they show from above, zooming out from a zebra herd until hundreds of thousands of square kilometers fill the television screen.

It’s the one I thought never existed: that unremitting plain untouched by humans, unable to be seen without a Richard Attenborough voiceover.

In Botswana the food chain is muddled. Being trampled by elephants and hippos, or eaten by lions and crocodiles, is an authentic hazard that must be respected. And while the power of these predators can translate to apprehension, it has helped preserve a unique terrain from the treacherous impact of us, the refugees.

The following morning two fighting elephants greeted me when I opened the zip. I didn’t hang around for the defeated male to show disregard for the tents…


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