We returned last week from a 10-day safari in Tanzania, where we visited Tarangire National Park and Serengeti National Park. It was a long hard trip there and back, but completely worth it. We met some interesting people, but the highlights were the non-human animals living their lives on the savannah.
We saw many elephants, gazelles, giraffes, buffalo, zebras, baboons, monkeys, ostriches, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and many, many wildebeests, as well as a few jackals, hyenas, lions, leopards, and cheetahs. There were also many colorful birds, small mammals, unusual speedy antelopes, and reptiles.
Some of the oldest known human fossils come from east Africa, and our species spent a lot of its pathbreaking years there. It’s a big but underappreciated part of our story. Looking out over vast grasslands, I found myself thinking of the tall grass differently: vital food for many creatures, and hiding places and ambush spots for some.
The Serengeti was the setting for the Lion King, which I thought was a sweet and touching movie, though I had assumed it had a large dose of romantic fantasy in depicting the animals and landscape. It seemed unlikely that different species of animals would live close together cooperatively and mostly peacefully.
But in fact, we saw a lot of different species sharing territories, some warily but others relaxed. In most if not all herds, there were animals of different ages, including young ones. The young animals played while their mothers kept a watchful eye.
We saw large groups of animals organize themselves quite efficiently for travel, rest, and eating, though how they do it is still largely unknown. One of the most amazing spectacles was the wildebeests crossing the Mara River as part of their annual migration. We saw nine or ten of these crossings in which thousands of the creatures plunged down steep embankment, swam the river, and climbed the bank on the other side near us. Most were successful, though we saw crocodiles get a few.
According to Seni, our guide, who knew a lot about animal biology and behavior, wildebeests aren’t particularly smart or athletic by Serengeti standards, and some people consider them ugly. Apart from their dramatic migration, their lives seem to be mostly about eating grass, avoiding predators, and reproducing. We know little about how they communicate and organize to get things done. But their huge numbers show that they do so, and their strategy appears to be successful.
The animals of Tanzania have some of the same problems we do, like rising temperatures, droughts, storms, and fires caused by global warming. They get diseases or get caught by powerful predators, not to mention human poachers. But I was struck and moved by how well so many of these creatures do when we just leave them alone. In Tanzania’s huge national parks, they have territories and healthy habitats, and seem to be living mostly peacefully and doing as they like.
When I was a schoolboy, we were taught that animals operate mostly on raw instinct, and don’t have anything similar to our mental processes for memory and planning, or even feeling. There’s more and more evidence that this is far from true, and that many animals have strong memories, the ability to plan ahead, and emotions.
The Washington Post had a fascinating piece this week by Lars Chittka on the consciousness of bees. Chittka’s researchers found that individual bees could remember human faces, count, and use tools, and that they experienced positive and negative emotions. It makes one wonder, how much more is there yet to learn about animals’ abilities and consciousness?
We’ve been thoroughly socialized to avoid thinking about animals as agents having coherent lives worthy of respect. Most of our education on animals just ignores the complexity and successes of their social systems (their families, herds, alliances), political systems (territories, cooperatives, group decision making, conflict resolution), and creative achievements (communication, nourishment, transportation, sports, shelter).
We’ve long assumed that humans and their systems are separate from and superior to all non-humans and their systems. This is, of course, self-serving, and also less and less persuasive in light of modern research. The massive destruction wrought by humans on the rest of the earth over the last few centuries calls such thinking into question: our species has been the main driver of our grave crises. Yet even in the face of the human onslaught, many animals carry on with their cultures. We can learn from them, and should.
For the trip, I brought along my new Nikon mirrorless camera and three lenses, one of which (the long one, 150-600 mm) malfunctioned on the first day. Still, I took a lot of pictures, and I’m still not finished with the first pass through them. But I wanted to go ahead and share a few that I thought reflected some of the beauty of Tanzanian animals’ lives. I’m hoping to write more next week on the experience and share more images.