I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe diverse ecosystems and their denizens in different countries over the past few years. These eco-travels also offered real-life lessons in physical geography, ethno-botany, and native culture – ecosystem relationships. When life gets hectic as it often does in the concrete jungle of this capital city, my mind seeks comfort and relief by going back in time to relive the magical experiences of spectacular biodiversity that I have seen in my travels – just as my favorite poet Wordsworth did in remembering the field of golden daffodils that captivated him (I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud)…
In this series of blogs I explore the biodiversity of southern Africa, highlighting some of the successful local conservation measures which could serve as a global model for preserving similar ecosystems.
I set out on my very first trip south of the Equator in September 2016 primarily to visit the Okavango Delta, a unique ecosystem in Botswana which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 (1) and had long been on my bucket list. But my African wildlife adventure started in the Kruger National Park in the northeast part of South Africa just over 160 km south of the Tropic of Capricorn at Skukuza rest camp (25oS, 32oE) where the N’waswitshaka River joins the Sabie River.
This region is an arid savanna biome characterized by vast rolling grasslands with scattered thornbush, isolated trees, and engineering feats that are massive termite mounds (2).
Here, I saw the flora and large terrestrial fauna that I had previously seen only in zoos or in picture books of my childhood. Setting eyes on the African elephant, black rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, and African lion, four of the “Big 5” iconic species (along with the African leopard) of the African bush in the wild for the first time was an absolute unparalleled thrill that will stay with me forever. The game drives over my 3-day stay were an opportunity to see the other inhabitants of the savannah ecosystem including carnivores like the African wild dog, hyena, mongoose, the Nile crocodile, large herbivores and prey species such as the hippopotamus, giraffe, zebra, impala, gazelle, kudu, nyala, etc., and our simian relatives, the Chacma baboon and the Vervet monkey.
Unique flora of the continent such as the Impala lily, the Knobthorn, the weeping Boer-bean or African walnut, apple leaf tree, etc. were all just leafing out or blooming in the springtime of the southern hemisphere.
The birder in me jumped for joy at the sight of most lifers in one place – vultures the size of large mammals, colorful bee eaters and rollers, iridescent starlings, ibises, storks, beautiful doves – the list went on and on and my adventure had just started!
Exciting as the experience was, the grim reality of climate change could not be overlooked. South Africa was (and still is) reeling from severe drought (3) – I saw hippos dying and buffalos starving from lack of grass/plants to feed on or deep enough water to cool off.
Before leaving South Africa, I had the opportunity to briefly explore the built environment of Gauteng, its wealthiest province, including a quick tour of Johannesburg, its largest city. The Constitution Hill in Bloemfontein is a living museum where South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court is located right next to the “Number Four” prison buildings in which international leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were jailed in the last century. This Supreme Court is accessible to one and all both literally and figuratively, unlike any other government building that I have visited anywhere (4). My last stop was Soweto, an urban settlement southwest of Jo’burg and a historic place in the anti-apartheid movement in which the Soweto Uprising of 1976 marked an important milestone (5). Here, I visited the former homes (now museums) of two Nobel Laureates, Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, who lived a few yards from each other on Vilakazi Street. Despite Soweto’s storied history, the extreme poverty of its citizens is inescapable, reflected in its sprawling shanty towns and high unemployment rates (6). This experience was in grim contrast to the one I just had in the grandeur and majesty of the African savanna.
Nearly all of the carnivores and large herbivores, in local populations or across the continent, are now listed as “Vulnerable to Extinction” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List. The primary factors decimating wildlife populations here in Africa and across the world are habitat destruction, poaching (for various body parts to be used as souvenirs and in “traditional medicines” in Asian countries) (7), “exotic” animal trafficking (in and through western Europe for use as “pets”) (7), trophy/sport hunting (primarily by North Americans (8)), increasing desertification and other adverse impacts of human-caused accelerated climate change.
Despite international treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and others that directly or indirectly afford protection to the flora and fauna, we are continuing our inexorable march towards “a massive anthropogenic erosion of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services essential to civilization. This “biological annihilation” underlines the seriousness for humanity of Earth’s ongoing sixth mass extinction event”(9).
In Parts 2 and 3 of this Travelogue, I continue my adventure in Botswana which has had much better success in protecting its natural heritage through conservation policies that also emphasize the economic imperative.
1. Okavango Delta – UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
2. Wilson, N. 12/10/2015. Why termites build such enormous skyscrapers. BBC
3. BBC, 11/30/2015. South Africa grapples with worst drought in 30 years.
5. Timeline of Anti-Apartheid Movement, 08/11/2015. PBS
6. Carvalho, L. 10/30/2018. South Africa Unemployment Rate, Trading Economics.
7. Ruiz, I. B. 01/20/2017. Europe, a silent hub of illegal wildlife trade. Deutsche Welle.
8. The Humane Society, 02/2016. Trophy Hunting by the Numbers: The United States’ Role in Global Trophy Hunting.
9. Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., and Dirzo, R. 2017. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. PNAS, 114(30):E6089-E6096.