It's approaching 150 years since our nation embraced the bold act of establishing the first national park in the world, protecting over two million acres of magical wilderness from development and destruction. Despite all the cozy, heart-warming fluff being published about Yellowstone, it is in ever-increasing danger. Now, it's our turn. Our generation needs to do its part and protect Yellowstone so that it can be enjoyed by generations to come for the next 150 years. You can help now by contributing to The Nature Conservancy's YELLOWSTONE FUND.
(An excerpt from my forth-coming book about protecting Yellowstone.)
by alan a. larson
Londolozi is an artificial place. Its 34,500 acres in the Sabi Sands areas different from untrammeled South Africa as Disneyland’s Main Street is from an average American town. For thousands of years this sweltering land was harsh busveld dotted with fig trees. Bisected by the Sand River, it suffers through revolving periods of floods and drought. For a brief hundred year span, a series of European immigrants tried, but failed to farm it. For the next thirty-seven years it served as a hunting lodge for the wealthy, which devastated the big game and led to its latest transition to the artificial. In 1969, Londolozi became a private wildlife refuge.
Our open-topped Range Rover bumps along a dirt road, past the ever-present herds of impala, thirty to forty in a group, feeding in lush green meadows. A familiar scent drifts over us, which the ranger driving tells us is Potato Bush. Our tracker, perched on a jump seat welded to the front bumper, is Shongun, fierce enemy of the Zulu. He speaks nine languages, most learned from books left behind by tourists. He holds up his hand and our vehicle stops. Thetracker climbs into the front passenger seat, a precaution against the predators whose tracks he’s just seen. We turn off the path into the trees, ducking as thorny branches scrape against the metal frame all around us. Thirty feet ahead in a fallen Red Bushwillow tree, three spotted leopards, a mothe rand two half-grown cubs, play king of the mountain, nudging each other, and nimbly leaping over the others on the narrow branches. A cub falls, but like any orange Tabby, it agilely lands on its feet in the reddish dirt, then scrambles back into the fray. We watch for forty minutes changing film in our camera twice. The leopards tire of their game and melt into the brush and though we try to follow, they quickly evade our clumsy vehicle.
For most of an hour we continue on a rutted dirt road through dense brush until a massive elephant topples a Sycamore Fig into our path. She snaps the street lamp-sized tree trunk as easily as we could break a toothpick. We watch as two dozen adult elephants and a handful of babies silently emerge from the trees and sweep by us, their thick round feet making soft thuds and small poofs of dust. The only other discernable noise is the occasional tree being felled,a stark contrast to the popular concept of a herd of elephants trampling by. We drive around the fallen tree and our tracker points to a lark-sized bird with dull plumage flying ahead of us on the dirt path. “Honey Bird. Bird lead badger tohive. Badger break hive. They share.” Sure enough, a golden-furred honey badger plods out of the thick grass following after the bird.
As dusk falls, we hear lions roaring in the distance. We drive toward the sound and soon our spotlight illuminates matted savannah grass where six lions attack two pangolins, armadillo-like endangered species armored with clamshell plates which overlap when they curl in a ball. “Mother and baby,” our tracker says. We urge the ranger to save them, but Londolizi’s policy is not todirectly interfere with the animals, only with the environment. Ten feet away, the lions rage. They bite, claw, and tear at the plates. The bigger male lions chase off a gaunt lioness. She disappears into the darkness. Minutes later she slinks from behind our vehicle and looks directly in my eyes with the steely cold gazeof a hungry killer, and I wonder how fast the ranger can grab and fire the .50 caliber rifle mounted on the dash.
It pours rain that night and at sunrise we spin along a slippery mud path. The tracker points right and the Ranger wheels us into the thick wet grass. We see giraffe in the distance, zebra and wildebeest grazing together near the treeline. Over a small rise the vehicle stops, the engine dies. Our tracker motions and we focus where he points. Twenty-five yards away, a cheetah mother curls in the grass reclined comfortably licking her two small cubs. A bird calls and both cubs’ heads pop up, their eyes sparkling, their ears perked and tuned to potential danger. Our tracker turns to us with an easy smile and shakes his head. “It nothing. Cub look. Mother know.”
A week earlier, we had stopped at one of the many wildlife parks dotted throughout the farming areas of SouthAfrica. A wildlife park, not unlike those found in Oregon or Kansas, where caged animals slouch on fecal encrusted concrete floors. A twelve by twenty foot cage held six cheetah cubs about the same size as this pair. Two barefoot boys poked at the cage, whistling and taunting the cubs. The caged cubs sat motionless, their eyes dull, oblivious to the world. Here at Londolozi, the cheetah cubs are vibrant, alive, alert to every sound.
Ten miles to the east of Londolozi is Kruger National Park, 4.8 million acres of natural African wilderness where tourists usually only catch a glimpse of these large predators in the distance. At Kruger, like Yellowstone, they profess to have a - let nature take its course policy. They pretend that Kruger is not a zoo, even though a twelve foot high fence with highly charged electrical strands encircles its perimeter. Kruger pretends that the animals are living natural lives, even though the seasonal migration of the herds to better grazing land is now impossible.
In three days at the Londolozi Private Game Preserve, we see all of Africa’s Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and water buffalo, plus nearly every other African animal we’ve ever heard of. We see these animals because Londolozi realizes that humans have restricted the rangelands of wildlife and they must compensate for it by providing a sustainable year round environment in the limited space where the animals are allowed to roam. Londolozi builds shallow ponds for hippos and plants the hippo’s favorite vegetation nearby. They dam the river, providing year round waterholes. They cut down stray trees, irrigate and mow the grass to provide lush meadows. They plant thick groves around the meadows providing the ideal environment for impala, the primary diet of leopards. This intentional land management supplies Londolozi with an abundance of impala, and when you have impala, you get lion and leopard and cheetah. With the big predators come the tourists and the financial support that provides the expensive maintenance of this groomed environment.
The importance is not that affluent tourists get to see these animals, but rather that this artificial environment allows the entire spectrum of African wildlife, from cheetah to honey bird to pangolin, to thrive. Londolozi is a Zulu word. It means – ‘The Protector of All Living Things’. Londolozi is an artificial place.
CHEETAH CONSERVATION FUND
For over two decades, the work of one person has kept the cheetah from becoming extinct in the wild during our lifetime. Dr. Laurie Marker needs your help to save these magnificent creatures, the world’s fastest land mammals. Please donate to the Cheetah Conservation Fund today.