Why are we so complacent

Having just read about the 30% decline of wildlife on this planet  since 1970 it seems unfathomable that we can allow it to continue. But we do. (That figure of 30% can be a little misleading since in tropical areas it rises to a 60% loss which is horrendous).

When my dad first moved to East Africa in 1952 he, like many other white people over there, became one of Africa’s hunters. It didn’t take him long to realize what was happening to the wildlife and he soon turned to the camera to document rather than hunt and became a passionate advocate of wildlife. This was in the late 50s and early 60s so if everyone else followed suit, we’d have already worked out what we needed to know by 1970.

Dad, back in the late 50s in East Africa – somewhere

It obviously didn’t happen though because we are decimating wildlife at unprecedented rates despite a slew of conservation societies around the world trying to educate us not to.

So what is happening, how are mucking things up and why aren’t we fixing things?

Of course, the problems run much deeper than saying “take care of the environment and the animals in it”. Just off the top of my head we have land loss and degradation, pollution, bush meat trade, souvenier collecting, removal of major predators which causes grazers to flourish and destroy the land through overeating, illegal fishing and hunting, legal fishing and hunting (which can be managed well but in some countries are NOT).

Add to this our consumer society where we absolutely must have the latest whizz bang thing just to keep up with the Joneses or to feel like our life has meaning, and of course the built in obsolescence which most modern electronic and mechanical devices have. Let’s face it, our repairmen have become fitters because it’s cheaper and easier to fit a new one and throw the broken one away rather than repair it. You only have to look on the side of the suburban and country roads to see the discarded TVs and computer monitors to illustrate this point.

I’m one of those who likes to keep things upbeat but when I read that awesome wildlife artist Eric Wilson‘s 2007 blog post about the imminent demise of the tiger, it really hit home. There are massive efforts underway to prevent this animal going the way of the dodo and many other extinct species and yet even he, a man who cares deeply for this animal and is part of those efforts, has just about given up hope.

So why is it that we feel defeated? Here’s an example. I routinely try to turn lights off and use as little fuel as possible yet BHP is planning to expand the Roxby Downs mine in South Australia, my home state, and has stated that they will need to use one million litres of diesel per day for the next six years simply to remove the overburden of this expanded part of the mine (overburden is the rubble that needs to be removed before you even start to get to the valuable bit). This is the equivalent of doubling the amount of cars on Adelaide’s roads. I’m not even going to comment here about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing since mining brings prosperity to a depressed economy, but it goes to show how little the caring individual can do. (Of course, responsibly run mines can be a good thing – we wouldn’t want to be hypocrites since we all use the products that come from mining. However, many mines around the world whose products we use everyday are not run responsibly – what is in your computer and mobile phone if not coltan, the ore that is routinely mined in the Congo and then stolen by surrounding countries? This same mining practice that has displaced whole neighborhoods and decimated their income so that they now have to resort to the bush meat trade so they can live. And what do they kill? Well, they live where the mountain and lowland gorillas are and that’s what they kill!)

However, just because we feel like we can’t do much doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. We are the example for the next generation. We are the people who can bring about change but in order to do that we need to become engaged. There is no room for complacency in the fight to keep our wild heritage. We need it more than it needs us. Maybe my generation will scrape by but subsequent ones won’t. And I don’t want to just scrape by while magnificent species vanish. Some people say “Imagine being the generation that had to explain to their kids why the tiger is no longer with us” but I’d rather say “Imagine being the generation that saved the tiger”!! Let’s not end up with the chimps “turning back in anger” as in my pastel sketch below.

“Turn back in anger”

A couple of doggy stories, the grateful mutt and the fierce softy.

Story #1

My son is a great one for trawling through the internet looking at cute animals and he told me of one that was rescued by someone, a stray that would surely have died. I decided to tell him my own little story.

My dad was as bad as me for not being able to see an animal suffer. We already had a dog and didn’t really want another. However, he pulled into his garage at work at the railways in Nairobi in Kenya and heard a whimpering coming from the back of the garage. He went over to see this young dog, older than a puppy but still young. It was what people called a “shenzi”. which is the Swahili word for savage, useless, uncouth, barbarous, uncivilized and also half breed. We know them as mongrels or mutts. This one tried to growl at my dad, a sort of “leave me to die in peace” growl, because die it surely would have. It was totally emaciated. He backed off, went and did his day’s work and decided to see what the dog was like in the evening, thinking he’d have to remove the body. The dog was one of the thousands of strays that wandered the streets of Nairobi and she was in terrible condition. However, she was still curled up in the same spot when he went back and this time he managed to stroke her. Well, that was it! He had to see if she could be rescued. He put her in the back of his car and came to school to pick me up on his way home.

She could barely stand up and when I saw her I instantly fell in love. She was so skinny all her ribs were not only showing but were extremely prominent. A healthy dog’s back is arched upwards but her’s hung in a concave fashion with no strength.

We took her home and wondered what our Alsatian would do. No need to worry, Gina was good as gold. We fed them both and the most amazing thing happened – Tessa, our new dog, scoffed all her food and Gina stood back and allowed Tessa to move on to her own bowl. It was incredible and I barely believe it even now, forty years later.

We thought Tessa had eaten too much but she survived the night. Bit by bit she got her strength back and the true athlete was finally revealed. She was a gorgeous dog – I love mongrels – and she had a grateful nature that seemed to say “Yes, I know what I was and I know it was you who saved me”. I’ve had some great dogs in my time, got one right now in fact, but Tessa was the best. It’s not just a guy reminiscing about his youth and the pets he had. She was truly special.

And what of Gina, the dog who gave Tessa her own food on that first night? Yes, she was pretty darn special too. Here they both are with our tame lawn mower, Bambi the duiker.


Story #2

A farmer sold up and moved. He had a boxer dog which he gave to us as he could no longer look after it. This was a brute of a thing, a very masculine guard dog, fiercely protective of its territory. We had about an acre of land in Nakuru, near the iconic lake of the same name, home to millions of flamingos, but this acre wasn’t enough for Dan the boxer. He used to go nuts when people walked along the street past our property and one day he ran out there and took a chunk out of a guy’s leg. Poor bloke was only walking home from the duka (shop). My mum was mortified and sat this guy down, apologising profusely explaining that it wasn’t really our dog and it was used to a much bigger property. She patched his leg up all the while listening to this guy’s voice, stuck on repeat saying “great guard dog, great guard dog”. Far from being indignant, he was actually impressed with Dan.

So you’d think Dan would be someone to watch out for around the rest of our menagerie of strange animals. Not so! He loved our Mackinders Eagle Owl. And it loved him!

Grass seeds and dogs don’t mix!!

It’s grass growing season here, which means grass seeds, which means anyone with a long eared, long haired Cocker Spaniel watch out!    So on Sunday (of course – overtime and penalty rates and all that) Bella our cocker is shaking her head madly, and with some type of seeds (the ones around here) which go through a dog’s fur only one way, that means rather than shaking them out of her ear canal she’s actually shaking them further in! She’s yelping and in obvious discomfort. So, no vets open, off to the animal emergency (because infections can do bad things). Less than five minutes and $125 later, we are out.

I mull over pet insurance.

I mull another day and another day.

Then last night, when no vets are open (again of course – overtime and penalty rates and all that), she’s got a seed in her other ear. None of this for 21 months but now two in four days!! Yet again she’s not loving life!!

Off we go back to animal emergency, but now that she’s already been done once she won’t let the vet near enough to do his thing. So she has to be sedated.

Another $360 later I’m mulling over pet insurance again

Books and canibalistic snakes that smell of liquorice

As a kid I loved snakes – still do. Living in Africa, we had a continually rotating and large collection of them from the gorgeous and harmless green tree snakes to the highly venomous black mambas or gaboon vipers.

My dad was such an avid fan of snakes and other less fashionable animals he wrote a book about them. It’s called “Reptiles and Amphibians of East Africa” written in 1973, published nine years after his death by a grossly incompetent bureau after much hassling by the then grown up sons of his, me and my brother Mark. In fact, in 1980 we went back to Kenya and chased the publisher up. He agreed to meet us and had overnight obviously dug out the manuscript and run of a draft copy. Well, red rag to a bull – they had spelt his name wrong on the cover!! I couldn’t believe it. At that moment I should have demanded that they cancel everything but I had no idea what was to come. When they finally finished it three years later some of the photos were on the side, some had the wrong captions and some were so out of focus they were almost unrecognisable. Still, many years later it seems to be a collectors item and its poor production doesn’t seem to have detrimentally affected my dad’s name fortunately.

Talking of books, if Dad had survived, he was going to write another one in tribute to all the animals that are forgotten in the rediculous stampede to see “The Big Five” (named after the most dangerous animals to hunt – leopard, lion, elephant, black rhino and buffalo). This book was going to be called “Not Only Elephants”. I love the afore-mentioned ‘big five’, but the world is full of other incredible animals and sights and it’s such a shame to see tourists so totally dedicated to seeing only five of them because some hunter many years ago called them “the big five”.

Back to our snakes. The ones we kept were held in glass fronted vivariums with heaters and were all in my bedroom, never in mum and dad’s!! Still, good for me since I loved them. Some had locks on as they were the venomous ones but I knew where the key was and occasionally played with things I shouldn’t have – oh the stupidity of childhood.

One of the more fascinating snakes was what my mother referred to as seven foot of bad temper, a Jackson’s Tree Snake, seen here with me

It was jet black. In fact it was so black that when it shed (sloughed) it’s old skin, it actually smelled of liquorice. One day, my dad came home from work and checked on the snakes. The Jacksons was in a vivarium with a Powdered Tree Snake, a back fanged snake and particularly gorgeous. Dad looked for the Powdered but couldn’t see it until he saw the Jacksons, with a tail sticking out of its mouth. The powdered would have been about five feet long and the Jacksons had eaten it but it wouldn’t go all the way down. Dad grabbed the Jacksons, stood on a chair and held it by its tail, shaking ever so slightly. Bit by bit the powdered tree snake slid out onto the floor non the worse for wear. Two days later it shed its skin and that would have removed any remnants of stomach acids and all was well again.

They never shared a vivarium again though!!

This is the Powdered Tree Snake in question

Trivia; did you know that there is no such thing as a poisonous snake? Poison is something that needs to be drunk or eaten or inhaled. Many snakes contain ‘venom’ which is a toxic substance injected into its prey, or into you if you do the wrong thing.

Here are a few of the other reptiles that shared my bedroom, what a lucky boy I was!!