Mapungubwe, Limpopo - I sat perched in the driver’s seat of a battered TDi Landy watching the lioness. We had meandered down the dry Nhlaralumi riverbed following the fresh line of her pugmarks in the beach-like alluvium.
She was focused; her tracks had alluded to a brisk walk without pause. We had now caught up and watched her scent the air next to a thicket of palm and fever berry on the river bank. She bristled. Then, with the supine grace of her species, drifted into the thicket’s gloom.
Upon emerging, this time with a squirming, mewling cub in her jaws, she walked with purpose straight toward us and deposited the helpless bundle in the shadow of our vehicle.
A return to the thicket produced a second cub.
She then scooped them both into her mouth and, without a backward glance, strode sinuously into the unknown.
The conversation at the brunch table later that morning centred on the encounter, and my American guests’ emphatic belief that the lioness had used our proximity to protect her cub while she engaged in retrieving the second one.
It is a heartwarming idea that this lioness – an animal I had watched on countless safaris – could accept me into her world and have confidence, faith even, in my ability to protect her newborn offspring.
My rationale tells me to beware of such flights of fancy. Anthropomorphism – the humanising of animals or inanimate objects – is often a dangerous assumption.
It is now unfortunately becoming more accepted as the truth, couched as science even.
I sat the other evening, dumbfounded, watching as a Hollywood starlet narrated an Animal Planet documentary on Serengeti lions, all the while informing me, the viewer, as to the lion’s sadness and feelings of inadequacy and depression.
I was unbelieving… how do we know what the lion feels? How can we scientifically ascertain the depth of emotion in another species?
This has never been achieved! And yet we believe it with all of our hearts. We want contact with the natural world… we want an open communication with the other side. We crave interface with these sentient beings that share this, our pale blue dot spinning in the vortex of endless space.
We now even have whisperers…! People who have supposedly broken the code, who can communicate with elephants, with lions…
This is not so, friend!
An in-depth understanding of animal behaviour, an ability to manipulate it even, is all these celebrities are capable of. The books are excellent reading and the TV is visceral and often astounding, and I tip my hat to their collective passion and dedication to their cause. But they cannot speak to these animals and we can perhaps never know what these creatures long for and feel.
We must never presume to know these things.
Consider the following from Yann Martel’s seminal work, Life of Pi, in which the main protagonist, “Pi” Patel, is shipwrecked and shares the lifeboat – bizarrely – with a Bengal tiger he names Richard Parker.
After experiencing life-threatening peril and adventure, they strike land and the tiger walks off without a backward glance:
“I’ve never forgotten him. Dare I say I miss him? I do. I miss him. I still see him in my dreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged with love. Such is the strangeness of the human heart. I still cannot understand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously, without any sort of goodbye, without looking back even once. The pain is like an axe that chops my heart.”
It is a marvellous and truly illuminating work of fiction and the Ang Lee-directed movie is breathtaking.
I found the commentary on spirituality in the book and the movie truly profound.
But this scene near the end with the tiger gripped me as it dispelled its simple truth: we love the tiger and feel deeply for it, but the tiger does not love us back… we are mere molecules to the beast.
I don’t presume to know the answers to these natural conundrums.
I do know, however, that we don’t yet know the answer to this one. We share this third rock from the Sun with a complex ecology filled with natural wonders too diverse and beautiful to be described in words.
We are a part of this system and our further existence here will be dictated by the system. But we cannot speak to it and it does not feel for us as we do for it.
Continuing to love and respect our planet and its denizens will have to be enough for now. Until, perhaps one day, our incessant whispering is returned. - Saturday Star
l Rae is a ranger and guide at Mopane Bush Lodge, near Mapungubwe in Limpopo.