Going wild about nature

A leopard in the Kruger National Park. Picture: Ian Landsberg/ Independent Newspapers

A leopard in the Kruger National Park. Picture: Ian Landsberg/ Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 3, 2024


Durban — My first kill happened on a winter night. Only hazy, dark and blurry images remain.

The minute I knew it was going to happen, my fingers were jammed into my ears and my eyes were squeezed shut. I think it was a leopard catching an impala.

It was on a night drive in the magnificent Sabi Sand and it was my first night game drive, a billion years ago. That was the era when senior journos went on jet-setting jamborees abroad and, as a junior, I was lucky to get the trip to the relatively new luxury destination, Mala Mala. It was where I first heard and fell in love with the sound of the fiery necked nightjar, still my fave bird call.

I now know how extraordinary it is to see a leopard stalk and claim its dinner and wish I had been less squeamish.

After that trip, I took more of an interest in nature: read a bit and watched NatGeo documentaries, but Dunning-Kruger came into full effect. I thought I knew a lot about nature and the wild. Hell, we live in Africa, you know, and we get the whole wildlife thing sorta by osmosis. Until I sought a connection with my dead sister, Jan, who had gone on the WildEarth (WE) safaris every morning to ground her before work. When she died so suddenly, the daily safaris were powerful tools to keep her with me.

Documentaries generally follow a “life cycle” in 50-odd minutes, so it seems like the animals breed, hunt, fight and kill or die every second minute. The camera people spend hours or days to capture the moments that magnify behaviour or action and wrap them into the allotted time. They’re not the animals’ day-to-day lives which include hours of sleep and rest.

With those as my previous viewing experiences, the first few weeks of going on the daily safaris were tense and terrifying because I was so ignorant.

Every time a naturalist stopped to watch and talk about an antelope, warthog, zebra, giraffe, buffalo and even elephants, I expected a lion, leopard, pack of hyenas or wild dogs to come springing out of every bush and kill said prey animal. Only after some time did I start learning how hard predators have to work for their meals, and the wonderful naturalists had a clear picture of when one may be lurking because they track them every day to try to find them.

On WildEarth – dubbed the biggest safari vehicle in the world, and watched by people on all continents, free or paying a subscription to help support it – the mission is about connecting people with nature. We follow families of lions, leopards and hyenas and know them by name.

Highly endangered wild dogs can be identified and their stories told. A few elephants with memorable markings are regarded as WE family. Long-time viewers know the histories, trials and triumphs and mourn the animals’ deaths in their natural world.

People are encouraged to send questions and comments to the guides, to be answered in real time. Trees, grasses, plants, birds, bugs, reptiles, soil types, climate, ecosystems, animal movements and discussion of anything wildlife-related – it’s a constantly nurtured education.

World Wildlife Day on Sunday focused thoughts about my journey from ignorance to passion about the need to preserve nature for humanity’s survival. Conservation bodies and dedicated people are the silent heroes working hard to do this against ruthless poachers and smugglers, exploitation like canned hunting, preserving habitats and helping people and nature live safely and productively side by side.

WE is an example of how people can appreciate nature’s benefits, which are not exclusive to those who can afford private reserves. They can be found in our own backyards.

You just have to keep your ears and eyes open.

Independent on Saturday