Vail Valley Voices: Fear in the bush |

Vail Valley Voices: Fear in the bush

To say my wife, Bobbi, and I have been blessed is a wild understatement. And one of our many blessings has been the ability to visit Africa the past few years. Those who have experienced an African safari know firsthand what a perspective-altering experience it is. And for those who haven’t, let’s just say each trip we’ve made to Africa was more exciting than the previous one, and never has a safari failed to exceed expectations.

We’ve photographed predator kills from as close as 20 feet, been in the midst of a lion pride during an evening hunt (in a vehicle, of course), observed an elephant with her newborn calf just minutes after birth, tracked two huge male lions until 2 a.m. (at times just a few feet away), been chased for half a mile by an enraged 6-ton matriarch elephant, and been awakened in the middle of the night by a pod of hungry hippos grazing just feet from our tent.

We consider the African bush magical; nevertheless, the bush can be very unforgiving. And at one time or another, every safari guide, ranger, conservator and wildlife enthusiast in Africa has asked himself or herself if they should intervene in situations where they observed an animal in distress and human intervention could save it.

I recall reading a story in Africa Geographic wherein a guide and his guests stopped to observe a pride of lions that had encircled a lone spotted hyena. The hyena had taken refuge in a pan (a water hole) and was neck deep while the lions waited patiently at water’s edge. As the guide, guests and lions waited (each for different reasons), the situation changed dramatically when an element of human fear was unexpectedly injected into the drama.

After the guide pulled the Land Rover next to the pan and the group was watching the events unfold, several of the guests began to express concern for the hyena. Four thought the guide should chase the lions off, while another suggested they park between the lions and the hyena, thus giving the hyena a chance to escape. However, two felt they should let nature take its course and leave the hyena to its own devices.

Each time the hyena attempted to extricate itself, five of the guests implored the guide to “do something.” Then, like a bolt out of the blue, the hyena made a sudden dash for the vehicle, seeking refuge underneath it. And to no one’s surprise, the pride immediately closed in.

The scene had changed dramatically. The guide and his guests were in an open Land Rover, a terrified hyena lay under the vehicle, and a dozen agitated lions were casting ominous glances at the vehicle itself. With the lions in close proximity, the guests who previously wanted to assist the hyena were no longer as concerned about the consequences to the hyena if they drove away (the risk of running over the terrified animal or exposing it to almost certain death by mauling). Surrounded by a pride of edgy lions, concern for the hyena was no longer paramount

-now they were concerned for themselves.

Human intervention in the bush is fraught with philosophical and practical implications. In the aforementioned story, when the hyena was in the pan, the majority of the guests wanted the guide to assist the hyena. But after the pride surrounded the vehicle, exposing the occupants to potential danger, their thinking changed.

Hyenas are one of Africa’s “Ugly Five” (the others being the Marabou stork, wildebeest, warthog and baboon), which begs the question of how the guests who had changed their minds about giving aid to a hyena might have reacted if the animal under siege had been a cuddly cheetah cub or wild dog pup (a critically endangered species). Would they have been as quick to risk running over the cheetah cub or leaving the wild dog pup to the lions?

A few years ago, Bobbi and I attended the Tuli Safari Guide School in Botswana. We wanted

to learn about guiding safaris in order to gain a better insight into the African bush. One notion we came away with (other than ensuring that the stock of the .475 magnum “elephant guns” we were firing at cardboard targets were held tight against the shoulder socket) was that if human actions contributed to the plight of an animal, then human assistance was warranted. We came to understand that regardless of the shock and heartbreak one sees daily in the bush (watching predators eat an elephant calf or month-old zebra foal alive), a hands-off approach is the appropriate “non-action.”

Assuming you were an African guide and faced with the choice of assisting or not assisting the hyena, what do you think you would have done?

Quote of the day: “If you can visit only two continents in your lifetime, visit Africa twice!” – J.L.B. Matekoni

Butch Mazzuca lives in Edwards.

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