By Lesley Cornish
I love having good sightings of animals, especially birds, and many people say that they love animals. However, my experiences just after Christmas made me start to think about the effect of this on the animals themselves. Those who walk in the bush with dangerous game are familiar with the four zones: comfort zone, where the animal is probably aware of you, but carries on with its usual activities, alert zone, where the animal shows signs of being disturbed and usually watches you; warning/recognition zone, where the animal is noticeably beginning to show its discomfort, because you are too close; and the critical zone, where the animal is unhappy and will usually flee or fight. If it’s not a dangerous animal, we tend to be less caring of these guidelines, because the effect is the animal usually flees, and no-one gets hurt. But for something large and dangerous, we are more careful, hence the 50m limit rule for elephants…
This is all very sensible, but these rules or guidelines are usually for our own safety. But what about the animals themselves? Do we think about them as much as we should? I remember one Duty at Pilanesberg around New Year (quite a few years ago), when Johan Louw was our team leader, and the elephants were converging on Mankwe Dam. The visitors were enjoying the treat, but there were so many visitors that they were blocking the elephants’ way, and the elephants were getting stressed. So our job for nearly the whole day was to stay with the elephants and open up a way for them to pass, when it looked like they were getting blocked. It was a fascinating day, because we got to watch different behaviour which I had never seen before…. We have also cleared spaces for white rhinos to pass.
As HOs, we have all had our experiences of looking after lion sightings, as well as the attendant bad behaviour when the sighting is not so good. For some reason, when the lions are easy to see, visitors behave better…. generally. Just after Christmas 2017, there were two leopard sightings which made me realise just how selfish and unwise some of the visitors can be, and they made me realise that people do not seem concerned about stressing the animal. The first sighting was that of a leopard which was followed for nearly a kilometre going west along Tshwene, and it wanted to cross. Eventually it reached Kubu-Kgabo junction and did cross, but then crossed back. The cars were totally packed, and we could see (from far!) that the leopard was not happy. This was a fit leopard which eventually did cross Kubu and disappear…
The “leopard sighting” looking east… on Tshwene.
The “leopard sighting” looking west on Kubu-Kgabo-Tshwene junction.
The second sighting was on Kubu, and using a car as a hide, the leopard (a big male), killed a yearling blue wildebeest within meters of the road. This was chaos to look after and there was much off-roading, but the leopard seemed to cope, as least he fed for a while.
The third and most distressing sighting was on Motlobo, and this leopard had been reported as being badly injured a couple of days earlier near “Wimbledon Bridge:. We never saw this leopard, which was lying in the long grass north of the road, but we did manage to stop some of “four-by-four brigade” driving right up to it.
The leopard did not move much, and there was a thought (from the concessionaires) that it had finally died. Eventually, the cars at the sighting began to disperse, leaving one (not counting us), and I tried to ask the driver to move on so that the leopard could either expire in peace, or perhaps chill-out with less stress and begin to recover, but the reply was something like “but this is a leopard sighting, and I am staying on it as long as possible”, so I asked Errol to drive off…. Subsequently, another visitor told us that the leopard had crossed the road, and headed towards the water. Just think, it had probably been lying there for ages wanting to get through for a drink, and being injured, it would have waited longer, so doing even more damage to itself. I wonder if the person who wanted to stay with it as long as possible realised what he was doing? When animals (and us) are stressed, our bodies produce cortisol and adrenaline, which put the body in the “fight or flight” position, because surviving is the important thing then. This state should only be temporary and should be resolved soon, because these substances do not let the body heal.
…and I started thinking about some sort of ethical behaviour code, not just to protect us, but to protect the animals. In the UK, there is the Country Code, which is mostly about keeping gates closed, walking around fields with crops, keeping dogs on leads etc., which is all good stuff and is mostly to protect the farmers, and keep the relationship between them and the public as sweet as possible (there’s rambling rights in the UK to uphold). It works, and there is very little friction between the farmers and the ramblers, horse-riders, mountain bikers… Both in the UK and here in South Africa, I have seen several versions of a Birders’ Code, and they include: not getting too close, leaving nests alone, not playing recordings too loud or often (in some places, not at all), not stressing out the birds too much by hanging around too long… Mostly they work too, so why cannot we have a general one, where we show more respect and caring towards the wildlife?