As a biology major and (notoriously among our group) lover of flora and fauna, I absolutely loved our recent week in Kruger National Park. Here I’m going to share a couple miscellaneous thoughts and feelings that have stayed with me since we left.
I felt fulfilled and overwhelmed by all the “natural” beauty around us. Several times I found myself thinking about an old NPR podcast on beauty in which a scientist explained that humans find beauty in nature and particularly specific types of nature scenes due to evolutionary bio-programming. Specifically, the research shows that humans prefer paintings of savanna-like landscapes with lush grass and sparse, tall trees and a water source (pond or stream) of some sort, and humans also show a bias in favor of the color blue. Scientists believe that this is because the earliest human ancestors (i.e. from the cradle of humankind in the nearby South African province of Gauteng, adjacent to the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces in which Kruger resides) lived in savannas and needed vegetation, water, shade, and elevated homesteads to see predators approaching in order to survive, flourish, and reproduce. As someone whose naturalistic worldview is centered on a respect for and interest in all kinds of life, it was an incredible and poignant privilege to spend nearly a week in the setting of the beginning of humankind and, moreover, of incredible biodiversity in both plants and animals.
To expand on biodiversity, one especially exciting aspect was what we in the game drive vehicles associated with the “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. I loved seeing herbivores like giraffe, zebra, antelope, and buffalo along with, often, baboons and warthogs all grazing together in close quarters. It was almost a metaphorical picture of the (overly idealized) South African rainbow nation with so many species coexisting and mutually benefitting from each other. One of our guides, a biologist named Cleo, gave lectures on elephants and termites that expanded this picture. I love that the tiny and un-showy underground insects are responsible for so much macro-vegetation and animal life, providing great water sources and root tracks, mineral licks, air-conditioned homes, and nutritious soil and thus grazing material that trickled all the way up the food chain. This bottom-up savanna governance reminds me of the movements for grassroots democracy that are happening in both the US and SA in response to their respective presidents.
The issue of elephant overpopulation in Kruger (a pretty surprising one to me given the predominance of the ivory-poaching narrative in the West, which is a critical problem in other parts of Africa) brings to my mind the very complicated relationship between humans and “nature.” In contrast to the vast majority of the earth’s surface, national parks like Kruger seem to us like almost completely untouched earth. Nature reserves make the macro reorganization of the earth by humans – from the widespread deforestation and urbanization of the planet’s surface to the global exchange of domesticated species to, back home, the industrial redirection of the flow of the Chicago River – more glaringly obvious. It was jarring when we exited the park gate to goats, cows, donkeys, litter, huts, and sparse vegetation. But still, on closer inspection, even Kruger was artificially constructed through pumped watering holes and relatively glamorous camps and also simply by the closure of the area to the outside by a fence. The confinement of elephants to the park and therefore high concentration of herds, as Cleo taught us in her lecture on elephant culling, damages the tree populations and the birds and insects that depend on them and ultimately the whole ecosystem. To me this issue raised the question of whether humans can interfere in nature in any way, even to preserve it, without disrupting the whole natural order. Paradoxically, human preservation of nature inherently disrupts nature. It also makes me wonder whether more intervention (culling) on top of the original (fencing) can in fact be considered more natural than simply letting the wildlife exist as it will after minimal intervention. I’m persuaded to think that we should “clean up” after our disruption via culling, but I think there is a tension between “nature preservation” and the artificial imposition of our ideal of what nature should be.