Safari for Real guide and author Lex Hes admires how nature copes with extreme climate shifts.
or me, one of the real joys of working as a safari guide is the opportunity to observe nature at work. It is a privilege to witness the various interactions that take place in the wild. Every day there is something new to study and observations change from day to day, week to week, month to month and season to season. These become even more interesting when we are confronted by extreme conditions, such as the drought that hit southern Africa in 2016.
When animals – particularly buffalo and hippo – started dying from lack of food, there was something of an outcry on social media about what it is that we should be doing about these deaths. These calls showed a lack of understanding of the way ecosystems and natural cycles work.
Continual growth in any system is unsustainable and ecosystems are always dynamic and ever-changing. In fact, it is my belief that there is no such thing as the “balance of nature”. Nature is never in balance, but is in fact ever-changing as living things adapt to natural changes.
These cycles include periods of rainfall and drought, with areas getting higher than average rainfall in some years and below average rainfall in others. With high rainfall comes an abundance of plant growth which is great for herbivores, allowing their numbers to increase and flourish in good health, but making life more difficult for scavengers such as vultures and hyenas. Lower rainfall results in less food for the herbivores, which may have done well in previous years, and their numbers decline, especially during droughts when the weak and sick either die of starvation or get taken out by predators. The scavenging animals do well during these times.
Instead of worrying about the effects of droughts on animals, what we should be doing is sitting back and marveling at the way nature operates during these times.
It is truly remarkable to see how quickly a carcass gets broken down. Within hours of an animal dying, hundreds of thousands of maggots can be seen crawling around orifices as they find a way to the abundance of food locked up in the dead animal. Look overhead as hundreds of vultures come swooping in from all directions to get their share of the bounty. Watch and listen as dozens of hyenas call excitedly around the carcass at night. Visit the site a week later and you’ll be amazed at what is left behind: usually just some dry skin and bones. The dead animal now dispersed into the ecosystem to provide new life.
Even more remarkable is to watch the rapid recovery of a parched landscape into a vibrant, lush and colourful world as the rains come and the plants respond. Within hours of the first good rains, the night is filled with the sounds of frogs that have come out of hibernation. Lights in camp attract millions of insects. Migrant birds begin arriving and start feeding on this abundance of small life. Within months, the herbivores are fit and healthy again and predators start finding life a little more difficult.
We tend to forget that these natural ecosystems have been subjected to these seasonal changes for millennia, and that all the living creatures in these ecosystems have evolved to cope, and will continue to do so for millennia to come.
There is truly no need for us to do anything but observe and marvel.
Lex Hes is a renowned photographer, author, naturalist and guide, and is a director-guide of Safari for Real. Image copyright Lex Hes.