29 May 2019
For someone who hasn’t been on a photographic safari, the images of this male leopard feeding on his impala prize might seem like surveillance footage, obtained through extreme measures employing sophisticated surveillance equipment form a safe, distant location. For some time ago, roughly 70 000 years, it was not too uncommon for a fellow Sapien to be the unfortunate meal draped in the fork of a tree. Our very design attests to this macabre fate, with opposable thumbs, flattened scapulas and long slender limbs, the purpose of which, by design, was to enable us to climb trees in a strategic effort to avoid predation.
Yet here we are, sitting in an open game drive vehicle with nothing but the blue skies and one of our ancestors’ worst nightmares above us, a mere 20 feet from the latter, who seems totally oblivious to our presence as he feeds. The first time you experience this absolute privilege, it can be unnerving, even overwhelming, as millions of years’ instinctive programming tells you that this is your arch enemy, yet here you are looking each other straight in the eyes, for brief exhilarating moments, with your guide reassuring you that the situation is perfectly safe and under control. How exactly did we get to this counter intuitive truce???
In theory it all started 70 000 years ago, when we somehow figured out how to create and manipulate fire. This amazing feat changed the rules of our engagement with our entire world. The physical element of fire itself proved to be a deterrent against our predators at night, and brought us down from the trees. But more consequential was the cooking of food. By breaking down the composition of most of our foodstuffs with heat, we reduced our feeding time by an estimated 75%, and also preserved food for longer by killing off bacteria. Which freed us up to explore, learn, improvise and adapt faster than any other animal on the planet. And within a few millennia we turned the tables on even the most formidable of our predators, and alienated the rest of creation through our ascension to the top of the food chain. Thus the last 70 millennia has instinctively programmed all life on earth that any sort of conflict with man ends badly for it.
So how did we get to us photographing this magnificent male leopard? One of the fundamental principles of biology is that all organisms respond to irritability. Irritability in this sense has a broader definition, referring to any and all kinds of stimuli in the environment which an organism might encounter or experience. This is of course one of the fundamental drivers in evolution, or the hypothesis thereof, as it suggest that animals adapt to their environment, firstly through behaviour, and then if required, physiologically. In the case of our relationship with predators, it changed form predator and prey to an uneasy truce expressed in avoidance. We would hunt the same prey, but if pitted against each other, the human would walk away victorious, statistically. Albeit through teamwork and employing technology, which evolved from bone tipped spears to tools sporting ballistics which can drop an elephant where it stands, and can be wielded by a single entitled Homo Sapien.
But then in the last century, a new awareness of our interaction with our environment has awakened in man, or at least in some of us. And suddenly our attitude towards and interaction with the environment started evolving from bonafide consumer to conservationist, with still a lot of unbalanced consumption perpetuating regardless. Large tracts of wilderness was set aside and protected to exist in its natural state, with as little as possible interference from ourselves. And in these protected areas the animals, as explained in the principle of irritability, started adapting to our new role as observer, as opposed to arch enemy. Obviously it is a slow process, 70 millennia of instinctive programming can not be undone in four decades, but learnt behaviour can trump instinctive behaviour to some extent in such a short time. And we can see this in the way animals started behaving towards people in a vehicle, once we stopped hunting them. It differs from specie to specie, but anywhere from 20 to 40 years after you desist from accosting animals in a specific area, they learn that people in a vehicle behave neutrally in their immediate environment. This obviously requires patience and discipline form the operator’s side, being methodical, disciplined and systematic in the way you approach animals in their environment. Giving them time and space to accept this strange animal, with people on its back, to approach it without fear or depredation. Yet they still see, smell and sense people. Which is stating the obvious, but many guides and operators in the safari industry claim that animals see the vehicle as one passive and harmless creature, thus not recognizing their age old enemies on its back. Why then, when you stand on the deck of your safari suite, would elephants walk right up to you and drink from your swimming pool? Surely they do not see yourself and the lodge, as one “animal”? No, back to the principle of irritability, the animals have learnt that when people are in a vehicle, or in the lodge’s confines, they behave neutrally. And this trusting behavioural state animals have adopted, is called being habituated, as opposed to tamed. As the latter refers to a behavioural state of an animal which has no instinctive fear of humans any more, making it, for the lack of a better word, dangerous. And that is why this, habituated, male leopard will look straight into your eyes for a life changing moment, and then off into the distance again as if you weren’t there. As long as you stay inside the vessel of habituated trust, namely your game drive vehicle, and behave in the way your guide tells you to.