It’s Africa, not Disneyland

If only I’d had a penny for every time I’ve been on game drive with guests and someone, when seeing their first warthog, shouts: “Pumbaa”. Or when I’ve stopped to view spotted hyenas and someone in the vehicle starts talking about how sinister, or evil, these spectacular animals are. What they are doing is only natural of course, using their references from popular culture, such as films and books, to interpret the environment, trying to turn something unfamiliar into something familiar. In doing so, however, they create an illusion of what wild nature is and that is unfortunate in many ways.

It’s not really about the pure factual aspects, although they can be quite entertaining. I watched Disney’s “Lion King” for the first time not that long ago, just to see where all the references came from. And sure, I think Ernie Sabella does a smashing job with Pumbaa’s voice – the only problem is that the way the cartoonists decided to draw Pumbaa, “he” is in fact a female warthog. I guess that can be filed under artistic freedom.

I find it more disturbing when certain characteristics are attributed to animals, purely based on whatever traits they have been given in books and films over the years. Scavengers, such as hyenas, jackals and vultures, seem to be the losers in our imaginative hierarchy of animals. They are often thought of as filthy, sly thieves, chewing away on bones and intestines. Well, I’ve got news for you: when given a chance, so does lions, leopards, eagles, wild dogs – and most likely your own domestic cat back home. In nature, life is a constant fight for survival and with few exceptions, wild animals apply a take-no-prisoners attitude about it.

Is it really an act of cruelty when a predator kills its prey?

I admit that I have mixed feelings about the Disneyfication of the African wilderness. Clearly, fictional work such as Lion King can inspire people to go see the wild animals for themselves. That is generally a good thing. There is however a problematic side effect to that, something which I consider to be one of the most common mistakes we make when viewing wild animals: we give them human features and emotions. We interpret their behaviour within our own framework of feelings and so we tend to think of them as being sad, happy, proud, intelligent, vindictive, evil, etc.

When we speak of an animal as being “intelligent”, what we usually mean is an ability to learn from previous mistakes. Because that’s what it is. But that’s a rather narrow definition of “intelligence”, don’t you think? And is it really an act of cruelty when a predator kills its prey? Or is it just one animal beating another in the fine art of survival? Is “stealing” your food from another animal a criminal deed? Or is it a natural way to conserve energy for when the goings get really tough?

When guiding safari tourists in the African wilderness, I’m often faced with the consequences of this Disneyfication. People are disgusted when they see a predator attacking its prey and I’ve even had guests suggesting that I interfere to stop the torture. Some feel sorry for a naturally sick or wounded animal and want to take it back to the lodge to give it treatment, ignoring the basic rules of letting nature take its course – rules that we ourselves once subscribed to. In fact, I have ranger colleagues who suggest that what we humans label as feelings, intelligence etc, are just figments, serving as an imaginary boundary between ourselves and nature. Are we perhaps just as “primitive”? I’ll leave that for you to discuss over a coffee break.

A friendly suggestion from a game ranger though: next time you go on safari, try not to think of the life in the bush in terms of emotions and feelings. Try to appreciate it for what it is and to see beyond your preconceived ideas and previous references. And: try not to think of spotted hyenas as evil, they really are the most fascinating creatures. It’s not Disneyland out there. It’s much more interesting.

Oh, and finally, a caveat to everything I have just said. Because if life in the bush tells you anything, it’s that there is one species exempted from these – and all other – rules. It’s the elephants. Why? Simply because … well, because they are elephants of course. But let’s talk about that another time, shall we?

Andreas Karlsson

Journalist, author, photographer and safari guide. Read more about Andreas here.