By Sahil Gupta
At Kwandwe Game Reserve, Eastern Cape, South Africa, the 54,000 acres of grassland are as liberating for the wildlife as they are for me. At Kwandwe, the lion, leopard, steenbok, springbok, hartebeest, wildebeest, and several hundred more beasts remain free to roam. At Kwandwe, the animals don’t see the world through bars, and I don’t see nature through bars. It’s all about the game drive, a safari through the South African brush in search of those beasts.
I’m sitting in an army green Toyota Land Cruiser, guided by Morné. A burly, bearded 250-pound man Morné is a native South African and he is Guide Incarnate. With ten years of experience, Morné knows the game reserve—its geography, its wildlife—and how to navigate it.
In the open-roofed 4×4, we cruise through ruts in the ground and wherever the undergrowth is sparse. We drive through the grassland, past the matriarch elephant flapping her enormous ears, past the short warthog strutting through the tall brush with tail raised high, past the lone ostrich staring us down with its cue-ball-sized eyeballs, past the deep gray rock that is yawning on the riverbank—nope that’s a hippo.
While driving the Land Cruiser off-road, Morné is on the lookout for game so far in the distance they appear no larger than camera pixels. Part guide and part tracker, Morné sees every point in space with one more dimension—time. Time since the last animal has slinked by. From inside the Land Cruiser, which stands six feet above the ground, he can pick up the faintest traces with a brief glance over the edge of the driver’s seat. A slight depression where a paw has been, a fresh dropping not yet encrusted, and he knows instantly what animal has been there, where it’s going, and if he’s feeling creative, why it’s on the move.
What is a game reserve? Is it just a cageless zoo? A tamed jungle? Neither. Kwandwe’s tranquil, open spaces were once fought over during the Frontier Wars between the Xhosa tribe, Dutch farmers, and English settlers that lasted until 1878, but the lands are now private property repopulated with the region’s natural African wildlife. It relies on ecotourism, a sort of symbiosis between wildlife and the Every Tourist. Kwandwe’s proceeds go to protecting this sanctuary for endangered species: they’ve reclaimed destructive farmland, placed it under wildlife conservation, and reintroduced more than 7,000 wild animals to the Great Fish River Valley. Among the repopulated flora are subtropical thickets that store some 570,000 tons of carbon on the property, and among fauna are disease-free populations of cheetah, which have returned home to the Valley for the first time since 1888.
At first I can’t grasp this pseudo-naturalism, of man creating this façade of wilderness, but after three days in the Land Cruiser, Kwandwe’s approach to conservation starts making sense. Consider the process when we spot an animal and begin a hunt. Actually, not a hunt. A game drive is the furthest thing from it. First, the only shots fired are from my DLSR, and second, Morné never sneaks up on wildlife. He always makes his presence clear and unambiguous. Or rather the Land Cruiser’s presence, for the animals consider the safari green truck an animal that’s neither predator nor prey. The tourist and the guide sitting within are no different from an eye, a nose, an ear—appendages on the larger animal. We’re assimilated. That’s the genius of the reserve: once the animals are released, humans don’t interfere. Natural selection takes charge.
It’s getting darker and my shadows stretch from the car onto the ground. I ask Morné if we’ll see a leopard, the rare daytime predator. The chances are slim, he says. There hasn’t been a sighting of a leopard in two weeks.
I’m on the lookout, alternating between my binoculars and naked eyes, scanning where the horizon would be if the spiny thickets of Euphorbia would grant a line of sight over thirty feet. Morné ruffles his beard briefly, and then stops the truck to point out a black rhino munching away on Euphorbia trees. I’m looking through my binoculars at the rhino when something flickers in my periphery. Through the lenses it’s no more than an inch up and to the left, but prowling among the leafless trees on the south slopes, there it is. The Leopard. I’m about to share the news with Morné, but then I refocus on the cat. Around its neck is a collar, a GPS-tracked collar. Wait. What? So instead of GPS to track the cat, we use sheer luck to spot it?
I’m on the edge of asking Morné but I hesitate. I hesitate because I realize the answer lies straight ahead. Right in front there’s the open terrain, there’s the Leopard, there’s the adventure. The game is afoot.
Sahil Gupta ’17 is a Computer Science major in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.