None of us are really sure what to expect today. We’re going to a place called Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center, a rescue and rehabilitation center for injured and “problem” wildlife (whatever that entails).
Nonetheless, we’re all super excited. We load up in the bus and soon arrive at our destination: a huge sector of land with a pair of thatched-roof structures, one with bathrooms and the other with chain-link enclosures behind it. We make our way into a presentation area that has a large screen, lines of benches, info boards along the walls, and some stuffed vultures (“stuffed” in the taxidermy sense) hanging from the ceiling.
We all sit and talk for a while, perusing the info boards which mostly display horrifying photos of animals caught in hunters’ traps. Point taken: snares are bad.
After a few minutes more of fiddling in our seats and looking around the presentation area, an enigmatic worker for Moholoholo comes in. He speaks first in English and then in Afrikaans (which made us all grin like idiots, because Afrikaans really is just so damn cool). He begins the presentation and, despite the issues I have with animals kept in small enclosures, and despite the creepy glazed-eye stare of the vultures looming above, what he shows us towards the end of his speech makes something crack inside of me.
The main part of the presentation was made up of various pictures and stories about capturing “problem wildlife,” and helping to save animals injured by poachers or revenge-seeking farmers (“problem wildlife” apparently means wildlife that attack farmers’ livestock and ergo, cause problems). Every animal we see here today is either a victim of brutal mutilation by snares (or poison, or gunshots), or animals that Moholoholo got a hold of before the people with snares could. Moholoholo keeps these animals here, helps them recuperate, and then, once they’ve recovered, tries to place them back into the wild.
The problem? (And this is the part that hits me like a freight train), there is no more “wild” in Africa.
None. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Africa isn’t wild anymore. In fact, it’s even less wild in Africa than it is in North America. The only place you can find nature “untouched” by humans is in National Parks, which are managed…by humans.
Africa, the place that has been the pure, untouched, untamable wilderness in my mind since I could think for myself, has been mown over, hunted down, and stamped out since before I was even born.
Naturally, this makes these rehabilitating animals really hard to relocate (there’s only so many nature reserves), and so a lot of them become too acclimated to human contact and have to stay here, in these tiny enclosures, forever.
I start feel the crushing weight of a full-fledged existential crisis coming on, but it’s luckily held at bay (or unluckily…I’m not sure how healthy it is to postpone these sorts of things) by the opportunity to pet a baby honey-badger that another Moholoholo staff member brings in.
After seeing this cuddly creature, we start our tour of the facility. Much like our trip to Kruger, pictures are easier to use than words (which so often fall short), so here goes:
The first thing we get to do is pet a real, live cheetah. His name is Bullet, and he’s an orphan cheetah raised to be an ambassador for his species: he meets adults, teenagers like us, but—most importantly—he meets children. I watch as each little kid goes up—eyes wide with wonder—and runs their hands across the cheetah’s sleek back. Seeing the expressions on their faces, I know our guide is right when he says these kids will never forget this experience for the rest of their lives. Whether they grow up to be farmers, or politicians, or even just businessmen at a desk-job, when they have to make a choice through their vote, or through their actions, they’ll look back on this moment and choose the path that will protect these animals, and that’s pretty spectacular.
When it’s my turn to go up and pet him, I can’t stop smiling. I stroke his sleek gold hair, marveling at the big black spots and the power of the muscle just beneath. The hair is sort of like a golden retriever’s fur: not quite wiry, but not quite soft, either. It’s absolutely unreal, being right here next to the fastest terrestrial animal on earth. Though his handler has little bits of meat to distract him, he looks back to see what I’m doing, his big orange eyes filled with curiosity. I smile even bigger—this is so cool. I know my time with him is running out, so I slide my hand down his back one more time, curling my fingers around his tail and letting it slip through my grasp as he flicks it back and forth like a house cat. (I think I subconsciously expected his tail to be soft and fluffy, but it’s actually just as sleek and coarse as the rest of his coat.) I move off to the side so that the next person can have their chance, waiting with the others for the cheetah encounter to finish. Once it does we start off again on our tour.
The next stop is to see some honey badgers (one of them being the famous “Honey Badger Houdini,” known for escaping any and all enclosures and then running around terrorizing staff and fellow rehabilitating animals alike. (Honey badgers have this nasty habit of biting off other creatures testicles, just for fun, so even lions will turn-tail and run from these animals.)
We start off with seeing two hyenas—both rescued “problem animals” that couldn’t be relocated in time and now live here permanently, acting as ambassadors for their species (which is really important, since many people irrationally dislike scavengers like them).
Next we come across a Southern Ground Hornbill. This little guy had been hand-reared by humans and, as a result, doesn’t seem to know he’s a bird. It sounds hilarious and cute, but actually it’s really quite sad. These animals are critically endangered and could really use any captive breeding program they can get, but alas, this bird is so imprinted with humans, it has killed every single hornbill that Moholoholo has tried to introduce to him (female, male, they’ve tried everything, and these are not animals they can afford to have dying right now…).
These animals usually mate for life, starting with a courtship ritual in which the male follows around a potential mate, offering her a stone that he holds in his beak. If she is interested, she’ll accept the stone and they’ll be partners for life, if not, he’ll have to try harder or find someone else. As we watch, Moholoholo’s sad, confused Southern Ground Hornbill paces along the fence line, stopping occasionally in front of one of us, head tilted up—a small, smooth stone in his beak.
Next we come across a serval (a small wild cat that has sadly become part of the exotic pet/illegal wildlife trade) and a caracal (another wild cat similarly targeted for its pet-sized exoticness).
Probably the coolest thing we’ll get to do today comes next—we get to go inside the enclosure of some of Africa’s wildest, most powerful birds of prey. (And we get to pet one, too.)
This Bateleur Eagle was exceptionally cool. The entire time, it sat comfortably close to all of us on a wooden banister, posing (and really, posing) for pictures and watching us with its big, brown eyes. It had a kind of tragic beauty to it, the way it eyed us with a sort of jaded curiosity, memorizing every detail of us as we filed past, oohing and awing as we waited for our turn to touch a different Bateleur Eagle.
The other eagles were equally incredible and equally tragic. There were probably fifteen or so in one enclosure the size of a bedroom. They had all been injured and then rehabilitated, but they could never be free again. They were all either too injured still or too tame.
We also get to go into the vultures’ enclosure and this is truly spectacular. Most people really have a problem with vultures, but I’ve got to say—they’re really, really cool. Our tour guide takes volunteers (luckily, I’m one of them) to feed the vultures, and we stretch our arm out with this big leather glove on and hold a sliver of meat. Then, this humungous vulture with a nine-foot wingspan flaps on, snatches up the meat, and flaps off. It is unreal. The rest of the time we stand around, watching these funny birds skulk around like pouty villains. Despite how beautiful all the other animals have been, this is a contender for first place so far. Who knew vultures could be so fun?
That being said, we soon get to see the predators, and nothing can beat an enormous, 400-pound male lion coming right up to the chain-link fence in front of us to take meat out of our guide’s hand. The big guy had been orphaned at a young age and raised here by humans, so he’s much more comfortable with us than the lioness that keeps him company.
She stays back for a while, eventually coming forward as the majority of the group starts to move on.
I press my lens right up against the fence, trying to get a picture without the chain link in it, silently begging her to look right at me, right through the lens. I stand there, staring intensely through the viewfinder. She saunters closer, eyes and ears alert. Finally, when she’s maybe five feet from me, she looks dead into my lens and lets out a deep warning growl. I jump about eight feet in the air, too surprised to even get the shot. I laugh at myself and lower my camera, smiling.
I move on with the rest of the group to the next enclosure. In it is a young, female leopard with bright eyes and an enigmatic air to her. She lopes into her enclosure’s tree to get a piece of meat the guide threw up there and we watch as she excitedly snatches it up, licking her lips contentedly and throwing us curious glances.
Next, we get to see something few tourists (or even citizens) in Africa ever get to see—a pack of Wild Dogs. These animals are here only temporarily, while their zoo enclosure is prepared in the city, so we’re extraordinarily lucky to see them. They’re a pack of nine young males, and they splash and wrestle and nap like a bunch of gangly puppies. They jump in and out of their water trough and play tug-of-war with the sticks around their enclosure, their dishpan ears waggling back and forth with each movement.
These guys were all raised in captivity, so they’ll never truly live the “Wild” aspect of their names, but Wild Dogs are so endangered, it’s probably good there’s an active breeding and conservation program in zoos. That being said, our guide tells us not to be fooled by the cuddliness or these canines’ appearance—Wild Dogs are fierce hunters, known for playing with their food until it dies from being torn apart.
On that happy note, our tour ends, and after lingering to get a few more pictures, we all start to head out. We exit the center past the enclosure with the birds of prey, watching the eagles as they watch us.
As we walk out towards the bus, I look up. There—circling above the center, tauntingly free—flies a Bateleur Eagle, its red face shining in the sun, its brown-black feathers rustling in the wind that these birds will never feel again.