Animals don’t just do nothing.

A lion prostrated under a tree in the heat of the day isn’t doing nothing. It is resting during the hottest hours, conserving energy for when conditions are more favourable. A tortoise spending the majority of the winter in a hole or under a log might have a greatly slowed heart beat and its metabolic rate might be exceptionally low, but it is simply avoiding the harsh conditions that its surroundings are presenting it with at the time.

My point is simply that there is a purpose in whatever animals do. Even behaviour that we might not be able to interpret properly has some method behind it; just because we don’t understand it doesn’t mean the animal is doing something at random. I don’t know how much of a thought process there is in some of Londolozi’s inhabitants (I am speaking more about the mammals than anything else), particularly the big cats, but I think as humans we often credit them with more intelligence than they deserve. By “intelligence”, I’m talking more about the rational and cognitive kind that humans possess (at least most of them), and the mistake we make with animals is that we provide our own motives and reasoning in a situation when the animal is actually responding to cues which we are in no way able to detect or appreciate ourselves.


Lions on the hunt… planning or instinct?

I’m sure many people will want to shout me down on this, given the way some lion hunts seem to be perfectly orchestrated plans, but I’m pretty sure that a combination of instinct, learned behaviour and a response to stimuli (that wild animals are far more sensitive to than we are) is what drives almost all animal behaviour, from a relatively intelligent elephant down to a tiny elephant shrew. Okay we are opening a whole new can of worms if we start looking at elephant intelligence, but that’s not really what this is about. I am simply stating that animals always have reasons for what they do.

This brings me to my next point. Which is that none of the reasons an animal does things are for our benefit as people.


If there’s one thing I’m sure of in this life, it’s that this cheetah didn’t jump up onto this log so that we could take photos of him. He climbed up to be able to see better over the long grass in the direction he was heading.

We are fortunate to be observers of the beauty that the natural world has placed in front of us. Sometimes we are caretakers, sometimes we are ambassadors, but at a place like Londolozi we limit ourselves to being on the outside, looking in. The window into nature that we are privileged to be able to look through on a daily basis here should remain just that; a portal through which we view and ideally are slightly separated by.
Stories unfold, leopards come and go, cubs survive or get killed and we immerse ourselves in the fascinating saga that is the wild, but all the while the animals are going about their lives as if they were oblivious to our presence. This isn’t quite the case, as they do see, hear and smell us when we are out in their environment, but they generally pay us no attention, and they certainly don’t do anything to ingratiate themselves with us. As I mentioned in a post on the 4:4 male’s death, if we were to pack up one day and simply disappear, life for the animals would continue on as normal.


The Majingilane saga would have played out had we been here or not…

As humans the tendency is often to anthropomorphise, projecting our feelings onto the animals we observe going about their daily lives. “That leopard is arrogantly surveying his territory”, or “The cheetah posed beautifully on the log for a photo”.
Who are we to ascribe emotions to animals when frankly we don’t know what they’re feeling? Or whether they’re capable of feeling the emotions we place on them. Or if they’re even feeling anything at all!
For the majority of their lives, wild animals are governed primarily by an instinctual stimulus-response loop. Hungry? Go hunting, or eat some grass if you’re a grazer. Hear a rival lion roaring in the distance? Roar back. They have the luxury of not being bound up in a sometimes confusing thought process like we humans often are.
When a cheetah hunts, it will often climb onto a prominent feature like a termite mound or fallen tree in order to scan for prey or potential danger. Although the act of jumping up somewhere high can provide incredible photographic opportunities, the cheetah is simply behaving in a natural way, the same way it would behave if there were no photographers within a hundred kilometres. Whilst up there, it is looking around for danger, smelling for the scent of a rival, or possibly marking territory and scratching its claws on the bark. “Posing” – which implies it is doing it for our benefit – is most certainly not one of the things that it is doing.

It is all too easy to forget that despite the thrill, the joy, the excitement, and – dare I say it, entertainment – that we get from watching these animals live out their lives and interact with each other, none of this is what they are actually there for.

They are there simply to live out their lives, and we can be grateful that they allow us the privilege of bearing witness to it.

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

View James's profile


on Why Animals Don’t Pose

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Kaarina Pietiäinen

Great writing! We humans indeed have a propensity to humanize the behavior of animals. I myself have been guilty of it many times, still knowing that there is no substance. But talking about feelings, I’m pretty sure that animals do have feelings. When you are following how a female leopard or a lioness takes care of her cubs, you just can’t disagree, you can call it instinct or what ever. Think of Sindile, who came back to Sabi Sand with a collar from seven months captivity, called his mother and tried to follow in spite of her denials…instinct? Thinking with human brains …also feelings. There are so many great examples…not forgetting the wisest ones, elephants. Let behavioral scientists do their researches and as you say: ” They are there simply to live out their lives, and we can be grateful that they allow us the privilege of baring witness to it.”

James Tyrrell

Thanks Karina.
The feelings question is definitely one I lean towards myself. That’s a post for another day though…

Bob & Lucie Fjeldstad

Perfectly said and all too often misunderstood … it’s not about us … we are just privileged to watch them all live their lives.

James Tyrrell

Thanks for the comments Bob and Lucie!

Pat Johnson

Aye, the stories we tell ourselves, but that what humans do! And each of us tells a different story. What fun! Thanks.

Cynthia House

Such true and level observation of animals in their environment doing what we must understand is animal behaviour. We are simply observers who can choose to appreciate what we see and in the process gain respect for the magical interactions and instinctive behaviour that often needs no explanation.

Vikram Ghanekar

Excellent article and outstanding photographs as usual. As we understand more and more about animals, we also learn how to interpret their behaviours. Take elephants for example. The rumbling sounds that they make were once thought to be coming from their stomachs. The low frequency vibrations that they use for communication over long distances are being understood now. Their body language, subtle changes in behaviour, all have some meaning. It could be called instinct, emotion whatever. As you rightly said animals don’t do “nothing” without a purpose. It’s we who fail to understand. I see so many tourists, come and see a tigress resting in a dry riverbed at 10 am, when temperature is already 38C on a hot summer’s day and say “hey why she not doing anything?”. I tell them I would come to your house at 3 am and ask “hey why are you sleeping? why are you not doing anything?”

Gawie Jordaan

Catching up on these older blogs!! Fantastic Perspective! In a sense it really connects with that song.. “your so vain, you probably think this song is about you” Us humans are immensely privileged in enjoying nature and its full effects.

Marinda Drake

This is so true. We like to think the animals are there for us but they are not. They are surviving in their world and we are the intruders. We asign human emotions to them and become emotionaly involved. There is no doubrlt that elephants are highly intelligent and show “human emotions” but we are the ones that must not get emotional.

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