Other than the shared interests in nature and all of its mechanisms, each and every staff member at Londolozi has a deep passion for conservation on all scales. This develops over time as a great appreciation for wildlife and soon it reveals its innate ability to survive without interference, which brings respect. On one hand, it is clear that the forces of nature belittle our meagre human potential, as evidenced by the sheer power of thunderstorms, fires and floods, while on the other hand it is obvious that human population expansion destroys the natural world and its inhabitants.
A balance is continually strived for, which can be illustrated in one’s respect for the wilderness; appreciating its power and acknowledging its vulnerability. It took me a long time to become aware of this, and did so through countless experiences. What follows is one of my earliest memories and, although I was only a few years old at the time, I am reminded of it in many experiences we have out here in the wilderness.
Try to imagine a very young, naive and innocent Sean. Now go back further in time. Picture a young Sean running around a garden somewhere in suburban Johannesburg during the mid-90’s, probably with a cricket bat or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figurine in hand. Wearing a Batman cape. My own world of imagination and splendour comes to a harsh interruption upon the sight of something tiny and fluffy in the green grass before me. What is that and why is it making that squeaky sound? In my years of bird knowledge (at the time) I am convinced it is too small to be a bird but its helpless movements immediately strike at my heart and I run inside for Dad’s help. Because this is an emergency. After leading Dad onto the lawn in panic I show him my historical find.
It is a bird; it’s a tiny chick clearly too small to be out of its nest. Dad identifies it as a Crested Barbet chick (which couldn’t have been more irrelevant to me at the time) and now faces the dilemma of either humouring me with an ambitious rescue mission or disclosing the naturally poor odds it now faces to a child in awe of this newfound, precious life.
I believe that the latter would have required a degree of harsh parenting (“You can’t handle the truth!”), so having the kind heart he does, perhaps Dad decides to let me try to help the chick despite it being much of a lost cause. After searching in the overhanging tree for any signs of a nest cavity or adult barbet, father and son carry the tiny chick indoors where a very fancy new home is set up in the bathroom. This consisted of a paper plate with nibble-size white bread (because it tasted better), some water in an upturned plastic lid, as well as some milk in case he/she preferred it. A soft hand towel made up the entire base of this barbet rescue centre to keep the patient warm overnight. My efforts to feed the chick are soon reduced to failure as it either sits still or hops around the towel, uninterested in white bread or still water or full cream milk. Little Sean has high hopes nonetheless.
Dawn breaks and I’m awoken by my father with good news and some even better news; the chick is warm and still alive in the incredible towel fort, and there is an adult Crested barbet calling from the garden outside. Could it be mother? I rush to the chick to see for myself; true as Bob, there is the chick, wide awake, and there is the adult at the window.
I carefully carry the chick outside in my small cupped hands, towards that unmistakably long-winded Tr-r-r-r-r-r-r (as per Roberts Bird App.) across the lawn. I can’t see the adult anymore, but the sound is coming from the same area of the garden where the chick was found.
Ke Nako – It is time.
I say my goodbye and place the little chick on the lawn and then retreat to a proud Mom and Dad in their early morning Sunday gowns. Within seconds the chick starts hopping in the direction of the tree and my face lights up. It must’ve been all the overnight nutrients and comfortable accommodation. But a large shadow briefly flashes overheard and then is instantly followed by a large Yellow-billed kite, swooping across the garden and plucking my little chick away before my eyes. A puff of feathers settle onto the short grass. You can imagine my horrified expression, and I need not go into detail about how young Sean felt about this…
What I had experienced was a very important lesson in nature, in life and in what I do today, guiding. As much as some of us would like to help every animal we see out there, it is so important to realise that most of the time those animals are doing perfectly fine without us. Although we may be able to help, it may not be (and by principle is not) the right thing to do. Sure, there are occasions when we feel we need to lend a hand but most of those occasions arise from human actions; oil spills, waste pollution and habitat destruction. For the most part, nature’s delicate existence is independent of our assistance and should remain that way.
As tough as it would’ve been for my younger self to leave that chick lying there on the lawn, is demise would have simply been a natural process.
Crested barbets lay as many as four eggs in a nest cavity and often can raise two or three chicks per season. Competing chicks fight for food and can out-compete one another, or even unintentionally evict another nestling. This is also done to barbet nestlings by rival birds such as Common Mynas. For all anybody could’ve known, that little chick was just a statistic in a full nest, not impacting the overall population by making a meal for another animal.
Although little Sean was left distraught in the moment, he learnt that life carries on. Life for the other nestlings, the adults and most importantly the killer kite. This was the start of many life lessons for me, and certainly the most memorable. Out of all the birds and raptors and eggs and nestlings, and lambs and lions, and life and death (across all aspects) that I have experienced in my 25 years, I still think of that chilly winter’s weekend in Johannesburg whenever I see a Crested barbet or a Yellow-billed kite. Every time.
And what a poignant lesson to remember.
Cover photograph by Bryn de Kock