As a guide, it’s pretty important to get an idea as to what it is exactly that your guests want to see when on safari. And the obvious thing to do is ask. Maybe on the way down from the airstrip or over a cup of coffee at lunch time, but either way, before you head out on your first game drive you should know what animals you need to be looking for.
The obvious ones you’d imagine would be lions, leopards and possibly elephants; the former two being what Londolozi is famous for in particular, and the latter a really iconic African species. But if you thought that these were the species at the top of most first-time visitor’s bucket lists, you’d be wrong. The animals that most bush virgins are desperate to see are in fact seemingly far less dramatic, but no less spectacular in their own way. I am referring to the two animals most children encounter when they learn the alphabet for the first time; often their first exposure to African wildlife. I am of course talking about zebras and giraffes.
In 5 years of guiding at Londolozi, far more of my guests wanted to see these two creatures than wanted to see the big cats. Thankfully, there is no shortage of either species on the reserve, and as far as I can remember I was always able to accommodate those requests. Zebras are relatively plentiful down in the south west, where the grassy open areas are perfect for these grazers. Giraffes prefer Acacia thornveld, and a great place to look for them is the south central scrubland, where the extensive Acacia nilotica thickets provide more than enough sustenance for the tallest animals in the world to browse on. In truth, either species can be encountered anywhere on the property, but there are certainly specific areas in which they are more likely to be found.
So what is it about them that makes them so desirable as animals to view? Well the link to one’s childhood I’m sure plays a big part. Seeing pictures in books of these two fantastic creatures, while still in infancy, I’m sure has many kids filing them in the same mental drawer as mythical beast like dragons and unicorns. If a huge lizard can have wings and breathe fire, surely a horse can have black and white stripes and a creature can have a neck two metres long with funny horn-like things on its head? Seeing a giraffe or zebra in real life I’m sure elicits some kind of reverential connection to that childhood innocence we all once had, even if it’s only on a subconscious level. After having worked out here for almost six years now, I still find myself utterly spellbound by giraffe in particular, scarcely able to believe that such a creature exists.
Paleontologists dig up the remains of creatures from long ago; woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers and a whole assortment of weird and wonderful animals that once called this planet home. If giraffes were not extant, I am sure their fossils would occupy a similar place in the ‘bizarre’ category of species come and gone.
Zebras I think occupy a slightly different space in the human psyche. No less bizarre than giraffes in their own way, I think that apart from the alphabetic “Z-for-Zebra” reference, it is the fact that their contrasting coat colour is so at odds with their environment that makes them seem such an anomaly. In a place where dullish hues and camouflage seem to be the order of the day, such a visible coat pattern on a creature so similar to the domestic horse makes the zebra an outlier on the map of ‘things that fit’ in the bush. Although there is no really conclusive proof as to the proper function of a zebra’s colouring, many theories exist, with the most widely accepted being the one about their coats blending into one pattern in the eyes of a predator, making it difficult to pick one out of a herd. As most predators have poor colour vision, the black and white stripes can in fact have a camouflage effect of their own if the zebras are moving through a bushy area. If you happen to see a dazzle of zebras moving through the bushwillows, take a photo of them and convert it to black and white; you’ll see what I mean.
I recently read a paper in which the density of coat stripes was linked to average regional temperatures, with a strong correlation being found between higher temperatures and denser stripes. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions though.
Thankfully for the many visitors to Africa that wish to see the stripy and the tall, these two species are often found in each other’s company. So often are they together in fact that a South African alternative rock band have even adopted the name Zebra and Giraffe. They’re pretty good FYI, give them a listen…
The theory is that since zebra are grazers (grass-eaters) and giraffes browsers (leaf-eaters), neither species competes with the other, and the pros of being together far outweigh the cons (if there even are any cons). Giraffes, being tall, have a much greater field of vision in which to spot danger, and zebras being low to the ground are more than likely to detect the smell of an approaching predator as it stalks closer in the long grass.
Whatever the reasons, let us be thankful that in the world today, we can still view these magnificent animals in their natural environment, and in doing so feel the sense of awe and wonderment that we thought we had lost long ago…