It has been a dream of my husband’s to go on safari in Africa – a bucket list item we decided to make a family vacation this summer. We started in Botswana then to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and lastly to the Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa.

LeopardThe Botswanans have set aside huge parcels of land as game preserves. The astounding thing about visiting these preserves is that the animals are accustomed to humans in land rovers. We got within yards of a female leopard and her two cubs, and she paid us no mind whatsoever. The cubs gazed at us with very mild curiosity. Since they have not been hunted by humans on foot or by car, we were viewed as neither prey nor predator.

We were like a moving, breathing, talking tree – and it was strange to see that reflected in their treatment of us. In one encounter, we heard lions going after a herd of Cape Buffalo in a melee just yards away in very thick vegetation. The lions were moving quickly to surround the buffalo and moving around us, one cat walked directly toward us, and I thought My God, he’s going to jump in the truck, which is open, but he just paused slightly and decided to go around. The sad thing about this view of humans is that the poachers then have a much easier job of killing their target.

RhinoHowever, we saw trucks patrolling for poachers, and the African governments are working creatively to try to end poaching. For instance, rhino horn is unfortunately highly prized for illegal sale in China and Vietnam as a medicinal powder and although you can remove a rhino horn in a way that is not fatal to the animal – and in fact so that it can grow back (it is made of keratin, sort of like a fingernail) – poachers kill the rhinos and take the horn. There is a controversial new idea to ranch rhinos for their horns, remove them safely so they can grow back and then sell the horns legally and under regulation.

Anyway, I digress…I wanted to highlight three encounters from our trip: Termite mounds, hyenas and lions, and bell frogs. Our guide, Gavin Ford, a native Zimbabwean and expert on all things natural in Africa, opened our eyes to all the creatures great and small. We were not just looking for big game excitement. The tiny termite is a case in point. Gavin told us an unforgettable story about their work and social behavior and the central role their mounds play in the vitality of their surroundings. Termite mounds abound everywhere you look in the African savannah and woodlands. We saw mounds that were eight feet tall with a base perhaps twenty feet in diameter.

TermiteMoundTermites are social insects, meaning they have a division of labor and act cooperatively to survive and reproduce. They have a queen, workers, royal attendants, soldiers and “princes and princesses” (alates) who fly out of the mound of an evening in a spectacular display of bravado, landing to start new colonies. The termite mounds become islands that preserve biodiversity during floods because plant life grows on them, providing the local wildlife with a food source, as well. We saw empty mounds being used by dwarf mongoose and other animals as shelter. The local tribes use the mound “soil” which is as hard as concrete, to make bricks for home-building. Termites have been around since the Jurassic period.

I’ve been reading E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth and newly appreciate how social behavior (humans, ants, termites, etc.) has been essential to our ability to survive. You can read here for more information about termites: National Geographic.

HyenaWe also had the great fortune of witnessing a confrontation between hyenas and lions. Despite Gavin’s protestations that hyenas are not the terrible creatures most of us believe them to be and in fact behave altruistically in their packs, feeding and caring for the sick and young and old – I was not sold. Sorry Gavin, sorry hyenas. There is just something about them that creeps me out. However, it was amazing to see their confrontation with lions one afternoon.

WarthogWhat was happening: Four young male lions with their mother made the mistake of killing a warthog near a hyena den. The hyenas stole the hog and ate it, which really irked the lions. As only a fully-grown male lion can take them on, they were stuck with sulking and watching angrily while their supper got ‘et. I found it interesting that the young lions returned to their mother repeatedly to rub against her for social-bonding and to get reassurance, I assume, as they harassed the hyenas from the sidelines.

After a few minutes the hyenas started toward the young lions and the mama came out to defend them. What a roar she had, bone-shaking. I was able to videotape the encounter. It’s seven minutes, but if you are impatient make sure to watch it at minute 5 for the dramatic finale.

OstrichThe funny thing I will always remember, though, is that I looked behind us at one point and spotted a huge ostrich running for its life in the distance, having just realized it had wandered into the wrong neighborhood. It looked so funny with its flouncy feathers and stick legs running full tilt away from this scene like a prissy (and very lucky) ballerina.

My last mention goes to the bell-frogs of Botswana which cling to reeds in the deltas and waterways. Each evening as the dark descended on the camp, we heard a clear ringing sound echoing through the air, calling and answering in a mating ritual. It sounds a bit like striking a hard, hollow wooden instrument. Gavin pointed out the animal and insect behaviors directly linked to attracting mates, and it is clear that our world revolves in and around that desire and dynamic. Think of the people we know and how they behave! The sound was haunting, and I took several recordings of it. We were able to spot a bell-frog from our mocoro, a flat-bottomed canoe. To my amazement and surprise, it is maybe an inch long. Yet that ringing, the resonance that emerges from that tiny being – so beautiful, so powerful and pure. We went to sleep with that extravagant music every night.

Hippo_BarWe learned a great deal, more than I can write here but I’ll share three things:

LionFrom the termites, we reflected on how tiny beings working together cooperatively are critical to the survival of their ecosystem. From the hyenas and lions, even the kings of the jungle are vulnerable to a pack of socially cooperative animals. (Though of course, don’t ever mess with Mama when she’s protecting her babies.) And lastly from the bell-frogs, there is a beauty and purity and music in the sound of voices rising together, despite the tiny, seemingly insignificant, source.