Birding Without Borders

Day 199: What Makes an Animal Wild?

Passing through South Africa’s game reserves and national parks surfaces a philosophical question.

July 18, 2015: Mkhuze Game Reserve, South Africa — Another crispy-cool dawn at Wakkerstroom, except without a breath of wind this morning. Our group did a little more grassland birding (and found White-bellied Bustards and Rufous-necked Wrynecks) before heading south today; we will spend the next couple of days at Mkhuze, a large game reserve on the coast just south of Swaziland.

Around mid-morning Wayne noticed some interesting animals in a field next to the road and we pulled over to check them out. The field, as far as the eye could see, was full of zebras, wildebeest, buffalo, ostriches, eland, blesbok, and other game. “As recently as 150 years ago, this part of South Africa all looked like this,” Wayne said. “When Westerners arrived here, though, the hunting got out of control. One species, the Bluebuck went extinct, and another distinctive subspecies of the plains zebra was wiped out.”

The field, it turned out, was some kind of preserve, and all of the animals had been reintroduced in the name of environmental restoration. We watched a guy drive in a tractor carrying hay which was swarmed by hungry buffalo. Because they were reintroduced and basically captive, I did not add the Ostrich to my list, nor any of the other creatures, but I went away wondering, well, what counts as wild?

South Africa’s biggest national parks, like Kruger, are essentially just big game reserves surrounded by high fences. There are also many private game parks in South Africa which keep all manner of safari animals behind tall fences—some are set up for trophy hunters, others for general tourists. In between are smaller national parks and bigger private reserves, with varying levels of truly wild stock and access. Animal populations are controlled in many ways (for instance, there are too many elephants at Kruger, so for years they were culled there), and most of these parks are islands in a changed landscape—so where do you draw the line? What’s the difference between a zoo, a safari park, and a national park, except size? All of them are fenced lands set aside for animals. Does it matter where the creatures come from? The definition of “wild” is certainly not as sharp as most of us like to think, especially for these large mammals which can’t fly as free as a bird.

New birds today: 13

Year list: 3624

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