Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
In 2010, my brother Will, our wives, and I celebrated anniversaries by rafting the Co-
lorado. Still searching in vain for condors, we were rewarded by a journey through geo-
logical time, from reddish, 240-million-year-old Moenkopi sandstone at the Lee's Ferry
put-in to somber, dark, almost two-billion-year-old metasedimentary rocks of the Vishnu
Schist, where we left the river. And I couldn't have been more pleased by the pink and
tranquil Grand Canyon rattlesnake Kelly spotted next to our tent one afternoon.
For once, however, my emotional highpoint of the trip involved birds. It came near
the end of a long walk up Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim, nine miles and 4,200
feet in elevation from where the rafting company dropped us off. A few years earlier I'd
walked into and out of the canyon with a much heavier pack, but now I was the oldest
and slowest among seventeen hikers. Late that afternoon, pausing for water on the next
to last switchback, I was fantasizing about a Native American platform burial, imagining
how cool it would be for coyotes to carry my bones toward a setting sun and otherwise
be strewn about by scavengers. Then I glanced up at an enormous storm cloud against
a perfect blue sky. Soaring overhead, highlighted by the silver-white background, were
two black birds, so much larger than turkey vultures that, even without mentally ticking
off light wing linings and slotted primaries, I knew they were California condors. “I'm
not ready yet,” I shouted with upraised fists; then, smiling: “You're worth every penny!”
All those miles walked, with so much joy and always more to learn. Coteaching a field
course in Kenya, five years after the second Utah hike, yielded insights at odds with the
mindsets of many environmentalists. 52 First, granting that modern peoples are taking
terrible tolls on African biodiversity, defining wilderness by absence of human impact
on the continent of our origin would require going back to before we were Homo —and
even that'd be dicey, because surely australopithecines were ecological movers and
shakers too. Other large landmasses also are problematic, since in North America, for
instance, we've irrigated crops, managed fire, and so forth for thousands of years. 53
Second, in Kenya, our students assessed megafaunal numbers by counting dung, from
dainty antelope pellets to the horse apples of zebras and cannonballs of elephants. Lots
of poop everywhere, I realized, even in the waterholes, is pristine! Finally, ubiquitous
death brings its correlates, fear and demonization. We chronicled the changing colors
and stench of a giraffe carcass, then watched as a hyena lugged of its grisly head. On
foot, I routinely checked wind direction, skirted thickets that might hide a lion, and most
tellingly, came to regard the magnificent elephants that charged our vans as neighbor-
hood thugs.
These perceptions were reinforced in 2011, when Kelly and I visited South Africa's
Kruger National Park. During twenty miles of off-road hiking we had numerous close en-
counters with white rhinos and elephants, as well as several species of antelope, rollers
and other colorful birds, and a spectacular orange and turquoise flat lizard. I was most
inspired, however, by Cape buffalo, which have long impressed me as the crustiest,
scariest, meanest, dare I say evilest-looking beasts on the planet. Yet when armed park
rangers guided us through a scattered herd, skillfully avoiding the animals' discomfort
zones, I came to see how those huge ungulates, under constant threat of predation,
survive with every means at their disposal—including charging whatever scares them.
Horrifying tales of fatal tramplings and gorings notwithstanding, I had to admit, Cape
buffalo are just as unaggressive as rattlesnakes.
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