By the twist of fate that the cosmos use to make adventures that much more meaningful, I found myself ending my journey precisely where it started, at KGP. Returning for a session of lion darting, I came back to the research station three months wiser and more experienced to the ways of Botswana. In our four days working there, we managed to free dart two lionesses. The first one took two days of tracking; she was sighted the first day, but ran off into the night before giving a clear shot. As the trackers walked through the bush, huddling and diverging in an oscillating manner as they came across tracks and spread out to find the next set, the land cruisers trundled along behind ready to receive the men should a lion present itself. While this process continued, I had ample time to look out across the grassy plains and consider my final thoughts, the reflection of the trip to be summed up here now that I am back in the states. I still do not know how to summarize the thoughts and feelings gained from such an adventure, but here goes anyhow.
Botswana is a country held together with wire. In the most makeshift manner possible, if anything falls apart, a bit of wire can fix it. Fence broken? Grab a reel and string up the poles. Logs shifting in the race of a kraal? Lash them together with some steel. Bumper of the truck falling off? Tie on a piece of wire; it might rattle around a bit, but it will hold. Such is the country, rattling about with some shifting of parts happening, but managing on the whole to move along just fine. So long as everything holds, nothing changes. Should something fall apart, the EU closes the beef trade and feedlots shut down, the government will throw on more wire, more quick fixes until the whole is hideous and maintaining a tenuous position at best, but it works for the time being. These little quick fixes, a bolus ID system that doesn’t work, contracting foreign groups to build cheap and brittle hospitals and airports, free land plots and grazing range for all Batswana, these give the illusion of a happier whole. However, what is really needed is for a governmental mechanic to strip off all of the wire, lay bare the ridiculously rusted old legislation, throw away the bits that are beyond repair and replace with new ones. The place is slowly becoming a large mass of entangled wire that will someday be so clogged by its quick fixes that nothing will work anymore. Botswana has been lucky enough to have diamond mines that allow the country to buy plenty of wire when they should be buying new parts.
On the middle of the second day of tracking we approached our target after being taken for several hours of large circles. Once found, she continued to keep us on the run, darting from bush to bush and completely blending into the waist-high grass. Finding a straw-colored lion in a field of straw is, apparently, a difficult task. We got the shot in eventually, and she went down. As everybody hurried to work on various samplings and collar fittings, I monitored anesthetic. She did not take too kindly to it, her breathing quickened for about two minutes and then stopping altogether for thirty seconds. When given the reversal drug, she was up and running away within two minutes, a process that usually takes something more like ten or fifteen.
From a veterinary perspective, I have seen the good and bad. There has been disease that could easily be prevented, and some that is suffered as an inevitability. Ultimately, a change of management, as has been previously demonstrated in other posts, would do a world of good. Replace the arrogant and potentially corrupt government vets who are deaf to reason with someone interested in working hard to change the country for the better. Allow educated foreign farmers to buy up land and use it effectively and in a humane manner rather than giving it away to people who do not care for their cattle and are unwilling to learn how. Put someone in the Department of Wildlife and National Parks who, when presented with a farmer that wants help with moving wild dogs off his land, will suggest some alternative other than just shoot them. Actually get the governmental departments communicating so that when someone spends millions of Pula preserving a wildlife corridor from the CKGR to the KTP to allow migrations, someone else does not put up impassable goat fencing across the entire corridor.
The second lioness was found amidst a pride, one adult male, two adult females, and five year-old cubs about the size of great danes. When darted, the one female ran off about fifty meters, where we worked on her. This time only the vet, researcher, and myself would exit the vehicle, in case any over the other lions should decide to approach. Working with a large pride is tricky business; all of our trackers were on the roofs of the land rovers with eyes peeled all around. They had specific instructions not to watch us, but to look out in every direction. After about fifteen minutes in, the trackers said the male was coming. We asked how far, only to get no response. Where are the lions?! How many are coming? Their silence left us with the apprehension that perhaps we were about to be savaged, but they did not tell us to get in the car, so we continued the job. The lion stopped to rest under a tree about twenty meters off. This time there would not be any trouble.
On the last day, we spent the evening staking out a waterhole in hopes of being able to catch a leopard. The cat did not come, but I had a chance to see the sun set over the Kalahari one last time. The dust in the atmosphere created the most spectacular pinks and purples that eventually deepened to a bright red. A giraffe sauntered along on the horizon, slowly making its way in the direction of the water. The feeling of leaving a place is one of the worst in the world, I think. On the trip to a place, one is full of anticipation and hope, but for the way back, if something happens, a plane crash or car accident, you would die thinking, “I almost made it.” That dread that you can go so far and come so close to being safe and comfortable amongst your friends and family, it makes the trip home a game of patience. Sit back, relax, and hope for the best. Our car broke down on the way to the airport, but someone rushed in with a toolbox and it was a quick fix. Otherwise, there were no problems, and I made it back to America. This post concludes my entries on Botswana; school begins next week, and I am back to the daily toil. However, thank you for reading this much, and I hope that one the next great adventure, I will be able to continue writing here and that you will be reading. A very special thank you to Mark and Jane, whose hospitality knows no bounds, and to all of the lovely people I have come across in the past three months. The lions in the world are disappearing, harder and harder to find each day. However, there is a lion within each of us, and if we find that lion, let it roar, perhaps we can make enough noise that the world will listen, awaken the lion in everybody’s breast and work as a pride. There are lessons to be learned from the lion culture; cooperation, bravery, respect. It is a difficult thing to watch the natural environment being torn down around you while you try to pick it up, but I believe that humanity can take the right path. Where are the lions? I see them everywhere I go.