ANIMALS ARE WHAT THEY EAT

How often have you come across the saying ‘you are what you eat’? The context is usually a discussion (or lecture by a newly-converted-to-the-latest-fad-dieter) about the need to eat healthy food in order to maintain our sense of well-being. What we eat is frequently linked with every aspect of our health, ranging from the negative effects of certain foods on our health (the interpretation of these depends largely on the current perspective of the speaker) to the long-term impact on our mental health.  These days we are confronted with so many different choices of foods from all over the world as well as the temptation not to cook at all, but to rely on ready-cooked take-away foods. Obesity! Too much sugar! Empty nutrients! Meatless Mondays! We are bombarded with advice, scare tactics, recipes and suggestions … what are humans supposed to eat? Plenty of red meat, say some. No meat at all, others claim. Be a vegetarian – no, veganism is the answer. What are we to do? The trouble is that we have evolved to be omnivores – take a good look at your teeth.

What about wild animals that have no recourse to food imports, refrigeration, different cooking methods, gardens, supermarkets, delicatessens or restaurants?  How come they seem to keep fit and healthy with only grass, seeds, leaves – and meat – to eat? Their teeth provide a clue, for animals can be described by what they eat. Carnivores, such as Lions, eat meat.

Not all carnivores live on prey they catch but also eat carrion. Spotted hyenas are known as scavengers for this reason. They are quick to hover around the fringes while the Lions eat their fill after a kill.

As an aside: while you might not often see this in the wild, you may notice from time to time that your pet dog eats grass only to regurgitate it later. This is part of a natural process to clear parasites from their digestive system – no trip to the pharmacy for them.

English is a precise language and nowhere more so than in the sciences. There are specific names for everything: detrivores eat decomposing material, while folivores are animals that only eat leaves. Frugivores eat fruit. Generally speaking, plant-eating animals are known as herbivores. Included in these are South Africa’s national animal, the Springbuck.

Herbivores that specifically eat grass, such as Zebra, are grazers.

Browsers, like Kudu, also eat off trees and bushes.

Animals that eat seeds are called granivores; if they eat insects they are known as insectivores; mucivores eat plant juices; mycovores eat fungi; and nectarivores eat nectar. Omnivores, such as the Black-backed jackal, eat both plants and meat.

Then we get piscivores that eat fish, sanguinivores eat blood; and saprovores eat dead matter.

These are all part of nature’s way of ensuring that nothing goes to waste. What a contrast this is to the average human beings who lay waste to the environment in order to process food and then leave so much non-biodegradable waste in their wake!

Note: This post was inspired by Trevor Carnaby’s fascinating book, Beat about the bush: exploring the wild.

IT IS DRY

… and very hot! The sun sucks the moisture from the ground and desiccates the grass. It beats down on the rocks, creating shimmers of heat waves above them. The bees and flies seek whatever water they can find.

Bees and flies seeking water.

There have been recent newspaper reports on the plight of vultures in South Africa suffering from dehydration in this drought – everything needs water to survive. A tiny leak in a pipe becomes a welcome source of hydration for Pied Starlings.

Pied Starling

Even though we are at the height of summer, there is little in the way of green grass to be seen.

Black Wildebeest

In places one can only wonder how the animals find enough food to sustain them.

Springbuck

Beautiful vistas of the Karoo show how yellow the grass is – what will be left for winter grazing if the rains do not come?

Mountain Zebra National Park

We have spent a few glorious days camping in the Mountain Zebra National Park. It is a peaceful wonderland with an abundance of interesting birds, animals and insects to see.

Cape Mountain Zebra

The swimming pool at the rest camp is a ‘life-saver’ though after a game drive during which the temperature has soared to 38°C.

NOTE: Click on the photographs for a larger view.

ANTELOPE IN THE MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK

Naturally enough, we expect to see Cape Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra zebra) in the Mountain Zebra National Park situated on the northern slopes of the Bankberg near Cradock.

While we saw a lot of them, a variety of antelope populate the area too. Among these are Red Hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus caama):

This is a predominantly grazing species that prefers medium-height grass and so are plentiful in the plateau area of Rooiplaat and Juriesdam.

It is wonderful to see large herds of South Africa’s national animal, the Springbuck (Antidorcas marsupialis), grazing in the veld all over the Park.

We did not see as many Gemsbok (Oryx gazelle) as we have on previous visits. This one was bounding across the grassland with considerable haste.

It was very interesting to happen upon a small herd of Mountain Reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula) and to watch how quickly and nimbly they could run up the steep, rocky, mountain slope!

The Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) were scattered here and there. They are mainly browsers rather than grazers.

Sizeable herds of Black Wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) as well as individuals abound in the Park.

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND

It was the poet John Donne who first told us that no man is an island, implying that we cannot live entirely without contact with other people i.e. we do not thrive in isolation. Simon & Garfunkel sing the refrain, I am a rock / I am an island, claiming to be self-sufficient – for the time being anyway. To isolate ourselves is neither possible nor a good idea claims the philosopher, Karl Popper (1902-1994). According to him, we are social creatures to the inmost of our being.

True: so are many other animals in their own way, which is possibly why we enjoy scenes such as the ones below as they reflect the empathy we have for others and connect with our desire to be regarded as being ‘special’ to someone.

Elephants in Addo Elephant National Park

 

Zebra in Addo Elephant National Park

 

Yellow-billed Storks in Kruger National Park

 

Giraffe in Kruger National Park

 

Springbuck in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

IS IT RIGHT TO FIDDLE WITH NATURE?

Hunters in South Africa seem to have become imbued with a desire to bag ‘something different’ – what else but demand (and the monetary rewards from satisfying such demands) would drive the selective breeding of wild animals for different colour mutations? While it is true that natural colour variants occur from time to time in free-living wildlife populations, these are rare occurrences. Are these ‘novelty’ animals now being bred to encourage more hunters? Do people breed them simply because they like seeing white Blesbuck

black Impala

or coffee-coloured Springbuck?

As the natural colouration of animals suit their natural environments, I wonder what benefit breeding animals specifically for unnatural colour mutations can have for the individual animal, the species, biodiversity or conservation as a whole. Apart from the initial ‘look at that’ factor when seeing the results of such breeding, I cannot help thinking that the originals still look better!

Having said this … perhaps there is an advantage tucked away somewhere … are we not better off with the carrots, beans and potatoes we have today instead of the ‘originals’, not to mention cows and all we get from them.