Untamed Babies of Namibia

In this post, I focus on animal babies.  These photos may touch your heart, but my intention includes far more. I want to heighten your awareness about how our human desire to keep such animals, as this little cheetah cub, protected, can ultimately  work against what may be best for the animal.  There is nothing sentimental about being born and learning to survive as a wild animal in Africa in the 21st century.  All of African wildlife is threatened by loss of habitat because of human activity, and predators, in particular,  such as cheetahs, lions, and leopards, are considered vermin to be exterminated in order to protect livestock.  There is virtually no habitat left for the wild  animals.  In this post, I explore some of the realities about this  complex issue.  The bottom line is that nature, over the millenia, without any assistance from humans, developed a dynamic checks and balances process to sustain  the web of life.  In a few hundred years, humans have seriously damaged that system and we face a tremendous  unprecedented loss of diversity of life forms on the planet. 
This is Pride, who was orphaned as a cub and taken in by Harnas wildlife sanctuary.  One of the goals of Harnas has been to raise such orphans and release them into a large area they call the Lifeline where they can live a life natural for them – hunt for their food, mate and raise cubs, and be protected from the shotguns and rifles of hunters and farmers.  The Lifeline environment exposes them to attack by other animal predators and other dangers, such as accidental injury,  but that risk is part of  wanting them to have a natural, wild existence. When I visited Harnas for the first time, in 2012, I was a member of a group led by Frikkie von Solms who introduced us to the Lifeline and explained the research being conducted to show that wild orphaned animals raised by humans could  be returned to a wild setting and thrive.  And Pride, an extraordinary cheetah, succeeded in adapting to the Lifeline.  She not only hunted successfully, but mated and gave birth. 
As part of our 2012 tour with Frikkie, we ventured out into the Lifeline to track Pride via picking up signals from her radio collar.
Once the signal was quite strong, we parked the tour car and proceeded on foot.
The cheetah family was resting under the shade of a thorn tree.  Pride had recently brought down game to feed them.  The two cubs were several months old.  Pride came up to greet us, but great care was taken not to engage the two cubs, a male, Dinga, and a female, Mercy, because the hope was that they would grow to be wild and self-sufficient. We took our photos from afar.
A year later, in 2013, I again met Pride, Mercy and Dinga  when I was at Harnas working on my book, God is a Lion. One day, I accompanied Alice and Laurent, experienced and dedicated volunteers who were checking on the welfare of Pride. Mercy and Dinga were nearby, but wary of us humans.  They had prospered over the previous year but cheetah cubs  stay with their mother for up to two years before living on their own.  Cheetahs are solitary in the wild.  I took photos of Mercy and Dinga that day using my telephoto lens.
This is Dinga.  You can see that he still has his baby hair along the back of his neck and shoulders.
And this is Mercy, beautiful daughter of Pride.  Many of you know what happened to Mercy and Dinga the following year – how they got out of the Lifeline, probably through an undetected hole in the fence.  They were both shot and killed by a nearby farmer.  Pride remained in the Lifeline after this sad loss and over the following year mated and gave birth again.  A decision was made to bring her and her three new borns back into an enclosure in Harnas for their protection and when I was at Harnas in 2015 I had the privilege of once again meeting Pride with her new family.
Once again, care was being taken not to engage the cubs. There was some intention at the time that Pride and her cubs would be returned to the Lifeline.  As of this writing I am not sure of their status. But on that day in 2015, I surrendered myself to the wonder  of this experience.  It would be a very cold hearted person who would not be moved by the tender beauty of these tiny cubs and Pride’s solicitous hovering over them as they climbed about in their shelter of thorn tree branches. 
They were curious and ready for adventure, full of personality. 
I used my telephoto lens to get close ups such as this one.  It is not difficult to see that these cubs are utterly vulnerable.  They would not survive without their mother.  And it is understandable that we humans also have a strong desire to protect and care for them.  But what is best for this little guy?  To grow up in a small enclosure where humans can enjoy them and keep them safe, or to have a chance at a natural life in the wild?
During this visit, Pride came directly up to me and put her head against my face.  I will never forget this moment.  I felt I fully experienced the essence of this beautiful, courageous cheetah.   Her freely coming up to me was a profound gift – healing and empowering, but in such an experience lies the crux of the matter – our human desire to have bonded relationships with these wonderful wild animals does not always bode well for the animal.  We want to keep them safe and close to us but this can mean curtailing their opportunity to live the lives for which they were born.    The fact that we are losing many of these animals forever to extinction, makes the situation that much more heart breaking.   (Photo by Heather)
The theme repeats itself continually. During my most recent tour with Frikkie, we saw a number of wild baby animals. This is a white crowned plover which Frikkie spotted at a water hole in Etosha.  It was evident from her behavior that she had a nest nearby.  Plovers lay their eggs in shallow depressions in the ground.  Frikkie saw where she was nesting and encouraged me to go up and see the eggs when she left the nest. 
It would be easy to miss them as they are naturally camouflaged to blend in with the ground.  My photo renders them larger than they really were.  They were about half the size of hens’ eggs.  Like Pride’s cubs,  they were totally vulnerable- easily crushed by a foot step.  One of my continual reflections has been about how,  in a country like Namibia, a land of deserts where water is scarce and conditions can be harsh, the most fragile and delicate  beings are born, cradled in stones, dirt and sticks like these plover eggs, and have a chance to survive and thrive.  My conclusion is that we can trust the earth, trust the wilderness.  There is no better place for these plover eggs.
I have often thought about this plover and about whether her eggs hatched and, if so, the hatchlings are several months old, probably flying by now.  But on the day I took this photo, I knew that the eggs under this mother bird were in the safest place they could be – nestled under her warm breast feathers.
On another morning in Etosha, Frikkie and I happened upon these two black backed jackal youngsters.  Cute little guys, yes?  However, you know what they were looking for?  Plover eggs.  There was a plover up on the road doing everything possible to distract and mislead these jackals looking for an egg breakfast.  And here we are at the heart of how the natural system works – all life needs to feed on other life in order to sustain itself and keep the continuity of life in balance.
There is no reconciling our love for individual animals with the reality of how nature works.  Who would want these jackal cubs to starve?  Who would want the plover’s eggs to be eaten?  It comes down to perception – recognizing what is necessary for life to continue. I don’t think this means that we close our hearts, rather, I think it means we surrender our hearts to love, let them be broken, mourn the eventual loss of each animal we have had the privilege to encounter and bond with.  Eventually, all lives return to the earth, including our own, yes?  There remains only the grace of gratitude for glimpses of beauty so great they transcend our imperfect desires.
And this also includes the hyena – not the most attractive of animals.  When we spotted this hyena and her cub in the Palmwag Concession, I felt compassion and affection for them.  Frikkie reminded me that they stink horribly, make diabolical noises, and would be most unpleasant bed companions.  However, they are intelligent, have a highly complex community life, and take excellent care of their young. Long may they thrive in the wild.
In March, 2017, Etosha was green and flush with water.  Because of this, the elephants were not appearing at the regular waterholes.  They had plenty of water up higher in the reserve.  Frikkie was determined, however, to locate some elephants for me and went out of his way to find them.  One late afternoon, we drove for miles and miles up past Namutoni camp at the north west end of Etosha.  We saw wonderful things on the way, including a rhino, a greater kudu,  zebras, and several lilac breasted rollers. But no elephants until we arrived at this bushy area and encountered a group crossing the road, probably to get to the water on the other side.  The group included all ages – from the elderly to the very young.  The natural predators of baby elephants include lions.  A lion is no match for an adult elephant but they will seek to isolate a baby like this one, so you will never see a baby elephant without an adult attending.  When they are going from one place to another the babies are interspersed among the adults.  Those who are entrusted with the upkeep of Etosha have to be constantly on guard against ivory poachers, however.  And, unfortunately, the ivory seekers can be successful at corrupting staff with bribes which happened either while we were in Etosha or shortly after we left.  A newspaper we saw about a week later in Windhoek,  alerted us to the deaths of two elephants and a rhino in Etosha.  Their bodies were found with the tusks and horn savagely chopped off.  The baby elephants left orphaned by the deaths of their mothers, can be cared for by other members of the herd, but whenever possible, they are taken into wildlife sanctuaries.
In drier weather, an excellent place to encounter Etosha elephants is the waterhole at Halali Camp, but due to the heavy rainfall in March this year, Frikkie and I saw no elephants here because they didn’t need  this waterhole as explained above.  However, when Heather and I visited Etosha in 2012, we had a rich experience of elephants at the Halali waterhole.  I include some photos from this, our first visit to Etosha.  Here are mother and baby walking in step to the waterhole.
Here, Mom supervises the baby’s shower.  Notice the reflection of the antelope in the upper left of the photo.
another photo of this elephant baby splashing around in the water.
Nothing like a long drink of cool water on a hot day. I have now visited Etosha on 3 different occasions and I would go again in an instant.  With Frikkie, I received a grand tour – we stayed in 4 different Etosha lodges and I learned so much and loved every minute of it.   Next, I receive an education about how hornbills protect their young.
Up in this tree in Halali camp, we see a hornbill.  Note that he has a morsel of food in his beak.  Frikkie draws my attention to this and then says, look down here at the base of the tree…
All I saw was a slit in the tree trunk. “There’s a bird in there,” Frikkie said, grinning.  How do you know, I asked.  “Put your fingers in the slit,” he told me.  Well, I did, and felt the sharp pinch of a bird’s beak.  How did she get in there?!  Frikkie explained that after hornbills mate, they find an opening in a tree trunk and the female goes in, builds a nest, lays her eggs and sits on the nest.  Meanwhile, the male gathers and makes a mud paste to seal off the slit, leaving only enough room for him to insert his beak in with food for his mate.  Look at the  brownish paste around the slit.  When the babies hatch, the male continues to bring food for the family and eventually, when the time is right, pecks away the paste fill and mother and fledglings emerge.  Amazing, yes?  So much intelligence and ingenuity in birds and animals. So much joy in learning about it and experiencing it first hand.
In Etosha, in the wilderness of the Kunene region, at Waterberg – we encountered the herbivores – zebras, antelope, giraffes and their young.  We happened on this baby zebra one late morning in Etosha.  Notice the shadow striping – the narrow tan strips between the black ones.  Mom was nearby…
This shot gives you the relative size of the baby next to the mother. This is, I believe, a younger baby than the previous shot.  Herbivores keep their young ones safe by living and moving in a herd.  This accounts for the fact that all herbivores I know of are able to stand and walk around within an hour of being born. Moving together helps keep them all safer.  They are never far from water and I recall how the ancient Bushmen considered them to be rain animals – their pattern of stripes on their bodies, reminiscent of storm clouds.
and, of course, lunch is always on the go.


We came upon a group of impala resting and browsing from tree leaves in a green grove.  An American poet, George Oppen, wrote a poem about coming upon deer in a forest and he captures perfectly how I always feel when I meet antelope and the quiet mystery of their lives.  Here are a few lines:  In the small beauty of the forest/ The wild deer bedding down -/ That they are there!/Their paths /nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them/ The small nouns/crying faith/In this in which the wild deer/startle and stare out.
These fawns stood at attention while others rested.  Female impala do not have horns, so this little one may be a male, given the horn buds on his forehead.  These are black faced impala also known for the distinctive three black lines on their hind quarters.  Their eyes/effortless, the soft lips/nuzzle and the alien small teeth/tear at the grass…
Wildebeest are among the largest of the antelopes, almost has tall as a medium sized horse, but with bulkier shoulders.  The adults are worthy adversaries for lions who are more likely to try and isolate a baby or bring down an elder than go after an adult in its prime.  I witnessed two cheetahs attempting to do just this on an occasion when I was with a group in the Harnas Lifeline in 2013.  We were up on the observation tower watching a small herd of wildebeest, when seemingly out of nowhere, two cheetahs, Max and Morris, zoomed in from the side trying to come between a young one like the one above, and the surrounding herd.  They did not succeed; the adults came to the rescue.  One strong kick in the head from a wildebeest can seriously injure or kill a predator.  This past March 2017, Frikkie and I spotted a few young wildebeest in Etosha.
You might call them teenagers enjoying the green grass and the shade.  For some reason, they remind me of the goat-footed horned Greek god, Pan. Antelope, in general, are sleek and graceful and swift.  Wildebeest are antelope but there is a sensuality about them  -an unsettling bulky, unpredictability.
We encountered giraffe on a number of occasions, both in the wild and in Etosha. I was successful at getting two shots of a mother and her young.
This calf is younger than the one in the previous photo.  I believe we were driving on the way to Etosha when we saw them.  They were making their way across the road and at first we did not see the calf, but the mother was waiting for something and it turned out to be this little one.   I’ve seen a film of lions taking down a giraffe.  At first all you could see were two lionesses going after the giraffe, jumping up to claw her shoulders and haunches, most of the time, evading the powerful kicks of the giraffe.  It turned out the lionesses had a secret weapon, a male lion hiding in the bushes who leapt out to complete the job.  The giraffe, weakened by her battle with the two lionesses, was overpowered by the bulk of the lion.  I believe this is a good example of the evolution of co-existence.  The lions developed a team approach to hunting the larger herbivores.  Occasionally, they are successful, but usually do not seek out giraffe to hunt.  Giraffe are worthy adversaries.
There is a wildlife reserve on top of the Waterberg plateau. I will devote an entire post to our stay in this area, but a piece of it was my visit to the reserve on the plateau top.  I was hoping to see a Cape buffalo and I was not disappointed.  There are three blind observation posts from which tourists can watch the animals come to the waterholes.  Our group visited the first two with no sign of Cape buffalo.  Peering through the observation slots of the third we were watching a group of giraffe when in rushed a group of Cape buffalo.  Being good tourists, not wanting to alarm the animals we did not shout hurray or hoot and hollar.  But all around me I heard soft gasps, muted “ohs” and the click of cameras.  I was actually surprised that Cape buffalo seemed smaller than I imagined them to be and looked like cattle.  However, they are massive – can reach a height of 5 feet/4 inches, and can weigh over 1500 lbs.  The massive horns of the male can span five feet/4 inches so they can be as tall as the span of their horns.  The horn base extends in a boss.  The female’s horns are not as large and her boss is not as large as the male’s.
Here is a male with a calf near the water. I would not want to be on the ramming end of that set of horns.  This calf is a little older than the one pictured above – the horns are larger and he is taller.  .  As I reflected on my first impression of Cape buffalo, I realized that they run with their heads down, which is probably why they reminded me of cattle when they came bursting into the waterhole space as though a director had whispered to them, “Lights! Camera! Action!” And yes, those are white rhinos in the background with their horns shaved off to protect them from poachers.  Their horns are like fingernails and will grow back
One constant throughout this adventure we are having with Namibian baby animals is that no matter how large  or powerful the parent animal is, they young look vulnerable and evoke in most of us a sense of tenderness and a desire to protect.  I know there are scientific explanations for why babies evoke this response having to do with things like the ratio of eye size to the head, but, for me, the problem  with providing only the  scientific explanations is that they tend to objectify the animal and reduce the maternal response to a matter of measurements and hormonal chemistry.   The actual experience is much richer – it is a manifestation in ourselves of the multi-level patterns which bind us all in the great web of life.  The desire to protect the vulnerable is driven by the need to survive which includes much more than the survival of the fittest  – it awakens the power of love and the power of the bond which we share with all creatures. 
In 2012 when I was a member of Frikkie’s special Harnas tour group, he introduced us to the  caracal which is an African lynx.  I was vaguely aware of them before that, but  became intimately acquainted with one caracal named Tammy.  Frikkie asked Heather and I if we would keep special watch over Tammy who was pregnant.  At the time she lived in a small enclosure with another female and a male.  Male caracals will kill  the cubs out of instinctive knowledge related to the perceived threat of over-population in too small of a habitat. So over the two weeks of the tour, Heather and I spent most afternoons under thorn tree shade with Tammy who was expected to deliver her babies any day(!)  The caracal pictured above with Frikkie is an orphaned young one raised by humans.
The caracal hunts small game and is a powerful jumper which enables them to snatch low flying birds right out of the air.  When I returned to Harnas in 2013, I spent more time with Tammy and looked up information about caracals to try and understand, for example, why caracal mothers moved their babies from place to place, not leaving them in any one place too long, and why a mother caracal would eat her babies. I was told by Harnas personnel that this is why they always took the cubs from their mothers and raised them via bottle feeding.  
This is what I learned about the caracal:  they are solitary in the wild – they do not live in groups.  When a female caracal is about to give birth she finds a secret hiding place.  She moves her cubs frequently to lessen the probability that other predators will find them.  If she senses eminent threat, she may in fact eat the babies. Her instincts tell  her that the time is not right, the cubs are not safe, she re-absorbs them so to speak.  In addition, caracals are rarely seen in the wild and are considered nocturnal. 
Spending time with Tammy was an extraordinary gift – when I wasn’t with the lions, I was with Tammy all during my stay at Harnas in 2013.  I found her to be serious, focused, liking to hide in the bushes.  There were days I spent a long time looking for her in her small enclosure unsuccessfully and sat down under a tree to read and a few minutes later, she would appear like sunlight coming through leaves.  Once she did me the honor of picking up her meat and plopping down quite close to me to eat it.  I sat very still.  I could see she wanted to dine near me, but I felt she would not appreciate it if she thought I wanted a share of her dinner! (photo by Heather).
She could also be playful. Here she wrestles with Heather’s shoes.    We were not afraid of her – the important thing was to avoid startling her or spooking her.  She could do some damage with those claws.  I wrote many stories about Tammy in God is a Lion , however, my reason for including some part of her story in this post is  to highlight the two edged-sword of trying to provide a life for a wild animal in an enclosed space.  Most of the caracals at Harnas were brought as tiny orphaned cubs rescued by humans.  Would it have been better if they had been released when they were grown and able to fend for themselves?  They are wild caracals all over Harnas, in the game area, and in the Lifeline.
We are back to the human heart.  I grew to love Tammy and I wasn’t alone in caring about her.  She was a member of the Harnas family.  She was a precious little being that everyone wanted to keep safe.  Yet Tammy was killed in a fight with another caracal sometime in the spring of 2014.  This could have happened in the wild, but animals who are solitary by nature do not usually do well when they are forced to live with others in a small enclosure.
This is a photo of Tammy’s babies which was sent to us via email two weeks after we left Harnas in 2012. We missed their birth by one day.  Adorable, yes?  Unfortunately, in hopes of keeping them safe, they were put in a small enclosure, little more than a large cage, with Tammy, and kept under surveillance day and night via a video camera.   Knowing what I said above about the behavior of mother caracals in the wild, can you guess what happened?  Yes, Tammy, out of her anxiety and fear in such an unnatural setting, began chewing on her babies.  They did not die, staff took them in time and bottle fed them, but this sad story is but another example of how, even with the very best of intentions, we humans cannot make up for the loss of habitat which is the natural environment for wild animals such as caracals.
On the first morning of the March 2017 tour with Frikkie we spotted this pride of lions in the distance. We had heard them roaring the night before.  Here you can see several females and maybeone cub – look to the right of the photo, a a smaller lion  is looking out to the left.  Or it could be a half grown female.
There were also two males present one of whom paraded in front of the pride. Later in our tour of Etosha, through Frikkie’s experienced skill, we saw more lions…
Frikkie said that he had seen lions before at a particular water hole and he drove to it. There were no lions in sight. We had crossed a culvert and stopped on the gravel circle provided for viewing the wildlife at this water hole.  Frikkie said, “I think I know where they are.”  He picked up a stone, walked over to the edge of the culvert and hurled the stone down.  It made a sharp thud on the ground and immediately, 7 to 8 lionesses burst out on either side of the culvert.  They had been taking their afternoon snooze under the shade of the culvert.  So in a matter of seconds we were flanked by lions on both sides who seemed a bit snarly over their nap being interrupted.
The lionesses on the left side of the culvert were a little closer and I got some good photos of them.
a close up of this beautiful girl’s face. Can you sense her centered power, the immense focused will behind those eyes?
These were young females who looked fit and healthy. I was delighted to be surrounded by all this wild lioness energy.  They seem much more serious than the males, and bear most of the responsibility for hunting and caring for the young.  When Heather and I visited Etosha in 2012, we encountered two lionesses and their cubs.
There were a couple of other cars stopped on a mopane  shaded road so we pulled over to see what they were looking at.  Two lionesses were making their way across the road.  I knew there was more to the story when I saw this one looking back and sure enough…
A little cub was following along! proceeding with some trepidation at the sight of humans hanging our of car windows with their cameras.
a second cub followed also looking a bit fearful.  If you look closely, you can see what looks like blood stain on the side of  his/her neck.  The little family had probably come down to a waterhole early in the morning, made a kill, and were making their way back up to a kopje on the other side of the road.
The cub scurried across the road as fast as it could go to the safety of the bush on the other side.  I have given much reflection to this photo over the past five years.  On the day I took it, I was simply delighted to be seeing a lion cub in the wild.  As time passed – my time at Harnas the following year, my completion of my book, God is a Lion, and my subsequent trips back to Namibia to take tours with Frikkie, I have come to consider this little cub in my photo as evocative of the uncertain future of  the lion.  Where is this little one going?  What will be his fate and the fate of his fellow lions?  Would he be better off in a shelter?  He looks a bit frail.  Will he make it to adulthood?  Will there be any lions left on the earth by the close of  the 21st century?
Are there any satisfactory solutions to prevent the permanent loss of the wild ones we share the planet with? Here and there,  dedicated efforts are being made but there is no certainty of outcome.   What I think and feel now, in the present, having just turned 72, is that if circumstances occur which bring us to encounter a wild animal and develop a lasting mutual bond with it, we should not hesitate to love that animal with all our heart and embrace the joy of the experience and also the grief and sorrow which comes with the full knowledge of everything I’ve written in this post about what is the best outcome for the wild ones, like this little cub, Zion raised by Frikkie.  Animals respond to love – that is evident to me from this photo and from knowing Frikkie’s journey with Zion.  What we need to be constantly doing is discerning the very best way to express our love for them.  What does love require?