One of my favorite books when I was growing up was titled ‘Hunter’. It was written by a man named John Hunter who migrated to Africa from Scotland at the end of the nineteenth century when still a teenager, and spent the rest of his life as a big game hunter and park ranger. He wrote about his life and experiences – many of them harrowing – but also had a chapter on how he ranked the ‘Big Five’ in terms of how dangerous they were to hunt. The Big Five are the elephant, rhino, cape buffalo, lion, and leopard. Before you read on, you might try answering that question yourself: Which of those animals do you think is the most dangerous? I’ll give you his answer at the end of this blog post.
In one of his experiences John Hunter was walking through the Ituri forest in the Congo with a group of pygmies when suddenly one of them was spat in the eye by a spitting cobra. The pygmies saved their friend by urinating in his eye, but I digress.
Well, while on vacation a few days ago in Kruger Park, South Africa we found a spitting cobra in our bathroom! We had no idea what kind of snake it was at the time, but in Africa it’s a good rule of thumb to assume everything that moves can kill you and a good deal of the plants as well. In any case, we blockaded the room so the snake couldn’t get out then called the rangers. It was eleven at night and one of them came over in his flip-flops, looked around for the snake, found it in the bedroom closet, and announced to us with a grave face that it was a Mozambique spitting cobra. Oh joy! They are extremely dangerous, he told us. They can spit accurately from up to ten feet away and after they’ve incapacitated their victims through blindness and pain they then bite it, kill it, and eat it. Note: Just a few days ago in South Africa a five year old girl was bitten by one and she had to have multiple skin grafts (its poison destroys tissue) and will be in the hospital for five weeks.
Well, as you can imagine, we feel very lucky. And needless to say, for the next week, whenever we entered a room or opened a closet, it was with our eyes averted.
Now, for the answer to the question: John Hunter ranked the animals exactly the way I listed them above with elephants being the least dangerous and leopards the most. During his lifetime, he had hunted all of them extensively and knew them very well. Elephants were such a big target that it made them hard to miss; rhinos and buffalos were big and slow, lions were terrifying but would not always press home a charge if they were wounded. He thought leopards were the most dangerous because of their incredible quickness, ability to hide, and plus they do not turn away from a charge once they begin it – for any reason. Side note: The ranger who took away the snake told us he once saw a leopard leap entirely over the electric fence that surrounds the home we stayed at in Kruger. Again: Oh joy!
Final note: Heard a story while I was at the park about a very old elephant that died a natural death in the park in the 1980s. After the elephant died, elephants came from miles around to walk circles around it and to lay branches on the dead body. Apparently it was a greatly respected leader among multiple elephant clans. How strange! Makes you wonder how much we humans really understand animals.
If you ever get a chance to visit Kruger Park you should do it. The first time I went there, it felt like Jurassic Park. Now, I’m more used to it, but every day it shows me something I never imagined.
Next week – something to do with writing. In April I’ll have the opportunity to teach creative writing to a class of New Zealand 7-8th graders. Maybe I’ll write about my preparations for that.
Umhlanga, South Africa