Sunday, July 20, 2014

If Animals Could Talk, Would They Tell Us to Leave Them Alone?

Better cameras than guns, but still... What can anyone possibly do with all of those photos?

One great picture of a bunch of hippos slumbering in the water is cool, as is a 15-second video of one rotating its body 360 degrees while a few others make ghastly noises. Two or three more shots add variety. But unless you're a National Geographic photographer, why would you need to take a dozen or more pictures of more of the same? Nobody wants to see all of them (Hint: Single and small groups of photos get more "likes" on Facebook than padded photo albums), and chances are the person who takes them won't look at them more than once.

So how much is enough? That's what I keep asking myself as my fellow camera wielders and I snap away in the Serengeti. What are we thinking/doing?

Yeah, yeah, everyone goes to the Serengeti or on any African game drive hoping to spot the Big 5 (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffaloes) and while they're at it, to get some amazing photos to post on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but are we more interested in the photos than in the animals themselves? Going on a safari and watching the way people view the animals is not unlike walking around the major cities of Italy and watching tourists snap shots of all the unnatural wonders they've been told are important. Everyone is so busy taking pictures that they aren't paying any real attention to the beauty stretched out before them. When he's not fast asleep in the front seat of one of the 4x4s, Gaia, the eightysomething Brazilian who perhaps maxed out on breathtaking after decades in Rio, is too preoccupied with reading his camera instructions to even look!

There is no genuine reacting, just hustling to get the perfect shot. At one point, I gasp when I finally catch sight of the elusive leopard I'd been trying to spot with the help of binoculars. The other passengers in my 4x4 laugh at my genuine reaction. The ones in the 4x4 behind us look at me as if I've lost my mind. So what? Who cares about a leopard that you can't even photograph? A safari is only as good as the photos it produces!

They're missing the point entirely. I'm certain they're missing everything surrounding the animals, too: the stately acacia trees, the landscape so perfectly manicured by Mother Nature, the endless horizon, all those cool spider holes. It's not unlike going to a rock concert and looking at everyone looking at the video monitor instead of at the stage, or not fully enjoying Soundgarden's performance of "Outshined" at the Sidney Meyer Music Bowl in Melbourne because you're videoing it. They're digitally documenting everything and missing it all at the same time.

And what is the cost of our camera obsession? I'm not talking about what we don't see when we're looking at life through the lens, or even monetary expense. In the modern digital-camera age, capturing moments to remember might be the least expensive thing we do on holiday. What about the animals? Sure, we're there to see them, but what about them? What about a lion's right to a little peace and privacy in its own home, whether that be in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, in the Ngorongoro Crater, or in the wilds beyond?

(True story: One of the guys in my Tanzania-to-Kenya tour group actually complained to our guide about the locals on the island of Zanzibar. They didn't make us feel welcome, he griped. They didn't wave at our passing truck like the locals did on Tanzania's mainland. Shame on them. It's always all about us, the visitors, not the people who actually live in any given place, be it Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, or the Serengeti.)

I hate being stared at by strangers, and as a black man accustomed to living as a rarity in places like South America, Southeast Asia and Australia, I know what it's like to have people train their cameras on me with and without permission. But those curious locals know better than not to just get their photo and move on. If those big cats are anything like me, they'd rather be left alone while they eat, sleep and pee. I wonder if that's why leopards and cheetahs spend most of their time out of sight, hiding in trees and overgrown grass, far from the maddening crowds parked in 4x4's on the side of dusty roads.

As I watch 4x4s following a pride of lions around the Serengeti on my first morning there, it dawns on me: This is Hollywood. The lions are the celebrities, and humans are the paparazzi. If I had to compare the lions to a particular star, I'd go with Princess Diana, a master manipulator of the media who suffered (ultimately, fatally) under its too-watchful eye. There's something borderline tragic about the way humans chase the lion clans around the wilderness in their big, loud, scary vehicles, but the lions don't always come across as victims. If the Serengeti had a red carpet, they'd probably know how to work it. There's already a distinct strut in their walk (big cat strut?), and sometimes I could swear they're posing for us as we snap snap snap away.

But what about when they aren't? What about when they're trying to take a late-afternoon nap, or roam around the Serengeti with their cubs? As I watch lionesses and their children migrate from spot to spot, I feel like such an interloper that I sometimes have to put away my camera. They seem to be trying to escape us, our prying eyes and our prying cameras.

Still, we lie in wait, watching, and when they appear, we descend upon them, sometimes dozens of 4x4s at a time. If they just sit there, we wait some more, as if expecting some grand gesture or a quotable punchline or both. "ROAR!" Oh, the pressure -- on us (to get the perfect shot) and on the animals, too. We snap away until we exhaust our batteries or our memory cards. If the animals could talk, what would they say? Would they object to our voyeurism, tell us to get the hell out of there?

The Massai tribe that inhabits the Ngorongoro area adjacent to the Serengeti object to picture taking by tourists unless they pay US$15 to be part of an official village group tour. If you pass a Massai in your vehicle, and he or she sees you taking his or her photo without permission, it could cost you US$50. I'm not sure how the penalties are imposed (Do they complain directly to the safari tour companies?) and how they're collected, but just having rules to protect their rights seems to deter unauthorized picture taking.

Unfortunately, animals can speak for themselves only by attacking. (Beware those hippos. I hear they're cranky and deadly.) Since I'm not privy to any acts of extreme aggression on the part of the animals, at least not today, I hope for the best. Maybe they enjoy the attention. Perhaps some of those lions really are putting on a show.

With their flowing manes, the males seem to have perfected the art of acting like us humans aren't even there. But when we catch a group of three females lounging on a rock like a feline Supremes (there's always one particularly hammy one assuming Diana Ross top-cat status), I begin to get the feeling that maybe they do sometimes enjoy our attention and are possibly egging us on, particularly when the kids aren't around. That's so Hollywood celebrity.

"You want a great photo to share with your Facebook friends? Well, here!"

Got it? Now move along, folks, before you overstay your welcome in their home.
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