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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Our Zoo Planet

If the two brother cheetahs were at all concerned about the approach of our land rover, they didn't show it.  The one continued napping, the other merely turned and acknowledged our presence with a quick glance.  Thus emboldened, our driver edged us closer, then closer, and then closer still.  The only sounds were the clicking of cameras and the hushed whisper of our voices as everyone angled for the best view.  It wasn't hard to get one.  All that was between us and the cheetahs was about thirty yards of African sky... and a wire fence.

This was a few years back, on a safari to Madikwe Game Reserve, located in South Africa's unimaginatively-named North West Province, near the Botswana border.  It was my second excursion to Africa, and while it was much shorter than my first - a week versus a college semester - it was already full of new wildlife encounters.  In some ways, Madikwe - which I had never even heard of before this trip - was rivaling, even surpassing, Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and other parks I'd visited in East Africa in terms of wildlife viewing.  

Which is all the stranger, considering that just a few years earlier, none of these animals were here.

Madikwe became a game reserve in the early 1990s.  Before that, it was poor, run down farm land. The government decided that it would better serve the nation as a game reserve, and so it was declared.  The only problem, of course, was that all of the animals that had once lived there had been killed off or driven away years ago.  The result was "Operation Phoenix", an ambitious plan to restock the new park with lions, buffalo, elephants, black AND white rhinoceros, and the remainder of the South African bestiary - some 60 species of large mammal, in all.  

The cheetahs were the newest residents to the park during my visit, still in their transition pen.  Importations of animals were selected for the genetic diversity that they would bring to the current populations.  Of course, our guides told us, the lion population was too high to sustain cheetahs at this point, so already the reserve management was catching up surplus lions - carefully selected - for transfer to another park in order to aid the cheetahs.  Sable antelope were a species that they hoped to add soon, they continued, but the species hadn't done as well as they would have liked in the past.  Maybe some habitat management was in order...  and might as well get those park fences fixed up before adding such a valuable (read: poachable) animal to the mix.  

So much for Wild Africa, I thought.

In recent years, zoos and aquariums have made efforts to make the lives of their charges more closely resemble that of the wild - better habitats, more appropriate social groupings, mixed-species exhibits, behavioral enrichment, etc.  What often goes unnoticed, however, is that the lives of wild animals are more and more closely resembling those of zoo animals, the protected areas increasingly becoming large, complex, multi-species enclosures set in a human-dominated landscape.  

This month, we'll look at how the lines between Zoo and Wild are becoming increasingly blurred.

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