Sunday, February 13, 2011

Custodian of nature

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, veterinary medicine, africa

Dr. Roy Aronson is one lucky man, with a job he loves in a lovely setting. He has a veterinary clinic in Cape Town, South Africa, and he also works part of the time with wildlife in the bush. In his book, Tales of an African Vet, he writes of working with the "big five", elephants, rhinos, lions, buffalo and leopards, but also of gemsbok, pythons, hedgehogs, and other wild creatures that needed human help to survive or thrive.

In the last chapter, about performing tuberculosis tests on lions, I learned how much of a problem TB is for both humans and animals. No animal may be moved from one game park to another without being TB tested. Animals that test positive are "culled", meaning euthanized. With diligent attention this terrible disease, which still claims more lives (human and animal) than AIDS, might be brought under control.

As if there were not enough large predators in Africa, there was some time ago a popular hobby of raising wolves and wolf-dog breeds. Once people find out that a three-year-old wolf or dog with more than 45% wolf is a truly wild animal, and not at all safe with children, many are abandoned or killed outright. This frequently leads to more work for the vets, who wind up caring for animals of many kinds that have been cast out by disgruntled owners.

At the other end of the scale, the author found that farmed fish raised in an environment with more oxygen than they are used to can get the bends, or gas bubbles in their tissues, and changes to their environment are required to adapt to their needs. For some fish farms, the changes must be made economically. For others, such as those that raise thousand-dollar koi, the changes are a minor expense!

A lesson driven home time and again is that Africa is far from the wild place of the Western imagination. Most of the bush is fenced and allotted among ranches and commercial game parks, with a few national game parks. Many try to retain some semblance of the bush experience on behalf of ecotourists and other safari-goers. Few folks realize that the lions and cheetahs they are taken to see have implanted radio tracking devices. How else do you think the trackers can find them so quickly? Expert trail readers can indeed locate animals one may wish to see, but not quite so rapidly. Pre-radio safaris had to be longer than the attention span of modern tourists.

In his 25-year career, the author has seen a lot. He has, in particular, seen how the fragmentation of habitat is driving all the big wildlife to the edge of extinction. It is only because of farming, for example, that the Nile crocodile is being kept from dying out. With this in mind, he takes issue with those who say we should not intervene on behalf of injured animals, but should "let nature take its course." In all too many cases, it is our interference with nature that has led to the injury in the first place, so he sees it as our duty to right such wrongs wherever possible. It is one thing for a lion to run down a healthy impala. It is another to encounter an impala with a poacher's noose caught on one leg; not to help the latter animal is tantamount to murder by neglect.

Would the African bush animals be better off if there were no humans? The question is meaningless. Humans are a part of nature, also. We have taken control of much of nature, but close encounters with these marvelous creatures has shown Dr. Aronson how much power and beauty nature retains in spite of our short-sightedness. Due to the efforts of many like him, some portion of the grandeur of primordial Africa is being kept for the education and awe of our descendants.

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