A long time ago a friend described being chased by a rhino pup through her family’s East African bungalow while it uttered at intervals the squeak that seems so incongruous emerging from an armoured body. Oh, and he didn’t want to hurt her, she assured me, he wanted to play.
And there is a stunning documentary – mercifully before the current craze for admixing music and cutery – about a safe haven for some black rhino in which all the men involved are grown up heavy set Africa hands, vets, rangers, helicopter pilots and all, which made the courage and determination, the pervading sense of duty in their project, all the more moving. The geographical location is not revealed and when I saw the first rhino lifted in a net to be flown to safety, I didn’t breathe. I will not forget the Zulu ranger who is their “whisperer” as he speaks softly, as he has the many years of his working life, reassuring, coaxing the great animal with its fine of sense of smell and weak eyes, into trust.
There was a female panda in the news this week because she had given birth to twins, horrid little pink things a thousand times smaller than her, but twins are rare, zoo born even rarer. And I wanted desperately to banish the cameras and leave her (like every other new mother) in peace.
And then there is the story of the hen harrier chicks who have died unexpectedly, followed by the suggestion that the parent birds might have been “spooked” because of the invigilation of the nest, too many cameras, too much presence … We theorise but we don’t know. The ornithologists know that in the next generation, the birds may tolerate humans better – but in the minimum. And not the general media looking for a story.
In the various and several forms of captivity we have for the most part agreed upon, animals may eventually come to put up with us. In the wild, they mostly shun us. It is we who panic at their presence. In the semi-wild, they treat us with indifference. I have nothing but the greatest respect for people who spend their lives trying to spare the pangolin, for example – bearing always in mind that the overproduction of humans and the erosion of territory isn’t a great place to start. I don’t know much about birds of prey but I imagine their difficulties come under the same heading – too many humans, not enough safe peace.
You read wonderful accounts of efforts to save this or that, using every kind of human help from the commitment of hours and a notebook to the most complicated scientific knowledge and equipment, and you know that every one of those involved must believe at some level of intelligence that they are doing the right thing, that if it fails in the short term, they must try again. And again. And again. Because they are fresh out of alternatives. This – whatever it is – is what can be done. The refined knowledge, experience and skill of other people often brings you up with a jerk. Well, it does me. In an old episode of M.A.S.H., the medics talk the padre through an emergency tracheotomy. I leave you to imagine what can go wrong with that. Best intentions not working out seems intrinsically part of conservation, great and small.
Human beings often discuss peace, the idea of repose, time out – but we can’t discuss it with an animal. Safer then to suppose that, before mankind spread in every direction like dubious icing on the cake of progress every-bloody-where, animals had a chance to withdraw, to see only species in the numbers of which they could make sense. I am not much given to anthropomorphising. A beast is a beast and another thing, not secondary in any way. I accept that – rather like therapy – the key words are watching and waiting – but that there won’t be anything much to watch or wait for if we don’t invoke a more protective overview and the experts don’t insist that we commit to it.
*“..liberty in tranquillity.” (Cicero)