It’s finally time! I’m writing this on the fourth day of the program, and six days into traveling. Last semester when I studied abroad in Belize I met another Rutgers student, Stella, and we took Biochem together this last year, so we applied for EcoLife together and decided to fly together. We had to leave two days early and took a long (12 hour) layover in Frankfurt, which ended up being a fun time. When we got to Frankfurt, we got a room at an airport hotel. After showering and resting for a little, we decided to go into the city since it was Stella’s first time in Europe. Frankfurt is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to, and I’ve traveled a decent amount around Western Europe. We spent 4 hours in the city and had nothing planned, but we had an absolute fabulous time walking around, appreciating the architecture, and finding food to eat. We ended up finding a beautiful park to sit in while people watching and eating ice cream and found the most beautiful bridge as well.
When checking out of the hotel room and going back to the Frankfurt airport, Stella and I commented how our travels have already felt like a life time, and we aren’t even in Africa. This is going to be an incredible 3 weeks.
We left Monday, explored Frankfurt on Tuesday, and finally made it to Johannesburg on Wednesday, and we were wiped. Fortunately, everyone had similar travel days so we were all out of it. By the time Stella and I got to the lodging, half of us had arrived and the rest were coming later in the evening. In an attempt to fight jet lag (we finally got to the housing at noon, 6am New Jersey time, when I had gotten ~4 hours of sleep over the two days of traveling) we walked around the surrounding neighborhood. The most surprising fact was that every single house had 6 foot high walls topped with electrical fencing, locked gates, and barking dogs. Fortunately, we only stayed here a short while and the housing location was BEAUTIFUL itself. The walls didn’t make me feel unsafe, it was just a reminder of the reality of the local social conditions. An even starker reminder was hearing gun shots while sitting around a fire and talking. South Africa does have a high crime rate, with Johannesburg contributing greatly, so this should come as no surprise. So far the rest of the trip I’ve only felt significantly safer. If you want to make money, get into security contracting and move to Johannesburg.
After walking around and getting to know the few students that had already arrived, our trip guide, Luis, showed up. Luis travels the globe as a journalist when he isn’t heading EcoLife tours and he is an awesome person to talk to. He told us he covered stories during the Iraq invasion and was allowed into ISIS recruiting centers as a result of his objective pieces. We’ve already had some awesome conversations about South African, Foreign, and Trump affairs and I am excited for the many more discussions to come. I also dedicated half of my luggage space to camera equipment so I’m making sure this professional photographer shows me all the tips and tricks of the trade. It is a dream of mine to have photos published in National Geographic, so hopefully he teaches me some useful skills. We talked with Luis for 3 hours while we waited for everyone to arrive, ate dinner, and then passed out by 9pm. Jet lag, man.
Τhe second day consisted entirely of traveling and lectures. We drove 2 hours to the North West University (NWU). Along the way, we drove passed a multitude of Mercedes and other high end car dealers as well as the most apparent expression of income inequality that I have ever seen. Locally known as ‘townships,’ we passed 3 shanty towns. That was sobering. We saw massive fields of corrugated steel shacks. Made up of only 4 walls, we saw plenty of out houses. But surprisingly, electrical lines ran through them and some shacks had satellite dishes on their roofs. We spent a lot of time discussing the circumstances for that perplexing situation, coming up with ideas ranging between a lack of financial education and the easiest escape from a harsh reality. It was just baffling to me that people would willingly spend their money on tv when they can’t even shower or urinate in their own house, but hey, but who doesn’t want to watch The Office and roll with laughter?
At NWU, we were lectured by Dr. Merwe about wildlife conservation in South Africa. How many different antelope species do you think exist in Africa? We learned about 15 in this country alone, and that wasn’t even covering all of them. With 2 vegans, a vegetarian, and many animal-loving prevet students, this lesson opened us up to the food for thought I know we will all be contemplating for a while now. The US and South Africa are the only countries to see repopulation of wild species. The US gets their claim to fame mostly thanks to white tailed deer, whereas South Africa has seen increases in the population size of almost every endemic species. Why? Trophy hunting. Not Cecil the Lion trophy hunting, but through a very interesting system. The federal government here industrialized trophy hunting by giving property rights of all wild animals on a farmers property given they have the proper acreage and fence height. As a result, wild animals have become an agricultural product. And it’s not just a 10’x10’ plot for 20 animals like you see in an unaccredited zoo. These reserves range from 500 to 2000+ hectares and the habitat is just the natural environment fenced in. These animals are living in a pretty nice level of luxury. With such open and natural enclosures, many of the animals are able to be released into the national parks, aiding in the repopulation of “free-ranging” species (quotes because most parks, while still being unimaginably large, are still fenced in an attempt to fight poaching, road kill, and conflict with farmers). Further, studies have shown the animals bred on these reserves are much more genetically diverse than wild animals in the Serengeti, helping to conserve these species even more. And finally, the massive industry that has exploded around wildlife ranching, auctioning, and hunting brings in 2 billion USD a year and employs hundreds of impoverished locals, who otherwise typically live on ~1,200 USD a year. I’m sharing all these facts because this system is something that shouldn’t not be taken lightly. Beautiful and exotic animals are being farmed and many for the purpose of being hunted by a wealthy foreigner. Even so, other countries that have completely banned trophy hunting, like Kenya, have only seen massive decreases in wildlife populations in response to an almost immediate increase in poachers (which the conditions of why poachers poach could take up another blog post, if not even be the topic of a graduate thesis). All in all, it’s only our second day in Africa and I’ve been given more to think about than watching a lifetime of BBC nature docs.