Exotic Animal Behavior & Welfare: South Africa

Name: Haley Lash

Type of Project: Education Abroad—South African Exotic Animal Welfare and Behavior

My STEP Signature Project was an OSU Education Abroad experience where I spent two weeks traveling around South Africa and observing the country’s exotic animals in both natural and artificial environments. In terms of context, we were given the opportunity to spend an entire week in Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest wildlife reserves, while also visiting the Nyani Cultural Village, an in-depth educational tourist attraction designed by performers of various cultural groups around South Africa.

The knowledge I have gained through two weeks abroad in South Africa has exposed me to multiple perspectives and opinions regarding the country’s influence on the welfare, behavior, and health of its exotic animals. I have learned from both sanctuary/breeding center employees and surrounding communities first-hand, that issues like those regarding attitudes towards conservation and wildlife rehabilitation are not quite as nearly so cut-and-dry as we in the United States believe that they are. Looking into the various habitats we visited in South Africa—from Kruger National Park to a crocodile farm—the overall view of exotic animal species seems to shift depending on the environment’s function. This functioning, usually determined by tourist attraction or consumer demand, also seems to relate to the types of cultural or societal norms and taboos surrounding the exotic animal species.

In terms of the controversy surrounding the rhino horn trade, I feel as though public exposure to the realities of horn trimming could be beneficial to helping people understand that it is not a permanent intervention, and it does not impede rhino behavior in any way. However, placing any facilities rhinos under that kind of public presence would probably do more harm than good, especially under the current pressures of the illegal rhino horn trade.

Likewise, in reflection of the cultural and societal norms or taboos surrounding exotic animals in South Africa and the United States, I feel as though our visits to the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center and Moholoholo’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center helped to showcase the differences between the two countries. Hoedspruit’s Endangered Species Center sometimes seemed to interior explanations or connections to the cultural beliefs and practices of South African communities, which left our group feeling a tangible disconnect between the species in the center’s care and the attitudes belonging to surrounding community members. Moholoholo served as a much-needed supplement, as our tour guide, Oscar, feed us a wealth of information on the cultural groups that live within the same areas as the rehabilitated or relocated animals. Oscar explained the cultural importance behind the use of exotic animal bones and organs for use in traditional medicine—in fact, he lengthened its popularity and following to that of alternative/herbal medicinal practices in the United States. While the use of herbs and supplements to heal human aliments may seem strange to others, many in the United States turn to some type of alternative medicine as a substitute for more invasive practices.

Having spent generations trusting medicine men, South African cultural groups believe in both their power and advice; therefore, individuals are willing to purchase items like vulture hearts and lion bone because they believe in its ill-promised value. Additionally, while we in the United States may find it easy to criticize unfamiliar practices and place blame on specific cultural groups for species endangerment, it is important to remember the cultural significance and tradition behind certain beliefs. Many people in and around areas designed to care for and protect wildlife species do not understand the necessity of conservation because they have grown up fearing the same animals that others are advocating to protect. With this in mind, I feel as though the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center made a grave error in its educational tour, as not mentioning the cultural beliefs and attitudes surrounding the health and survival of South African species is only leaving tourists (like our group from the U.S.) as ignorant to the issues of the country’s wildlife as when they began the tour.

Through these issues —species presentation, addressing cultural practices, or the illegal rhino horn trade—I have gained an overwhelming insight into the significance and value for South African culture by realizing that there is more than one way to go about addressing them. For instance, each environment we visited had a slightly different way of presenting its wildlife; Hoedspruit drove us around in large jeeps and fed each of our groups contrasting information on their animals, while our meeting with Jessica the Hippo, cared for by a local family for years, involved a humorous news clip and an opportunity to bottle feed her tea. In terms of addressing cultural practices, Hoedspruit chose to emphasize the activities of its captive species instead of seizing several opportunities to outline the impact of surrounding cultural groups’ practices on their wildlife. The Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center made it quite clear that just providing medical attention to already-wounded animals, was not going to change anything in the long run, especially in areas of conflict that depend specifically on community attitude. With the issue of the rhino horn trade, we also saw two contrasting perspectives on the significance of the horn—Hoedspruit apparently shaves the horn off into “what looks like pencil shavings”, and then allows the remains to blow off into the enclosure, while other places may choose to neatly stockpile their rhino horn trimmings with the hope that the proceeds will someday go back into protecting their herds.

Ultimately, the key to global understanding seems to lie in both an accurate and truthful relay of information. Educating tourists on the beliefs and practices of cultural groups may be just a stepping stone, yet it helps foreigners begin to understand the messy work of wildlife conservation and protection. It is quite easy for one nation to criticize another while they are an ocean apart, but enlightening others about the arguments on all sides of a specific issue may be the solution for many of South Africa’s current problems with its wildlife.


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