CONTINUATION OF DAY 3, MY FIRST SAFARI

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It got very dark and as we left Mfuwe village, the aroma of water-soaked earth from the rainy season seemed stronger and richer. We felt the shifts in the coolness of the night air as we passed areas where there was a lot of standing water and then up to hilltops where it was drier and warmer. It was too dark by then to see the terrain and vegetation except for what the headlights revealed. We crossed a modern-built bridge over the South Luangwa River into the South Luangwa National Park greeted by Zambian Wildlife Authority guards who checked our passports and collected our toll. We knew to obtain kwacha, the Zambian currency at the airport and have it ready for this moment. They waved us into the park where bush camps and lodges are spread out for hours along a network of dirt roads with occasional legible road names painted onto concrete pedestals. It was just the beginning of the wet season.

The South Luangwa National Park is nearly two and a half million acres of grasslands, riverine and riparian woodlands, rivers, lagoons, and semi-aquatic grasslands a little larger than Yellowstone National Park in the United States and is bounded by the South Luangwa River. There are magnificent Baobab specimens and a few large ebony forests to admire. While poaching, encroachment, and deforestation threaten much of the wildlife, the park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife. Over the next several days I would see elephants, lions, a leopard, a cute small bunny rabbit-looking hare, several kinds of monkeys, a civet, zebras, a wildebeest, buffalo, warthogs, giraffes, hippos, and a great assortment of antelope-like herbivores, along with magnificent birds, some reptiles, including snakes and crocodiles, but elephants had already captured my heart because in all my reading and research I learned they are sentient beings capable of great self-awareness. Unless poaching stops now, elephants will not reproduce fast enough to halt the march toward extinction in the next ten years.

Elephants are a keystone species, the link that holds this delicate ecosystem together. Elephants eat bark and foliage. They tear up forests and thickets and open them to sunlight, so meadows of rich grazing land thrive. All wildlife depends on elephants to dig for water during the dry season. Without elephants, there would be no herbivores and nothing for the carnivores and scavengers to eat. As elephants risk extinction, the other species are right behind them. Iconic animals like lions, leopards, giraffes, and zebras will disappear if elephants are hunted to extinction.

Written by Patricia Cole

An Africa Hope Fund board member for 7 years, Pat is a writer and a conservation activist. After traveling to Zambia, she became dedicated to helping Africa Hope Fund provide education to the next generation of Africans and ensure their future by protecting wildlife. Find Patricia on Facebook and Twitter, or on her websites www.writepatwrite.com and www.patmcole.com.

Carol Van Brugen