Safari in South Africa 1: The Message of the Giraffes

Giraffes, who we just learned about the disappearance of and who need our attention more than ever now, are asking: Are we ready to give what we stole from ourselves back to ourselves? Do they need us, or do we need them?

Safari in South Africa 1: The Message of the Giraffes
Hannes Rossouw. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

What needs to happen in order for you to appreciate the value of something? Does something bad need to happen to you or do you need to lose that thing? Or, are you a sage who enjoys the beauty of life just like a Zen master each and every moment?

After returning home from my Africa trip, I came to understand even more clearly that, just like many of us, I too need touching stories to appreciate the value of certain things.

A few sentences caught my attention while watching a documentary made to raise awareness about the illegal hunting of a rare giraffe species living in Central Africa for their status-symbol tails: “It was so exciting to see these giraffes from the air. It’s always exciting to see them wherever they are. Because there are so few of them left.”

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If I had heard these words before my trip to Africa, my reaction to David Hamlin, the maker of the National Geographic documentary, would probably be as follows:

“You’re absolutely right David, what’s few is always more special, things that are rare are more exciting.”

I had been looking for a gift for someone I loved. My relationship with that person was very meaningful, and the gift I was going to choose also had to be meaningful. Because I thought exactly like David, this gift had to be something related to rhinos. A rhino t-shirt, for example..

If the t-shirt had an impala print, an animal that we saw at every step during the safari at the Kruger National Park, that t-shirt wasn’t going to be special. The English guy at the safari had even made a joke about this after seeing yet another impala herd, “And the rare impala!”. Initially we had stopped a few times to take pictures. After a while we had started to pass by them like we were passing by stray dogs, and we only stopped to watch two impalas fight, that’s all. After all, they werent part of the Big Five (elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo) that were getting advertised all the time.

Rhino poaching, the bleeding wound of Africa

After the safari, we stopped by the street vendors on our way back. Even if I thought that it would look great with our Brown furniture and the elephant statue I had brought from Sri Lanka last year, I gave the hand-made giraffe statue back to the lady saying, “Very beautiful, but I’m looking for a rhino statue”.

Although not as frequently as the impalas, we had seen giraffes at least 4 or 5 times in the park. Nobody was panicking that they were going extinct. So, the gift wasn’t going to mean that much.

rhinos
Selen Yıldız. Kruger National Park.

I was looking for a rhino statue. Because, there were only 25 thousand African rhinos left of the 1 million rhinos that existed 150 years ago. The black rhino was Critically Endangered according to the Red List prepared by the IUCN. If its status dropped one more level, it meant extinction in the wild. On average, three rhinos per day was being killed to sell their horns to Vietnam and China for 100 thousand dollar per kilogram.

Only in 2015, 1338 rhinos were lost on the African continent to this bloody trade. These horns that are made of the same material as our nails were being purchased by Asians even if there is no scientific basis that they cure illnesses such as cancer or impotence.

The rhino poaching that continued despite the international ban had turned into such a huge problem that armed rangers were monitoring the national parks. We had passed by a few of them and said hi. At any moment, they could be killed by a poacher!

They were so sick of these poachers that a ranger I was chatting with at the way station smiled to me and said,”No need to bother arresting them. Best to just cut their throats and kill them.”

How could one disagree? Even though the populations of both species were rising, if the horn trade didn’t stop, we may not have seen these beautiful two tonnes beings on a safari in 2025.

At the way station on the way to the national park, they had placed a real-life sized rhino statue, and on the posters in the glass showcase next to it it read,”Their future is in your hands.” Anxious about their future, I took a few photos in despair.

Africa’s silently bleeding wound, giraffes

Just then, newspapers around the World were getting ready to announce that we had lost 40 percent of giraffes in the last 30 years and that their conservation status had dropped from Least Concern to Vulnerable. We were about to read articles titled The Silent Extinction of Giraffes and learn that there were only 97 thousand individuals left of these gorgous animals whose numbers reached 150 thousand in 1985. If this trend continued, giraffes were going to become history in only 20 years.

Threats such as poaching, wars and conflict, the increase in human population and agricultural lands, and uncontrolled timber harvesting had fragmented their habitats and trapped them in areas where they lived detached from other giraffe populations.

It turns out they should have put a giraffe statue as well next to the rhino statue at the way station! My sadness for not having been able to enjoy them much during the safari had mixed with the fear of future. Could we afford to risk not being able to see giraffes, who are known to travel distances twice the area of Istanbul, nowhere other than zoos?

Can you imagine an Africa who has lost its giraffes?

Giraffes
Hannes Rossouw. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

Entering into a documentary

If we had known about all this, maybe our main goal in the safari wouldn’t have been to see the Big 5! Everyone was looking for the king of the jungle. We would stop every car and ask,”Are there any lions where you came from?”. Hours later, we had found ourselves in a documentary and began to watch the battle between two lions that were most likely brothers and an impala. The way they walked, the way they watched their prey… They were so charismatic. Everyone who had heard where the lions were spotted had arrived, turning the road into a parking lot. When the lions were out of sight, we decided to finally look fort he leopards.

And meanwhile, the giraffes were calmly eating leaves somewhere that had a low-rating, out of our sight. I don’t know about the rest of the group, but the only thing I knew about them was this: Giraffes eat leaves.

 “Next time I go to Africa, I will probably get very excited about seeing giraffes!” I thought to myself when I first read the news.

Just like David.

It feels as if the giraffes have been saying to me lately,”Save money and come here so we can play!” As if they don’t know that it’s illegal to get off the safari jeep and everybody is after the Big 5!

Actually there is a solution- best to rent a car and do a self-drive

Maybe then I can come across two giraffes who fight swinging their necks at each other. Did you know you could hear the sound of the impacts of this neck-wrestling from 100 meters away? You probably thought that male giraffes were meek creatures walking around calmly like a gentleman, right? You were wrong! These fights they engage in for women can even result in death. Maybe if we had stopped the car and waited for a few minutes, we might have seen a scene where a male giraffe rub his neck against the back of a female to flirt with her.

safari Giraffe
Hannes Rossouw. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

The law of jungle or law of man?

Or maybe we could’ve seen a baby giraffe! Even if it’s so hard to call them babies, given their 2 meter heights, I’m sure they would put me in a coma like all the other baby animals due to cuteness overload! But I’m not sure if the British couple sitting behind would care. They were rather busy making hyena sounds driving the hyenas around crazy. Thanks to them though, we had the chance to see a hyena who came looking for the hyena in the jeep up close. Its eyes were as innocent as the stray dogs in our neighborhood; so innocent that it sure didn’t look like the ones who stole the lions’ kill in the documentaries.

Did you know that the male giraffes engaged in sexual activity after fighting for the alpha seat? Yes, and it’s not just the male giraffes but females, as well! In the African savannah away from homophobia, nobody has to prganize a pride march so giraffes can freely express their sexuality! The band Athena will never have to write a song called “Don’t Say a Word” (Ses Etme) for LGBT giraffes because there are no giraffes here who beat them up out of hatred. Yes, I too think that the constitution should be renewed in Turkey, and the law of the jungle should rule!

Are lions scared of giraffes?

What the predators care about is to eat the giraffe anyways, not their sexual life. But don’t pity the giraffes thinking they are completely defenseless against them! Their kicks can break the jaws or even the ribs of lions! Maybe that’s why they run off in all directions when they see an angry giraffe trying to protect her calves.

Fortunately, thanks to their 6 meter heights, they not only can reach out to the plants at tree tops that noone else can, they can also check to see if they are any predators around. Scientists actually call a group of giraffes “A Giraffe Tower”. There is always somebody who keeps watch in these towers that only sleep half an hour a day. Because if they happen to get lazy about it, lions can eat one of the calves for dinner. This is exactly why about 50 percent of giraffes fail to make it to 1 year old.

Making sure the calves are safe is not enough. Have you ever feared that somebody would come and kill you while you were drinking water? If you were a giraffe, you would have, because when giraffes drink water they have to spread their legs due to their height, and this makes them very vulnerable against lions lurking in the bushes.

safari giraffes
Hannes Rossouw. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

Stop, stop, stop, I couldn’t take a good picture!

The sad part is, there was no need for any animal to fear being killed while drinking water in this national park. Because there was no water. It hadn’t rained for one year, and the forest looked like it was burned down. Some of the animals had already died. You could have a picnic in the middle of the river; there wasn’t a drop of water left. When I saw the rain coming on the second day of the safari, I wanted to jump off the jeep and dance with the zebras gathered around the puddles really bad but of course it was illegal to do that. So I stayed put.

Like there wasn’t an endangered animals at every corner in the continent, now we were dealing with the drought climate change had brought. The color nature dominated the park, as if it had recently gotten over a massive fire.

If they had seen the way the impalas ate the leaves of the bushes that had finally turned green, would the people who belittle these blessings of nature by calling them “brushwood” and see no harm in destroying them for construction projects have changed their minds?

Really, how are the impalas we saw at every step doing? Could they be endangered? It hadn’t occurred to any of us to ask this question. And the conversation we had about the giraffes with the safari guide consisted of only one sentence.”Stop stop stop! Could we please go back a little, I couldn’t photograph the giraffe very well!”

Giraffes: nature’s 6 billion year effort

Yes, there are giraffe populations that are on the rise in Africa. As a matter of fact, as a result of outstanding efforts, the giraffe species living in West Africa was saved from extinction in 1996. The general trend on the continent however shows a decline in giraffe numbers. Can we afford to lose these amazing animals Earth spent 6 billion years to create because of our own mistakes? Fortunately, there are people on this continent who risk their lives to protect them- people whose efforts I watched in tears. In the next article, some of these people will tell us what we can do to conserve them.

On the second day of the safari, as I tried to protect myself from the rain pouring into the safari jeep, unhappy that I still hadn’t found a meaningful present, I was unaware of the fact that giraffes were going to concern me so much. If we don’t take the issue of failing to find a present, it was a very successful day. Even if we weren’t able to spot any leopards, we were proud that we were able to see hard-to-find animals such as lions and rhinos, and other rare animals. It was time to enjoy wine around the camp fire.

national park
Selen Yıldız. Kruger National Park.

I want to go on a safari, not to a bar

When I look back, I see that the best moments of my 1 month trip in Africa were neither those spent dancing in the bars nor meeting other backpackers. The unforgettable ones were the ones when I watched the animals.

Watching two lions hunt live for the first time, witnessing an elephant, which looked like a dinasour to me up close, observe us for minutes and then finally yield the right of way to our jeep out of courtesy according to our safari guide… Hearing the sounds the rhino calf made indicating its fear while running away from us with its family… Cracking up at the way giraffes would stop eating leaves and watch as if to say “Who the heck are these people?”… Witnessing the elegance of the way impalas leaped around like ballerinas…

Nature’s meditation session

As if the news of giraffes’ “silent extinction” was not enough, just like thousands of other people, a few days later I was shaken by the news that only 7100 cheetahs were left in the wild. I wonder what it would feel like to watch the fastest animal on Earth run 120 kilometers per hour?

I don’t know about that, but I know one thing for sure: The moment you begin watching animaks, past and future inevitably destroy themselves. You know how we spend months, or even years in yoga studios to quiet our minds? Don’t bother. Just watch animals, without letting binoculars or cameras get in the way.

Because when nature speaks, the mind stops talking

I guess this is what Shaman Durek meant, at least partially, when he mentioned in his book the fact that when animals go extinct, our mental health is affected negatively, too.

And we subject them to all kinds of hierarchy in our minds. The ones that are endangered and the ones that are not; the ones whose populations are high and the ones that are rare… But they, at a place beyond all these hierarchies, are ready to provide peace, happiness and joy to all of us.

giraffe and bird
Hannes Rossouw. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

Let’s answer by looking into those huge eyes with long lashes: Do you know what our biggest sin is? It is to banalize the beauties of life, just because we see them every day, or because their numbers are very high at the moment.

Don’t we usually take even our lives for granted?

How many dreams have we postponed to suns that we aren’t even sure going to rise or not?

How many beautiful things have we passed by without even caring to take a look, thinking that we built a good life by getting a good education and a good job at a good company?

We got on the floor, got back up, we got on the floor and got back up again and again in yoga studios to salute the sun. How of many of us got up in the morning to salute the sun?

Spiritual leaders say that whatever we have gratitude for will multiply. How many terrorist attacks or casualties do we need to really start to begin living? To be able to say “I am so grateful for your presence” to the people, animals, the trees in the park close by; to the rivers who give us peace with their sounds and heal us with their waters, and to all the beauty in the world that isn’t disappearing yet?

This is exactly why the giraffes are asking,”Are you ready to give yourselves back what you have been stealing from yourselves?”

What is this girl looking at?

When I read the news about the giraffes upon my return from Africa, I felt sad thinking, “I wish I had bought those giraffe statues from that lady”. As if they saw this coming, giraffes have secretly put a present in my bag. And a note next to it written on a leaf.

I went for a walk completely unaware of its presence. I was passing by a jewelery store, and for some reason the seagulls caught my attention. I didn’t mind people looking at me wondering what the heck I was looking at. The seagulls had never looked so beautiful to me in the 20 years I have lived in this city.

They weren’t endangered either- and probably there were too many of them. They were elegant like swans, and white-spotted black tails were so beautiful! Their fin-like feet were so cute! And I noticed how easily they walked, unlike ducks.

As I walked on the cold cotton that had taken over Istanbul trying not to fall, I saw a snow flake statue that the municipality had placed on the street. I loved it. But then I couldn’t help but wonder,”What’s the point of a statue when you have the real one?”


I didn’t agree with David anymore.

Because I had opened the gift.

national park giraffe safari
Hannes Rossouw. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

To view the work of Hannes Rossow:

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