David Campbell – Scarlet and Black

March 31, 2022

I am at the OTS complex in Skukusa, South Africa. The complex is inside the Kruger National Park, behind a long electric fence for our safety: elephants visit the perimeter of the complex; Laughs laugh every night; There were tiger sightings last week. I’m here with 14 students enrolled in the field phase of “New and Emerging Infectious Diseases,” which biology professor Shannon Hensa and I co-taught this semester. Erica Jack, of the Office of Science, also supports the class.

It’s 5:15 a.m. to get on the safari and enter the park when the gates open at dawn.

There is a wonder at once: a pack of African wild dogs roaming fast on a dirt road. It’s the largest group I’ve ever seen, maybe 50 or 60 animals. Adults and puppies. This is how wild dogs hunt: by a quick, sudden, invading rush of their prey. These guys are not afraid of anything. They race towards a family of baboons on top of a bridge over the Sabi River. By now, you must understand that baboons are dangerous, aggressive animals that are equipped with huge incisors. However, these baboons spread out and jump off the bridge. Next, the dogs encounter a pair of hyenas – colossal animals with jaws that can crush bones – gnawing at the impala’s carcass. The hyenas are running away as fast as they can.

Why are wild dogs so respectful, so fearful? It is because of their social participation and altruism. They are as a team. They help each other. All for all. Group members share parental responsibilities, which helps raise the puppies even if they are not themselves. In fact, wild dogs are the exception among large carnivores because they allow their dogs to be the first to be fed when killed. Even wolves wouldn’t do that.

So here we are on a narrow bridge in the middle of a wilderness: two types of charismatic and altruistic animals come face to face: African wild dogs and Grinnell students. They have a lot in common.

In the late afternoon I go back to my hut – it’s a lovely place, with a back porch opening out onto a small wood – to relax and listen to some music. Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. I fall asleep … but by the third sensual movement, the conversations of a white-browed Robin flood my balcony; Choruses of them are noisy bip beep shree, peep beep shri. Talking robin are red-breasted and white-crowned birds – ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa – well adapted to human settlements. Skukusa is no exception. They sing hymns throughout the complex from dawn to dusk. But now all Robin’s conversations in the pool litter my balcony, screaming at Tchaikovsky. I can’t know if it inspires love or hate. Either way, it’s beautiful for this human being. Melody fills the air.

Being daytime, Robin’s conversations become silent at dusk. As I walk into the chaos of the pool for dinner, there is another cacophony in the trees above: a pair of thick-tailed bushes wrestling with each other. Well, “chorusing” is not the absolute word. It’s like a frightening howl of blood. They live in trees with limited resources, so it is important to declare one’s territory.

Wild dogs, baboons, hyenas, Tchaikovsky, robin’s chat, bushes… Nice day in Skukosa, I say. Isn’t this a wonderful world?

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