My alarm went off next to my pillow at 6:20 am this morning. It wasn’t the earliest morning I’ve had since my arrival in Africa, but it was indeed a hard one to get up for. The morning air was absolutely freezing, making it pretty painful to get out of the covers.
The journalism and photo students crammed in our program van to make a two hour trek back towards Plettenberg, where some of us visited Tenikwa two days previous. The drive was beautiful, as we got to see the African sunrise within a multi-colored sky.
When we arrived, there were many signs welcoming us to the sanctuary area. Our plan was to explore three different sanctuaries: Birds of Eden, Monkeyland, and Jukani.
Our first stop was through Birds of Eden.
To be quite honest, I was not necessarily excited to see the birds. I’ve seen a good amount of wildlife while in Africa, and birds have for sure been the least exciting. However, I was pleasantly surprised upon entering the Birds of Eden. A large see-through tent covered a vast area of space full of trees, woodland, and several bodies of water for the birds to bathe in and drink from. The first bird I saw was a beautiful blue macaw. Other birds I enjoyed observing included flamingos, baby ducks, various species of parrot, bats, and a number of other pretty species.
The next visit we made was to Monkeyland. This was perhaps my favorite trip, as we got to walk around a forest filled with 450 primates of 10 different species. Vervet monkeys, lemurs, and capuchins walked all over the ground, often chowing down on fruits at feeding stations, and leaping from tree branch to tree branch. I have never been that close to so many monkeys, and while freaky at times, it was interesting to observe and interact (no touching, though) with creatures we share a fascinating ancestry with, especially after I took The Human Animal this year in university and got to learn all about evolution. I can only hope my professor would be proud I recognized many of the species’ names.
Finally, we visited Jukani, which we had to drive to, since it was more separate from the other two sanctuaries. This experience was very similar to that of the one at Tenikwa (we saw more lions and cheetahs), except we didn’t walk with the animals, and there were more species of big cat we got to see. These included Siberian tigers, a white Bengal tiger (my favorite), jaguars, and leopards. I discussed with our guide for a while about the extinction of white Bengal tigers in the wild. He explained that 98% of white tigers in captivity are related, leading to many genetic mutations from inbreeding. The tiger at this sanctuary was going blind from genetics, and his sister had unfortunately died from lung cancer (also from genetically related issues). It was very sad but interesting to learn about such beautiful creatures. We ended our discussion by hoping that one day two orange tigers will once again produce a white tiger. After all, they are only extinct because no one’s actually spotted one in the wild since the 1950’s. Who knows! Maybe the mutation will make a comeback! We also got to see (from quite a distant) a -famous- black leopard named Spirit. Originally, the animal had been named Diablo (which translates to ‘Devil’). He was incredibly aggressive, so they brought in an animal whisperer to tame him. Supposedly, the creature communicated to the whisperer that he was so mean because he didn’t like his name, so they renamed the cat to Spirit. Now, however, the sanctuary has disregarded all naming of the animals in order to dehumanize the creatures and replicate the wild as much as possible.
One of our program instructors also told us a story about a tourist trying to call a cat close by taunting it with its name and waving his hand in the encasement. The story doesn’t end well. Apparently the man was dragged in and killed by the predator. Reason #1 they tell you to not touch the cats upon your entry at these places.
Overall, it was a fantastic day of sightseeing. I felt like I was a kid at Disney World. The point of these sanctuaries is to support healthy captivity for injured or rescued wild animals. The visitors are educated on the different species that many humans may never even get the chance to see, at least in the wild. I feel so lucky to have yet taken part in yet another adventure in which I got to see all these breath-taking creatures.