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Monday, April 3, 2000

Up close and personal with wildlife


By CATHERINE PAWASARAT

HOEDSPRUIT, South Africa -- There are lots of animals inside fenced enclosures at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, but the education in wildlife one gets here is very different from what one gets at a zoo. A few hours visiting with the very knowledgeable and dedicated staff and the animals they're fostering could convert anyone into a green crusader.

Brian Jones started Moholoholo 10 years ago, when the Pretoria businessman who owns Moholoholo Forest Camp asked him to set up a rehabilitation center for injured and abandoned wildlife there.

"I've been running animal hospitals all my life," exclaims Jones. His body bears testimony: A lion mauled one of his legs, and the other is currently broken, the work of a bush pig. "But we South Africans, we can take it," he laughs.

The most renowned animal rehabilitation center in South Africa, Moholoholo takes in animals from all over the country, and Jones is consulted for related work throughout southern Africa.

Moholoholo has an impressive population of birds, especially raptors (different kinds of eagles, buzzards, hawks and vultures), as well as numerous species of wild cats (lions, a leopard, and the lesser-known caracal and serval), antelope and the odd baby hippo. Some animals are released into the wild when they regain their health, or are used for mating purposes, so that the offspring may be put back into the wild. Many, because of permanent injury or over-familiarization with humans, will live out their days at Moholoholo.

"We use these animals as tools to educate people," Jones explains. The center receives over 2,000 visitors a month, from local schoolchildren to international tourists.

"Just as every part of the human body has a purpose, so does every part of the ecosystem," Jones says. Vultures and hyenas, for example, are immune to many diseases. By eating carcasses, they filter out any illness that might otherwise spread throughout the ecosystem.

Similarly, the five different local species of vulture each has a specific task that only it can do. The leopard vulture, for example, is the only one whose beak is strong enough to slice open the thick skin of a dead rhino or hippo.

"It's the same for every species of insect and plant," Jones says, asserting the need to conserve every species for its unique role in the environment. All too often, human greed and over-specialized intellectualization get in the way, he bemoans. "Nature operates on simple principles. You can't understand it just through the intellect."

Many of the birds at Moholoholo were inadvertently poisoned by farmers, resulting in blindness, partial paralysis or central nervous system damage. Ironically, the chemicals are often meant to kill crop-eating rodents, even though raptors provide a natural pest-control service, explains staffer Mark Jones (no relation to Brian). Moholoholo staff are working to educate landowners about services provided by birds and other wild animals when allowed to coexist with agriculture. With their vast landholdings, "farmers are the greatest conservationists that we have," claims Brian.

Habitat loss is a major threat to Africa's wildlife, and above all, Brian sees nonnative crops and livestock as responsible. Exotic plants and animals brought into Africa are mismatched for the local environment, he says; they may require more water and mineral resources than their native counterparts, or alter the acidity and compaction of the soil.

"Nothing in South Africa eats or lives in the [plantations of] fir and eucalyptus trees imported from the U.S. and Australia, because they haven't evolved to do so," Brian says. "Indigenous animals can't handle exotic diseases, like tuberculosis from cattle."

Bovine tuberculosis is a major problem among the wildlife of the country's famed Kruger National Park. Wild Cape buffalo initially contracted the disease from nearby domestic cattle, and today it has spread throughout the park's lion population. Cash-strapped conservationists fear Kruger's lions and other animals may be wiped out within a decade or so if no vaccine is discovered, with potentially devastating consequences for the country's tourist revenues.

The intimacy of Moholoholo gives visitors the rare chance to know the animals as individuals, to learn about their personal histories and characters. One interesting case is the crowned eagle that was imprinted by human beings, forming her first conscious bond with a human. "She thinks she's a human being," smiles staffer Mark.

With a life span of 40 years, crowned eagles mate for life. This crowned-eagle-cum-human chose Brian, her keeper, as her significant other.

Hoping she would build a nest and incubate rescued crowned eagle eggs and raise the young, Brian (like any good crowned eagle male) helped her to build her nest, bringing her twigs in his mouth. She turned out to be a good mother, and Moholoholo was able to put five of her adopted offspring back into the wild in the last eight years.

It's a cute story, but like all wild animals, this one demands respect. Though only weighing 4.4 kg, the eagle's talons can exert pressure of almost 500 kg per sq. cm. She put two staffers in the hospital, broke both Brian's hands and put holes in his back with her talons. "That's love for you," laughs Mark.

Another thought-provoking animal at Moholoholo is the supposed Barbary lion, imported with two others by the South African government after they were discovered in Mozambique, neglected and then abandoned by a traveling circus. The thing is, the Barbary lion was thought to have been extinct since early in the last century.

What makes people think this is a Barbary lion? Little data is available on the subspecies. "Its mane is different; it's black and extends down its chest, lower than other lions. But we're not sure how to tell," Mark muses. "Maybe with genetic studies?"

As we wind down our visit, a large leopard purrs loudly and rubs up against the fence of its pen, as though it would rub up against our legs if we let it. Hand-raised from a cub, the leopard was donated to Moholoholo when, inevitably, it grew larger than its owners knew how to handle.

Such animals can never be released into nature: Normal wild cats go out of their way to avoid humans, but those that have been hand-raised could be found outside someone's back door one day, with potentially deadly consequences.

Still, this one was so affectionate toward Mark, I couldn't help but wonder out loud: "Can you go into the pen with it?"

He grimaces.

"We don't know, but we can't risk it. It could rip you open in seconds. You wouldn't have a chance."



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