Solitary warthog in the Maasai Mara

Solitary warthog in the Maasai Mara

If pressed, most devotees of African wildlife would likely concede that they do indeed have a favorite animal. I’ve already written exhaustively about mine in a blog post dated 31 July 2009 (scroll to the “Older Entries” at the bottom a couple of times to locate it). I’ve also uploaded some thoughts on the animal that certainly qualifies as my least favorite (post dated 7 August 2009). Somewhere between those two reference species lies the remainder of the menagerie, far too many of which receive less notice and glory than they rightfully merit. I’d like to offer a few observations on one of them – the inimitable warthog – and explain why I’m inclined to believe it to be the most underrated animal in Africa, if not the world.

My favorite animals ...

My favorite animals ...

My not so favorite animal

My not so favorite animal

The warthog is a hopelessly unattractive creature. It is dark gray in color, but much like the elephant, it tends to assume the hues of the mud and dust indigenous to its immediate surroundings. Named for the unappealing “warts” that protrude from the upper portion of its cheeks, it sports scimitar-shaped tusks and a much longer face than most other members of the porcine community. Part of its head and most of its back are topped with a fairly thick mane … the rest of it is lightly covered with isolated strands of bristly hair. Its squat body and short legs are both a blessing and a curse. Its low stature enables it to hide effectively in the long grass but its stumpy legs make it vulnerable to speedier predators.

The warthog may rate low marks for beauty, but it more than compensates with its fierce nature and outsized heart. Warthog mothers can be formidable. Lions and leopards routinely hunt their little ones, but a warthog mother rarely allows the predation to go unchallenged. They are dedicated and ferocious, particularly in defense of their young. They are capable of inflicting serious injury with their tusks, and have been known to launch a courageous but suicidal frontal assault on much larger predators. On more than one occasion I’ve seen a warthog mom sacrifice herself in defense of her young.

One bad little Mama

One bad little Mama

Warthogs are also much more mentally adept than one might suspect. They sometimes dig their own burrows, but do not hesitate to occupy whatever holes in the ground are abandoned and available. They are acutely aware of their escape routes and have been known to elude what seemed to be certain death. They have frustrated many a lioness by disappearing quite suddenly into an old aardvark den.

Just a day or so ago a friend related that her father once told her that warthogs are so ugly they’re beautiful. I tend to agree with that assessment. But I think they’re more than beautiful … they are resourceful, plucky and, when need be, fierce. And, of course, underrated.

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Typical landscape from the heart of the Serengeti.  The great migration passes through here in June of each year.  This may soon be a busy roadway with all the associated infrastructure.

Typical landscape from the heart of the Serengeti. The great migration passes through here in June of each year. This may soon be a busy roadway with all the associated infrastructure.

A few years back, primate researcher Jane Goodall wrote a wonderful book titled “Reason For Hope: A Spiritual Journey.” Ms. Goodall covered a lot of territory in that little volume, which is part autobiography, part animal science and a general commentary on the human condition. After shedding light on the best and worst aspects of our species, our world and what we’ve done to it, she signed off with a cautiously optimistic summary. It was an eloquent discourse on her belief that the benevolent side of humanity will ultimately prevail over all its inherent frailties. Her writing was powerful and sincere, but not entirely persuasive. Nonetheless, the book did leave the reader with the vague impression that perhaps there really might be reason for hope for the future of our planet and the life that it so graciously hosts.

I wonder if Ms. Goodall would revise her predictions after reviewing the proposal of the Tanzanian government to build a highway across the northern Serengeti. This area is the primary corridor for the great wildebeest migration that circles across the border into and out of Kenya every year. A simple roadway in and of itself probably wouldn’t pose a real physical impediment to the most spectacular wildlife migration on earth. But the problem is that roads bring traffic, and vehicles require fuel, and drivers require places to rest, food to eat and drinks to drink. In the aggregate, the impact of this proposal on the great migration would be catastrophic. It would severely hamper the efforts of several hundred thousand wildebeest and zebra in their eternal effort to live and procreate. The route to the north represents much more than a grand spectacle designed to dazzle the eyes and fill the hearts of us humans … for the animals it is quite literally a lifeline they cannot survive without.

It goes without saying that the tourism industry will necessarily suffer … not just in Tanzania, but in Kenya as well. If the Maasai Mara is made inaccessible to these animals, the Kenyan economy would certainly be damaged, perhaps irreparably. No migration … far fewer tourists … substantially less income from outside the country.

The African Wildlife Foundation has taken a strong position against the highway. In keeping with the tradition that has made AWF my favorite charity, their website has offered a well-reasoned, entirely rational and non-confrontational argument against the highway. Also consistent with their usual methods, they’ve offered the Tanzanian government a perfectly viable alternative to this abomination that would satisfy just about all parties. Let us pray that their ideas are adopted by those in decision making positions in East Africa.

The destruction of the migration would be unforgivable … and even as I write this I find it difficult to accept that the highway proposal is even being seriously considered. If the road becomes a reality I doubt that I’ll ever visit the Serengeti again. I couldn’t stand to be reminded of what was once so grand and majestic, but so far beyond the will of humanity to preserve. I think I will have lost my reason for hope.

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