Staying in touch – Travel Africa Magazine

There’s much us wildlife-lovers have missed during lockdown. But are there positives to take from the experience? How has this changed the way we will view Africa in the future? Words and pictures by Mike Unwin.

Last night I found myself envying elephants. That might sound a little perverse. After all, compared with the challenges these great pachyderms face – drought, poaching, habitat loss – we pampered primates have it easy. But as I scrolled through photos of the Luangwa Valley in January, my last adventure before lockdown, I realised I was gazing longingly at the sheer tactile pleasure these huge animals were taking from each other’s company.

In my pictures, jumbos jostle as they splash through a shallow lagoon. Youngsters tussle in the water, mothers shove babies onto the bank and adults cluster beneath a wild mango, their trunks exploring and caressing as they re-establish connections. There is no social distancing, no jumbo-sized face masks, no trunk sanitiser. And as for elbow-bumping, do elephants even have elbows?

You can see where I’m going with this. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that we human beings are truly social animals. Yes, we may have embraced Zoom and working from home, but that’s no substitute for embracing friends and relations. And as we peer out from our front windows, or dance our keep-your-distance jigs around supermarket strangers, there’s nothing we miss more than simple face-to-face contact with our own kind.

I scrolled through more images on my laptop and things just got worse: a huddle of chimps devotedly grooming each other’s fur; a torrent of banded mongooses pouring as one out of a tree stump; a pile of slumbering lions sprawled beneath an acacia. The natural world seemed almost to be taunting us. How come every species except our own still got to enjoy basic everyday bodily contact? It didn’t seem fair.

The contact didn’t have to be affectionate. I was jealous of the oxpeckers that I’d snapped squabbling beak to beak on the back of a giraffe – and even of the giraffe itself: at least it got to feel their claws running up and down its neck.

Yes, humanity is currently struggling under a thwarted need to touch and connect. Our household pets, were they able to talk, would surely testify to this: I suspect that, at least here in the UK, there’s hardly a cat in the land that hasn’t been stroked to distraction, passed from lap to lap by hands eager to feel some virus-free animal warmth.

Back in the wild, of course, not all animals are sociable. For every touchy-feely primate, there’s a panda or a peregrine falcon – solitary operators, whose interactions with their own kind are confined to pairing up and raising young, and for whom every stranger beyond the family unit is a threat. But for those species that live in groups, be they monkeys, marmots or meerkats, the rituals of social behaviour are integral to survival. Touch, scent, voice and expression all help to establish hierarchies, assess relationships, convey information and sound the alarm. They build bonds of shared understanding and experience that safeguard
the whole group against external threats.

We humans do the same, of course. This urge to join groups is what takes us to theatres, pubs, offices, churches, music festivals and football stadiums. But today, with all these outlets closed – or at least operating under strictures that deny us the close communal experience we crave – how do we feed our need for contact? Is there anything we can take from the behaviour of other species except our feelings of envy and resentment?

I’m not the one to answer this question. But it does seem that we humans are responsible for this virus and that – unless chimpanzees come up with a vaccine, or termite colonies offer a revolutionary model for track-and-trace – we must look to ourselves for solutions.

There is, so far as I know, no evidence that sociable animals threatened by a communicable disease will become unsociable ones in order to prevent its transmission. Yes, a sick individual may leave the group, but a herd of wildebeest, say, will not split up and practise social distancing just in case. Evolution does not work
that fast.

Meanwhile, however, the natural world does offers plenty of outlets through which to fulfil our sensory needs. Confined over the last few months to my suburban home and surrounding countryside, I have rediscovered connections with nature that for years I’d neglected. And the call has been to all the senses: whether the pungent scent of wild garlic and acrid spray of fox beside a woodland path; the tickle of grasses and sting of nettles in a flower-studded meadow; the strident melody of song thrush and scolding rattle of wren from the back garden; or the hurtle of swifts across a blue sky miraculously free from vapour trails.

And I have not been alone. Ever since lockdown began, I’ve been fielding a stream of queries from friends and neighbours, who send pictures of mystery moths and ask me to identify ‘amazing’ bird song that they had ‘never heard before’. (Usually a blackbird or song thrush – and I’m sure they had heard it before; they’d just never found the time to listen.)

So, what can I learn from this? Perhaps it’s that when the world opens up again, as it one day surely must, and I eventually find my way back to the African bush, I will bring a new hunger for its sensory delights. Sitting back and watching wildlife pointed out to me, like images on a TV screen, and snapping away relentlessly so I can peer at them again on yet more screens of my own, will not be enough. Henceforth, I’ll be getting properly stuck in: feeling with my fingers the velvet of a camelthorn pod and the trundle of a millipede’s legs; smelling the heady perfume of a wild hibiscus and the earthy musk of a waterbuck bedding spot; tripping over the sun-baked ruts of a hippo trail and laughing at the thorns in my knees.

If we have to keep apart from each other, we can at least keep in touch with nature. And there’s no easier way to achieve that than by letting it touch us. Hold that thought. Hold it, feel it, sniff it and treasure it.

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