I made an unplanned and rather hasty visit to South Africa in May. My mother’s book, detailing some of her activities whilst monitoring civil unrest, mostly perpetuated by the then-South African government’s police and military, was being launched and I had a day to make a decision as to go or not. Being my usual, sometimes unpredictable, self, I did it.
Whilst I was there, violence broke out, initially in Johannesburg and then spreading to the rest of the country, against alleged foreigners who had come to SA looking for a better life. Mainly from Mozambique and Zimbabwe, but also from Somalia and other war-torn countries, the parallel between their situation and my own (moving to the UK for a better life) was quite painful.
I visited Ningizuma Special School, a school for physically and mentally disabled children that my late father had been instrumental in supporting during its move to a previously “white” area, against huge opposition from local residents. Constance, the headmistress, is a loving, kind and formidable woman who has not only managed to school these children – the school has doubled in size in 10 years, but has, with the help of enthusiastic and talented staff and supporters, brought in funds through the sale of the most amazing artwork and crafts, brought education to children in a country where many of their parents could not afford to keep them, never mind educate them, has enthused local people who were previously against the school for racial reasons and has also started to work with local companies to employ her graduates who would otherwise struggle to find the most basic of employment.
It was with this backdrop that I visited CROW, the Centre for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, where my mother works. I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon there and also to be trusted enough to walk round by myself. The Centre, which is open to the public only at special times, is a rehabilitation centre, not a zoo and the animals are being raised to be wild, not tame so people not working at the centre are usually accompanied and visits are to encouraged. This does not stop people arriving and asking “can we just take our very good children Damian and Beelzebub round to look at the animals” or ringing up to try and buy wild animals (monkeys and tortoises usually), but they are given rather short shrift by my mother and other staff, who are well aware of the laws against the keeping of wild animals.
Despite this, a sale in these creatures abounds. I have briefly mentioned this example in a previous article, but thought it worth mentioning, with the detail I omitted previously, as it is such a classic example of what goes on. A couple came into CROW with a monkey of about two years old. They had bought him at a roadside stall when he was about six weeks old and raised him as a human baby. Unfortunately, they had not only dressed him and put him in a nappy, but had fed him loads of sweets and not only had destroyed his teeth, but seriously damaged his digestive system as well. They had bought him to CROW as he had become destructive and violent. The reason for this was that he was sexually mature, with no outlet and I can’t imagine the baby clothes and poor diet helped!
His problems didn’t end when he got to CROW, as he saw himself as human and could not be put in a cage with other monkeys (as they would have attacked him). His “owners” left him, hearts breaking on all sides. They had carefully packed nappies and clothes and a selection of his favourite sweets to see him through his next few months. This went straight into the rubbish bin and he went through a slow withdrawal process and a programme to acquaint him with all things monkey before being released at a safe site (as he could not be released fully back into the wild).
Going back to the beginning of this situation, monkeys are very social animals. They live in troops and care for their children as humans do. In order to separate a monkey mother from her child, you need to disable or kill her. You also may need to kill other monkeys in the troop who would come to the aid of a mother monkey defending her child. In order for that monkey baby to be sold, you’d need to trap and harm at least the mother, if not others.
That couple, who were well-educated and well-off, had no excuse for buying that monkey, apart from a selfish desire to fulfil a parental hole left by their children, who had grown up and left home. The scary thing is that they are not rare – baby monkeys are obtained for this purpose by street-sellers, to appeal to the middle-class idiots who buy them.
It would be nice to think that this trade is limited to South Africa only, but I recall M having trouble with a guy who persistently phoned up and offered her monkeys whilst she had the petshop. Apparently, some petshops in this country do sell baby monkeys although it is obviously a secret transaction.
This is not the only trade that goes on. Wildlife is caught and sold throughout Africa for both eating, some of it exported to the rest of the World as “bushmeat”, and for witchcraft. Witchcraft is a very emotive term in most of Africa. Witchcraft is seen as evil, but Witchdoctors, who perform some of the same tasks and in the same way, are seen as a force against evil. The lines are further blurred by the activities of Herbalists, who used to mainly work medicine with herbs but who too, now use animal parts to effect healing.
The use of animal parts is not restricted to goats and chickens. I have seen many monkey, wildcat and deer carcasses and parts for sale in Herbalist’s shops.
It is a comfort to hold the view that this trade caters exclusively for uneducated people and will therefore start to die out as more and more people are “westernised”. The reverse is true. As more people have become “westernised”, the trade has grown, possibly because of the growing frustrations of people who don’t have the basics of what is required to have a decent life, with enough food and shelter and clothing.
However, there are people in South Africa who are willing to fight against the tide – these include people in government organisations and also charities like CROW, who survive only on donations and money they can raise during open days and school visits.
Whilst I was there, a man came in with two baby Spotted Eagle Owls.
They were wild, fierce and beautiful. He had found them at his workplace, which is in a rural area. He had been persuaded to rescue them up by members of the community who were told him if they weren’t rescued, they would be caught and used for muti (magic/ medicine). Luckily for them he knew how to look after them, he did not consider keeping them as pets and took them into his care whilst he fished around to find out who could take them. Finding out about CROW, he promptly drove them to the Centre, a journey that took several hours and delivered them there. He stayed whilst they were fed and checked and we left shortly afterwards. I was thrilled to be trusted to get close to them and take these photos and also to stroke than back of one of the owl’s head. It was softer than my cat’s fur.
These birds are fortunate enough to now be at CROW where they will be taken care off and taught to remain wild before being released to live full lives rather than being trapped and slaughtered for body parts. This month’s smiles go to the team at CROW who do this day in, day out, for very little remuneration apart from the satisfaction of helping wildlife heal and return to their lives.