One of the roles that a safari guide has, is that of being some sort of an interpretation conduit between their guests and the diverse assortment of extraordinary species and experiences that are encountered. As humans we want to understand things and we want to be given a neatly packaged narrative and explanation that make sense to us, from our perspective. The appearance and behaviours of things need to be given some sort of rationale that allows us to make sense of them and prescribe a legitimate purpose to them in order for us to feel like we have all the answers.
The need to understand these things is by no means something that has come about in the modern safari era. Rudyard Kipling wrote The Just So Stories in 1902, offering his fantastic accounts of how certain animals got to look like they do, like “How the leopard got its spots”, and “How the elephant got its trunk”. However, even these are modern if one considers that tales of a similar nature have been told around fire-sides since Man’s earliest interactions with these animals.
These are the “Fables” that have been passed from one generation to the next, and although they may not necessarily be entirely factually accurate, they were never meant to be, and within their simplicity is often woven a lesson or a meaning, using actual traits or features as a framework, but being created into a story that makes these easier to digest or listen to.
So, when it comes to the mystique and aura of all that is part of an African safari, there is an almost child-like fascination and curiosity to make sense of it all… this enigmatic space that has become permeated with a quagmire of “answers” to questions or interpretations. The game drive has been a platform for the proffering stories, and some of these have been told with perhaps a little too generous application to the concept of “why let the facts get in the way of a good story?”.
Perhaps many of these were offerings to questions where the answer was not actually known, or that were expected to resonate at first glance, and were not necessarily expected to be subjected to any further scrutiny or paused upon and given thought… These are what I would call “Rangerisms”, and they seem to have permeated the narrative of guides across Africa.
Q: “Why does the warthog run with its tail held erect?”
Rangerism: “It is a follow-me strategy, and it is done so that the piglets can see their mother in long grass and do not get lost…”
Okay, that makes sense… Moving swiftly along…
But if we actually stop to consider this in practice, it seems to be totally flawed. Why would a warthog piglet need to watch the thin aerial-like tail of their mother if she was running in front of them? The tail would seem to be the least obvious feature. There is a large set of grey buttocks that would surely be better (if in fact these piglets actually did run directly behind their mother, which they in practice do not). Also, if the argument is that the erect tail would be helpful in long grass, we need to consider what the view would be like for the tiny piglets as they went careening through it? Would they have their eyes wide open and focussed on that tail? Surely not. Their eye-line is beneath the grass height if this proposal is to be considered. So, would they even be able to see the tail sticking out above it the way that WE are able to? In fact, it seems to be an explanation based on what it is that WE are able to see, and therefore apply our answer according to how it would seem to make sense to us… Those warthog piglets are just seeing grass in front of them.
Maybe it is just as simple as: Warthogs have a somewhat peculiar looking tail; they have a habit of raising this tail in alarm and when running; it is quite possible that by doing this they are simply keeping it out of the way? Many species raise their tails or pull them sideways when running away – the tail is after all the part of their body that is furthest back, and hence closest to the predator that may be chasing after them? The tail does appear to be a useful visual indicator of alarm in many species, so this may also be reasonable to assume in warthog as a communication strategy.
Q: “Why does the common waterbuck have a white ring around its tail?”
Rangerism: “That is also a follow-me marking, so the young ones and the other members of the group do not get separated from each other.”
Interesting…. Okay, wow! These animals are so cleverly designed!
But do waterbuck actually run one-behind-the-other? No, they don’t. In fact, they tend to huddle into a tight bundle when in their optimal habitat of tall grass adjacent to water. Also, why would it make sense for a waterbuck to need this “follow-me” marking, and yet other antelope species do not need it? Would the topi calf be more vulnerable than a waterbuck calf because it does not have a thing to follow its mother by?
Are waterbuck just not as smart, needing to have a big white circle to follow after? No, again it might just be that we are thinking of how it would make sense for us, but not actually looking at the relevance of it by how the animal actually behaves. Consider it within the context of the following questions:
Who is actually most likely to be looking at the tail area of these animals?
“Predators” would be the most likely answer here; things that are chasing them.
What does it look like to them (and other animals in their environment)?
We cannot look at things in our colour-dominant perspective to try to understand markings. The colour needs to be removed to give us a representation of what these animals are seeing, as their retinas are far more richly supplied with rods than cones, which means that their colour vision is poor.
How do they behave that might suggest some plausible corresponding explanation? How do they respond to being chased (when this rear-view might take on some sort of relevance)?
In the case of waterbuck, they would have more of a tendency to bunch together. So maybe these rings might make it more difficult to remain locked onto a single target individual?
Rangerism: Cheetah cubs have a fluffy silver mantle that runs down their back. This is so they are likely to be mistaken for a honey-badger. Honey-badgers are very fierce and fearless animals, so the cheetah cubs stand to benefit by looking like them…
Firstly, we would need to get a few facts straightened out before we can look at this as an option. The only thing that gives honey-badgers any degree of safety is their extraordinary toughness and fierce, aggressive responses to harassment by other predators. It has nothing to do with their appearance at all. In fact, I have never seen any predators actively try to avoid a honey-badger if they see one. On every occasion there has been a confrontation of some sort. So, unless the cheetah cubs can back up their “honey-badger” disguise with an equal level of honey-badger grit and fury, there is very little benefit in this supposed explanation.
Statistically more cheetah cubs are killed, percentage-wise, than any of the other large cats. So that is another fact which makes this proposal rather weak.
So, let’s look into some more feasible possibilities:
Cheetah mothers do parent differently to the other big cat relatives. They are unique in that they are non-territorial. Leopard and lion mothers will leave their young cubs secreted away in secure den-sites when they go off hunting. This is because they know their territories very well and are able to seek out these sanctuaries to help get their cubs through their most vulnerable early months, negating much exposure as they are nursed at these locations. Cheetah, on the other hand, do not afford their cubs this privilege. They may have temporary cover in the form of a bush from time to time, but their mother is mobile and this prevents her from leaving her youngsters behind when she heads off to hunt. From a fairly early age, cheetah cubs need to follow their mother as she moves around. This may be a factor for consideration perhaps. This strange fluffy mantle may serve to make the cub’s profile or body shape a bit less conspicuous if it tries to take cover in grass or under a bush. I would venture to say that to be a line of thinking that I would regard as being worthy of unpacking further.
Rangerism: Cheetah have the distinct feature of two black tear-marks that run from the inside corner of the eye to the side of their mouth. This serves them like a pair of sunglasses, because cheetah are diurnal hunters and the black lines absorb the glare from the sun…
Surely if this suggestion was to be at all likely, the black lines seem to be in totally the wrong part of the face. Again, I suspect that this Rangerism arose because someone had seen some NFL players streak their faces below the eye with black, and this was supposed to help with the glare in some way or another. I’m not convinced on this rationale, as they seem to have a shiny metallic grill in front of their eyes that I would think poses way more of an issue that could use attention. Anyhow, that is not the point of discussion here. If I look at those lines, I just can’t see how that proposal of their function could work.
Once more we can look at the fact which seems then to be applied in the reasoning – they hunt more during the day than any other large carnivores. So, because of that we seem to have found the need to work out what we would like if we were hunting in the day… a pair of sunglasses. But do we see any of the other diurnal plain’s species overcoming their similar factors with similar features?
If we take out the colour again, and factor in “who is looking at this part of the cheetah?” – it would likely be answered by some form of frontal interaction, possibly aggression? Notice in the image above, how the black areas of the cheetah’s face and lips might actually serve to enhance the message being delivered? Bright, wide eyes…. Sharp white teeth.
Here is another widely touted story of a symbiosis that I find to be very fragile in its workings, but there are two forms of it that need to be discussed.
Rangerism: The honeyguide is a bird that has got a fascinating relationship with an animal called a honey-badger… the honeyguide is very partial to bee honey, grubs and wax as part of its diet, so it will fly around looking for a beehive. Once it locates one, possibly in a tree cavity or a rock cleft, it would not be able to access the bounty of the hive as they are unable to break it open (being a small fragile bird). They need to employ the services of a fierce and powerful mammal, that also seems to show a similar enthusiasm for these bee-nests.
The honey-guide flies off and looks for a honey-badger, and then performs a specific series of “guiding” calls, and leads the badger back to the bee-hive, where it would proceed to rip open the bee’s nest and feast on the contents. There would always be enough left lying around for the bird to enjoy afterwards. A perfect example of a mutualistic symbiotic relationship…
Now let’s look into this proposal…
To start with, the reason that I had to put an artist’s impression of this story in as my visual, is because in the 40-odd years that I have spent learning about wildlife, I have never personally witnessed this behaviour to get a photograph of it. If fact, I have never met anyone who can say that they have actually seen a honey-badger being guided by a honey-guide and witnessing this much touted “relationship”. So, in my opinion it must be an extremely rare event, and therefore could hardly be considered worthy of being recorded as a relationship.
The bird is exclusively diurnal, the mammal is largely nocturnal…. The rift grows even wider.
Would a honey-badger be in possession of the intelligence of recognising this bird’s communication and responding to it? Highly unlikely. Even if there was the emphasis where through regular reinforcement this may be a learnt behaviour, but this is not evident anywhere. Which brings us to the second prong of this story, and perhaps the origin of the fallacy as pronounced in the “Rangerism”. This is the “folktale” or “fable”.
I will not detail the entire version of it, but it follows a story line of a lazy man who would watch as this bird would lead a honey-badger to the beehives that it had found, and the badger and the bird were great friends. The greedy man wanted the honey as well, so one day he decided to kill the badger and made a hat from its skin. He believed that the bird would then lead him to the bee-hives and he would become very rich from selling all the honey. The bird did indeed begin guiding him to the hives, and he would gather up all the combs, not leaving any behind for the bird to say, “thank you”. This went on for some time, when eventually one day the bird guided the man to a cave, and in the cave was a lion (or a snake??), which quickly killed the greedy man.
This is a folktale which had a “lesson” as its message. The originator would have used various facts and traits of these animals, blending them into a wonderful tale that not only expresses interesting and valuable wildlife information, but was adapted to deliver a message to the listener. Maybe something like “never take advantage of someone else’s generosity”? Also, to a young child’s ears it may also just be a great story, with the additional bit of warning never to go looking in caves or similar places on your own, as there is danger around.
The honeyguide absolutely does guide humans to bee-hives. I have personally experienced it on a number of occasions. I have never played my part in this relationship, by opening up the hive. So, as a note of caution I do not want to follow the birds many more times, because one of these days it might get fed-up with my poor performance and lead me into a pride of lions…
And after all of this reasoning and application of factual details that might be pertinent, we still need to leave some space for the consideration that things are what they are because that’s how they were created to look. They are “Just So….”
We might puzzle over such questions and have fun doing so, learning more as we do it. But at the end of the day we may not pronounce our findings as irrefutable facts. It is rather just an invitation to look with more determined precision, and observe for longer, in many cases just to find ourselves just as puzzled as when we started.