All the small things

South African November rains spurred the emergence of millions of tiny velvet mites

South African November rains spurred the emergence of millions of tiny velvet mites

You must turn over a painted turtle to see the underside of the scutes for which this species is named.

You must turn over a painted turtle to see the underside of the scutes for which this species is named.

Northern California, a gooey little red-bellied newt

Northern California, a gooey little red-bellied newt

The hallowed and heralded and trophied Big Five: the rhino, lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant. Importantly ecologically as top predators or bulk grazers, these megafauna are for centuries what have pulled tourists to Africa—historically to hunt with guns and today with Nikons.  The original magic was that these were the animals that were difficult to track and get a clean shot; these were the beasts that motivated days and weeks of tent life and trailblazing, and a sighting was the ultimate, adrenaline reward to an arduous adventure. Nowadays, the fitness demanded to view the Big Five is demonstrably less, but can still be shockingly difficult and it does carry with it a similar rush of biochemicals and fun.  The Big Five are what people want to see, but not seeing them is a usual outcome and so people are disappointed and their guides don’t get the Big Tips.

Thus was created the Little Five: the rhinoceros beetle, the antlion, the red-billed buffalo weaver, the leopard tortoise, and the elephant shrew. When a guide hasn’t found you a lion on a morning game drive, and guests’ necks are aching from twitching at birds, she can stop the vehicle in a nice patch of sand, easily locate an indicative stadium-trap, and fish for an antlion by pushing with a twig a few crystals of sand into the pit.  She can tell you how this mimics an ant who has fallen down the slope to be caught by the open pincers of the patient antlion, so he’ll emerge to prey. And perhaps that afternoon the breeding herd of ellies have crossed into Zimbabwe and so instead a guide will detour to the massive baobab to show the centuries-old red-billed buffalo weaver colony, a restless cacophony as well as a seemingly impossible feat of architecture and endurance.  The Little Five were thought up as a way to fill empty spaces on game drives, yes, but they are also as a way to intrigue guests in microfauna, and the miniature worlds that make Africa such a buzzing, dizzying, vivacious continent.

I love the little things. The point is something along the lines of smelling the roses—because little things take more time to appreciate. Most of us are so used to observing the world at landscape-scale that it requires some time to adjust brains and eyeballs just to create the capacity to notice the little things.  It takes a bit of homework, because little things are often not as readily accessible. This new outlook breeds curiosity and extends to an intrigue in the little intangible things in life—a greater understanding of the complexity of human behavior, for example.  Perhaps somehow we can translate the idea that elephant dung is not a mere dismissal but in fact an entirely dynamic little ecosystem to the notion that there might be a deeper and very meaningful level to something we might have similarly dismissed.

There is simply nothing as majestic as the heavy-tusked African elephant, but her little rival the elephant shrew is perhaps, out of the ten animals I have mentioned, the most difficult to find. I still haven’t seen one. It will be an awesome prize when I do.

Caught in the act outside Jo'berg
Caught in the act outside Jo’berg
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