By Geerija Aggarwal
Growing up, I used to love visiting the zoo.
The sounds, the sites, the experience; it is such a basic and fundamental part of every child’s life. It is a prime way to teach kids and to enhance their recognition skills. Hence, many school trips are often organized to take their younger populations to experience and learn about the life of different species. So much so, that many poems, and stories even entail of the animalistic characters.
However, zoos can also teach many dangerous lessons as well.
I was 10 years old when I moved to the rainbow nation of South Africa. Several years after the end of apartheid, South Africa was now a land of not only different cultures, ethnicities, religions and people, but also a land of hopes and opportunities. There was no longer an apparent struggle of ‘white’ against ‘black’ but a vast of sea of endless opportunities for one and for all. The Ubuntu culture, the culture of togetherness and compassion for one another, had taken over as community members supported and encouraged one another. And why would it not be, as human beings, we have fought, and will continue to fight, long and hard for equality; equality amongst different races, equality amongst the sexes, and equality amongst the rich and the poor.
But what about animals?
Wildlife is a big part of Africa; it is perhaps one of the only continents that continues to support such wide populations of diverse species. Yet, many of the world’s most dominant and majestic species are now endangered or have gone extinct. The ‘Big Five’ game animals are some of the most prominent animals in Africa, making them the most targeted species by game-hunters. Out of the five, most of the animals are critically endangered including the African lions, elephants, and leopards, while the black rhinoceros has been declared extinct.
Animal poaching has become a huge issue and a threat to the survival of many species across the continent. Already endangered animals continue to be slaughtered for body parts – such as tusks, bones, and skin – to be sold illegally for large sums of money. Many biologists and environmentalists now argue that these practices are instilled within us from childhood. Many argue that zoos teach humans that they have a right to enslave animals and reinforce the notion that animals have no other purpose than for our own benefits, which are then carried out into the wild to serve the desires and purposes of human greed on a larger scale through acts of poaching.
In sophomore year of high school, I had a chance to visit the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I could interact with lions, tigers, and leopards on a one to one basis for the very first time.
It was a thrilling and wonderful experience. But a shocking one at that too. Concerning questions arose about why we were allowed to pet baby lions and tigers and why they were being kept in enclosures instead of being with their mothers.
But, after talking to some of the members of the game reserve however, I got a first real understanding of the Ubuntu culture that thrived in every part of the country.
The cubs that people could pet and play with at the reserve served a very different purpose. These cubs had lost their mothers and would be rejected, and hence killed, by other members of any pride. Therefore, it was crucial for these cubs to be raised away from other lions and tigers. Furthermore, these cubs were raised to then be bred in order to hopefully reproduce and contribute towards a growth in population for these endangered animals.
There was a very important lesson that I learned that day; the Ubuntu culture in Africa was not only limited to human beings. Ubuntu is an overarching concept of kindness, helpfulness, sharing and belonging within a community, “and we as human beings are a part of a bigger community and ecosystem than just our own” the nature reserve worker had told me. “It is our duty to help whoever we can help with whatever resources we might have to make even the smallest change or impact in the community we live in.”
Those words have stuck with me ever since. As a third culture kid, I learned that a sense of belonging didn’t have to depend entirely on where you originate from but whether you are able to make home within the community you are a part of in that moment. The planet is our home, and the conversation of the nature should be one of our primary concerns today.
I have since visited the nature reserve many times, volunteering to help with some of the sustainability programs there. South Africa and its values have allowed me to develop a greater sense of purpose that I can carry with me to every part of the world. It has inspired me to not only achieve things for myself but for the greater good for the community around me and for the world.
Photo courtesy of Geerija Aggarwal