Before I read this book, my knowledge of Botswana’s extraordinary natural heritage had been limited to the famous Okavango delta and its characteristic flooded plains full of wildlife. However, I am really grateful to ex forester Mohammad Ahsan sir for recommending me this book which has introduced me to a completely different side of Botswana, a wild world far removed from the waterscapes, the dry, dusty and unforgiving wilderness of the Kalahari Desert which surprisingly equals the spectacle of the Okavango delta in its astonishing biodiversity and concentration of wildlife.
The ‘Cry of the Kalahari’ is essentially an autobiographical account of Zoologists Mark and Delia Owens’s stay and research in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the late 1970’s. The story begins with the newly married couple Mark and Delia arriving in Botswana and scouting locations for their research, after some false starts they settle down in the remote and uninhabited deception valley, a fossilized dry riverbed deep inside the Kalahari Game Reserve. Their commitment to the cause is really admirable in the way they setup camp and manage to eke out an existence alone in the wilderness, eight hours away from the nearest civilization, with minimal resources, exposed to the harshest weather conditions and lions literally walking into their tents. Their initial observations reveal deception valley to be teeming with wildlife like Gemsbok, Springbok, Steenbok, Giraffes, Ostriches, Kudu, Leopards, Cheetahs and Lions making one wonder how such large mammals can survive in an area that is completely devoid of water for eight months in a year, but the secrets of the Kalahari get slowly revealed. What is even more interesting is that the wildlife in this part of Kalahari had never interacted with humans before the Owens, so they didn’t fear the humans, and allowed Mark and Delia to observe them from very close quarters.
As they start their field research, we get introduced to the ‘cry’ of the Kalahari or the calls of the Jackals, their first subjects. Their habit of giving names to the animals naturally makes the reader develop a sense of attachment and follow the highs and lows of their subject with keen interest. When they follow ‘Captain’, the quirky black backed Jackal on its nightly foraging trips in their Land Rover, you root for him when he pounces on an unsuspecting rodent and you smile when he struts around trying to impress his mate and you laugh when he raids the Owens’s food supplies running off with the pots and pans. Their detailed observations accumulated for over seven years in the field make the Kalahari night come alive in front of the reader’s eyes. The book gets more interesting when they start tracking the elusive brown hyenas, a rare sub species of hyena not found in the typical savannas of Africa. Their in-depth study of the hyena clan, its social structure, familial bonds, food and foraging habits, denning and cub rearing make for engrossing reading. In fact the brown hyena becomes their flagship research species which helps them procure grants for further research.
The Owens’s encounters with the Lion prides of Kalahari are the highlight of the book. From initially following Lions in their Land rover, to radio tagging them to finally surveying them from their bush aircraft, they track several prides of lions through the desert. The book delves on all aspects of lion behavior, especially how they have adapted to survive in a desert environment in comparison to their cousins in the Serengeti where there is abundance of food and water. The scene of a giraffe hunt by a pride of lions is played out like a thriller, with a tense buildup culminating in an ambush, an adrenaline boosting chase and the coordinated attack of the lionesses in bringing down a 1500 pound animal. The story of the injured lion whom they nurse back to health and christen as ‘bones’ is heartwarming, and so is their bond with the ‘blue’ pride of lions that treat them as part of their family, frequently visit their camp and keep chewing the tyres of their Land Rover.
The book also touches on the conservation aspect of Lions as it raises awareness on the uncontrolled killing of lions outside the park boundaries by opportunistic hunters and cattle ranchers even in the 70’s. With one third of their radio tagged lions falling prey to bullets, they warn that with this rate of Lion deaths the population may not survive in the long run. Their warnings couldn’t have been truer, for since the time this book was written lions have been wiped out from 75% of their ancestral range in Africa. I did some research post finishing the book, I was happy to note that Lion prides still roam the Kalahari albeit fewer in number.
The final chapter titled “The Black Pearls” talk about the blue wildebeest of the Kalahari and their second largest migration in Africa after the Masai Mara. They describe in detail the horrific tragedy of the millions of wildebeest as they migrate across the Kalahari towards Lake Xau only to find their traditional paths blocked by cattle fences and hundreds of thousands die off trying to reach the water. The cattle fences had been erected by the wealthy beef industry of Botswana to keep off foot and mouth disease in their cattle, the Owens’s mention starting a full-fledged global campaign to save the wildebeest from mass die offs , but sadly they couldn’t get the Botswana Govt to remove the fences. Today, the fences still stand and 90% of Botswana’s wildebeest population has been lost forever! Towards the end of the book, the authors also mention the arrival of mining companies for scouting minerals in the Kalahari that could severely damage the wildlife habitat, but unfortunately once again their warnings were not heeded and recently I was distraught to read the news about the inauguration of the multi-billion dollar diamond mine inside the reserve.
The Cry of the Kalahari is a seminal work due to its magnificent canvas of the Kalahari and the Owens’s intimate observations of the animal world, revealing the wild beasts to be more ‘human’ than we previously thought. It is a book that stays with you long after you finish turning the pages and in fact it makes you long to relive their adventure, to be out there under the African sun and see the pristine wilderness with your own eyes. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the book to the Kalahari was revealing this extraordinary landscape and its wildlife to the world. Today, forty years after their research there are resorts where the Owen’s humble camp used to be, there are artificial waterholes for animals in the dry pans, people from the world over come to take safari drives and spot the animals they read about in the book. This tourist interest probably saved the Kalahari wildlife from being hunted out like so many other great habitats of Africa. May the Lion’s roar echo for centuries in the sandvelds of the Kalahari…Long live wildlife of Africa….
PS – Go read the book, highly recommended for all nature lovers
Note – The pictures have been clicked by me but not in Kalahari but in the Masai Mara National Reserve of Kenya, hence they are only for representational purposes. The picture of the book cover has been sourced from the net and I do not claim any copyright.