Animals have long played a role in mirroring human behavior and personality types. Indeed, every culture has its animal lore, from the Egyptian falcon to the coyote of Native Americans to the ox, dog and rat of the Chinese. We still use animals as symbols of desirable or undesirable characteristics: say, the impala for a fast car and the barracuda for an overly aggressive personality. But safari gives the full-on experience of why animal symbolism is so powerful.
First of all, safari is one of the few ways left to be in the close proximity to the animal world that was a way of life for our ancestors. Unlike the zoo where the animals are constrained in our world, on safari, we are constrained in their natural one. And so, I found myself in the quietude of game reserves adjacent Kruger National Park where, from the confines of an eight-seater truck, I watched animals enact bits of humanity before my eyes.
There was, of course, the most obvious animal totem: the lion, talisman of courage, strength, even royalty. (Although my sightings of males so stuffed with buffalo carcass they wobbled around like drunks or sprawled on their backs snoring, legs splayed in decidedly unregal positions told a different story.) And the lone leopard, oozing self-assurance, speed and agility, and the massive elephant, so gentle a giant, its every movement is a miracle of grace.
But the creatures I found most illuminating were those far less grand.
For instance, there’s a small bird sporting a neon yellow breast and helmet called a weaver, so named for its uncanny nest-building skill. These little fellows flit about with uncommon industry weaving intricate grass baskets that hang from, rather than sit in, the branch of a tree. Weaver movements are lightning fast and they hang upside down as they work – all of which has a comical aspect to it, except when I thought of the way I can rush about and feel wrong side up in the flurry of my own busy-ness. (Not to mention our culture’s obsession with nest-building of our own….)
Or the baboons that have a devious demeanor, appearing as if out of shimmering air at breakfast and at dusk, ready to attempt their scavenging raids. I’d been warned that baboons are very cunning, knowing the difference between men whom they fear and women whom they do not. One morning at breakfast in our open air dining room, I watched as a baboon stealthily approached, hiding itself behind a tree. I pointed it out to my table companions, but they were too involved in conversation to bother. When I turned back around, the baboon was gone; relief mixed with dread – where had it gone? In seconds, the baboon reappeared at the other entrance – it had snuck around and came charging in, climbed atop the buffet and started gobbling muffins, one in each fist.
A woman at our table leapt up, shooing and wildly waving a white napkin. The baboon, looking more amazed than scared, gingerly jumped down and started to amble away. The woman approached it, still shouting, and it took off startled, dropping one of the muffins on its way. As it rushed into the trees, it looked back as in disbelief. The room broke into applause for the woman, but, as if it had thought better of taking orders from her, the baboon dashed back to retrieve the fallen muffin. “Take that, lady,” I imagined he would say.
But best of all was the dung beetle: the errant flyer with its polished brown back that makes its livelihood from the excrement of others. This amazing creature works droppings into golf-ball sized spheres and then, with Herculean effort, rolls them over the ground. Apparently, dung beetles have several types of balls: one holds food, one holds its egg, and another – the matrimonial ball – is ridden by the female as her mate steadfastly rolls them both home.
These beetles are so important to the chain of life, literally spreading the seeds from which the vast veld grows, game drive trucks must yield them right of way. Waiting as the tiny beetle made its way to the road’s edge, I took in the curious business and marveled at its persistence, a kind of Sisyphus, forever rolling.
I saw aspects of myself in these creatures – industrious, lazy, covetous, persistent, solitary, craving community, plodding and graceful. The vividness of these qualities was adeptly portrayed on the stage of the veld by actors reminding me that human behavior is not so very different from that of our wild cousins, something the ancients surely knew.
This piece is the ninth in a series on South Africa by leadership expert and consultant, Rebecca Reynolds. Reynolds works with leaders, explores leadership issues and contexts, and writes on leadership lessons. This series will explore leadership themes from her South Africa trip. Reynolds may be reached at RebeccaReynoldsConsulting.com. Previous posts: part I, part II, part III, part IV, part V, part VI, part VII, part VIII