October 2019 —Serengeti National Park. Dawn broke over the wide plains of the Serengeti with the power and perfection of a Turner landscape. Sunlight cast a soft brilliance over celery-colored grasses and the famed, flat-topped Umbrella Thorn trees favored by giraffes for their tasty foliage and lions for their shade. The miles and miles of open space were uninterrupted by concrete malls, buildings, and housing tracts. My husband, Jim, and I came to Tanzania to experience that pristine space where animals reigned supreme over tourists who were contained, like zoo animals, in Land Cruisers.
No restaurants. No shopping. No creature comforts other than bottled water during travel. However, during breaks, we were treated to lunch next to a Hippo pond, wine and cheese at sunset overlooking an elephant herd, and a snatch and grab breakfast with monkeys trying to intercept a bite of scrambled egg. Nothing was as it would have been back home in California.
Day One at Rivertrees Resort began with a mug of steaming coffee at an outdoor picnic table and monkey mayhem unfolding before our eyes. A group of about thirty furry creatures swung from treetops scampered along the dirt road that wound from cabin to cabin, chattering like magpies and hopping on and off tables looking for crumbs – a three-ring circus without the ringmaster. I followed with my camera, like paparazzi following a Hollywood celebrity, zigzagging between trees and tables, not giving a whit about breakfast. Just monkeys.
Twelve safari guests divided into three Land Cruisers for the first day of our adventure, which began watching and photographing the drama: herds of wildebeests that numbered in the thousands, zebras nibbling grass alongside their foals, dust-covered elephants slogging purposefully in a straight line, playful ostriches bumping heads and a baboon monkey scratching his behind like any kid would who had an itch. The morning safari seemed pretty much as I expected until I saw a stack of bones by the road. When I asked my physician husband what they were, he said that’s a femur. That’s a tibia. That’s a pelvic bone—an African bone graveyard.
What I learned about Tanzania that day was what I didn’t expect – the remnants of the dead juxtaposed the beauty of the country. I watched predators hunt then devour their prey, an antelope chased by a lion who took it down with one leap and a leopard devour a carcass he’d dragged into a tree. Many of my fellow travelers asked our guide to turn away from the bloody feast, the death chase, the lone wildebeest gutted by the riverbank.
Our guide explained, “This is Africa,” he said, “What you’re seeing is the Circle of Life. Some animals are predators. Some are prey. The predators kill to live, feed their offspring and those in their group. Prey must either outrun or outlive the predators. There is no cruelty here, no motive to kill other than to stay alive. If the mother lion doesn’t hunt and kill, her offspring will starve. Look at it this way. The Serengeti is like one big grocery store, and the predators have the cash.”
Later at dinner, he asked how I felt about the “safari crime scenes” since I was writing a book about serial killers. I said, “The difference between killer-animals and the killers I write about are “my” killers don’t kill for survival. They kill for money, power, sex, jealousy, or even (as one killer put it) just for fun. Your Circle of Life is about survival. My Circle of Death is about the horror some humans inflict on other humans for motives and reasons hard to fathom.”
I saw more bone piles, but each time, I thought about a cub nursing from his mother who’d had a successful hunt. The Circle of Life goes on. Lion photo by Jim Howatt