Where Has the Wild Gone?

I’ve recently returned from a university field trip in South Africa where the focus of our study was largely on conservation, as well as the role and overall effectiveness of National Parks. We visited Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape for a week, and several students frequently raised the point that it was hard to see that these animals are classified as ‘wild’ animals. We would go on game drives at 5:30am and to see a range of species - bat-eared foxes, jackals, African elephants, lions, ostriches, zebra, and warthogs - but many of us still felt like we were just in a controlled safari park. This caused a debate over what makes you feel like you’re in the wild: what makes 'the wild' feel 'wild' to us? Almost every answer that we could come up with as a group was somehow related to the absence of human interference:

  • No fences.
  • No cars.
  • No tourism complex or restaurant or shop.
  • Naturally-occurring species that weren't bought or trans-located to the area.

Essentially, we came to the conclusion that if humans were interfering with an area in any way, then the area wasn’t what we would refer to as 'wild'. I mentioned that at night I felt safe because I knew that there was a massive fence in-between me and the animals that I could hear, and could then see from the safety of a car the next morning. That fence, for me, took away all sense of those animals being 'wild', despite the fact that they could roam for miles and have all their needs satisfied. They can hunt naturally, they are not tended to by humans if they are ill and, for all intents and purposes, they are living relatively unaffected by the fence that contains them in that area. It also mustn't be forgotten that that fence isn’t there solely for the protection of humans; it ultimately provides great safety for the endangered animals that are in the Park as it protects them from dangerous threats such as poaching.

I think, from an alternative perspective, these fences put in place by humans can essentially be seen as part of 'the wild' as well as a part of natural predator-prey co-evolution. Just as plants that are subject to herbivorous animals develop huge spines to protect themselves from herbivores grazing, humans have constructed fences to prevent large animals from interfering with surrounding settlements that may otherwise develop a conflict with the animals and act as a threat to them. 

For me, it appears that there is a trade-off between conserving and protecting animals, as well as ensuring harmonious human-animal interactions with maintaining the natural ‘wildness’ of an area. With such widespread threats to various species across a range of biomes, the real untouched ‘wild’ is probably disappearing without us even realizing.