On an African safari, your senses are heightened. You’re walking, driving, or even paddling through the bush, sharing the same clean air as every other organism. There are intoxicating new smells, exotic sounds, and creatures the likes of which you’ve never seen. And it’s all amplified under the starlit night sky. As Ryan, one of our guides, said, “This is the land of the living.”
On my recent safari around Zambia’s Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa rivers—at the impeccable Sausage Tree Camp on the former, and two intimate lodges belonging to The Bushcamp Company on the latter—I realized many popular aphorisms have their roots in Africa’s savannas and bushland. Here, 10 life lessons proven out in the wilds of Zambia.
1. Playing hard to get wasn’t invented by humans.
A lioness slowly struts from a sandy riverbank to a spot in the shade, where she stretches out on her side seductively and looks off into the distance—all the while, it seems, quite aware that a large, dominant male is watching her intently from just 20 feet away. We heard they later consummated the deal, but not without a significant period of coy across-the-savanna flirting. Some bird species also make things difficult: Although village weavers are polygamists, the females closely inspect the nests the males must build to attract them, and if they’re not up to snuff, they must destroy their work and start again.
2. Mama knows best.
We talk about the king of the jungle, but what about the queen? In many species, the young stay with their moms for a long time, and they do what she says. Often, the fathers don’t stick around. We spotted lion cubs—cousins, their moms were sisters—hanging out, camouflaged, in an open sandy riverbed and waiting fairly patiently for their mamas, who had left them there intentionally while they hunted for dinner. Mothers—giraffes, elephants, baboons, zebras—teach their babies everything they know (including how to survive on their own for periods of time), keep them safe and feed them, and the little ones obediently follow mama’s orders.
3. There’s safety in numbers.
Impalas, elephants, baboons, waterbuck, monkeys, buffalo, hippos, even guinea fowls—they all roam, huddle, and hang in large numbers, which means they’re less likely to be killed by something higher on the food chain. Even when they’re among other species, the biggest groups seem to have the best chance of survival. A baboon in the trees may sense something others don’t, like a big cat, and let out an alarm call that benefits the whole community. Some species, like elephants and buffalo, stay in family groups to protect their young, but for others, the herd mentality is an instinct for self-protection.
4. Survival of the fittest is real.
Elephant poaching is still a problem in Zambia, but nearly 40 percent of the elephants currently living in these areas have adapted to the threat by being tusk-less. Not having the ivory tusks is a recessive gene, but over generations a higher percentage of those without them have survived, making it an advantage that has become a more dominant tendency. The winter thorn tree has, unsurprisingly, intense thorns covering its trunk, which slow down the antelope and giraffes that eat its highly nutritious leaves. To survive being eaten to pieces by giraffes, acacia trees release tannins in their leaves that inhibit the giraffes’ appetites, and they secrete a pheromone that travels downwind where it’s picked up by other trees as a warning. Herbivores will still eat little bits at a time, but in the dry season, the high amounts of tannin in the leaves can kill an animal. Ironically, studies of giraffes and kudu have found that the animals, in turn, adapt by feeding on plants upwind that are more palatable since they haven’t yet received the “warning.”
5. Many animals are polygamous by nature.
On the trashy TV show, it’s generally accidental when the mom doesn’t know her child’s father. But in the bush it’s intentional. Female lions make it a goal to mate with all the dominant males in a coalition, so all the clueless dudes believe her offspring are theirs. Essentially, the males are tricked into protecting them like their own. If she succeeds at making the rounds, she gains more protection for her cubs through the cheeky little ploy. When it comes to giraffes, one male will mate with all the females in a herd, so there’s no mistaking his babies.
6. Sometimes there is such a thing as a free meal.
Just like Aladdin in his eponymous movie, an animal is not above stealing a meal. We witnessed a sick adult lion who seemed on the verge of death our first night—he was barely breathing and looked like a bag of bones. He hadn’t moved in days. But the very next afternoon he was plump and full of energy—he’d stolen a warthog that a lioness had killed for her baby, and it brought him back to life. Other times, a creature may simply stumble upon a fresh animal that died of natural causes or illness (such as an impala carcass we spotted without a mark on it, which was later dragged away by something and made dinner).
To that end, it’s necessary for an animal to protect its meat. If they don’t plan on eating it right away, strong mammals will usually move a kill up a tree. We saw a leopard drag an impala up onto a downwind, horizontal tree branch, with the dead antelope’s antlers hanging over one side, while the hindquarters dangled over the other. The large male leopard left it, unworried that anything else could reach it. Indeed, once he returned and started on his feast, a hyena snuck up below, grabbing bits that fell from above, ever the scavenger.
8. Everyone loves a good nap.
One night we found a young female leopard on the hunt. She was stalking through the darkened forest, slowly and silently making her way toward her prey, an unsuspecting waterbuck in the distance. She eased up to the base of a tree, crouched down like she was about to pounce, and then promptly fell asleep. Leopards aren’t the only ones who enjoy napping. After devouring a big meal, male lions can’t help but pass out like the town drunk in the middle of the afternoon, on their backs, legs in the air, panting and breathing heavily.
9. The ladies like a bad boy.
In the wild, males—from elephants to impalas—fight each other to prove their dominance. The impalas also literally chase tail, trying to show the ladies how powerful they are, while hippos posture and practically unhinge their massive jaws, revealing rows of terrifying teeth, to prove their manhood. The elephants fight from an early age and have sparring matches while females are in season. Those that are most dominant have increased testosterone production, making them more boisterous and thus more attractive to potential mates since the ladies only mate with the strongest bulls.
10. Boys really do take longer to mature.
It takes a male elephant about 30 years until he’s ready to reproduce, while females can begin between eight and 10 years old. Village weaver birds are polygamists, but it still takes a male quite some time to work up to earning a concubine. They start practicing their craft as juveniles, but not until maturity do they master the construction of the woven nests they must make to attract a female. And female giraffes are ready to reproduce at around four years old, but the males don’t usually get there until they’re in the double digits. Males generally mature more slowly, and in some species, die earlier. For example, female kudu live much longer than their male counterparts because the dudes’ massive spiraling horns reduce their lifespan.