Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Along the Garden Route: The Crags

Along the Garden Route is an area called The Crags in Plettenberg Bay. The area is a great place for animal lovers as there are many wonderful sanctuaries and near by whale watching. There are so many activities to choose from like bungee jumping, water sports, a snake sanctuary, a bird and monkey sanctuary and more. I unfortunately didn’t hit them all, but my two favorites were The Elephant Sanctuary and Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Both sanctuaries take in wounded or displaced animals, rehabilitate them and then release them into the wild or provide permanent homes in rehabilitation is not possible. The drive between them is only about 10 minutes and they can both be explored in an afternoon.

Tenikwa is both a rehabilitation center and breeding center. It was started in 2002 by a husband and wife team who wanted to help the wild animals of South Africa. Around the Eastern Cape there is a big problems of the smaller wild cats including caracals and serval’s being killed by local farmers. In defending their livestock farmers have been setting deadly traps and shooting these predators. While the animals are not endangered because they are found in other parts of Africa, they have been almost completely eradicated from the area. The sanctuary takes in wounded animals and also aids in the humane catching and relocation of wild cats caught in clashes with farmers. Tenikwa has a mission statement to educate the public and it uses its tourism dollars to help fund initiatives teaching local children alternative ways of thinking about these so-called pests. The hope is by teaching the new generation at a young age about conservation they will grow up in a different mind set then their parents and understand that it is their responsibility to protect the amazing wildlife around them.

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The center accepts all types of animals and also works with penguins and a number of other local birds. Under South African law the rehabilitation center cannot be open to the tourists for the safety of the animals so when visiting you will not get the opportunity to see the animals in the process of rehabilitation. However, they do have a number of caracals and servals from their breeding center, which visitors can go in with under the supervision of the Tenikwa staff. There are also a number of cheetah and jaguars that can be seen up close and personal. There are a few different types of tours you can take of the facilities and on one you actually get a chance to walk with the cheetahs (on leash) while they get their morning exercise. I felt a little weird about walking a cheetah on a leash and actually hearing about it made me want to not go to Tenikwa, because it made me think Tenikwa was more of a zoo where animals were mistreated than a sanctuary where animals were cared for. I still have mixed feelings on the concept, but I found that Tenikwa is actually a very legitimate sanctuary doing really great work and is definitely worth a visit. At the center you can see jaguars, cheetahs, servals, and caracals up close in their enclosures.

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After Tenikwa I headed over to The Elephant Sanctuary. The Elephant Sanctuary has three locations in South Africa, all of them working together to help save and rehabilitate wild elephants and raise awareness about the gentle giants. The location in Plettenberg Bay has six elephants in total- five female and one male. The government in Botswana confiscated the elephants as they were being illegally exported out of the country to Asia. A few of the elephants had gotten the tips of their trunks cut off in traps set by poachers and the group could not be returned to the wild at the time of their seizure by the government. The Elephant Sanctuary now uses these elephants for outreach and education for elephant welfare in Africa. Elephants in captivity is a controversial issue and the sanctuary is very careful to work alongside animal welfare organizations to make sure they care for the animals in the best way possible. The elephants work with the staff at the sanctuary to learn certain movements on command like linking trunks to tails and shaking their heads. All these actions are ones they would do normally in the wild and are taught in an ethical praise-reinforcement system.

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There are a few different tours you can take where you can have varied levels of interaction with the elephants. I went on the “trunk-in-hand” tour, but you can also to an elephant-back ride tour or a brush down tour where you help with morning training and brushing of the elephants. On the basic “trunk-in-hand tour” as they call it you start by learning about the sanctuary and the work they do then get a lesson on the anatomy of the elephant and their plight in the wild.

Then you get to meet the elephants up close and personal. Depending on the size of your group a certain number of elephants will be brought over from their grazing area to the start of the tour. There were three of us in my group so three elephants were brought over, one for each of us. We were then given the chance to walk hand in trunk with the elephants through a forest area to a clearing with some benches. There we sat and watched as the staff demonstrated a few of the elephants tricks like shaking their heads and linking tail to trunk (which their mothers teach them to do in the wild). Then we got the opportunity to touch their trunks and tusks and have the requisite photo opportunity. After we walked them back to their grazing ground and fed them some fresh fruit.

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After the tour you are led to a gift shop and have the opportunity to buy a video of the experience that a cameraman records as you go on the tour. There are also various elephant souvenirs where the profits go to the sanctuary. Many of the trinkets are quite touristy, but in the store you can purchase a print of an elephant footprint made with organic non-toxic dye on paper made of elephant dung (don’t worry they don’t smell). They are actually quite beautiful and look a little like a Rorschach inkblot test. They even say which elephant they come from. I bought one from the lovely Jabu who I walked with tusk in hand. After spending two months in Africa I have become very hesitant about wildlife tourism and am always skeptical about animal interactions as often they are inhumane for the animals. However I was pleasantly surprised by both Tenikwa and The Elephant Sanctuary and very much enjoyed my time at both. As I have said before, every tourist dollar is like a vote, so when you are choosing your activities do a little research and make sure the sanctuaries are ethically minded and putting the animal’s welfare first and foremost. You can have a great time and do a great deed at the same time, which in turn will make you feel great!

If you want a fun nearby place for lunch I would suggest heading to Tsitsikamma National Park. Tsitsikamma is a beautiful mix of mountains and ocean where you can spend an entire day hiking and exploring. However if you are short on time and just want a beautiful ocean view, there is a nice restaurant in the park with both indoor and outdoor dining areas where you can watch the beautiful waves crash against the rocks and the mist move over the mountains in the background.

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