Where the wild things are - and aren't

The Monitor's new Africa correspondent has seen plenty of animals, all right, but not always the ones he expected to see when he contemplated moving.

"Are there wild animals in the streets of Africa?" It was one of the questions our American friends asked us as my wife and I left Boston to move to South Africa.

After several weeks here - and having driven about 1,000 miles in South Africa and neighboring Botswana - here's a list of the wildest animals we've spotted on or near the roads: one monkey, two long-horned cows grazing near downtown Gaborone (Botswana's capital), about 100 donkeys, and multitudes of goats.

So, Lesson No. 1: If you want to see exotic beasts in Africa, skip the streets. Animals in the city are there for their pulling power, milk, meat, hides, or all of the above.

The wild ones - which are almost never in the streets, as far as we can tell - are mostly just for the tourists.

In fact, this part of Africa is a lot less exotic - and far more functional - than many Americans imagine. It's a curious mix of the 21st century (shopping malls, movie theaters, Internet cafes, and four-lane highways) alongside the 19th century (four-donkey teams pulling wobbling carts to market past thatched huts). Much of the wildness appears to have been pickled, sealed, and put on display at fenced-in game parks and nature reserves.

As one American friend who visited Johannesburg, South Africa, recently observed, "This place is about as dysfunctional as Portsmouth, N.H." That is, it's not dysfunctional at all. And not a wild animal to be seen in the streets.

Even the exotic beasts we've spied - a peacock, four elephants, two cheetahs, and two pairs of hippo ears bobbing in a lake - aren't actually wild.

The peacock is a fine specimen who struts around the pool at our Botswana hotel with his five-foot-long tail feathers cantilevered out behind him, like a matron gliding around the royal ball holding out her silken train.

The others we've seen are orphans who've found a home at Mokolodi Nature Reserve in Botswana. Shaka, Thandi, Sukiri, and Seeni are the four elephants with whom eager tourists - like us - can walk through the bush for three hours, for a fee. The beasts amble along, happily flirting with guests by reaching out a trunk to sniff an eager hand.

Visitors come away with great pictures and elephant trivia: Bull elephants may be bigger, but it's the females who dominate. It's the females who remember the locations of distant watering holes and lead their families to where they can quench their thirst at times of drought.

In a bid to boost Mokolodi's tourist appeal, the four giants may become the second herd in Botswana to be used for elephant-back safaris where tourists get to climb aboard the pachyderms.

We also got to pet an orphaned cheetah named Letotse. He felt like a house cat, only more bristly. And since he's regularly fed prepared foods, we weren't worried about becoming lunch.

This trend toward packing in animals to attract tourists - and their cash - is even more in evidence just across the border in Madikwe, a new South Africa game park.

Madikwe used to be 185,000 acres of mostly farmland. Now it's the fenced-off home to the biggest animal reintroduction project in the world. Eventually some 10,000 elephants, lions, rhinos, and other animals will populate the place. This, and efforts like it, are apparently working: South Africa was the world's fastest-growing tourist destination last year.

Oh, and about that monkey I mentioned earlier: We were driving along in our rental car in a rural South African region that could be southern Arizona with its mountainous desert and car-sized boulders. Suddenly a wild little primate scampered partway across the road in front of us, stopped, and then stood up to watch us go by.

"Wow, a monkey!" my wife and I exclaimed. "We must really be in Africa!"

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