What Do a Rhino and the Mona Lisa Have in Common?

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Each year, Pierre would bring a group on safari. Despite his French name, he was South African born and bred, but like so many people had relocated from his beloved homeland during the Apartheid era. He was successful in America, and as a way of paying something back to the continent of his birth, he brought out groups of friends on safari every year and gave the profits of the trip to an African charity.

I looked forward to his groups, as the people he brought were usually deeply interested in conservation and a pleasure to take on safari. This year he brought a group into a camp that perched on the banks of the Linyanti River. I was temporarily managing the camp and having a brief hiatus from full-time guiding. The river that flows by it forms the border of Namibia and Botswana and is a graceful series of swooping turns and oxbow lagoons, filled with snorting hippos and basking crocodiles.

As Pierre’s group pulled into the camp, I spotted potential trouble. One of the women was “dressed” for safari. Her handbag had the name of someone Italian in large letters on it, and the jacket she wore was made from the skin of some supple and probably endangered animal. There was not a crease in any of her clothing—an impressive feat, considering they had just arrived in a cramped light aircraft. Everything she wore was an unfashionable khaki or brown, but the entire ensemble was clearly worth more than the Land Rover she was riding in. The sunglasses alone could have shaded an African village.

As we entered the main area of the camp, she sniffed, and to her credit managed to squeeze through gritted teeth the words, “How lovely.”

I kept an eye on her during the stay to make sure she was enjoying herself, and she seemed to appreciate the recommendation I gave her not to put anything delicate in our laundry, as it was manned by tough women who treated stains as a mortal enemy and would rub a garment to threads if unchecked.

This seemed to endear me to her, and she often sat next to me at mealtimes. To my surprise I found that I enjoyed her company.

She just wasn’t an animal person, she said. She didn’t dislike them, but they held no real interest for her. This was strange to me, because I couldn’t imagine not getting a thrill out of seeing an elephant in the wild, even if I had seen them thousands of times before.

She hadn’t really been interested in the trip, she explained, but her husband was a friend of Pierre’s and liked animals, so she had come along. In exchange for her smiling endurance of Africa, she and her husband were going to tour Europe and its galleries and museums the next year.

“You know that the money from this trip is going to some fund to save rhinos, don’t you?” she asked me.

I affirmed that I did, and she asked another question: “What does it matter if the rhinos die out? Is it really important that they are saved?”

This would normally have riled me, and I would have normally given a snappish answer, but I had come to think of her as Dr Spock from Star Trek—an emotionless, purely logical creature, at least with regards to her feelings for animals. Like Spock, though, I knew there were one or two things that stirred her, so I gave an honest reply. “If the rhinos are gone, maybe there is a dung beetle that feeds only on their droppings. It dies out, so does a bird that feeds on it, and that bird stops spiders from getting out of hand but now has an imbalanced diet and dies out.”

She didn’t look concerned by this, but I still had my trump card. “But to be honest, it doesn’t matter. No economy will suffer, nobody will go hungry, no diseases will be spawned. Yet there will never be a way to place a value on what we have lost. Future children will see rhinos only in books and wonder how we let them go so easily. It would be like lighting a fire in the Louvre and watching the Mona Lisa burn. Most people would think ‘What a pity’ and leave it at that while only a few wept.”

She smiled at the end of my soliloquy and said, “When we leave I could give you a tip, or add it to our donation to the rhino thingy. Which would you prefer?” She had me over a barrel. My wages were insignificant, and I lived for my tips. But I had always claimed that I wasn’t in the job for the money, and in all honesty only a fool would be.

So I returned the smile and said, “Save Mona.”



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By Peter Allison

Peter Allison has led safaris in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. It was his love of animals that first led Peter to Africa at the age of 19, and by the late 1990s he'd graduated from being a safari guide himself to leading the training of guides for Wilderness. Peter has written a number of humorous books based on his safaris experiences.

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