We are living in an age where kids are growing up far too fast − they are pressured into becoming more responsible and to act like adults way too early. One needs to take a leaf out of nature’s book and look at how important the initial stages of life are for animals, in order for them to learn how to play and to enjoy the world while under the protection of the adults.
Parenting examples in the wild have some take-home lessons…
It has been said that the first seven years of a child’s life are the formative years, and that their future behaviour is shaped by this stage. I am saddened when I see families driving in a game reserve where the only one focused on the bush is the father who is driving. Meanwhile, his wife sitting next to him is on her smartphone checking Facebook and sending WhatsApp messages to her friends. The children on the back seat are playing games on their own smartphones or PlayStations, and the only animals that they are showing interest in are the zombies and werewolves they are mowing down in their pretend world.
As parents, we have a major part to play in how our children will turn out one day when they, in turn, are adults. Human babies are born helpless and totally dependent on their parents for everything. Even as toddlers they cannot fend for themselves, and have to rely on their parents or guardians for sustenance, accommodation and security. Kids also need large doses of love, and where this is lacking, the negative effect is very obvious.
Let us turn our attention to nature and how important the formative years are for babies – whether mammals, birds or reptiles. Some animals, such as giraffe or wildebeest calves, have a rude awakening when they are born. Within a very short time they need to be able to get to their feet and be mobile, or they end up as some predator’s lunch. Other animals have the luxury of one or more doting parents to help them through the first couple of months when they are effectively helpless, and need a long period of mentoring and guidance during which certain behaviours are honed and others are learnt through experience.
I recall watching a mother leopard venturing out of a hiding place with young cubs and encouraging them to explore under her watchful eye. If she felt they were venturing too far, she would skilfully return them to a safe spot, but it was also very evident that she allowed them to explore and play with careless abandon, and was aware that their games were all developing skills they needed for independent adulthood. The cubs’ rough-and-tumble play was preparing them in a practical way for the hard knocks of life.
As the leopard cubs grew, I witnessed the mother bringing them a scrub hare that she had stunned, and letting them catch it when it tried to run away. This was once again a practical demonstration of how it should be done under the supervision of a caring and watchful parent. Months later, I inadvertently walked into a female leopard with small cubs, and the fury of her charge left a long-lasting impression: they will do anything to defend their young. Only when the mother leopard is confident that she has taught the cubs the necessary survival skills will she forcibly evict them. Unlike some human parents who resist the empty-nest syndrome, the cubs are not allowed to crash with mom indefinitely.
Earlier this year, I was about to drive through a water-filled drainage line when a small movement caught my eye. I slammed on the brakes and saw something the size of a dung beetle in a fleece top, scurrying away. Getting out, I saw that it was a three-banded plover chick running around next to the water. Initially it stayed still, but soon got bored and starting running up and down, coming right up to my feet without a care in the world. There was no sign of the parent. Suddenly there was shrill whistle and the chick dropped to the sand, not moving a muscle. The parent flew in and started edging closer, and when it eventually felt that it was close enough, it gave another call. The chick ran to its mother and promptly disappeared under its feathers, feeling totally safe now that Mom was home. They then moved off to safety together.
On the opposite end of the scale, I was walking with a group on a wilderness trail when I saw, walking straight towards us, an elephant breeding herd with babies − and I knew that we would not be able to get away in time. We sat down and tried to stay as quiet as we could, although the sound of knocking knees and whimpering emanating from the party could not be helped. I am sure that we, in turn, must have looked like dung beetles to the elephants. The matriarch walked up to us with her small calf in tow, and loomed above us with her front foot swaying to and fro at very close quarters as she surveyed the petrified humans squatting in the herd’s path. Talking quietly to reassure her and hoping that I would not need to grab her by the trunk, I watched the big matriarch turn, with the rest of the herd perfectly synchronised, and melt away without fuss.
What stayed with me after each of these encounters was the relaxed way in which the calves of all ages accepted the decision. They never seemed edgy or nervous, despite the close proximity of humans − they knew that they would be safe. Elephant mothers are very protective of their calves and one needs to respect their space in all situations. Although play is a very important part of a young elephant’s upbringing (ask anyone who has seen them cavorting in water), it is the close-knit social structure and the discipline (along with tons of love) that comes from being raised in the herd, that ensures their survival. Many years ago, when baby elephants in culling operations were translocated and basically grew up without discipline, they became rebels not knowing their boundaries.
It’s the same with human children: they also need to learn boundaries and know that certain actions will have consequences.
Innate behaviour is what an animal will engage in from birth, without any intervention; learned behaviour is discovered through trial, error and observation. Most learned behaviour comes from parental teaching or from experience. Instinct tends towards the former, and is a powerful force in nature which dictates the behaviour necessary for survival, especially in species that don’t get much guidance from their parents. Innate behaviour is passed from generation to generation through the genes. It is also intrinsic, meaning that even an animal raised in isolation will perform the behaviour and stereotypically it will be done the same way every time. Innate behaviour is also inflexible and is not modified by experience. This behaviour is fully developed from birth.
Learned behaviour is not inherited and must be taught or learned by each individual. It is also progressive, meaning that the behaviour can be refined through practice.
So, bad habits can be taught; and this is nowhere more evident than in baboons. We humans often like to watch baboons because they are so humanlike in their antics, and their routines, disciplining and play remind us of ourselves. Watching baby baboons at play can keep us entertained for hours. Yet humans are, for the most part, responsible for creating the environments where baboons come into conflict with them, and then the cuteness disappears and we want them gone.
Children learn partly by example, and they have been referred to as the windows of a family. What do others understand about your family when they look at the behaviour of the children? I believe that a good starting point is to instil a love for nature and all things wild when they are young, and nurture that spirit of adventure and discovery. Don’t sweat the small stuff; and do let children get dirty and play in the mud. Who knows, it might just help them become more balanced, productive and caring adults.
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