BBC's Dynasties and The Dassie Dilemma

I wrote this piece back in 2014 when I was in South Africa as an environmental journalism and travel writing intern.  However, as I work my way through David Attenborough's newest series, Dynasties, I can't help but think my message from nearly five years ago is more relevant than ever.  People have a huge and often devastating impact on the world, especially animal life as we see in both the purposeful poisoning of unsuspecting lions in Kenya and the issues faced by chimpanzees who struggle for space in Senegal.

The animals in Dynasties were "chosen because they were endangered and because human pressures – especially intrusion into their territory – were adding to an already tough struggle for survival."  This is clearly a massive issue, and one I am so happy is getting more and more attention, but it is also one that is often overlooked when it comes to the smaller species or less traditionally 'cute' critters.  So I thought today I would consider the human impact on animals that are NOT box office draws and share my take on the dassie dilemma.


"Blaizing" Trails in Mosselbaai:

Do not let the scenic beauty camouflage what is lying in plain sight.
Do not let the scenic beauty camouflage what is lying in plain sight
Hiking to me means mildly hilly woodland trails, so my surprise upon arriving at Mosselbaai's most popular spot was mixed with an anxiety that the mountainous terrain would prove to be too much for my Western New York legs. However, two hours later, any sweat from the climb had been soothed away by brine mists that danced up the sheer drops of the jagged rock face and I was convinced the five day Saint Blaize Trail lives up to its reputation as a must for avid hikers and adventure seekers all over the globe.

The trek offers eye catching views for casual walkers as well, with photo ops of seal bounding through foaming waves that crash onto bronze cliffs, a variety of vivid pink, white, red, and yellow wildflowers that help make Mosselbaai a mecca for herbology enthusiasts; gentle fluttering butterflies, glimpses back in time with seashells left behind by ancient natives, and a gradual erosion of rocks to smooth sand. However, the trail's Oystercatcher Path has more secrets than just stone-scratched caves and untold histories hiding in its hills.

Wildflowers and time smoothed shells are not the only things that lie along the Oystercatcher Path.
Wildflowers and time smoothed shells are not the only things that lie along the Oystercatcher Path
 My first initiation with South African wildlife was not the big five in a game reserve, but the elephants' beaver meets guinea pig meets squirrel relative, the dassie (rock hyrax), an oddball that frequents the area. The experience begins in the parking lot when the skittering rock rat stops to give a memorable welcome, zipping back and forth across the worn tar pavement, dashing under green paint chipped park benches, and hiding behind oblivious sneakers. These goofy critters are more than willing to pose for a glamour shot, but the taciturn and trusting attitude of the animal is anything but ordinary. Dassies are natural foragers and due to regular feedings by hikers and uncovered trash cans, the creatures have started to associate humans with an easy meal and are no longer bothered by the close proximity of curious tourists.

South Africa has strict trash and recycling policies in place, and most receptacles are not easily accessible to animals. Mosselbaai requires residents to sort their refuse and dispose of plastics, paper products, and glass properly in the blue bags given to each household by the municipality. With sites like My Waste, finding a center is never an issue, and the city has also set up bins to manage the daily out and about waste. Tourists, however, are not always ready to adapt ritual habits like tossing trash on the ground, picking up dropped items, or feeding wildlife.

South Africa has policies in place, so why all the litter?
South Africa has policies in place, so why all the litter?
Walking the trail, it is easy to overlook innocuous litter while soaking in the scenery, but unfortunately the dassies are not as oblivious. Ice cream containers, snack wrappers, soda bottles: much of this tossed trash offers a tasty treat to the hungry dassie.

Why is feeding the adorable dassie an issue?  Well, we all know how pervasive an issue plastic has become thanks to features in mainstream media, Twitter chats, and programs like Blue Planet II.  If the plastic doesn't cause an immediate crisis to the animal (through a blocked windpipe, lacerated throat, or as a deadly trap), it still poses a threat -- intestinal blockages, slow poisoning due to toxic chemicals that leech out from the innocuous litter, and more -- these plastic snacks are a real danger to these dassies. 

Studies have also shown that feeding wild animals, even those as small as this rock rat, can make the creature lose their fear of people and cause them to become a nuisance as they begin to actively seek out sustenance. The problem with panhandling meals to wildlife, especially in areas like the Saint Blaize Trail which begins on the edge of a public area filled with restaurants like Big Blue and snack shacks such as The Waffle Hut, is that the creatures put themselves and others into dangerous situations.

This cute little critter climbs into open bins and shows no fear of cars.
This cute little critter climbs into open bins and shows no fear of cars
A recent example of the effects of introducing human delicacies into wild animals' diets in South Africa can be seen in the Knysna baboon crisis. What started as a seasonal occurrence has turned into a full scale invasion. Knysna turned into a war zone, with baboons facing off with adult males and killing domestic pets to gain access to a much needed supply of food. Luckily, instead of destroying the dangerous new inhabitants, locals started efforts to coexist with the animals, rendering appetizing items inaccessible and placing locks on bins.  The Action Group began to understand the situation, realizing that humans had unintentionally created the problem through the provision of tasty treats to the hungry baboons.

The Saint Blaize Trail dassies, like the Knysna baboons, have begun to evolve into a local dilemma due to the creatures search for grub. The vegetation surrounding the area is minimal, yet the dassie population continues to grow due to the meals of chips and french fries provided. This association with food has already started to cause problems. There have not been instances of dassies stowing away in vehicles near Oystercatcher Path, but there have been several surprised hikers who arrived hoping for sun and scenic views and left with souvenir bites.  The animals also have begun to attempt to seek sanctuary beside automobile wheels. Though cute, the dassie can carry diseases like rabies, making what should be an enjoyable experience dangerous for unsuspecting walkers.  Also, despite the population growth, the species is at risk of dying out in Mosselbaai due to their new artificial diets, a death that would leave Hyraceum perfume makers scrambling for ingredients and the Saint Blaize Trail lacking its delightful welcome committee.

Dassies have no qualms about getting up close and personal with human visitors, and in time the minor inconveniences may escalate into a much bigger dilemma. While it's tempting to  share a bit of your burger or step over the abandoned bits of rubbish while snapping a panoramic view of the bay to show off on Facebook, take a moment think of the dassie.  This creature that made you squeal in childish wonder when you pulled up to Saint Blaize Trail, whose very nature is changing with each human decision that is made, is counting on us to fight for its continued existence.

Think of the dassie before tossing your trash or feeding your furry friends.  Their lives may depend on your actions.
Think of the dassie before tossing your trash or feeding your furry friends. Their lives may depend on your actions








3 comments

  1. Fascinating piece, thank you. Wild animals being taught to associate humans with food can create such a huge problem. I hope the balance of the Saint Blaize Trail is restored, and that all its creatures are able to thrive in the future.

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  2. A thought provoking post which I hope lots of people read. Yes, humans do have a devastating impact on the environment and those creatures with whom we share the planet.

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  3. I have never heard of Dassies but I am enchanted. I grew up in Hawaii and tourists always feed the indigenous creatures junk food that they become accustomed to and dependent upon. It's a vicious cycle.

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