Existential Africa: How I Learned to Love the Wildebeest

by David Cogswell

The last thing on my mind when I went to Africa was the wildebeest. I had only a passing familiarity with the things. To the extent I had thought about them at all I just found them distasteful, a herd animal that was ugly and stupid. Fast food for the predators. When I first began seeing them in Amboseli National Park and the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, I more or less ignored them, scanning the visual field for something more interesting. They are so plentiful there that they are like the grass, the shrubbery and the earth: the negative space through which the tourists look for something more exciting. The tourists' interest in the animals is about the same order as the food chain itself, with the lion at the top. It's partly proportional to their number. There are very few lions and they sleep most of the days, so it is a rare treat when you see one. They are magnificent beasts. They have an unmistakably royal bearing. It is beneath them to show effort or concern. That is, until they strike. And what attracts the tourists most is the kill.

When you see a few safari vehicles clustered on the plains, you can figure there is probably a pride of lions nearby, or some cheetahs. When you find them, it is easy to view them. They make not the slightest effort to avoid humans, generally ignoring them or treating them with the aristocratic disdain with which they might regard flies.

The cheetahs too are rare and regal, much smaller and sleeker than the lions. One morning shortly after dawn we came upon a trio of them, apparently a mother and two daughters sharing a feast of what a few moments before had been a galloping eland. The loud cracking of a cheetah's teeth on the still warm and furry skull sent a faint twinge of dread through me.

There were many zebras grazing and galloping feistily, like wild horses. Because their backs are not well suited to functioning as pack animals, they have escaped domestication. We saw families of elephants caravaning across the land, their monumental slate-colored bodies and gleaming white tusks making them larger than life. Giraffes browsed the trees with their huge, broad necks and cantered musically with a serene rocking gait. There were gazelles, elands and impalas, delicately graceful like ballerinas; warthogs, comical with their huge heads and round bodies; rhinos, whose bodies were an expression of pure, concentrated power; ostriches, huge, gawky and dangerous; flamingos in such profusion they turned a broad, swampy landscape pink; and endless varieties of colorfully ornate birds. There was a nearly endless variety of beautiful animals, exhibiting nature's most brilliant design elements. And then there were the wildebeests.

Also called gnus, probably because of the groaning sound they occasionally blurt out, wildebeests are in the antelope family, the ugly cousin of the elands and gazelles. They are not attractive to look at. The image creates such a cluttered visual field. They're a genetic catastrophe, a collection of spare parts: the head of a buffalo, the body of an antelope, the tail of a horse. Their bodies are a murky gray, with indistinct black, brown and white markings: a black face, some vague dark stripes around the shoulders, a straggly black mane, dirty white beards at their throats, all combining to create an unkempt appearance. The heads are large, with long muzzles and horns that curve like Arabian swords. The tails start at the rump with vertebrae like an antelope tail then part way down change into long, stringy black hair. Their legs are gray at the shoulder, gradually turning to brown at the hooves.

Wildebeests and zebras seemed to be the most numerous populations. They all mix on the plains with the other species of antelopes, grazing and playing. When a predator is in their midst, they become very alert. I wondered why they didn't just take off running and get the hell out of there. But they don't. They keep an eye on the predator and continue to go about their business. They seem very composed in the presence of death.

It's difficult to convey the thrill of seeing these animals living their lives and acting out their destinies in their natural environment -- with no interference by humans. The simple realization that I was seeing them for the first time ever with no cages or fences, without the framing and narration of a documentary film or the theoretical grid of a textbook author, had an exhilarating effect on me. For a westerner used to being encased in a cocoon of media and social mechanisms, the experience has an immediacy and authenticity that is utterly new. We are used to having all of our experiences packaged. Nearly all of our images of the world come second hand -- selected, pre-formed, filtered and sanitized. We have practically forgotten what it is like to experience anything directly. My experience of a lion or an elephant had been mostly limited to films and books. When I had seen them, they were imprisoned in zoos or forced to perform in circuses. And that is nothing like their lives in their natural environments. In a way, being in Africa brought me closer to the underlying realities of mortal existence than I had ever before.

How far behind me were the teachers and the documentary movies that seem compelled to explain everything in terms of simplistic scientific doctrine. "The dominant male forces off the younger male to insure that his genes that will be passed to the next generation of offspring..." The drama that played out in front of me did not seem to conform to strict rules. There was a sense that at any moment the unexpected could happen. When everything is reduced to its lowest terms, the animals are only "things," and the poetry of their real lives is lost.

Even when I was looking directly at the life in the wilds, I felt a tendency to see it through the filter of my preconceptions, most of which I was barely aware of. Actually being there gives you an opportunity to look at what happens and experience it directly. It's a challenge to try to suspend your theories about what is happening and just look.

The same element that is missing in zoos and circuses is missing from our society at large, and when you get out into the wilds in Kenya, you encounter it. There you witness life in its primal state, where animals face death every day.

This has nothing to do with being a "wildlife enthusiast." That is a role you take within the context of civilized life. In the wilds there is no such context. On the plains of Kenya, you come face to face with existence itself, something our social structures never allow us to do.

We are carnivores but we know next to nothing about where our food comes from. We have evolved a rational system that does not accommodate death. Our primary way of dealing with death is denial. We ignore its inevitability and live as though life were absolute and will never end. Our science aims at pushing back the boundaries with a medical bag of tricks that includes organ transplants, valve implants, drugs. We will keep a dying person in the hospital mechanically prolonging life until they cry for release, if they still can. We have forgotten how to die, practically forgotten that it is inevitable.

Nietzche said the secret of living well is to live dangerously. It is something we seem to have forgotten. Death is the outer border of the canvas of life and completes it, an essential element of how we compose a life.

It is curious to observe the composure of the animals in the presence of the predators. They do not all bolt and run for cover as might be expected. When the predators are in their midst they are attentive, but they do not panic and run. They watch and they bide their time. Somehow they seem to accept danger and death as part of life.

We call the gnu a stupid herd animal, apparently forgetting our own herd behavior. But they seem to have retained some kind of grace we have lost in our advanced civilization. Animals seem more attuned to the balance between life and death. Our lives must end and our choices are limited. Just like the wildebeest, we must get older day by day and eventually more feeble until we collapse. Or we may meet a more violent end. We may go out in glory.

Freud observed what he called a death-instinct, "the task of which is to lead organic matter back to the inorganic state."Thanatos, as he called it, is "fused, blended and mingled" with Eros, the sexual instinct, in extremely complex ways. The instinct guides us towards a death which is consistent with our ultimate nature rather than a life which violates it. Better to die on your feet, some say, than to live on your knees.


Gradually the wildebeests captured my attention. I began to see their grace, their charm, their spirit, and finally their peculiar beauty. The qualities that endeared me to them were ones that would evoke such unscientific descriptions as "spirit" and "joie de vivre."

They first began to emerge from the backdrop when I saw them playing. They would prance, chase each other, and run, with great speed and grace, taking obvious pleasure in it. Running seems to be near the core of their "raison d'etre." It was hard to see it within the context of some sterile Darwinian survival imperative. To me it was undeniable that they were having fun.

Of course they graze, and the availability of pasture lands guide their migrations. A doctrinaire view says they eat in order to survive so they can reproduce and propagate the species. It is reductionist materialism, reduce everything to its simplest, physical components. With a doctrine, like that of Darwin, it becomes possible to ascribe every act to a single, rather uninspiring purpose. But there is more going on out there than animals trying to propagate their species and replicate their genes.

It was while seeing them running, and the sense of exhilaration it expressed, that I first began to appreciate them. At first it was the ease and grace of their gait, their elegance in motion. Then gradually as I looked at them, their peculiar physical characteristics began to blend together into a harmonious whole. The composition lost its ugliness for me. I saw their gray, muscular bodies and the ragged markings in a different context. I began to see their beauty.

At one point I watched a hyena slink across the plains with its strange top-heavy gait. Though usually looked upon with distaste for their scavenger behavior and unattractive appearance, hyenas are formidable hunters. They are the only animals that can make a lion abandon a kill. They will gang up and steal the young from under the she-lion's nose. They are extemely cunning and aggressive. As I watched the lone hyena I saw that it was walking towards an isolated wildebeest and I wondered if it would soon attack the beast from behind. I was thinking the wildebeest would be easy pickings for the hyena when suddenly the wildebeest turned and charged the hyena. After two or three thrusts by the wildebeest, the hyena wanted no part of a confrontation and left the scene. I was filled with a new respect for the wildebeest. It was taking no shit from the hyena.

Around sunrise one morning my group was fortunate enough to come upon a male lion traveling alone. With his full mane and muscular, heavy gait, he was the very symbol of strength and prowess. He radiated the aristocratic confidence and casual disdain that goes with being at the top of the food chain, without peer. He appeared to be the owner of all he surveyed. And then as he walked up a broad incline, a wildebeest appeared in his path 20 or 30 yards ahead. The wildebeest was facing the lion, not running away, but walking toward the lion. Our guide had told us that the wildebeests were "very stupid animals" and here was proof. What on earth was the wildebeest doing? Walking straight into the jaws of death.

As I watched, the wildebeest pranced forward, turned and ran back a few steps, then turned to face the lion again. It was playing with the lion,taunting him. The lion was still 20 yards away, walking slowly. It looked as though it may have already had breakfast and was not showing much interest in the antelope. The wildebeest was playing at the edge of its margin of safety, knowing it could easily outrun the lion, unless it slipped or miscalculated, or if the females of the pride were waiting in ambush.

Taunting danger, living on the edge. At that moment I saw a side of the wildebeest that had never emerged in all the scientifically driven portraits I had seen. It brought to mind the bungee jumpers, the sky divers, the mountain climbers, the daredevil drivers. And it endeared me to the wildebeest forever.

I could see that they, like humans, harbor qualities that the scientists can never reckon with, can never formulize. The wildebeest loves danger. What gives an Evel Knievel, or a young Cassius Clay his fascination, his heroic quality, is that he stands apart from the herd and goes for the glory.

This is behavior that cannot be neatly categorized within the confines of Darwin's "survival imperative" but flies full in the face of it. The wildebeest seemed to me to be more in tune with its mortality than humans. Death is not a matter of "if," but only of "when" and "how." Knowing that we must die, why not go out in glory?

Dostoevsky may have described it best in Notes from Underground. No matter how perfectly society could be constructed for the supposed welfare of its people, they would always buck it, throw off the yoke even against their own "best interest," just for the sake of expressing their freedom. From bunjee jumping and mountain climbing, daredevil motorcycle riding, to wars and conquests, it is clear that when humans achieve a measure of safety and security, they are unsatisfied and must push beyond it.

The wildebeest was the last thing on my mind when I went to Africa, but after that moment I had a bond with it that I will always carry. Perhaps more than all the other animals I saw in Africa, the wildebeest had taught me something essential about life, something I had grappled with in the writings of existentialism, but which was more true in actions than in the words of even the most eloquent of philosophers.

click here to return to the home page