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Lessons from the Wildebeest

His long face, topped by cow-like ears and horns shaped like parentheses, looked forlorn on the end of his drooping neck. He had a long, shaggy, patchy mane draped along his neck and high shoulders. His tail looked like a ragged afterthought. Weighing in near 500 pounds and walking on thin legs, he was, as the joke goes about animals like camels and giraffes, made of seemingly spare parts, the result of a committee’s compromises.

The wildebeest was towards the rear and outside of the herd of animals, wildebeests and zebras, resting before resuming the great migration on the Serengeti Plain. They traveled together for mutual benefit with the young wildebeests sheltered in the center of the herd. Their traveling companions, the zebras, had keen vision and hearing. The wildebeests were able to smell water. When grazing, the zebras sheered off the long grasses while the wildebeests needed the exposed shorter grasses. The great number of wildebeests increased the odds for survival for the zebras. The zebras had good memories, remembering the migratory route and the better places to cross rivers. Together, their chance of survival increased. Or, perhaps, they traveled together because the wildebeests liked being seen with the spectacularly striped zebras, and the zebras basked in the conspicuous contrast with their homely traveling companions.

The herds numbers were large, part of about 1.5 million wildebeests and 300,000 zebras who annually make this journey, but they were not alone on the trip. Other grazers were also enroute. The animals make the yearly circular migration over hundreds of miles between Tanzania and Kenya, following the rains and the plentiful water and good grazing that resulted. And, of course, the sweeping numbers of these animals were a movable feast for predators, also following their food source. This African migration is one of the last large land migrations on the planet. I knew that, but the wildebeest didn’t. He was a part of something that was threatened by the expanding needs of humans, making the migration potentially a part of history. I savored my opportunity to witness this amazing trek while it lasted.

What did the wildebeest know? Who can tell? He is, afterall, a wildebeest. Watching him, I felt a kinship with him. He was aging. His kind were moving on, and he was trying hard to maintain a place in that group. As I watched, his struggle was evident. When the group began to move, he rallied himself, but with a limp, to join the trot that set the pace. Still, as he tired, he was passed by younger animals and fell farther behind. Each animal was responsible for keeping up to insure the continuation of its species. The survival of the group was more important than the survival of one individual. Most of the young wildebeests, an estimated 400,000, had been born in the same three-week period prior to the migration and were ready within a week of birth to travel with the herd. Being born during the migration or within days before the migration meant a smaller chance of survival. The great numbers of births ensured that some would survive the trip and carry on the wildebeest genes, though approximately 250,000 wildebeests die during the whole migration. The odds were against the elder wildebeest whose value had declined. No sheltering center of the herd for him. His was a lonely and sad journey.

As he struggled to keep up, my thoughts were of the inevitable outcome. The grasslands the herd was traveling through easily disguised the lions, hyenas, and leopards that looked for every advantage. Their concentration was always on the young, the old, the injured, the slow. In other words, a sure meal. If my wildebeest made it beyond the land predators, I knew also that a river lay ahead of the animals. This river would need to be forded. The weak might drown in the turbulent waters. In the swirl of the fast rushing water lived crocodiles, lying in wait. They too knew of the migration and the opportunities it afforded them.

And yet, my wildebeest used every bit of energy he had to keep going. The drive to live was imprinted in his DNA, and the impulse could not be denied, though he may have traveled this route nearly 20 times in his life. As he faltered, I wanted the outcome to be different, but knew it wouldn’t be. The outcome of the wildebeest and the others more vulnerable in the migration is certain. They would meet a swift and violent death. To be fair, the predators, much smaller in number, serve a purpose in the larger natural scheme as do the vultures that will clean up what remains of the predators’ kill.

That night and many nights since that marvelous safari in Tanzania, it is the wildebeest that trots through my thoughts and weighs on my heart. How like him we are. History has taught us that it is always the young, the weak, the old who are most vulnerable to the perils of life. We see this play out in the personal dramas of our local daily lives and in the news of atrocities and conflicts around the world.

When I am disturbed by my disquieting memory of that single wildebeest’s trial, so like ours, I hold off the sadness with the memory that survival was enhanced for the zebras and wildebeests as they traveled this journey together, sharing their strengths and living the lives that were theirs to the fullest.

The lessons from observing this wildebeest then are that we are safest in the middle of the group, that we need to keep up with the others so we are not singled out, that we should endeavor not to let our weaknesses show our vulnerability, and that hanging with the right crowd might be the best way to face life’s journey.