Posted on Wednesday, August 5th, 2015 in Featured, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, Interview, Kunene Conservancies, Linyanti, Okavango Delta.

I first read Ian McCallum’s book Ecological Intelligence about ten years ago, and since then I have read it again several times. It introduced me to some important concepts that have shaped my thinking on how I live my life.

Ian has a diverse range of skills and talents: medical doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, wilderness guide, author and poet. His love for African wilderness and wildlife is clear to see, and although he’s based in Cape Town, he’s travelled to most wild parts of the continent.

He’s also one of the most effective and eloquent, yet softly-spoken, advocates for the protection and reverence of the continent’s wilderness, as well as the restoration of our own relationships – with ourselves, with other humans and animals, and with the planet. As one of many examples, in his introduction to his anthology of poems Untamed, Ian writes:

These poems are a voice for wild animals, for the wild areas of the world and for the wild part of the human psyche. We have forgotten where we have come from…that we are biologically and psychologically bound to the Earth and to all living things…that we are part of the web of life….We can learn a lot about ourselves from the wild. And we can learn something else…we can learn how to give back. We can rediscover the meaning of relationships.

Ian was a close friend of Ian Player, who passed away in November 2014 and was largely responsible for saving the southern white rhino from exctinction through redistributing Imfolozi’s rhino into the rest of Africa. Ian delivered the tribute at Player’s memorial in January 2015 – it’s a moving piece of oratory and writing, and I encourage you to read it.

Have a look at Ian’s website here, and if you’re a lover of words, wilderness and wildlife – like me – be sure to read some of his poetry, especially his anthologies Wild Gifts and Untamed.


The wildlife and wilderness areas of Africa are under immense pressure, despite the best intentions of some concerned governments and citizen groups. What is their future, and what needs to be done to ensure they are sustained and nurtured?

The critical level will be the number of people who are genuinely concerned about the future of wild animals. The greatest danger is the toxic indifference that so many people have for wild life in wild areas – the attitude of “it’s got nothing to do with me”.

So for example, why should somebody in New York City or Beijing worry about rhino? Rhinos may go extinct, but so did the dodo and so isn’t this just part of the life cycle? There’s a terrible sense that there’s nothing that any of us can do as individuals.

This is the biggest challenge of all, which means it comes back to the very question: what are we – as the priliveged ones – going to do about it?

It’s really so dependent on a deep, deep acknowledgement of what I call “web-of-life” thinking. Everything is connected. And I come back to something which I mentioned earlier in this interview: understanding that these wild creatures are part of our identity.

We’re the ones who are privileged to have had contact with elephants and rhino and lions in a way that, by far the majority of the people in this world will never, ever have contact. We’re the ones who are privileged and we’re the ones who’ve got to speak up for the wild places and animals.


What about the so-called “sustainable utilisation” model, including trophy hunting, as a way to create jobs and increase revenue into wildlife areas?

This is quite contentious: we have to be very careful of the sustainable utilisation model, which turns all living things, other than human beings, into objects: objects for our use, objects which have a monetary value and that therefore are exchangeable on economic terms.

There is another school of thought, and that is that some things – surely – are just simply not for sale. And what is it going to take for us to reach that level of ethics, which is saying, “I’m sorry, this is not for sale. This is priceless.”

Is your mother for sale? Is your daughter for sale? Are you going to put an economic value onto child trafficking? Oh, no, we’re talking human beings here. Some will argue this is a different issue. I’m saying no, it’s not a different issue. It’s part of the same continuum.

Do you really give a stuff about your fellow man? Then show me that you actually give a stuff about the animals and the natural state of the planet. Does your mother have an economic value? No. Will you die for her or your sister? Surely it’s something that’s worth dying for. Nelson Mandela said that. These are strong words.

There are different kinds of hunting of course. Hunting a gemsbok or kudu to feed your family and friends is one thing.

But trophy hunting of elephants, or lions, is a continued act of dominance where the hunter stands on top of his or her prize with a high-powered rifle, where the animal didn’t have a snowball’s hope in hell, and pretending that you have shot this thing in self-defence or that this is some statement of your personal prowess. This is a mind-set which is heavily cushioned and fed by the sheer amount of money which comes pouring into this industry.

And the economics of trophy hunting don’t always match up to what the hunters claim. I’m afraid the reality and some of the statistics don’t always match. The amount of money that goes back into conservation or communities is not as much as hunters may claim.


What do you say to someone who’s a trophy hunter operator, who’s adamant that trophy hunting is a valuable part of the conservation matrix?

Sometimes you have to kill wild animals, yes, because the highly-managed game reserves of today mostly have fences, and can only sustain certain numbers of animals. Why not give those same trophy hunters a quota, then they can come in to hunt, and get a replica on their way out. They’ll get the best fibreglas replica of the animal they are allowed to shot.

But that dead animal stays here in Africa. Nothing leaves here, okay? You can take a photograph of your animal, but there will not be a photograph of you standing in triumph over this animal. You’ve come for the hunt and for the chase.

We need to encourage a new breed of hunters. The message needs to be: “you are welcome to come and track that animal, but you’re going to have to identify the track first, and then you’re going to have to follow it on foot, and find it by yourself.”

There will be no use of vehicles, or shooting from the back of vehicles. Let’s regenerate an honourable hunting ethos. Let’s go back to how it all began.


What’s your view on the auction of a black rhino hunt recently in Namibia? The rhino was an old male who scientists said was beyond breeding age, and was about to die anyway. Authorities said that the money raised from the auction – $350 000, paid by hunter Corey Knowlton – would go directly into conservation. Namibia has an apparently successful record of community conservation, which involves hunting. 

I’ll go back to what I’ve just said: the hunter has got to track it. It might take all day. It might take two days. It might take a week. The hunter has got to track it and if the hunter shoots the animal dead, we will say “thank you” for the life of that animal and now the hunter can go home.

You can take a picture of the rhino and the hunter, with pleasure, but the hunter will stand without a weapon beside the animal, not with a gun standing on top of it. The hunter will receive a message of appreciation from the president of Namibia to say “thank you” for the generous contribution the hunter has made towards conservation in the country. No part of the animal will leave the country. You will not be allowed to take the head of the rhino back to the USA. The message needs to be clear: this animal died for conservation, not for the hunter’s trophy room back in Europe or the USA.


The issue of sustainable utilisation is highlighted by the current crisis surrounding rhino poaching, and the potential legalisation of sale of horn into Asia. What’s your take?

How can you justify the selling of rhino horn for a use which is nothing but sheer superstition? Isn’t there something in you which says this is intrinsically wrong? Don’t you think education is the key here? Why underestimate the intelligence of Chinese people and Vietnamese people where the so-called market is? We’ve got to be very careful of turning the Chinese into the enemy. Our enemy is right here in South Africa and sadly, it is fed by the economic model that follows the money.

The proposed trade in rhino horn is madness, because we haven’t got a clue who the market is. Who are you going to sell it to?  Secondly, we haven’t got a clue as to whether trade is going to work. It is filled with uncertainty.

The argument against that will be, yes, but nothing else has worked in the past, and we’re saying rubbish. We haven’t even begun to give it the best chance in terms of global awareness and demand reduction, to educate and stop people from using rhino horn.

There’s a third factor – the ethics. For me rhino horn is surely something which is not for sale. That, personally, is an important one. I’d like to know that I’m prepared to go and fight for this. Let’s show a little bit of backbone here.


What is the solution to the crisis in conservation?

You’ve got to get the government in South Africa, for example, to be totally committed to protecting what I’m going to call “national treasures”. They have to declare a state of emergency right now. We need to have world leaders say “this is not right”. Citizens and governments around the world have got to be able to assist the governments of Africa to solve the problem. It’s a global crisis, and we need global help and co-operation.


Ian, let’s talk now about something more inspiring. Which are your favourite wild regions in Africa?

I have three. Two are in Botswana, and one in Namibia.

The Linyanti in the northern border of Botswana, on the Linyanti River overlooking the Caprivi Strip. I’ve spent a lot of time there. Equal to that would be the Okavango Delta in Botswana. There is a tremendous sense of space.

In both the Delta and Linyanti, you’re looking at a vast expanse of wild area where there are no human beings and where the animal habits, and natural processes have been going on for thousands of years. You are taken back in time and I feel like I’m part of the life cycle.

The other place would be the north western part of Namibia, heading towards Skeleton Coast. It’s phenomenal. What really strikes me is that there are no fences. Even places in Botswana, like the Moremi Reserve, are defined by the buffalo fence which separates humans from wildlife.

But in the northwest of Namibia there are no fences. There is this unique demonstration of how humans coexist with wild animals in the northwest and that is precious. There’s a sense of continuity there. A lot of the Himba people are continuing the ways of life that’s hundreds and hundreds of years old. If I couldn’t die in Botswana, I’d be quite happy to spend the last years of my life there. That desert speaks!

Sadly, there are very few South African wildlife areas that would leap at me in the same way, beautiful as some of them are. I think of Pafuri in northern Kruger. It really is wonderful but sadly, for me, there’s a sense of claustrophobia because it’s so highly managed.

Desert-adapted elephants in northwest Namibia

Desert-adapted elephants in northwest Namibia, near the Puros Community Conservancy


And which are your favourite specific lodges or camps?

If I were to go to the Delta, there are two places called Moklowane and Kujwane, which are camps owned by PJ and Barney Bestelink of Okavango Horse Safaris. Please know that it’s difficult to separate that place from them. These people are legends.

Then there’s Nxamaseri Lodge on one of the main tributaries of the Okavango. The river is spectacular, as is the bird life. The simplicity of the place is special.


A few memorable wildlife experiences?

Let’s just go for a couple of unforgettable encounters – ones where you learn a lesson about yourself, and others where you just marvel at the metaphor.

The first was the death of a baobab tree in the Linyanti of Botswana. Over hundreds of years it had been slowly formed into the shape of an hourglass, and I always wondered how much longer this tree is going to last before falling over.

Well, I was out with guests and the camp assistant came to me and told me there was a very, very big noise in the forest. I knew what he was talking about.

I got in my car, and off I went to where this magnificent tree had once stood. It had fallen down. But all around it were elephants. They were all around and they were feeding on the tender upper branches of the tree.

I just sat there and watched. And it hit me, that right at that time a great mentor of mine, who I trained under in my analytical training had died about a week before this incident. So I called the tree the Elephant Tree and I dedicated it to her because we all fed from her. I wrote a poem called the Elephant Tree in my anthology Wild Gifts.

Poetry comes to me quickest when I’m in wilderness. I can be here at my home in Cape Town, and try as hard as I like, it doesn’t happen until you’re watching wild animals. I’m talking about living things in action, interaction, and how everything rhymes in its own way. When you look and listen through a poetic eye and a poetic ear, you see and you hear things differently and you attune yourself to that.


The other memorable experience was a really a close encounter with a desert-adapted elephant in Namibia, back in 1999. My wife Sharon and I, along with a guide, picked up the tracks of this elephant. We followed it down a dry river bed and then we could see the tracks had gone up out of the riverbed, so we left the vehicle and walked about 400 metres.

We were hiding behind a salt bush, watching the elephant as I was taking photographs. The next thing I realise is that this elephant’s coming for us. No warning at all: no trumpeting, no foot scraping.

So we ran off back to the vehicle and we got to that vehicle as the elephant was getting close to us. It came right up to us as we hid on the other side of the vehicle. Eventually it turned and walked away and we saw it had an erection. It almost gave the message: “Don’t fuck with me”. It was a hell of a lesson. I had completely misread this animal’s intentions or needs. I had felt safe behind my camera lens, which is delusional. So that was a tremendous learning experience.

One has to give wild animals space. There are critical zones. There’s what you might call a safety zone, a warning zone and alarm zone, and you’ve got to develop a keen sense of respect for particular zones. Pay attention to the critical areas. There’s a critical area between you and me. If I sit any closer to you now then it’s uncomfortable. If I’m sitting back there, well, where’re you going? So it’s no different.


Then recently, we were horseriding in Botswana, and came across five giraffe. They started running with us, cantering along with us. We were right there with them. It’s mind-blowing. We had a real sense of what it’s like to be running with giraffes. I’ll never forget it. And then the giraffes peeled off and then you stop and you let them go and you think “thank you”.


And who are some of the well-known people in conservation who have inspired you?

I think the first person is Ian Player. I did my very first Wilderness Leadership School trail in 1981 in Imfolozi.

I found my spiritual home. It changed my life, that wilderness experience. Prior to then I had lots of experience of watching animals from inside a motor car, behind the safety of a windscreen. But when you’re walking and living in the bush as a guest, and you’re partaking in these beautiful rituals of walking in silence, sitting around a fire through the night and listening to the sounds. It was profound so I owe Ian Player and his friend Magqubu Ntombela a huge debt on that score.

Magqubu gave me a branch of the Ziziphus mucronata (Buffalo thorn), telling me this will tell you how to live your life. The forward-pointing thorn on the branch reminds us to think of future generations, and the one that points backwards reminds us to never forget where we’ve come from.

I don’t know of a more simple yet profound philosophy. That’s my philosophy: just never forget where you’ve come from. Learn how to say thank you, not just to your parents or grandparents. Where have you actually come from? Once you start getting into the whole field of evolutionary biology, then you understand even more where we’ve come from, and how much we need to be thankful for.

Then undoubtedly another person that has inspired me is Ian Michler, a wilderness guide and conservation photorjournalist and activist. He was the one who said come and spend some time up in Botswana. We have worked very closely together, he is incredibly knowledgeable and a brilliant ornithologist. He’s extremely alert to animal behaviour, and is a great teacher.

And recently he’s been instrumental in exposing canned lion hunting in South Africa, with his new documentary Blood Lions. Ian’s got balls, and is a guy with immense courage, immense integrity.

There are other people who I’m drawn to simply because of their sheer dedication to what they’re doing and their love of the wild. I think of characters like Chris Bakkes and Garth Owen-Smith and Margaret Jacobsohn in Namibia. These are giants of conservation.


And what about some of the other people who have inspired you?

Some of the Wilderness Leadership School guides, especially Mandla Buthelezi who’s the senior guide there. He’s been around for a long time and he knows how to handle a wild animal. The difference between him being in the wild and out of it is like Superman and Clark Kent. When he goes into the wilderness, the transformation is immense and his levels of awareness and knowledge is incredible.

Ian McCallum and Mandla Buthelezi

Ian McCallum and Mandla Buthelezi

Then Karel “Pokkie” Benade, who is one of the finest trackers I’ve met, yet’s he’s one of the most humble human beings. The pleasure I had while working with him at The Tracker Academy cannot be measured. I was with him recently. I spent a week with him and his wife, Jeanette, who’s the principal of the academy. He’s the main tracking mentor.

I’ll never forget the first time I met him in 2010. It was in January during the height of summer. We went tracking in the veld. We picked up springbok spoor. And then he says in Afrikaans: “Ja, maar hierdie dier kom nie van the Karoo nie”. [Translation: “These are not Karoo springbok”.]

And he was right. These springbok had been brought in from the Kalahari. Their spoors are just that little bit wider, which is not typical of the Karoo springbok. He didn’t know where it had come from, but he knew it wasn’t one of the local ones. Amazing.

Karel Benadie, one of Africa's finest trackers.

Karel Benadie, one of Africa’s finest trackers.



What do you admire about wilderness, and what do you miss about it when you’re away from it?

It’s very simple. Wilderness is part of the geography of my identity as a human being. That wildness is crucial for human sanity. Please note, I’m not talking about savagery, that which is raw and crude; I’m talking about that which is spontaneous, which is authentic.

Wildness on a psychological level is something which is untameable in us, thank God. But you can’t civilise it because it is civilised already in its own way. It is civil. I feel it. It’s in my blood. It’s part of my identity as a human being and without it, I would die literally, of a loneliness of spirit. I couldn’t put it any other way.

And spending time in wild places of Africa is a sort of homecoming. They’re places of homecoming.


Finally, where’s your favourite place to watch the sun go down in Africa, and who would you choose to spend it with?

I would like to watch the sun go down with my wife Sharon and my family, my kids and grandkids. I’d like them to be with me. Where? Wherever the sun goes down, where the family can gather and say “God, it’s good to be alive!” We can appreciate the fact that we are actually not watching a sunset or a sunrise; we’re watching the earth lift and then in the morning, the earth dipping.

Scott Ramsay of Love Wild Africa is a photojournalist documenting protected areas, national parks and nature reserves in Africa. Partners include Cape Union Mart, K-Way and Ford Ranger. Supported by Safari Centre Cape Town, Goodyear, Outdoor Photo and Hetzner.

Scott Ramsay of Love Wild Africa is a photographer and writer in protected areas, national parks and nature reserves in Africa.

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Marnie Steffny

Awesome article Scott and the death of the baobab was something I also witnessed as I was up at Nxabega at the time and we went out on a fishing trip.

As a psychiatrist, poet and wilderness guide hailing from South Africa, Ian McCallum brings a unique perspective to conservation psychology and understanding ecological principles. We tend to see nature as something that is external to us rather than something we are inextricably a part of. What is the blind spot humans have with respect to the environment?