In the dark, rippling reeds by the lake, something stirred.
Rain beat down on me like tennis balls, thunder crumpled the air around me as if a sheet of card being folded by some irritable giant up on the hill, fumbling his origami sculpture, his curses the sharp shocks of lightning bringing the forest suddenly into life. But there it was; clear as day yet black as night- a towering man covered in thick fur and growling menacingly as it plodded through the undergrowth towards me. No, not a man… but close.
1. Mountain gorillas
I made this amazing find in the Virunga volcanoes, a region that borders Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And it is indeed a fantastic beast, though I think I’d rather call Eastern gorillas a species- after all, these highly intelligent primates share 98% of their DNA with us- which I’d rather refer to as humans than ‘muggles’. But magical they most certainly are, if a little on the scary side.
I stood in awe for a moment, but ‘crack!’; a twig under my boot, and the silverback had seen me! I crouched lower, wishing I had some kind of invisibility cloak or other to wrap myself in, shielding me from harm. But then I remembered my studies; as a student at WWF’s rangering school, I’d been taught that these gorillas are clever enough to recognise my uniform and know I mean them no harm. But I had wandered into his path, and my trainers advised me to not get too close; mountain gorillas are susceptible to human diseases, but do not have our immune systems. So I retreated, seeking to track the next fantastic animal on my list.
Eastern gorilla habitat (C) IUCN
After some time walking, the stern grip of the undergrowth around by boots was growing weaker. Day was dawning, and glints of golden light had begun peeking through the trees. They dissipated in time, welcoming me into the broad savannah like ushers parting to guide me into this magnificent theatre of life. There was one fantastic animal I was particularly fond of; top of my list. That most wise, most memorable of creatures; the elephant.
Loxodonta africana African elephant Family group drinking at water hole Sub-Sarahan Africa © Martin Harvey / WWF
The Maasai say if you think you’re bold and clever, try putting a necklace on an elephant. Face to face with them; their size and beauty, I don’t think I could even reach an elephant’s neck with a levitation spell, let alone improve its majesty with adornments. But sadly people use these animals for jewellery themselves- the poaching of elephants for ivory is losing us over 80 elephants every single day. I’ve been lucky to find one, but future generations may only read about them in fantasy books unless we protect them now. With newfound energy, I pressed on to find more fantastic animals which my rangering school teaches me to protect.
African elephant habitat (C) IUCN
As a child, I’d thought unicorns were imaginary, but now I know they’re real. They may be a little rougher round the edges; a little tougher skinned, a little craggier in the jaw and weightier in the step. But there’s a grace and wonder about them which makes me think whether medieval authors witnessed these fantastic animals and simply illustrated them with the extra flair they deserve. I am of course, standing in the presence of a rhino, and who’d have thought- rhinos can fly!
As it soared overhead, I stood in a mixture of confusion and awe. Where was this helicopter taking such a massive beast, and why? I tensed up; was it poachers, deluded into thinking the rhino’s horn had magical properties; some kind of mystical horcrux which could trap the essence of all ills? It was then that the chief trainer at the rangering school took me aside and explained; this rhino was being swept through the air for it’s own safety; our great enemies the organised criminal gangs have been on the offensive of late, and rhino poaching in South Africa has risen by a staggering 9,300% since 2008. But relocated into a protected area, this rhino would now be safer, and able to meet others of its kind. Relieved, I ticked the rhino off my list and began heading towards the coast.
Black rhino habitat (C) IUCN
4. Hawksbill turtles
Something magical must’ve happened, for I felt I had been transported many miles to a beach, exhausted by my long day of rangering duties. It can be a hard life in the field, protecting fantastic animals, but some animals face troubles before they even receive the gift of life. It was dusk, but I restrained myself from switching on my torch, because thick ridges scratched across the sand had caught my attention; as if a miniature plough had been dragged ashore and just kept going into the bushes beyond. A turtle had come ashore to lay her eggs.
She seemed serene as she sat there, cooling herself. A mammoth chunk of weathered shell and scrabbling fins, waving in the sand like the sails of a ship. I noted the time and place the turtle had come ashore in my notebook; I’d report back to the society of marine scientists who kept huge libraries of such statistics in order to learn from fantastic animals like these. Back at the rangering school I’d read that only one in every thousand turtle hatchlings survive to adulthood, and huge numbers are taken when they’re still eggs; a delicacy in some faraway parts. Female marine turtles don’t come ashore until they’re 20-40 years old, and when they do, they return to the very same beach on which they were born; you’d be forgiven for believing that really is magic!
Hawksbill turtle habitat (C) IUCN
I must’ve dozed off, or maybe I had once again tapped into the same kind of magic marine turtles use to navigate the seas, but when I came to I was in a very different place. Birds cawed gently in the trees above like angels in the clouds, welcoming me to this wild and wonderful land. Monkeys chortled peacefully in the branches. Curious insects clung to trunks. I felt as if I was in the middle of an orchestra; a cauldron of sound and movement, all in perfect harmony, but then all of a sudden, the soundtrack of the forest erupted into chaos.
The tiger is truly the master of the forest, and all the other animals cower in its wake. It commands respect, striding through this colourful dream world like a king holding court, every living thing, including myself, pausing on each powerful pace of those vibrant orange paws. The other animals were in uproar; their flustered shrieks and cackles tumbling this way and that in the undergrowth as they alerted each other to this royal visit. And stay still I might; I’d heard stories of those without the benefit of my rangering training angering these ferocious predators and not live to tell the tale. The dark lords behind the illegal wildlife trade have for many years attempted to destroy these magnificent guardians of the forest, with 95% lost in the past century. But as the awesome, growling shape faded into the dense trees and the other animals’ chatter calmed again, I smiled to myself at the knowledge that wild tiger numbers are on the rise for the first time in conservation history.
Tiger habitat (C) IUCN
Because though there are people who seek to remove the magic from this world, there are others like you and I who wish to protect it, and who work out here in the wildness of the world every day to learn about that magic, foster it and watch it grow. So that in this generation and the next, and the next, we will know the fantastic animals of our planet, and where to find them.
The story in this blog post (and the idea of ‘rangering schools’) are fictional; otherwise the blogger would’ve had to have walked from Rwanda to Kenya then materialised in India within a few days, which would really have been magic) but sadly the threats to some of these fantastic animals are real. The good thing is that so is WWF’s work to protect them, as is the truly amazing support from members of the public which make that work possible.