"I've been locked down on safari in South Africa, this is what it's been like"

Written by Britt Collins

Lauren Arthur was due to fly home to Edinburgh in April to be with her family for the first time in ages. But coronavirus halted flights and found her stuck in lockdown in one of South Africa’s game reserves. Isolating with a small team and roaming wildlife while the rest of the world had been advised indoors, Lauren tells Stylist how her unique experience of the pandemic has been. 

I never imagined a national lockdown would happen in South Africa. I had booked a flight home to Edinburgh to see my family for the first time in ages and, when the pandemic hit, I was heartbroken at not getting to see my 18-month-old twin niece and nephew, who I’ve only seen twice since they were born. We Facetime every week and, luckily, they’re too young to understand what’s happening but their father (my brother) was gutted.

When I first heard the news about the pandemic, I was working in Djuma Game Reserve in northern Sabi Sands, a private conservancy on the western fringes of the Kruger. I’ve been working as a naturalist TV presenter for WildEarth TV, guiding live and interactive safaris twice a day, educating a global audience on the surrounding wildlife. Missing my family aside, I realised being stranded in a tiny camp in Kruger National Park was the best place possible.

I always put temporary holds on flights with the airlines before paying as, with my job, things change at the last minute. I had a flight on hold for late April and as the news of the pandemic started to increase, I knew I was never getting home. I’d planned on staying in Edinburgh for three weeks, the longest I would’ve been home for in ages as my trips home are usually fleeting. I had no plans, other than squeezing the twins and spending time with family.

I love my WildEarth teammates and my partner is my cameraman so I’m with everyone I need. I’m isolating with a small team of eight people; just enough of a skeleton crew to keep the operation running. We call ourselves the Covid Crew. At first, we were unsure if we could keep operating but everyone one of us was stuck and unable to leave the Sabi Sands.

We all had to take on additional roles, which was tough, such as cooking, cleaning and maintenance. We came together to make this work -exhausted, but once we got legal permission to keep operating we realised people were relying on our broadcasts. We soon realised the impact our broadcasts were having across the world because of lockdown. 

Human connection is important and people tend to care more when they feel involved and that’s what WildEarth strives to do — make people feel like they’re on the back of the safari jeep with us and not at home on the sofa. Our following soared and we had the highest viewership we’d ever had. With viewers from Antarctica, South America, Russia and many more from the UK, WildEarth is more vital than ever. 

Having an entire camp to roam and the freedom to be outside in the bush while much of the world is stuck inside is an extraordinary feeling. The animals are enjoying the peace too and reclaiming the reserve.

A normal day would involve many vehicles from this reserve and neighbouring ones heading out early for sunrise game drives. You can only have three vehicles at a time in a sighting and then you have to queue as there are many rules in place here for the safety and wellbeing of the animals. 

Every vehicle communicates to one another via a game-drive radio and tries to drive different roads or areas to cover a greater area for finding animals. In peak season, it’s very busy with up to ten or fifteen vehicles driving guests from different lodges. Now there are only two or three vehicles driving our reserve.

It’s eerily quiet at times; only the sounds of the wild. Various landowners and staff are also locked down in different lodges so there are some vehicles moving around the park. Every evening hyenas, whom we know, try to join us at the dinner table. The vervet monkeys, little looters, steal everything they can from me, including sunscreen, my multivitamins and my freshly-made veggie breakfast off my plate; I’m a vegan, but sadly struggling to maintain the diet with lack of food choices, so am vegetarian for the moment. 

I fall asleep to the sound of lions roaring and often wake up to fresh leopard tracks outside my room when one of our leopards has taken a little rest on my porch before continuing on their nocturnal stroll. The animals always come close, but I’ve noticed a higher number of animals walking through our camp. I’m not sure if this is because of lockdown or change of seasons as we were going from summer into a harsh winter, but it’s definitely increased recently.

I love the sunrise safaris most because as soon as you roll out of camp, you start looking for clues to what went on during the night. I feel so much more alive when I’m in wide-open spaces with vivid skies, surrounded by animals, compared to the claustrophobia of big cities. I’m privileged to work with a company where we can broadcast daily to share the beauty with everyone. 

We have many characters whom we know and recognise. For most of them, we know their lineages, their age and their territorial movements. This mainly includes lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and African wild dogs, as it’s easy to recognise them individually. I love telling their stories and giving them a voice. I’m completely in love with a gorgeous older male leopard called Tingana, who dominates the area. 

In between filming the show, my partner and I have been working on our own documentary, Too Wild, and travelling across Africa in search of rare, endangered species to tell their stories. Just before lockdown, we came back from Ethiopia where we were searching for the elusive and graceful Ethiopian wolves. We successfully found and filmed them but crushingly, with only 450 individuals remaining in the wild, I may never get to see them again.

So much of the global population has lost or is losing its connection with nature. I hope the pandemic will teach us how sacred it is. Maybe after lockdown many people who’ve been stuck indoors will come to appreciate the beauty of nature and venture out more — from climbing mountains to swimming in oceans or even walking in local parks — and understand the healing powers of our natural world.

Even more so, I’m hoping more people will stop eating meat. Aside from the ethics and incredible cruelty, animal agriculture is devastating the earth, and the leading cause of pollution, land and water scarcity. Our unsustainable way of living has to change. I feel after my lockdown experience, the wildlife will always continue to survive whether people are around or not, it’s us that cannot survive without them. We need wildlife way more than they need us. I want to educate as many people as possible about not just African animals or those we find cute and cuddly like big cats and monkeys, but every living creature. You need to get people to fall in love with the natural world in order to conserve it. 

The global wildlife trade has to end. It’s utterly heart-breaking watching manta rays disappear for the illegal demand for their gills or pangolins for their scales, or to see the incredible sharks, who are integral to their ecosystems, come crashing down. We cannot wipe out entire species and cause unimaginable suffering for our own selfish desires and greed. Everything in nature is connected, having an impact on one species will have a knock-on effect on another, even the ocean is important when teaching people about the African bush. As legendary explorer, Sylvia Earle once said, “Without blue, there would be no green.” 

WildEarth broadcasts for the sunrise safari – 5am – 8am GMT, and sunset safari at 2:30pm-5:30pm GMT. 

Images: courtesy of Lauren Arthur

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