So here we go. After a first round of presidential elections, supposedly free and fair, voters were left last month with a choice of two highly polarized candidates. As this article goes to press, the result should have been announced and the winner will have assumed office on July 1. I am certainly not going to predict the winner. After all in the first round, with 11 candidates vying for the ultimate post, pundits, right, left and center had espoused their opinions in every form of the media. And they were, almost without exception, wrong — such are the vagaries of punditry.
But I will join the prophetic in making a different prediction. In my long-standing position as a columnist, albeit a wildlife columnist, I will enter the political fray — which is, after all, wild — and predict the new president will be male.
There you have it. Obvious, you might say, given that the only female hopeful Bothaina Kamel failed to qualify. That is a crying shame, given Tahrir Square on the night of February 11, 2011. There I mingled with men and women, Copts and Muslims, adults and children, everyone from the glorious spectrum of Egyptian society. It was heady. It was great. And many were women. In the West, gender issues too often take on an elevated academic importance. In Tahrir that night, it was the real world and everyone really counted.
And yet we had 11 male candidates vying for president. In natural history parlance, we had 11 massive silverback Gorillas, 11 fully maned lions, 11 resplendent male birds of paradise performing ostentatiously before the female voters.
It seems that it is up to a wildlife columnist, and a male wildlife columnist at that, to espouse the feminist tract. The human consorts to the remaining male candidates seem to make wimpish profiles. In the local press, all I could find was the odd line here and there promising they would not indulge in politics or current affairs.
Women can make damn good leaders. And I call as my first witness the African Wild Dog, also called the Cape Hunting Dog, Wild Dog or African Hunting Dog. (Lycaon pictus for the persnickity or the purist.)
The African Wild Dog is about the size of a skinny German Shepherd — the breed that is, not a malnourished Bavarian sheep minder. And skinny as in super fit, not as in underfed. Its lean form is decorated in a patchwork of black, tan and white; tortoiseshell if you will, but there is always a pure white tip to the oh-so-exuberant tail. They live in packs, sometimes large packs of dozens of dogs. But each pack is ruled by a female, a matriarch, the Alpha female. She dictates what the pack does, male and female. No other female produces offspring. No male gets to mate except with her, and only if she chooses.
The Alpha female, one recorded in Ancient Egypt. On an exquisite gray schist palette dated from predynastic times, around 4000 BC, there are four African Wild Dogs depicted surrounding a solitary date palm and two very clearly represented Giraffes. All the diagnostics are there: the lean form, the long tufted tail and the huge, broad rounded ears, a feature found in no other Egyptian canid. The Giraffe, a species never recorded here in the wild later than Early Dynastic Egypt, are extensively portrayed in predynastic petroglyphs throughout the Western Desert.
The African Wild Dog is no longer found in Egypt and is now one of the most endangered predators in Africa. I have seen it once. I was in South Africa on my penultimate night and getting round a brai, that splendidly ubiquitous South African barbecue, with friends in a Jo’berg backyard. I was being regaled with the joys of Boer War battle sites when, during a rare opportunity for intervention, I managed to interject that I would really, really, REALLY like to see an African Wild Dog.
“Really,” said my Boer War anorak, and he gave me the details of the Madikwe Park on the Botswana border some 300 miles away. To cut a very long story short, including my arrest and detention by authorities who take speeding very seriously indeed, I got to Madikwe and within minutes was on my first and only possible game drive. Way into the night, I was told that there were no Wild Dogs to be seen that night. I was disappointed but could hardly gripe. I had a Lesser Galago (a primitive primate perhaps better known as a bushbaby) under my belt as well as a stunning White-faced Scops Owl. I was not complaining.
Then as we drew near our camp, we came to an abrupt halt. There in the African night, the vast and glorious African night, was a pack of dogs squeaking and screeching in an orgy of socialization. From the seething, moonlit mass of tortoiseshell erupted the eagerly wagging, pristine white tail tips flaunted like beacons. This was a pack of African Wild Dogs about to hunt, and the vocalizations were audible and the pack cohesion was palpable. This was special, truly an amazing experience: 300 miles on a whim made worthwhile.
As said, the African Wild Dog is no longer found in Egypt. It disappeared thousands of years ago most likely due to climatic change, the desertification of what is now modern Egypt. But while the canid icon to female leadership has gone, another feminist symbol thrives. This is the Painted Snipe, a secretive crepuscular bird of deep swamps and marshes and more fortunately sewage farms.
The male Painted Snipe is a handsome enough bird, some 24 centimeters long, long billed, slightly down-curved, and cryptically beige and brown with a prominent eye-stripe. But the female is bigger, brighter and bolder. And she does not just look the part, in deep chestnut and gleaming white, she acts the part. The female Painted Snipe initiates the nuptials, spreading her flamboyantly patterned wings in front of the male in an ostentatious courtship display. Having mated, she is off looking for more males: males who will build the nest, incubate the eggs, and care for and rear the young.
Underwater, it is even more complicated. Just like the presidential candidates, Amre Moussa, Mohamed Morsi, Abdelmoneim Aboul Fotouh, et al, flaunted themselves from gaudy billboards across the country, our male Red Sea fish do the same beneath the waves, with a great deal more experience and somewhat more panache. Male parrotfish will cavort in flamboyant turquoises, reds and purples. Male Anthias, the ubiquitous goldfish of the reef, will adopt exaggerated dorsal fins, and male damsel and angelfishes of a myriad species will be feeling Spring. But for one group, that Spring takes on a different and life changing context. Even sex changing.
The Red Sea Anemone Fish, or Clownfish, is familiar to anyone who has dived or snorkeled in Egypt’s Red Sea. It is not large, 12 to 14 cm long, and is dramatically patterned in orange with black- bordered white bands. So far pretty and benign. But it lives within the poisonous tentacles of a number of stinging anemone species. It gets away with this by an elaborate piece of deception. Within its Medusa’s head of a home, the young clownfish coats itself with the mucus of the anemone to the point that the stinging anemone cannot distinguish the gob-coated fish from its own tentacles. The fish lives in total impunity in a swaying environment of protective venom.
But the Red Sea Anemone Fish must reproduce. The dominant anemone fish within those swaying tentacles of toxin is a female, a matriarch. Her minions are all smaller males and regular females. On her demise — and even a female Red Sea Anemone Fish has to meet her maker — the dominant male takes over and in doing so morphs into a dominant female. It is not a takeover the Salafis would approve of — perhaps they’ll ban it! But it happens. Life underwater is every bit as fluid as the turbulent terrestrial world of today’s Egyptian politics. et