Local men get chance to get up close and personal with African wildlife

BIG RAPIDS –  What would you do if presented with the opportunity to go to Africa?

In the case of Robert Scharp, a Big Rapids-area dentist, and James Scott, a veterinarian at Riverbend Animal Hospital, they jumped at the chance.

“The North American Veterinary Community is planning a trip to Africa, ‘Would you like to go?’ (Scott) asked me, thinking I’d say no,” Scharp said. “Of course, I said yes, and told him, ‘This counts double for you.’”

IN THE WILD: James Scott (far right) takes pictures of a silver back gorilla, along with other members of the NAVC expedition. They were required to stay at least seven meters from the gorillas.

IN THE WILD: James Scott (far right) takes pictures of a silver back gorilla, along with other members of the NAVC expedition. They were required to stay at least seven meters from the gorillas.

The two traveled to Africa as a part of the NAVC Expedition: Rwanda Gorilla Trekking and Tanzania Safari. Over the course of 12 days, the group of 22 veterinarians, and one dentist, visited mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and the wildlife in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and in the Ngorongoro Conservation Center. Throughout the trip, participants also attended lectures concerning conservation efforts of the wildlife they had spent all day with.

“It was an educational trip, with up to two hours of lecture a day,” Scott said. “We also had guides and interpreters who would explain the area around us as we hiked.”

Scharp and Scott have been friends for nearly 25 years. Before their trip to Africa, they would take turns organizing an activity to do together, such as attending a concert at Blue Lake or seeing a play.

When it was Scott’s turn to plan an outing, the veterinarian, who is on the NAVC’s email list, discovered the organization’s pending trip to Africa. Without hesitation, the duo booked it in October 2013.

The group departed on June 14, first flying to Amsterdam and then to Kigali — the capital of Rwanda. While there, they visited the Genocide Memorial Museum and the Iby’ Iwachu Cultural Village.

Next on the schedule was a trip to Rwanda’s Volcano National Park. On the first day, the group climbed three and half hours to 12,000 feet above sea level to observe eight habituated gorilla groups, which they could observe and photograph.

“One of the highlights we saw was a four-hour-old baby gorilla. It had just been born,” Scharp said. “And that group we were observing, the silverback walked right in front of me. I could have reached out and touched him.”

After spending two days trekking with the mountain gorillas, the group departed to the Serengeti in Tanzania to observe a wildebeest migration.

“They migrate by the millions,” Scott said. “It was like a river. It was the most incredible thing to see.”

At the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the group photographed wildlife such as giraffes, cheetahs, lions, wild African dogs and Cape buffalo.

“The animals kind of ignore the vehicles you travel in,” Scharp said. “There was a lion five feet away from where I was taking pictures. It was awesome. You’re torn between taking pictures and just watching. And then when you see the wildebeest migration, as far as you can see.”

After many days abroad, the group finally traveled to Arusha, the site of Mount Kilimanjaro, and traveled home on June 24.

“It’s the trip of a lifetime,” Scharp said. “I was gone 12 days, but I was homesick. I missed my wife and my farm. I had mixed emotions. I was glad to be coming home but it’s the trip of a lifetime.”

PIONEER GOES EVERYWHERE: James Scott and Robert Scharp take a break from observing the gorillas to pose with the Pioneer. (Courtesy photo)

PIONEER GOES EVERYWHERE: James Scott and Robert Scharp take a break from observing the gorillas to pose with the Pioneer. (Courtesy photo)

While there, the group learned firsthand the realities of conservation efforts in Africa.

“You sit there and observe the wildlife, it is just unbelievable,” Scott said. “It brings tears to your eyes because you know it’s possible for all this conservation effort to unravel in a second – the government is just so unstable. But I never felt like I was in danger.”

Visiting the country also revealed realities such as how much of Africa is cultivated, rather than undeveloped, and that issues like poverty can drive people to poach.

“The least wealthy person in Mecosta County has more wealth than almost everybody you see there,” Scharp said.

“A lot of people in the country are in desperate situations,” Scott added. “The poaching comes from people who have to go to great lengths to care for their families. The only way to save the animals is to help the people. Desperate people do desperate things. But most of the people doing the conservation work are native Africans, which I am happy to see.”

Now that they’re home, how will the duo top their trip to Africa?

“Now it’s my turn to plan an activity,” Scharp said. “I’m thinking the space shuttle.”

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