Who Protects Africa’s Wildlife?
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN SOUTH AFRICA
SOME unkind things have been said about the way Africans view their wildlife heritage. ‘They have no real appreciation for it; they just view it as a source of food and money,’ some visitors say. A reason for these conclusions? Reserves are often full of Western tourists and very few locals. But a Zulu chief in South Africa once explained: “There are difficulties in the way of blacks visiting game reserves. To us wildlife conservation is a luxury which only a handful of blacks are in an economic position to enjoy.”
Many Africans today, unlike their forefathers, grow up in city slums, where they are cut off from wildlife. Also, rural dwellers are often victims of poverty and neglect. “Only those with full bellies can afford to preserve game purely for aesthetic, cultural and education reasons,” explained a game warden of a West African country.
In spite of these negative factors, wildlife is a popular theme in African art, as a visit to African curio shops will testify. Archaeology reveals wild animals as a theme of African art from ancient times. Is that not proof of an aesthetic appreciation for wildlife?
Consider the case of Abel and Rebecca, who have spent a number of vacations in game reserves of southern Africa. Yet, both grew up in black townships of South Africa. Rebecca’s interest in wildlife got started thanks to public zoos in Johannesburg and Pretoria. “As a child,” she explains, “the only time we saw wild animals was when we visited these zoos.”
Abel’s love for wildlife started differently. He often spent school holidays in the rurals with his grandparents. “My grandfather,” he recalls, “would point out different animals and explain their habits. I remember his telling me about the honey badger and a clever little bird, the greater honey guide, which is believed to lead animals to beehives.” Abel relates this fascinating experience he had as a 12-year-old boy.
“One day, while we were walking in the bush, my grandfather drew my attention to a small bird that seemed to be calling us. It was a honey guide. So we followed the bird as it flew ahead from bush to bush. This went on for over half an hour. Eventually the bird rested on a branch and stopped calling. My grandfather said we must now look around for the hive. Sure enough, we soon saw bees entering a hole under a rock. Carefully my grandfather extracted some honey. Then he took a piece of comb with larvae in it and placed it on the rock. This was his way of saying thank you to the bird for leading us to the beehive.”
This remarkable relationship between man and the honey guide has been well documented by ornithologists. “I will never forget the experience,” continues Abel. “It made me want to learn more about wildlife.”
A former Masai warrior of Tanzania, Solomon ole Saibull, who later qualified as a wildlife conservationist, put matters in perspective when he gently explained to a Western author: “I know a large number of Africans who appreciate not only the economics of wildlife preservation, but also the intangible values . . . These are people—Africans—who can sit and watch Nature as it manifests itself in different subtle ways. The setting sun over the mauve hills, the lush scenery and the landscapes of rivers and valleys, the variety and abundance of creatures in their entire freedom—all forming a multitude of fascinating phenomena. Surely, this rather fine feeling is not confined to Europe and America?”
Yes, from humble township dwellers to highly educated scientists—who can fail to be impressed by Africa’s wildlife heritage? A German veterinary student who recently visited South Africa and its Kruger National Park said: “I found the nature and wildlife to be the most interesting and fascinating thing about this country. With our small variety of big game and shortage of space in Germany, nature recreation and conservation on this scale is totally unknown to me.”
Tourists are also attracted to the vast wildlife reserves in Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. But perhaps the largest concentration of big game in Africa is found in and around the Serengeti National Park of Tanzania and Masai Mara Game Reserve of Kenya. These famous parks adjoin each other, and the animals are not fenced in. “Together,” explains International Wildlife magazine, “the Serengeti-Mara supports one of the world’s greatest wildlife populations: 1.7 million wildebeest, 500,000 gazelles, 200,000 zebras, 18,000 elands, plus a substantial number of elephant, lion and cheetah.”
John Ledger, editor of the South African journal Endangered Wildlife, paid his first visit to Kenya in 1992 and described it as ‘a dream come true.’ The Masai Mara, he wrote, “must be like the landscapes of yesterday that Cornwallis Harris [19th-century author and hunter] saw, as he explored the interior of South Africa in the 1820’s. Rolling grasslands, sparse thorn trees, and numerous wild animals, as far as the eye can see!”
A Shadow of Past Glory
Sadly, in much of Africa today, we see far fewer animals than European settlers saw in past centuries. For example, in 1824 the first white man settled in what became the British colony of Natal (now a province of South Africa). The small colony teemed with so much wildlife that hunting trophies and other wildlife products were its main trade. In one year, up to 62,000 wildebeest skins and zebra skins were shipped from Durban harbor, and in another record year, over 19 tons of ivory was exported. Soon, the white population had grown to over 30,000, but most of the game had been wiped out. “There is very little game left,” reported a Natal magistrate in 1878.
The same sad story can be told in other parts of Africa where colonial governments allowed the destruction of wildlife to continue well into the 20th century. Consider Angola, which gained independence from Portugal in 1975. “The record of the former colonial regime,” writes Michael Main in his book Kalahari, “is not impressive. In order to open the Huila District for cattle ranching, the notorious Diploma Legislativo Number 2242 of 1950 declared the area a free hunting zone. As a result, a mass slaughter of game took place . . . Virtually every large mammal was eliminated. It has been estimated that the slaughter included 1,000 black rhino, several thousand giraffe, and tens of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and buffalo. The Diploma was not repealed for nearly two and a half years, by which time the damage was done, and there were no animals left.”
But what is the situation today, and what kind of future awaits Africa’s wildlife?
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Wildlife Cash Reserves
Africa’s game reserves and national parks are scattered about this vast continent to an estimated total of 330,000 square miles [850,000 sq km]. That is equivalent to an area much larger than Britain and Germany combined.
In many of these wildlife reserves, you can see the so-called big five—elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo. From majestic eagles soaring in the skies to lowly dung beetles rolling their balls of manure across roads, there are numerous creatures to fascinate the eye.
Thousands of overseas tourists appreciate this wildlife. Each year they pour more than a billion dollars into countries that cater to wildlife enthusiasts. Yes, wildlife reserves bring in cash.
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Not too long ago, countless thousands of wild animals were killed each year for trophies and skins in South Africa
Courtesy Africana Museum, Johannesburg