by Hannes Wessels
“The number of wild animals on Earth has halved in the past 40 years, according to a new analysis. Creatures across land, rivers and the seas are being decimated as humans kill them for food in unsustainable numbers, while polluting or destroying their habitats, the research by scientists at WWF and the Zoological Society of London found.”
While the report does not say as much (probably so as not to give offence) there can be little doubt the African continent, with an exploding population, slash and burn agriculture the order of the day and little or no protection provided to fauna or flora, is suffering the worst damage. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Bono, Bob Geldof and the gang can take a bow and will probably argue that human life is sacrosanct so see no reason to discontinue doing all they can to spur population growth to the cheers of the dumb do-gooders but for some of us this makes wretched reading. There is every likelihood, such is the speed of the slaughter, that my children are to be denied the thrill of being with wild animals in wild places and this, while being tragic is also unnecessary.
It is against this backdrop that reading Brian Herne’s book brings with it enjoyment tinged with nostalgia and anger as he describes a paradise all but lost with captivating personalities and exciting events while relating the history of the country from settlement through the colonial period, the violence of the Mau Mau and on to ‘Uhuru’ (independence from British rule) under Jomo Kenyatta. The book is full of famous names from Roosevelt to Robert Ruark, Hemingway to William Holden, Grace Kelly, the Blixens, Denys Finch Hatton and George Adamson are some described along with a roll-call of English and European royals. All had some association with Kenya and Herne captures their moments with vivid, vibrant style.
At the same time relating the lives and times of the Kenyan ‘White Hunters’ who were an unusual breed of mostly well-bred English gentlemen addicted to big-game danger; lady-killers who lived recklessly, made and lost fortunes and paradoxically devoted much of their lives to saving the animals they killed. And this is why the book bring regret; because it is a reminder of a time when good sense and fundamentally good men held sway and what a wonderful world it was for man and beast alike.
In a way to it was US President Teddy Roosevelt who made the initial point in the African context that hunters were the best protectors and such a person was he. While relishing the thrill of the chase and quick to kill he was also vocal on the need for well managed conservation systems that would allow consumptive but sustainable use of wildlife. Following on from this it was the Kenyan ‘white hunters’ and not bone-headed bureaucrats who formulated and implemented the mechanisms that provided the platforms for excellent wildlife management that yielded bountiful returns. John Alexander, Bill Woodley, Russel Bowker Douglas, Eric|Rundgren, Glen Cottar, Brian Nicholson, Peter Jenkins and Frank Poppleton are only some of the names of hunters from that period who played critical and effective roles in conservation in East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya).
What is astonishing, when one witnesses the number of people employed today and the equipment demanded, is how much they got done with so little. The reason is they were not only highly competent in the field, they were also physically tough, dedicated and they knew how to work well with their African scouts and staff. Add to this, these were not men to shy away from confrontation so armed poachers were given no quarter and ‘environmental counselling’ by silly social workers was not on the law enforcement agenda. The model worked too well.
So when independence arrived it was not long before the new rulers started to make life miserable for the hunters who were a thorn in their collective sides as they continued their endeavours to protect the game. Eventually the ‘white hunters’ were closed down in Kenya and soon Nyerere in Tanzania followed suit. These decisions were widely applauded by the bellicose, liberal, pseudo-intelligentsia. In a single decree the ‘liberated leaders’ of post-independent Africa were being rid of the beastly pale-skinned hunters and simultaneously being rid of ugly icons of the recently vanquished capitalist colonial past. Almost everyone cheered but the wildlife.
The mass-killing, as soon as the ‘white hunters’ were evicted, began with a bloodletting in Tanzania which saw over a 100,000 elephant gunned down in the Selous Reserve to part-pay the Chinese for the new railway from Dar es Salaam to Lusaka but this was just the start of it and the sad story continues to unfold to this day. The ‘white hunters’ of Africa are now almost history and the last real line of protection in most remote parts of Africa has been removed.
This is why reading Herne’s book made me happy thinking about what was then but also very sad thinking about what is now!