Saving the Zululand wilderness

2008-12-02 00:00

STORIES of poaching make headlines — one picture of a mutilated rhino in a newspaper will provoke readers’ letters for days. But in the 19th century, stockpiled ivory in the Durban docks waiting for a ship was a common sight, and one that caused little concern.

A new book — Saving the Zululand Wilderness: An Early Struggle for Nature Conservation — which looks at the beginnings of the change in attitude over the past century and a half as well as why we can still see game in our province, has just been published. The author is Professor Donal McCracken, the Dean of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and, before he found himself in full-time university administration, an environmental historian.

“I have two green interests in my writing,” he says. “Irish history and the environment. I’ve got a book on the Irish in Africa coming out next year in Dublin.” Ireland and Africa are in McCracken’s blood. He still sounds like an Irishman, but, as he says, his family has floated back and forward between Africa and Ireland since 1912. His father was also a professor of history, but in Ireland.

McCracken usually has several books on the go at once — it keeps him from getting bored. And he doesn’t believe in being straitjacketed into writing about whatever is fashionable. One of his books is about the Botanical Gardens that were created in the British Empire — the one in Durban is the oldest to survive in Africa. “Ten years ago, that sort of history would have had me regarded as a nutter here,” he says. “People would say ‘what relevance does that have?’. In Britain, it would be regarded as mainline, but in South Africa, history is still very narrowly focused.”

He is hoping that Saving the Zululand Wilderness will help to break these barriers. The book is footnoted — so will appeal to an academic readership as well as to those involved in conservation and, says McCracken, to discerning tourists. It is a very attractive publication, lavishly illustrated with contemporary maps and drawings.

McCracken is particularly fascinated by one of the maps, an 1885 sketch he found in the Pietermaritzburg archives showing a boundary near the Ongoye forest in southern Zululand. Among the points of interest marked are 43 trees, with their Zulu names. “I want to lead an expedition up there,” he says. “It would be a walk of about 40 kilometres, and I want to see how many of the trees are still there.”

The book tells the story of the early hunters and traders who set off into what, in the first part of the 19th century, really still was a wilderness. “It’s easy for the Greens [the non-Irish kind] to jump up and down and have righteous indignation about hunting and so on,” says McCracken. “But what happened in Zululand was not the same as what happened in East Africa or Zimbabwe. The hunters and traders weren’t professionals, or toffs. They were young lads who had jobs, and then got an ox wagon and went up there. A lot of the Africans who went with them stayed on and hunted on their own account, but there weren’t fortunes to be made. It was a risky business — the foolhardy didn’t survive — and that ensured the survival of the game.”

Hunting by both blacks and whites was inevitable, says McCracken. He admits to strong opinions about African attitudes to the environment, rejecting the views of those, like the 18th-century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who see them as people living in harmony with nature.

“They were like peasant farmers anywhere — nature was a force to be overcome. Fundamentally, I don’t see any difference in attitude to game between a 15th-century Irish farmer faced with wolves after his sheep and an African farmer in the 1850s with jackals after his cattle. I’ve tried to write it in such a way that I don’t point fingers.”

However, McCracken knows that something that comes through strongly in the book and may be unpopular is his praise for the magistrates in Zululand. “Like it or not, they were the heroes,” he says. “After the Anglo-Zulu War, when Zululand had been conquered by the British, they had to rule maybe 30 000 people — one magistrate and half a dozen African police constables. They had to rule by grace and favour.”

McCracken went through every Zululand archive box for over 20 years, ferreting things out — old maps, and the names of the African game guards. “I’m a great one for recording for posterity,” he says. “It’s good if you can give someone a name.”

Colonial administrators also cropped up in McCracken’s botanical gardens research. “Educated Victorians were fascinated by science — it permeated through all these characters,” he says. He cites Irishman Roger Casement, probably best known as the man who exposed the brutality of Belgian rule in the Congo, and was executed by the British during World War 1 as a traitor. “He spent most of his time chasing butterflies,” says McCracken. “His collection is still mouldering away in the basement of the Natural History museum in Dublin. That’s what really excited him.” And, of course, he fulfils both of McCracken’s green interests.

McCracken agrees that some of the things said against the magistrates and administrators may be true — and a lot of what they did was “species-mongering”, discovering animals and plants so that they could be named after their discoverer. Many also hunted as well. But without their input, there would be no Zululand reserves now.

Another thing that saved the wilderness was its inaccessibility — there were no roads and Zululand was not on the way to anywhere, unlike the Transkei region, which at the time had just as much game. If a hunter had to leave his ox wagon and start walking, there was a limit to how much he could kill and carry back. And, of course, the guns they had were not like guns now. Guns and roads made the contest between man and big animal more equal.

As McCracken tells the story, the early hunters and traders had an endearing side. There was a casualness about their enterprise as they wandered through wars and battles among the locals, and they were never interfered with by the Zulus. They peppered their notebooks with bad poetry, and many of them were amateur scientists.

McCracken’s book ends in the early years of the 20th century. He sees those early years as the ones that were vital in the saving of the wilderness. And he admits that he likes the people he writes about to be dead. “Like the Irish say about the police,” he says. “Six feet under for seven years and then you can trust them.

“To me, contemporary history is just intellectual journalism. You have to let time pass and the dirt bubble up through the surface.” So if someone else wants to bring the story up-to-date, they can. McCracken has moved on.

• 'Saving the Zululand Wilderness: An Early Struggle for Nature Conservation' by Donal McCracken is published by Jacana.

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