Dusting off cobwebs

2008-01-14 00:00

It was only after I started working in the archives at Queen Elizabeth Park in 1998, while researching material for my book on the history of the Mkhuze Game Reserve, that I realised what an interesting place it was.

In those years the archives were still the responsibility of Bim Dowle, former secretary to the Natal Parks Board, who had done a sterling job in sorting out, indexing, labelling and storing the mass of archival material dating back to the earliest days of the Natal Parks Board. Sadly, when I last visited them, the condition of the two archive rooms left much to be desired, with files piled up on the floor and the room festooned with spider webs.

The content of the archive gains in interest and importance as the years roll by. As someone who has had an ongoing involvement in conservation in KwaZulu-Natal for almost 47 years, it is pure déjà vu to sit at the dusty table in that outside storeroom and re-read my monthly reports from my days at Hluhluwe and Mkhuze, and those of my colleagues dating back to the early sixties, and to relive many of the experiences that we wrote about at the time.

What comes through to me on reading the monthly reports of the Zululand rangers written almost 50 years ago is the complete commitment that they had to their work and their love of the lifestyle that they had chosen for themselves. With a virtual absence of bureaucracy, the field rangers of the day could get on with the important tasks of law enforcement, game capture and the administration of their reserves.

Of even more importance was the fact that if they observed any natural history behaviour of interest they could spend as much time in observing it as they could spare, without their activities being questioned. And their efforts did not go unnoticed either — they regularly received feedback from head office on items of interest in their reports or on anything else that needed comment. My first report sent in after starting at Hluhluwe in May 1960 was acknowledged by Colonel Jack Vincent, director of the board at the time.

In the seventies the format of the monthly reports required from the field staff was changed. The emphasis on the daily diary detailing the activities of the rangers was no longer required and reports on the condition of the game and the veld, and specifically the interesting natural history observations that we were all encouraged to record, fell away. A huge amount of interesting natural history information has thus been lost to us by that decision to change the format of the reports.

Of even more interest and importance perhaps to the historian are the contents of the comprehensive files of press cuttings in the archives. Dating back 50 years, the cuttings in these files are a distillation of all the Board’s activities — its battles, problems and achievements. The proposed deproclamation of the Mkhuze Game Reserve and the suggestion that it be exchanged for the corridor linking the Hluhluwe and Umfolozi Game Reserves received major press coverage, as did another of the board’s major achievements of the sixties, the capture and movement of squarelipped rhinos around the world.

Game capture and the state of Lake St Lucia were two other popular Zululand topics that received extensive press coverage. Reports on the making of the film Zulu, the first photographs of Lammergeyers taken by Bill Barnes and Godfrey Symons, and the establishment of the Giant’s Castle Site Museum focused attention on the Drakensberg area.

The political arena in all matters concerning the board was, of course, a major preoccupation of the press but the press cutting files also contain numerous feature articles covering the facilities offered by the board at the time. Stories of the everyday life of game rangers and their families in the wild were eagerly covered, as were the antics of specific animals in the reserves. Sadly, there were also reports of the deaths of colleagues and game guards.

Taken collectively, the information stored in that dusty repository at Queen Elizabeth Park is of tremendous historical importance and a valuable resource for future conservationists. Let us hope that these valuable records receive the attention and care that they deserve and that they will be preserved for posterity, thereby vindicating the huge effort made by Dowle to safeguard this legacy of the past.

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