Sunday, 19 September 2021

No 121 – Representing Kruger National Park


I was conceived
in Kruger National Park. So said my mother, anyway, and she should know – ‘with the moon singing in wild grass/ to a lion’s pulsing roar’, as she put in a poem. Though oddly I haven’t been back to the scene of the crime very often, I realise that willy-nilly I’ve accumulated a number of books on Kruger, and sought out a couple of new ones. So here’s a scratchy and incomplete list of things to read on South Africa’s flagship, iconic wildlife sanctuary.

 ‘Flagship’; ‘iconic’ – the kind of language often bandied about. But flagship of what philosophy, exactly? Iconic in whose eyes? Almost a century old now, the KNP has meant many different things to different people.

 You might as well begin with the KNP’s very first Warden, James Stevenson-Hamilton (1867-1957). English-born, trained at Sandhurst, and erstwhile rider with an irregular Boer War unit called Steinacker’s Horse, Stevenson-Hamilton was first appointed Chief Ranger of the Sabi and Singwitsi Reserves, later incorporated into the KNP. He remained Warden for 44 years. Feisty and stubborn, he spearheaded a shift from unthinking extermination of wild animals to ‘preservationist’ ethics in the face of an often indifferent and dilatory bureaucracy. A competent administrator and writer, two books of his in many ways set the pattern for future accounts.

 The first, a memoir, he entitled South African Eden – an early hint of how a mythology of ‘pristine’ wilderness, of an imagined stable and original state to which the park should be returned and maintained, would come to dominate popular rhetoric and at times deleteriously skew management policy. In fact, the region carved out for the KNP was far from Edenic and untouched: it had been inhabited and used by humans for centuries, despite being malarial, and was all but bare of wildlife when Stevenson-Hamilton started. There were a mere 10 elephants, for example. South African Eden was first published in 1937; the 1993 Struik edition I possess includes a Foreword by his son, and is edited by Jane Carruthers, about whom more in a moment.

 Stevenson-Hamilton’s second book is more a study or survey of the KNP’s various animals, entitled Wild Life in South Africa (1947), thereby setting an exceptionally low bar for imaginative titles. Though richly amplified by personal experiences, it had some pretensions to science – there are short chapters devoted to the Orygine, Alcephaline, Tragelaphine, and Cephalophine Antelopes, for example. Four chapters on the lion, but not much on birds, and nothing on vegetation and insects. In a way, it is still marked by the Big Game obsessions of the hunting fraternity out of which the KNP partly sprang. But as Stevenson-Hamilton remarks in his foreword, even short lapses in time are liable to render accepted wisdoms about animal behaviour redundant, even dangerously deluded: ‘towards the end of a lifetime of observation, the student begins to comprehend how little he knows’. Any ‘mental complacency’ can cause ‘irreparable mischief’, especially as humans have ‘such absolute power over the existences of other creatures of the earth’. Nature, he concluded darkly, ‘has her own way of wreaking vengeance.’ Seventy years on, this is more pertinent than ever. One such delusion involved lions: generally regarded as inimical ‘vermin’, they were early on almost eliminated from park precincts – several hundred killed by Stevenson-Hamilton himself – until it dawned that ‘within their proper sphere, [they perform] useful work in Nature’s economy’. It took many more years for insight, experience and research to reveal the similar problems with mass-culling elephants.

 Stevenson-Hamilton’s extraordinary career has occupied a decent chunk of environmental historian Jane Carruthers’ time. Her biography of the man himself, Wildlife & Warfare (2001) is eminently readable. More important, perhaps, is her earlier compact study, The Kruger National Park; A social and political history (1995). This is truly the definitive history, not in the sense that it is the last word on the subject (it is not), but in that it defines the field going forward; no subsequent scholar can validly ignore it. Through meticulous archival research, Carruthers unveils the complex, often tooth-grindingly slow legislative build-up to achieving the declaration of the KNP in 1926, the conflicts between political blocs as power shifted from Dutch/Boer hands to British, the emergent influence of North American park policies, the role of the hunting lobby, of racist land-use ideas, and of government bodies long indifferent to the whole idea. The actual preservation of wild animals for the delectation of non-lethal tourists was only one of a slew of motivations for wildlife reserves in those early days.

 Above all, Carruthers decisively debunks the myth that Oom Paul Kruger was the lonely, heroic and forward-thinking advocate for the park. Not only was his interest in wildlife confined to the consumption of biltong (as Stevenson-Hamilton snorted), legislatively he had virtually nothing to do with it. The naming was a manoeuvre of nationalistic politics, no more. Less space in the book is devoted to the period after 1926, and unlike the warden/ranger accounts, remains focussed on what people were doing, rather than on animal behaviours. Especially important is a chapter on Africans’ presence and role. Far from being simply ejected from the KNP, though some two thousand were, local communities had always lived there, criss-crossed it, and derived a living from it (suddenly transformed into ‘poaching’ and ‘trespassing’). And some continued to live and work there.

Over the years, as the KNP became increasingly organised, visited, managed – a massive enterprise over an area the size of Belgium – many rangers came and went, and a number wrote memoirs. Their style became increasingly generic, rather like the nineteenth-century hunting accounts of which they are descendants, a mix of self-deprecating derring-do encounters with dangerous animals and pragmatic ruminations on management policies. I’ve by no means read all of these memoirs (including one by the appropriately named Kobie Kruger), but I have a couple to hand. The earliest is by one of Stevenson-Hamilton’s own colleagues, Harry Wolhuter. He too had been a youngster in Steinacker’s Horse in the Boer (sorry, South African) War, some members of which had plundered (poached) big game themselves. It’s interesting how soldiers and hunters at the time migrated and transformed themselves into a ranger elite, quasi-military to this day. Wolhuter’s Memories of a Game Ranger (see what I mean about unimaginative titles?), published in 1948, celebrated (also) 44 years of service under Stevenson-Hamilton: ‘no superior officer was more loyal, kindly, and considerate to his subordinates’. (In fact, that superior officer often confessed himself enraged by subordinates he considered naive idiots, but he was nice to Wolhuter in his Foreword to the latter’s Memories. He approvingly noted Wolhuter’s ‘tendency to understatement’, which also seems a constant feature of the ranger mode.) Richly endowed with small and competent line drawings, Wolhuter’s book drifts from lively narrative about his earlier life, war effort, and induction into game preservation, to chapters more strongly centred on individual species or groups of species, observations on behaviour leavened with laconic accounts of hair-raising encounters with cobras, lions, buffalos, etc.

 By 1995, when ranger Bruce Bryden published A Game Ranger Remembers, the world (except book titles) had changed enormously. The structure of the memoir, though, remains similar: a farrago of chattily delivered anecdotes devoted to experiences the ordinary citizen will never have, some clustered around particular species in racy chapters. As the blurb has it: ‘there is a great deal of shooting, and a fair amount of running away ... extraordinary characters ... hilarious mishaps ... and throughout, a great love and respect for both the wilderness and the creatures that inhabit it.’ But the modern ranger is also a scientifically trained ecologist (Bryden began his career doing lion research). Instead of shank’s mare and the occasional horse he has Land Rover, Bell 205 helicopter and R1 rifle at his disposal; he has to wade through as much dull administration as adventure; and he spends not a little time killing off animals perceived as overpopulating or being a ‘problem’ in and around a now ferociously defended park. Primary of course among these difficult animals is the elephant – a matter of deeply conflicted emotions to a man who loves elephants but is obliged by KNP management policy to slaughter large numbers of them. He defends the strategy of culling, even as he is contemptuous of armchair policy-makers – as was Stevenson-Hamilton. Pragmatic, tough, knowledgeable, determinedly humorous in the face of danger, with a conventional denial of stylistic flair that is itself a point of conscious stylistic choice: that’s our contemporary ranger.

The ranger memoir partakes not a little of the narrative techniques of fiction – and of course there are novels involving the KNP, too, though I don’t know of many centred on it. One I glanced at as part of my book, Death & Compassion, was a fairly trashy novel entitled Elephant Across Border by Colin Burke (1968). The border in question is the Mozambique-KNP boundary, which has ever been vexed (especially the northern frontier around so-called Crooks’ Corner). The international border had been carved right through resident human communities as well as traditional animal migration routes (the KNP, for all its size, is hardly a coherent ecosystem). The novel is set at that transitional period when fences were poor, poachers overlapped with so-called professional hunters, and the ranger was just becoming the new hero. In the story, the KNP provides sanctuary for a great elephant tusker, one of those which a certain class of macho posturers did – and still do – find it somehow satisfying to blast into oblivion. And of course the KNP features strongly in Deon Meyer’s thriller, Blood Safari. Know any others?


I was particularly taken with the title of Mitch Reardon’s book Shaping Kruger (2012), recognising as it does that various forces – both human and natural – have built the KNP: though it’s big enough for lots of natural processes to unfold independently of (or at least oblivious to) human interference, it is fundamentally an artefact. (He has also written Shaping Addo.)  He admittedly, like the hunters and rangers before him, focuses his 12 substantial chapters on the usual suspects of the ‘charismatic megafauna’ – elephant, lion, buffalo and so on – but he does devote some chapters to otherwise potentially overlooked mammals, including impala and roan antelope. In all cases, anyway, he writes well and illuminatingly. He explains intriguing behaviours; makes specialised and up-to-date research accessible; delves into the unfolding phases and failures of historical management; and has a poetic touch which elevates his descriptions a notch above those tempting clichés. Indeed, he is concerned to disburse the older ideas of some Edenic ideal landscape, in favour of fluid and sometimes unpredictable biodiversity models. The scientific/managerial focus is leavened with just enough rangery personal anecdote to bring it back to real encounter. The book itself is charmingly designed, with pertinent photographs in full colour. In all, I’d recommend Shaping Kruger as a very good place to start reading about the KNP.

 Another decent starting point might be David Fleminger’s Fair Game (2018). Though it’s entitled A hidden history of the Kruger National Park, it doesn’t really add new knowledge to the literary landscape, but for a first-time visitor to the field (or the park) it is certainly filled with short-section nuggets, ranging from the Delagoa rail line to Jock of the Bushveld, from elephant culling to the Makulele land claim. Stevenson-Hamilton nevertheless dominates the historical first half of this 200-page book. The second half is aimed more at the tourist, a what-to-do-and-see overview; though detailed, there are no illustrations and inadequate maps. The book falls a bit uneasily between potted history and guide-book, which explains why publishers wouldn’t take it on, and Fleminger had to self-publish. Still, it’s quite fetchingly written, with thoughtful discussions and rich information.

Finally, at least two recent academic books have taken new approaches to discussing the meanings of the KNP. Leslie Dikeni is a well-established researcher with the universities of Wits and Pretoria, with a pet project of challenging the government’s ‘deterministic’ developmental programme. He extends this interest in Habitat and Struggle (Real African Publishers, 2016) – on the awful uninformative cover the designer has unaccountably added an exclamation mark, which over-dramatises the analytical content. As one might expect from the recirculation of an academic thesis, the book bears an unwieldy subtitle, ‘A study of the outcome of the interface between government, NGOs, managers of natural resources and local communities.’ What the book shows, in effect, is that there are many interfaces, many competing interests and cultural understandings of the KNP and its surrounds that centralised planners brush over. For my literary taste there is unnecessary emphasis on sociological methodology, which I suspect is not as revolutionary as Dikeni claims, nor are his conclusions ultimately terribly exciting. It’s ‘complex’, basically. What’s most interesting is the range of interviewees Dikeni encounters, from ministers to rangers, from local chiefs to park workers. He includes extracts of the interviews themselves, so one can see how Dikeni’s questioning progresses, and get glimpses into the life-stories of multiple actors. Albeit somewhat bitty, these provide the central interest for me.

Jacob Dlamini
is already well-known for his book, Native Nostalgia. In Safari Nation (Jacana, 2020) he produces another ‘social history’ of the KNP. Essentially he picks up the shorter discussion of Africans’ presence contained in Jane Carruthers’ earlier history. He doesn’t radically challenge Carruthers’ foray, but greatly extends it, drawing on a range of previously untapped documentary resources to amplify how Africans were always, and remain, intimately involved in the KNP region. (You wouldn’t believe it paging through no.14 of the Kruger Magazine in which, some ranger recruits excepted, scarcely a dark face appears.) Dlamini expounds illuminatingly, inter alia, on the migrant labour system, which built a rail line, transit camps and some of the main roads within the park, and the growth of tourist-travel and hunting interests within the black middle-class, particularly before formal apartheid. Contrary to common belief, black visitors were never legislatively excluded from the KNP, but they were not enticed by comparatively meagre facilities. Handily illustrated by period photographs, pamphlets and maps, Safari Nation fascinatingly reveals an almost wholly ignored side of South Africa’s history of travel and leisure. It is a period and arena which actually shows, he concludes, that ‘the welfare of whites did not have to come at the expense of blacks’, and ‘the black actors who thought seriously about the KNP did not oppose conservation on principle. They opposed injustice.’

 Perhaps the most telling photograph of all in Safari Nation is one of the author standing dwarfed by the massive, jowly, not say Stalinist-style statue or bust of Paul Kruger at the KNP’s Kruger Gate – symptomatic, one might say, of the persistence of at least some myths, parameters and attitudes in the face of change. How to extend the good foundations, then, and shed the unfruitful ones, in our current age of land hunger, pandemics and climate change?


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