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The Great Hunters

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The Great Hunters Thirty Years On

Read Geoffrey Haresnape's original introduction here.

It has been a fascinating experience to return to the hunting narratives which make up the content of this book. I remember vividly the circumstances under which the necessary reading was done. The year was 1972 and the place was the wainscoted library of Rhodes House at Oxford University. The large reading room was hushed and the atmosphere was kept at a constant temperature.  Slips were filled in by the readers and a member of the library staff went off in search of the required volumes.  My problem was that I did not always know in advance what I was looking for.  The brief from the publisher was to find  representative and interesting hunting stories from the 19th and early 20th centuries.  There were obviously many books which would qualify as possible sources but they first needed to be identified and sifted through.

Fortunately for me, the person in charge was sympathetic to my position and soon allowed me direct access to the stack rooms in which the material was stored.  It became a daily routine when I arrived at the library to admit me through a side door. From here I descended a staircase into areas where priceless publications were packed ceiling-high.    I was then able to browse the shelves as systematically and patiently as a sprinbok might browse the Karoo veld,  looking for text which was succulent and intellectually digestible.  In order to ensure security, the library staff locked me in with only the emergency telephone as a contact between my isolation and the outside world.

Under these circumstances I made my first contact with the writings of great Victorian explorers and sportsmen like  Roualeyn George Gordon Cumming,  William Cotton Oswell  and William Charles Baldwin.  I could not help reflecting how different the image of southern Africa was in that earlier time from the apartheid-ridden Republic of South Africa which I had temporarily left behind in order to conduct my research. For the 19th century travellers, the Cape Colony, Natal and the two Boer Republics were locales in which seemingly numberless wild animals were to be found.  Venturing west, north and east  into the territories known now as Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique the ratio of wilderness to human settlement became, if anything, greater.  The sportsmen were frequently overcome by feelings of  isolation.  ‘Where, alas! was the “busy hum of men”?’ asked Sir William Cornwallis Harris when camped out on a great plain somewhere to the north of the Colony. ‘The shrill neighing of the wild ass, the bleat of the timid springbuck, or the bellow of the gnoo, with the deep-drawn distant sighing of a prowling lion...alone disturbed the grave-like stillness!’   By the time that I was doing the reading in Rhodes House , there were only too many examples of humanity spread across southern Africa, huge numbers of them locked in a conflict for political supremacy.

The speed with which pressure has been placed upon the untamed wild in South Africa and surrounding countries has accelerated since the 1970s. Were it not for the Kruger National Park and other smaller reserves,  unique fauna  could be in serious danger of becoming a thing of the past, existing in electronic records or in memory only.  David Attenborough’s TV programmes have alerted his audiences to the vulnerability of wildlife worldwide.  Nowadays, it seems impossible to believe that there could be such a phenomenon as a ‘trekbokken’ when migrating springboks would fill a vast  semi-desert plain..  But this is exactly what Cumming encountered when travelling through the Northern Cape Colony in 1843.  He wrote: ‘as far as the eye could strain the landscape was alive with them, until they softened down into a dim red mass of living creatures.’   We may well ask how this antelope could be cut back to a desperately finite number in a comparatively short time?   Let us hope that the springbok does not go the way of the North American carrier pigeon, once in seemingly endless supply, but now extinct . 

To-day even the  intelligent African primates are under pressure as the forests are cut back to provide arable land and the demand for ‘bush meat’ goes on unabated.  Papio cynocephalus ursinus, the Chacma or Cape baboon,  which is the dominant  primate at the southern tip of Africa, is a case in point.   For many millions of years troops of Chacmas roamed freely on Hoerikwaggo, the mountain range that makes up the backbone of the Cape Peninsula,  initially in the company of the lion, zebra, hippopotami, buffalo and other species that flourished before the arrival of gunpowder.  When they wished, these Chacmas could cross the Cape Flats and interact with other baboon communities- a process necessary for the perpetuation of healthy genes.   To an early English explorer, Sir James Lancaster, who flourished in the time of Queen Elizabeth I,  they were ‘over-growen monkeis’ which impressed him by reason of their size and great numbers.

With increased human settlement , the interactions between humans and baboons became more frequent.  By 1774 Oliver Goldsmith was describing in his A History of the Earth and Animated Nature how baboons at the Cape would set out to rob an orchard or vineyard  ‘in large companies and with preconcerted deliberation.’   He gives a detailed account of the modus operandi,  when ‘a part of them enter the inclosure, while one is set to watch.  The rest stand without the fence, and form a line reaching all the way from their fellows within, to their rendezvous without, which is generally in some craggy mountain.’  Goldsmith claims that the stolen fruit is then ‘pitched from one to the other all along the line until it is safely deposited at their head-quarters.’  I am doubtful whether I would have entirely believed this had I not witnessed a similar heist myself from a garden adjoining the Tokai Plantation at the foot of the Constantiaberg.  The late 20th C troop which I saw in action is the sorry remnant of what must once have been a thriving community, now cut off from interactions even with their fellows at Cape Point, Scarborough and Kommetjie, let alone those on the far side of the Cape Flats. .  Most of the time they shelter on the mountain, occasionally making forays to feed opportunistically from the dirt-bins in the picnic areas or- in winter time- to turn over the mushrooms that grow beneath the pine-trees.    Frequently run over by motor-cars on the busy route leading to Ou Kaapseweg,  sometimes shot down by irate householders or darted for relocation by municipal authorities,  these baboons are battling for survival on the very cusp of extinction.  A handful of Chacmas among the 3.5 million human beings that make up the population of greater Cape Town reverses the situation experienced by Harris;

so much so that a baboon, if it could speak, might ask:  ‘Why alas! is there this “busy hum of men”?’

When visiting the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, my appreciation of  Michaelangelo’s ‘Vision of the Universal Judgement’ was  tempered by the realization that homo sapiens alone was represented in the swirls of muscular and largely naked flesh that made up the hosts of heaven and hell.  Even the angels blowing their trumpets from a kind of floating platform looked suspiciously human.  Was the great Renaissance artist dreaming of a world in which all other life forms had been terminated?   I sincerely hope not. Egyptologists like Leonard Cottrell have been inclined to censure the inhabitants of the Nile’s banks and delta for their tendency to worship baboon or ibis-headed headed gods and for their practice of embalming the bodies of  cats, dogs and fish.   But were these ancient Africans not wise in realizing the importance of our symbiotic relationship with other animals; so much so that they saw them as a necessary part of the otherworld?

Most of the great hunters represented in this book were real men of action; go-getters who bargained with retainers and who relied on their firearms, horses and dogs.  But I have been struck again by the way in which the most matter-of-fact narratives contain elements of sympathy for the animals which their activities laid low.  Frederick Courtney Selous, the quintessential sportsman and dubious associate of Cecil John Rhodes in Matabele land,  cannot forbear some particle of compassion for a buffalo dying as a result of a shot from his four-bore elephant gun:  ‘the sturdy beast then ran about twenty yards farther, knelt gently down, and stretching forth its nose, commenced to bellow.’    Sir William Cornwallis Harris is even more eloquent in his account of the despatch of a ‘stately bull’ giraffe.   ‘I sat in my saddle, loading and firing behind the elbow... until, the tears trickling from his full brilliant eye, his lofty frame began to totter and, at the seventeenth discharge from the deadly grooved bore, bowing his graceful head from the skies, his proud form was prostrate in the dust.’

It is, however, a fact that actions speak more than words.  Insofar as the 21st C is concerned, the real hero of this collection must be Harry Wolhuter who assisted Lt. Colonel Stevenson-Hamilton in building up Sabi Game Reserve where stocks of game had been severely depleted during the Anglo-Boer War.  During his long period of service, Wolhuter had the satisfaction of seeing the Reserve grow into the Kruger National Park, one of the finest wild life sanctuaries on the planet.    Physical courage and a spirit of adventure may absolve the early hunters from some of the ugliness associated with determined slaughter.    But with modern firearms an encounter has become totally one-sided.   The people we admire today are those who preserve animals, who work with them in order to understand their ways, and who wish to conserve bio-diversity for future generations.  Perhaps we can say with G M Hopkins, the Victorian poet who penned this line at about the same time as William Charles Baldwin was firing a ball into a bull elephant:  ‘Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.’

Geoffrey Haresnape

Cape Town 2006