Early explorers, naturalists & traditional protectors

Wildlife conservation is a nominally recent concept – for the simple reason that in times past the sheer numbers of wild animals roaming the grassland, woodlands and forests were so numerous as to be inexhaustable. The idea that they needed to be ‘conserved’ seemed unnecessary. But times change, populations increase, and commercial interests destroy habitat, exploit species and call into question the need to protect and preserve.

Early hunters, explorers & naturalits

From the time of the early European hunters, explorers and naturalists who, through their adventures on the dark continent, shone a light (and knowledge) on the extraordinary landscapes, animals and wild places of this rich continent. Through their tales of adventure and exploration they brought this unknown land to the eyes and ears of the world. Some were hunters, othes keen naturalists..

Traditional protectors

Even before wildlife conservation began its journey, traditional land owners had sought to set aside specific areas as royal hunting grounds and, showing considerable foresight, sought to set aside such areas as wildlife santuaries and the creation of protected reserves that exist to this day.

Early Hunters, Explorers & Naturalists

In the early 19th century intrepid explorers and naturalists from Europe first brought the dark continent to the attention of the world - names like James Chapman, Joseph Thomson, Richard Burton, Anderson & Galton, and Pierre de Brazza. At around the same time, early hunters like John Hunter and the legendary Frederick Courtney Selous, wrote extensively of their adventures in Africa and brought attention to the wild places of this little-known continent. This in turn encouraged celebrity hunters like Teddy Roosevelt to embark on lavish hunting safaris. It has been said that Teddy Roosevelt’s African expedition (1908-10) redefined the safari and put the continent on the tourist map, and that his celebrity pulling power helped create an industry that has helped sustain Africa’s wildlife ever since. Later, the famous writer, Ernest Hemingway, ventured to Africa where he became mesmerised by the abundance he encountered writing novels like The Green Hills of Africa to satisfy a hungry audience in the west.

  • William Burchell (1781 to 1863) - English explorer, naturalist, traveller, artist and author

    William BurchellIn 1810, a 30-year-old Englishman named William Burchell landed in Cape Town after a four-year stint as a naturalist on St Helena island. The following year he embarked on an epic journey through the Cape Colony, which lasted four years and during which he covered 7 000 kilometres, mainly through unexplored terrain, and collected over 50 000 plant and animal specimens, as well as built up a vast collection of sketches and paintings. He was renowned as a meticulous collector, botanist and artist, publishing his two-volume work - Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa in 1822 & 1824 drawn from his copious notes made to accompany every collected specimen, detailing habit and habitat, as well as the numerous drawings and paintings of landscapes, portraits, costumes, people, animals and plants that he encountered. He has been credited as the first European to describe the white rhinocerous and has a number of animal and bird species named in his honour - the Plains zebra (Equus burchelli), Burchell's coucal and Burchell's starling.

  • Francois Levaillant (1753 to 1824) – French author, explorer, naturalist, zoological collector, and noted ornithologist

    Francois LeVaillantFrançois Levaillant, born in Dutch Guiana and son of the French consul there, was a French explorer, naturalist, author, zoological collector, and noted ornithologist. He described many new species of birds based on specimens he collected on his travels from the Cape from 1781 and published a six-volume book, Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux d'Afrique now considered a classic of African ornithology (published between 1801 and 1806 and containing 144 colour-printed engravings). He was among the first to use colour plates for illustrating birds and opposed the use of binomial nomenclature introduced by Linnaeus, preferring instead to use descriptive French names such as the bateleur (meaning "tight-rope walker") for the distinctive African eagle. The crested barbet (Trachyphonus vaillantii) is named after him (and he named the narina trogan and Klaas's cuckoo after his khoi khoi servants!).

  • Charles Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882)

    Ian RedmondOn his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in 1836, Charles Darwin stopped at Simon's Town in the Cape longer than in any other port on his voyage, except the Galapagos Islands (between 31 May and 18 June 1836).

    Darwin described Cape Town as “a great inn, on the great highway to the east” in a letter to his sister Catherine during his visit and recorded sightings of animals like elephant, rhinoceros, giraffe, hippopotamus and even the now extinct Quagga, all within the boundaries of the Cape! He is said to have called the area known as Wynberg ‘a grand wall of mountains that gives the scene a degree of uncommon beauty’, with Sea Point making a lasting impression on the scientist - the melting and fusion of rocks posed a geological question for him that the ‘ordinary theory, of granite having been injected whilst liquefied’ could not convincingly explain (the rocks in this area are known as the Seapoint Contact, where the metamorphosed sedimentary rocks from the Malmesbury group meets Cape granite).

    Darwin also visited Paarl and Franschhoek returning to Cape Town via Sir Lowry Cole’s pass along ‘unfrequented paths’. From the summit he was to comment on the view over False Bay, Table mountain and the Hottentot Holland valley.

  • David Livingstone (19 March 1813 – 1 May 1873)

    Ian RedmondLivingstone was a missionary and explorer, and one of the most popular British heroes of the late-19th-century in the Victorian era. He had a mythical status that operated on a number of interconnected levels: Protestant missionary martyr, working-class "rags-to-riches" inspirational story, scientific investigator and explorer, imperial reformer, anti-slavery crusader, and advocate of commercial and colonial expansion. Livingstone advocated the establishment of trade and religious missions in central Africa but the abolition of the African slave trade (which became his primary goal). His motto—now inscribed on his statue at Victoria Falls was "Christianity, Commerce and Civilization", a combination that he hoped would form an alternative to the slave trade, and impart dignity to the Africans in the eyes of Europeans. But it was his earlier mission to seek the source of the Nile that captured people imagination and spurred on countless other explorers.

    Legend states that he was the first European to see the Mosi-o-Tunya ("the smoke that thunders") waterfall, which he called Victoria Falls after his monarch Queen Victoria, and through his writings in "Missionary Travels in southern Africa", and involvement with the Royal Geographical Society, he opened the eyes of the world to the dark continent - its unique landscapes and abundant wildlife.

  • Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)

    Ian RedmondThe twenty-sixth president of the United States was also a world-renowned hunter, conservationist, soldier, and scholar. Teddy Roosevelt’s African expedition (1908-10) redefined the safari and put the continent on the tourist map. His celebrity pulling power helped create an industry that has helped sustain Africa’s wildlife ever since.

    The strange relationship between hunting, conservation, tourism and politics is never more sharply in focus – and perhaps could be said to have been invented – by Teddy Roosevelt’s East African safari. It was an epic adventure that lasted nearly a year, from 21 April, 1909, to 14 March, 1910, and took him and his 21-year-old son, Kermit (the expedition photographer), from Mombasa north along the Nile to Khartoum and west, deep into the heart of the Belgian Congo. It also resulted in the slaughter of 11,397 carefully catalogued animals including 512 big game species (including 9 elephant and 9 white rhino), 4,000 birds and 500 fishes. They believed in being inclusive and killed everything from elephants to dung beetles, although obviously big-game hunting proved more entertaining.

    His account of this adventure, African Game Trails, is as remarkably fresh today as it was when these adventures on the veldt were first published. Roosevelt describes the excitement of the chase, the people he met (including such famous hunters as Cunningham and Selous), and the flora and fauna he collected in the name of science. Big game hunting and travelling in style were never the same!

  • Frederick Courteney Selous (31 December 1851 - 4 January 1917)

    Ian RedmondFC Selous was a British explorer, officer, hunter, and conservationist, famous for his exploits in south and east of Africa. From an early age Selous had been fascinated by wildlife and collected and hunted widely as a youth. Determined to be an elephant-hunter, at age 19 he sailed for Africa arriving in Port Elizabeth in 1871. The next eight years are described in his book, A Hunter's Wanderings in Africa, which was read widely back home (and later followed by African Nature Notes & Reminisces in 1908). Many of Selous's hunting trophies found there way into museums and natural-history collections, notably that of the Natural History Museum in London. In their Selous Collection they have 524 mammals from three continents, all shot by him, including nineteen African lions. He was also a friend of Theodore Roosevelt who chose Selous to make the arrangements,a nd accompanied him, on his famous safari to British East Africa in 1909. Roosevelt wrote of Selous: "Mr. Selous is the last of the big game hunters of Southern Africa; the last of the mighty hunters whose experience lay in the greatest hunting ground which this world has seen since civilised man has appeared herein." In 1890 Rhodes chose Selous to lead the Pioneer Column into present day Zimbabwe and was later involved in the Matabele Uprising of 1893. Even though in his sixties, Selous volunteered for active duty in World War I - he was killed by a German sniper on 4 January 1917 fighting a bush-war on the banks of the Rufiji River in what later became the Selous Game Reserve in modern day Tanzania.

  • Cecil John Rhodes (5 July 1853 – 26 March 1902)

    Ian RedmondRhodes was a British businessman, mining magnate and politician in southern Africa who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. An ardent believer in British imperialism, Rhodes and his British South Africa Company founded the southern African territory of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), which the company named after him in 1895. South Africa's Rhodes University is also named after him. Rhodes set up the provisions of the Rhodes Scholarship, which is funded by his estate, and put much effort towards his vision of a Cape to Cairo Railway through British territory.

    At his death he was considered one of the wealthiest men in the world. He might seem an unlikely candidate for honours as a conservationist, but his love of the country which bore his name was supported by his postumous gifts to the nation (see below).

    He was extremely fond of the Matobo Hills, and on his death in the Cape in 1902 his body was transported by rail to the Matobo Hills in Rhodesia, and then by gun carriage, drawn by a team of oxen, to World's View where he lies to this day (and sent on his way with the Ndebele royal salute: "Bayete").

    In a trust established before his death, Rhodes had bequethed two important conservation areas for the generations to come: the trust formed and administered the Rhodes Matopos National Park and also gifted to the nation his estates in the eastern highlands of Zimbabawe, now called the Rhodes Nyanga National Park.

  • Names that live on in the Rwenzoris

    In the Rwenzoris (or Mountains of the Moon) in western Uganda, the highest peaks are each named after six significant explorers – Mounts Baker, Speke, Stanley, Gessi, Emin & Luigi di Savoia (the man responsible for this naming following a comprehensive mapping of this area in 1906). Each of these individuals were “accomplished, complex individuals who lived fascinating, often difficult, lives and sometimes met a violent end."

    Sir Samuel White Baker (1821 – 1893) was a British explorer, officer, naturalist, big game hunter, engineer, writer and abolitionist. He is mostly remembered as the 'discoverer' of Lake Albert on March 14th 1864 (named in honour of Queen Victoria's husband, Albert, who had died in 1861) and the first European to view the Murchison Falls in Uganda. He was accompanied on his expeditions by his wife whom he had purchased at a slave bazaar in the Balkans!

    John Hanning Speke (1827- 1864) spent 10 years with the Indian Army before starting his travels with Burton in Africa. Speke discovered Lake Victoria in August 1858. He initially believed it to be the source of the Nile but Burton didn't believe him and in 1860 Speke set out again, this time with James Grant. In July 1862 he did find what became accepted as the source of the Nile - the Ripon Falls north of Lake Victoria.

    Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) was a journalist sent in 1869 by the New York Herald to find Livingstone, who had been presumed dead for four years because no-one in Europe had heard from him in that time. Stanley found him at Uiji on the edge of Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa on 13 November 1871. Stanley's words "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" have gone down in history as one of the greatest understatements ever made.

Traditional protectors

The role of traditional land owners, and national governments, should not be overlooked in the conservation story of Africa. In many countries, much foresight and determination to protect this natural heritage has seen vast tracts of land set aside in the name of wildlife conservation - here are some early stories:

“…the spiritual quality of the wilderness – the serene sense of peacefulness it gives to a man’s soul.”

Norman Carr, Valley of the Elephants