When Nature Is Valued over Human Life

White South Africans used wildlife conservation to build a narrative as a race. Unfortunately, this pursuit came at the expense of Africans.

Established in 1927, the South African Railway (SAR) Publicity and Travel Department took up the project of selling South Africa as a place teeming with “unique flora, unsurpassed sunshine, exotic animals, and picturesque native life.” With a transnational ambition, South Africa’s tourist authorities—less than two decades before the founding of the apartheid state—sought to promote travel to a white South African population that did not yet know itself or its country. They also advertised the country to the rest of the “civilized” world, as a “zoological wonder.” Yet the promised wonders, for the railway company and its publicity department, included Black Africans.

Despite Black Africans making up the largest share of 20th-century train passengers, colonial South Africa (in the form of the SAR officials) insisted they did not belong there. Instead, their more suitable place was in the natural landscapes, viewed from the trains’ windows. The presence of Black people on the lands represented, for the SAR, the timeless epoch “before the white man came.” According to the National Parks Board’s 1938 visitor guide, such images represented an “unspoilt Africa.” Through government propaganda that promoted rich landscapes and newly created nature preserves, white South Africans articulated a story regarding their own past, present, and future as a race. Unfortunately, this pursuit came at Black South Africans’ expense.

In the minds of those who cultivated this story, Black people could only fit in as fading exotic spectacles of the past, or laboring subjects of an uncertain future. But as Jacob S. T. Dlamini’s Safari Nation: A Social History of Kruger National Park shows us, neither past nor future caricature captures the rich, nuanced, and sometimes surprising histories of South Africans’ life and struggle under colonial and apartheid rule.

Safari Nation offers a “black history” of South Africa’s most famous game reserve. In digging through the archives, Dlamini shows not only the complexity of Black life within and around the Kruger National Park (KNP), but also how authorities used race to determine “who could enter nature and on what terms.” Minority white rule was naturalized, while Blacks were cast as “nature’s denizens—there to be seen and to labor, but not to count as citizens.” In arguments such as this, Dlamini gestures toward the history of race and power at the root of conservation movements not only in South Africa, but around the world.

“Nature,” and efforts to protect it, have never been neutral. The term and the ensuing activity have always held ideological and political meaning, creating a means through which humans craft a polity, mythology, and history—not only of themselves, but also of those outside their imagined communities. In the past century, race has played a central role in this storytelling, whether during the Third Reich, when the Nazi elite embraced the conservationism of landscaper Alwin Seifert,1 or in colonial East Africa, where hunter-preservationists were notorious for their belligerent treatment of Africans. Rather than representing a lesser-than-human status, animals and nature have been repeatedly elevated above human life through the concept of race.

Such storytelling has long been part of American conservation as well. Earlier this year, in fact, the Sierra Club denounced its founder, John Muir—the legendary “patron saint of the American wilderness”—for his racist views. The club went even further, enumerating Muir’s fellow Sierra Club members and contemporaries who had a hand in racial science. Indeed, one, Madison Grant, was also a central figure in the American eugenics movement, as he authored the 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race, which, in a personal letter to Grant, was exalted by Adolf Hitler as his “bible.” Both conservation and eugenics, Grant proudly argued, were “attempts to save as much as possible the old America.”2 Throughout colonial and apartheid South Africa—as well as in America, it seems—conservation and racial oppression have shared, entangled histories.

In the current moment—in which the public eye is captivated by political oppression and unprecedented climate catastrophe—recalling these histories helps us avoid a grave error: thinking that our social problems are separate from ecological ones.

Specifically, the entangled histories of conservation and racial oppression caution us against popular narratives that tend to explain this relationship through appeals to spirituality and primitivism. One such narrative would be the notion that a reverential relationship to nature will remediate human hierarchy, or that equality can be recuperated by returning to our primordial past. These narratives’ simplicity is alluring, but it comes at the cost of flattening our understanding of both nature and domination.

If we are to have a philosophy of ecology in these uncertain times, it must be a social ecology. We must recognize that our affinity for nature does not preclude our domination of one another.

The exclusion of Africans began long before there were national parks, or even before the Republic of South Africa was founded. And this process began not with nature conservation as it is known today, but with the regulating of hunting and of lives defined by hunting.

In the 19th-century Transvaal region, white settlers and African auxiliaries collaborated in the indiscriminate slaughter of wildlife for the spoils of ivory, hide, and horns. But diminishing wildlife transformed this once-collaborative relationship into a power struggle.3

Thereafter, whites sought to exclude Africans from the practice, culminating in 1858 with the Transvaal’s first hunting legislation. The law’s objective was regulation—in particular, to restrict Africans from firearm possession and from hunting elephant and other wild animals without passes or an overseeing white hunter. This ensured that the hunt, and the profits from it, would flow uninterruptedly to whites. And though largely ineffective, this 1858 law marked an accelerating trend in the corpus of hunting-related legislation and attitudes, which sought to exclude Africans from hunting and nature conservation.

Dlamini begins Safari Nation amid these exclusionary changes, focusing on James Stevenson-Hamilton, a man who was to become one of the most influential figures in South African conservation. Stevenson-Hamilton boasted an impressive résumé of armed service, as an officer of the British Imperial Army and a veteran of the Second Boer War, but not much else: he had little knowledge of the eastern Transvaal or the languages spoken there. Even so, he came highly recommended, as his sponsors insisted that his martial ability rendered him fit to administrate wildlife as well as the region’s native inhabitants. And so, in 1902, Stevenson-Hamilton successfully secured a post as warden of the Sabi Game Reserve, which, along with the Singwitsi Game Reserve, would later become the KNP.4

Stevenson-Hamilton entered his appointment with an attitude toward both nature and Africans typical of his time: human inhabitants were incompatible with game reserves,5 and Africans must be prevented from hunting and owning firearms. To the warden, “Africans were, by nature, bad for wildlife,” because of their lack of self-control and propensity for cruelty, indolence, and excess. Coupled with the “weapons of civilization,” their nature threatened the survival of wildlife in the Transvaal.

The entangled histories of conservation and racial oppression caution us against popular narratives that tend to explain this relationship through appeals to spirituality and primitivism.

The warden was so adamant in this belief that, in 1922, he wrote a letter requesting that the native commissioner of the Northern Transvaal be ordered to confiscate bows and poison arrows from Africans. Even when confronted with evidence of the comparatively more destructive impact of Boer and other European hunters, Stevenson-Hamilton’s preoccupation with the African threat would remain unchanged throughout his tenure as warden. Consequently, he spent his first year aggressively evicting the two to three thousand Africans residing in the Sabi Game Reserve, an activity that earned him the moniker Skukuza (destroyer).

The warden’s attitudes found good company among his contemporaries in the National Parks Board (NPB), an organization concerned with the preservation of wildlife within the lowveld. As Dlamini shows via his account of a series of clashes between the NPB and the Native Affairs Department, the NPB advocated against multiple instances of land acquisition for African settlement—particularly when said land was close to the KNP—on the grounds that most poaching occurred at the hands of Africans. The NPB also took up the duty of punishing Africans who transgressed poaching laws, even when said “poaching,” in actuality, involved natives protecting their crops from the park’s animals. By “criminaliz[ing] African responses,” Dlamini explains, and by functioning as an extension of the colonial state in the lowveld, Stevenson-Hamilton and the NPB forced wildlife and Africans into a new relationship, that of so-called “natural enemies.”

But, as elsewhere, such criminalization was hardly concerned only with wildlife. Instead, the prospect of armed African hunters, for Stevenson-Hamilton and his peers, conjured an anxiety regarding colonial rule and African sovereignty.

Being able to acquire weapons and use them for hunting brought Africans uncomfortably close to the skills and organization needed for insurrection. The illegal act of poaching animals—and the movement between demarcated state borders that occurred during hunting expeditions—showed an unacceptable disregard for colonial governance.

Furthermore, hunting was an opportunity for subsistence independent from the colonial state. It provided subsistence through consumption, as well as through the income generated from the trade of spoils, which presented an attractive prospect to struggling and impoverished rural residents.

The warden’s attitude toward the poaching problem and African possession of weapons did not change. But Stevenson-Hamilton did come to revise his exclusionary policy out of concern for his own material interests. By May 1905, he and other colonial authorities decided that African squatters in the region would be charged rent and could labor, as tenants, on Crown land. These squatters provided an “essential source of rangers and laborers,” as the NPB itself stated. But keeping Africans in the game reserves signaled a much greater change to come.

Colonial authorities soon realized that keeping squatters and native residents on the land made Africans “part of the tourist experience of visiting the reserve.” Their presence, at first, was meant to represent an image of colonial subjects loyal to the state. Later on, in apartheid South Africa, such squatters and native residents were to offer a particular vision of nature and the colonial past that was to become central to South Africa’s self-making.

The decade following the 1909 creation of the Union of South Africa was a precarious one for game reserves. Their utility was hotly contested by the Department of Lands, Department of Mines, and Native Affairs Department, all of whom insisted that game reserves could be put to better use as land for grazing, resource extraction, or settlement. These bureaucratic squabbles continued until the general election of 1924, when J. B. M. Hertzog and the National Party rose to power.6 The creation of a national park seemed as probable as ever, thanks in part to the Afrikaner Nationalism that Hertzog and the National Party represented.

British-Boer relations were tense, having roots in more than a century of bitter conflicts over sovereignty. But the national park signified a mutual interest for English and Afrikaner-speaking whites. For Afrikaners, it represented the untouched frontier that their pioneer ancestors had encountered. They insisted the park be named after Paul Kruger: president of the South African Republic and nationalist folk hero of Afrikanerdom. In propagating the idea that conservation resulted from the tireless efforts of the avant-garde Paul Kruger, the Afrikaners advanced their uniqueness as a race and a chosen people.

For English-speaking South Africans, the park advanced their own conservation concerns and desire for national unity. Emblematic of this emergent shared white heritage was a 1925 article entitled “Create a National Park!” that emphasized the invaluable contributions of Paul Kruger (a Boer) and James Stevenson-Hamilton (an “English gentleman”). This solidarity culminated in the watershed passing of the 1926 National Parks Act. Whites from across the class and cultural spectrum shared a point of unity, which simultaneously tightened administration over Africans in the park.

This process, however, was anything but simple. The shared heritage that the park provided was tentative, as most South Africans knew little of their country beyond the communities in which they lived. And their “mastery of nature” was not paralleled by a mastery of populational coherence. If the number of white South Africans did not increase, it could not truly become a “white man’s country.” Thus emerges an aggressive campaign from the SAR’s Publicity and Travel Department and the South African Publicity Association to market its landscape—in particular, sites like the KNP—as a “national asset” and prime tourist destination.

Such tourism is what was on offer in the 1927 train campaigns discussed earlier: their evocation of the wonders of nature, complete with premodern native residents. Similarly, at the 1935 Transvaal Publicity Conference, H. J. Crocker emphasized the imperative of presenting “native life under its true conditions” (emphasis mine), as opposed to presenting its “partly or wholly Europeanized” counterpart. Although opportunistic, this marketing also stemmed from the realization that traditional native life was a diminishing—and, thus, exotic—anthropological relic. Native life was threatened by “destruction” not because Africans were physically disappearing, but because they were assimilating into an industrial labor class in the mining, railway, and domestic-care industries.

Notions of the reserve as an untouched space and of Africans as immobile ignore the fact that the reserve was a hotbed of movement, as migrant laborers traveled across it in droves. But in the minds of many colonial authorities, Black South Africa’s transition into an industrialized working class “spoiled” both their indigeneity and their embodiment of primitive Man’s harmony with nature.

After the overt violence of conquest goes into remission, conservation appears to be a common phase in the evolution of an empire.

Black Africans were never “officially” excluded from the KNP. But neither impoverished workers nor the mission-educated elite were populations that South Africa’s burgeoning tourism industry imagined should inhabit the park. Yet it is these very groups of Black Africans who, at the time, most fervently and critically articulated the contradictions of nature conservation under colonial and apartheid rule.

Victor Selope-Thema, for example, was a key figure in the Black history of the park and the first editor of Bantu World, the Black daily newspaper of Johannesburg. Selope-Thema frequently invoked the KNP, and its conservation ethos, when critiquing the standing of Blacks in South Africa. In a 1935 editorial, “More Land for Animals,” the authors (who may have included Selope-Thema) lament how the colonial government nobly pursued wildlife preservation while simultaneously neglecting “landless blacks.” Later, in 1950, Selope-Thema stated that, under apartheid, the KNP’s wildlife had more space and land than dispossessed Black Africans.

But South Africans like Selope-Thema did more than merely point out the contradictions of conservation under apartheid. Indeed, many felt that the protection of nature was a laudable and necessary endeavor. They resisted fortifying their claims to land and citizenship with simplistic binaries of native and settler, or polarizing nature conservation and the struggle for racial justice as irreconcilable projects.

These Black activists, in Dlamini’s view, advanced a vision of South Africa and its wildlife that was much more democratic and international. As opposed to the apartheid use of wildlife, here nature was configured as the ground through which to build a shared citizenship, history, and sense of belonging.

Concluding the book by examining the travelogues of D. D. T. Jabavu, a Black “educationalist and nationalist,” Dlamini writes that for Jabavu and his peers, “the train provided the spine along which moved their aspirations, ideas, and (of course) bodies. It was routes, not roots, that rooted them to South Africa.” He further elaborates that, in recalling these struggles, “this book has tried to recuperate a much more cosmopolitan, democratic, and ultimately more hopeful history of approaches to the KNP, to conservation, and to the land question in South Africa.”

When one thinks of the relationship between “empire” and “nature,” the imagery that often emerges is not that of protection, but of conquest, expansion, and destruction. But Dlamini tells a story in which concern for nature, in colonial and apartheid South Africa, was a driving force of colonial rule.

Beyond South Africa, this surprising relationship could be found within and outside the continent, in places like India, Australia, and the United States. After the overt violence of conquest goes into remission, conservation appears to be a common phase in the evolution of an empire. And for environmental historians like Jane Carruthers, the formation of a national park is a peculiar stage in a country’s cultural development that serves to unite its citizens.7

South African wildlife was a national asset, possessing not only material value for scientists, sportsmen, and the white populace of South Africa but also a larger symbolic value for the rest of the “civilized” world. It represented white South Africa’s anthropological obligation and contribution to the developed world. In the first two decades of the Union of South Africa, and given the precariousness of white rule that accompanied it, landscapes such as the KNP served as novel sites through which to build national unity and shared racial heritage—at least for those in power.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

  1. How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich, edited by Franz-Josef Brüggemeier, Mark Cioc, and Thomas Zeller (Ohio University Press, 2005), p. 162.
  2. Jonathan Spiro, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (University Press of New England, 2009), p. xiii.
  3. Jane Carruthers, The Kruger National Park: A Social and Political History (University of Natal Press, 1995), 90.
  4. Ibid., p. 35.
  5. Ibid., p. 43.
  6. Ibid., p. 59.
  7. Ibid., p. 48.
Featured image: Detail of Kruger National Park (2017). Photograph by leftcoastenvy / Flickr