How Africa’s ‘Last Eden’ was saved

“Colonials officials were sceptical. Create an African-sponsored game reserve?’ they asked. ‘Impossible! Try teaching them to grow rice in swamps instead.’ ‘Teach an African hunting people to preserve the very animals off which they live?’ jeered some of the white community.’ ‘Not in this day and age!’ ‘Who wants the hunting to stop anyway?’ June [Kay] recreated their language in this way in her book, Thirteenth Moon.”

Dr. Maitseo Bolaane quotes this passage in her own book, “Chiefs, Hunters and San in the Creation of Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta; Multiracial Interactions and Initiatives, 1956-1979.”

Maun District Commissioner, Eustace Clark, who was virulently opposed to the establishment of the reserve, had earlier remarked that “the creation of a tribal game reserve is as impossible as the thirteenth moon.” Miraculously and against all of Clark’s machinations, the thirteenth moon did indeed come into view when, in 1962, June and Robert Kay motivated the formation of what came to be known as the Ngamiland Fauna Conservation Society. Its first meeting took place in the lounge of Riley’s Hotel on June 4, 1962 but was deemed a failure because influential Tawana figures didn’t show up. The second meeting, which Clark attended, proved much more successful.

“In his inaugural speech, Robert outlined his proposals for a Fauna Preservation Society, similar to those founded elsewhere in the world, whose object was to bring home to the community at large the urgent need for preserving the heritage of their fauna. His proposals included the creation of a national park. He stated that certain of the local residents had long expressed their belief in the urgent need for the formation of such a society in Bechuanaland to check the further destruction of game,” Bolaane writes.

Today’s Okavango Delta is Botswana’s second most productive cash cow after the Jwaneng mine pit; yesteryear was an ecological disaster a few short years from reaching tipping point. Tsetse fly infestation was severe, presenting serious threat to livestock which was the mainstay of the local economy. The fly transmits parasites from game to cattle and humans often with fatal results. Parasitologists of the time recommended extermination of wildlife and the colonial administration, which viewed tsetse as a major hindrance to the development of present-day North West District, was in full agreement. A century earlier, Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, whom Bolaane says, “combined Christianity with commerce”, had also recommended the destruction all game as the solution to the tsetse problem.

By degrees, such thinking gained currency and the end result was that the law was relaxed to enable large-scale killing of game. The book says that in 1939, the Nxaragha area was thrown open to free shooting, which attracted large numbers of shooting parties from South Africa and present-day Zimbabwe to Ngamiland. From 1943 until 1956, a total of more than 30 287 animals had been killed in an area of fewer than 1000 square miles and between 1945 and 1964, some 60 638 animals were killed in a longs-hot bid to control tsetse fly control. However, the proliferation of firearms into Bechuanaland didn’t sit well with tribal leaders who worried they could disturb the peace and order in their territories.

In the early 1960s however, the policy of destroying wild animals as a method of controlling the spread of tsetse fly became increasingly controversial as wildlife societies around the world expressed grave concern about it. It was against this background that the Ngamiland FCS was established.

Though Robert would briefly relapse years later, the Kays were born-again conservationists who kept two lions (Chinky and Cubby) as pets. Through her freelance journalism, June drew the world’s attention to “the unchecked slaughter of game” in Ngamiland by white hunting parties from neighbouring countries.
The early 1960s was when African states were beginning to gain independence and it was during this phase that an international conference on nature conservation was held in Arusha, Tanzania. Bolaane notes that what came to be known as the Arusha Manifesto “was the first of its kind to have a large input from delegates.” She contends though that this initiative pales in comparison to that in Ngamiland because of the key role that Africans played.

“In the case of East Africa, Northern Rhodesia and South Africa, wildlife societies continued to be dominated by white residents. What makes the Botswana case so significant and interesting by contrast, is that the chieftaincy in Ngamiland became part of a preservation society right from the beginning,” she writes.
John Benn, one of the people that Bolaane interviewed for her book, stated that while Robert Kay acted as chief advisor on how to go about the project, “the whole thing was done by Batswana given the tribal concern over South African hunters overshooting wildlife in the Okavango. Robert brought an idea of a National Park but local people already had a concept for sustainable use.”

Many prominent people in the area, among them Batawana regent, Mohumagadi Pulane Moremi; Montsho Mogalakwe, a wealthy and influential aristocrat; Michael Dithapo, a clerk at the DC’s office; Rocks Ledimo, the Batawana National School head; David Monwela, the deputy chairperson of the Batawana Tribal Council; and Gaselemogwe Segadimo, former tax collector and Education Secretary, were supportive of this initiative. As enthusiastic about this effort were coloureds (who self-identified as Batawana) who were part of an informal network of Maun-based hunters. Among them was Jack Ramsden, the son of a white father and Herero mother who had handled firearms from a young age. Another was Isaac Tudor who, way before the Fauna Conservation Society came into being, had often alerted MmaKgosi (Regent Moremi) about the indiscriminate slaughtering of wild animals.

At this point in time, the heir himself, Letsholathebe, was studying in the United Kingdom but was home on vacation at the all-important September 10, 1962 kgotla meeting. Addressing the crowd, the future kgosi told his subjects: “In a few days time, I am going back to England to continue studies until I can rejoin you as your chief. I am leaving you with a priceless heritage of game animals in your care. On my return, I expect to see that that heritage has been preserved.” Speaking at a subsequent make-or-break meeting, Ramsden reminded his audience of Letsholathebe’s words. June continued her writing, touting the Moremi Game Reserve as “Africa’s last Eden” and imploring the international community to assist effort to save it.

With the community having endorsed the founding of the FCS, MmaKgosi sanctioned the establishment of the game reserve. Boundary beacons were set up and “No Shooting” signs erected in the bush.
“Tudor recalls that initially they had no maps to guide them and most of the time used ‘our indigenous knowledge of direction. [Kwere Seriri’s] sense of direction was sharp, he guided us to water places such as Bodumatau and Xakanaka which attracted a concentration of wildlife.’ The area of the park was chosen based on such knowledge. Concrete posts were erected to identify the boundaries and the committee considered the map of the newly established park. It was proposed that a map be prepared giving the boundaries together with local place names and sent to the tribal office for public information. To a certain extent, such place maps had an influence in the production of subsequent maps on the Okavango.”  

Thus the Moremi Game Reserve came into being and inspired subsequent effort to save the entire Okavango Delta. Fittingly and by great coincidence, some 50 years later, the Delta secured a position as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa which were officially declared in Arusha on February 11, 2013.Moremi is a wonderful example of what is possible when races come together around a common purpose. Up until the point when the Kays began to assert white privilege, the project was coasting along nicely. June would disappear for days on end without notifying the FCS committee. She began to siphon funds from the Society for personal use and “displayed sheer arrogance, suggesting that without them the Moremi could not exist.” At this point, the WWF was knee-deep in the reserve’s affairs and as one of the conditions for financing was insisting that Robert be appointed assistant warden but get a higher salary than his African superior.

While the Society did ultimately disintegrate, the good news at this point in time, is that thankfully, the Okavango Delta hasn’t.A history lecturer at the University of Botswana, Dr. Bolaane holds a B.A. in Humanities from the same university, an M.A. in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford.

Last modified on Friday, 10 January 2014 10:51

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