The British Empire Library

African Naturalist: The Life And Times Of Rodney Carrington Wood, 1889-1962

by David Happold

Courtesy of OSPA

Rosemary Lowe-McConnell (Overseas Research Service - East Africa ami British Guiana, and British Museum Natural History, 1945-99)
Rodney Wood was a great naturalist who spent 50 years mainly in Nyasaland studying and collecting mammals, birds, fish, insects (especially butterflies), shells and plants. After a good education in England he first went to Africa in 1909 to work on a cotton plantation, but was always seeking new challenges and at various times owned a tea estate, became a school teacher and was involved in the Boy Scout movement when invited by the founder Baden-Powell to Canada for three years to teach bush and camp craft. On returning to Africa in 1921 his ship visited the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean; he returned here in later years to beachcomb and collect shells and coral reef fishes.

In Nyasaland Wood was greatly concerned by the rapid depletion of game animals as the country was opened up for agriculture. He lobbied for creation of a Government Game Department and in 1929 became Nyasaland’s first ‘Game Warden, Cultivation Protection and Tsetse Fly Control Officer’. In this capacity he sought out promising areas for conservation, several of which later became Malawi’s National Parks, now enjoyed by so many visitors.

Wood’s knowledge of the natural history of the African bush was prodigious; he hunted with bow and arrow and as an expert tracker assisted several long scientific expeditions collecting birds. His own meticulously recorded specimens were sent to major scientific institutions, including the British Museum (Natural History) in London; many new species were named after him. At the BMNH Happold studied Wood’s mammal collections, and in the fish section, he examined Wood’s collection of Lake Nyasa’s spectacularly rich fish fauna were invaluable in enabling us to make the first Fisheries Surveys of the lake. This Survey was initiated as part of the two year Nutrition Survey of Nyasaland sponsored by the UK in 1938 interrupted by the war until I was sent to continue it in 1945.

David Happold’s excellent well-researched biography of Wood’s life is set in a broad historical background of development in this part of Africa from the 1850’s when the explorer David Livingstone was the first to voyage up Lake Nyasa seeking information about the Arab slave trade. The many aspects of Wood’s varied life, including estate management in various parts of the country, are described with revealing extracts from Wood’s correspondence on issues such as suggested improvements in agricultural methods and tsetse fly control. Wherever Wood lived he created a flower garden - often with plants new to the country. These accounts give a vivid picture of the radical changes to the ecology and human life in this part of Africa. Happold’s book has useful Appendices with Notes on Sources of information and the many species collected by Wood.

Wood died in the Seychelles in 1962. Happold’s Epilogue sums up Wood’s life in saying that he will be remembered far and wide as a character with a huge sense of fun and a generous nature who had immense energy and enthusiasm and enjoyed sharing his delight in the wonders of the natural world. His influence and contributions to biology and conservation will long be remembered. Rodney Wood, an exceptionally keen observer of all living things, was a most stimulating host at his Monkey Bay home on Lake Nyasa in 1945-47 when as a young biologist I was working on this beautiful Rift Valley lake. I was indeed fortunate in having his friendship and access to his vast store of natural history information.

British Empire Book
David Happold
Book Guild Publishing
978 1 84624 555 8


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