The British Empire Library

Fraser Darling in Africa: A Rhino in the Whistling Thorn

by J. Morton Boyd

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by R.I.G. Attwell (Northern Rhodesia, 1950-64)
Fraser Darling, the charismatic, often controversial, and intellectually great British ecologist is regarded as the father of the world conservation movement. Boyd, a former Director of the Scottish Nature Conservancy Council and now an ecological consultant, has fulfilled a promise to Frank (later Sir Frank) Fraser Darling to edit and publish his African Journals after his death; the journals were compiled while undertaking ecological reconnaissance in three African territories at the invitation of the governments concerned.

FD was one of the few scientists of his time who had given priority to the study of the natural environment, and was acutely conscious of man's responsibility for it. His experience from first-hand observation of habitats and species in Scotland, America and Alaska probably made him better qualified than anyone else to undertake the surveys, for the job demanded a holistic ecological approach.

The travel studies, falling into three sections - Northern Rhodesia, Kenya, and the Sudan (already independent) - took place in the late 50's and early 60's. As the editor says "....the spirit of adventure in the Dark Continent enshrined in the journals of Livingstone, Speke, Baker, Stanley, and the other great explorers of the 19th century, live on in these pages written by Fraser Darling almost a century later. The ulendo (foot safari with porters) in Zambia chimes with Livingstone's days in bush and forest (with-out slave caravans)". The journals contain some hard-hitting comments on government policies and individuals. He was interested in the African tribesmen, as he had achieved the sense of human ecology. Five human activities dominated his assessment of country: grazing of domesticated animals, water distribution, deforestation, predation on wildlife, and firing of vegetation.... "Africa, the continent of pyromania".

In Northern Rhodesia, the (then) Department of Game and Tsetse Control was ahead of other wildlife departments in British Africa in that biologists had already been appointed to the staff in the late 1940's. Yet no survey of the wildlife resources had been made since Pitman's one in 1931-32. FD's initial survey commenced in 1956 and reported on the status of the wild species and the nature and condition of their habitats, and the relationship of land use policy and African nutrition. His report was published in a book Wild Life in an African Territory (Oxford University Press, 1960). The highlight of the Northern Rhodesian travels was the three weeks' ulendo at the height of the tropical rains in the Luangwa Valley, undertaken at that difficult time in order to allow assessment of wet season ecological factors against dry season conditions.

Boyd, as presenter, is mildly critical of Darling's mixing of politics and ecology, particularly at a difficult stage in Kenya's National Park developments. His report on the Mara Plains was not accepted on this account; thus a valuable ecological report was wasted and failed to serve the cause of wildlife in the Mara. He was inter alia critical of an administration which allowed prophylactic needling against trypanosomiasis of Masai cattle, in an area where their cattle were not permitted and where there was over-stocking. Some resource department ex-colonials of Africa doubtless will be familiar with this wishy-washy attitude of appeasement, in natural resource situations; certainly it fits this reviewer's experience in Northern Rhodesia.

The question arises how Darling, with his attitude of distress over a country that was taking a beating, could have avoided political statements: surely politics is part of ecology, and an ecologist has no need to be paralysed by political considerations? He saw man as a powerful factor in ecology, and was concerned about sustainable development (about which we hear so much today), by the wise use of natural areas and wildlife. His fearless utterances on crucial issues usually made good sense and have stood the test of time.

The Sudan journal indicated Darling's greater confidence in expressing himself on African conditions. The Bahr-el-Ghazal is "....a country of rivers, one of the potentially richest reserve areas of the world....". Its temporarily inundated grasslands he considered to be one of the few areas which could withstand a large cattle population without erosion, in addition to a varied ungulate fauna and even productive forestry; he admired the Dinka cattle culture as a "....vast repository of knowledge of land and cattle management". He thought that Islam had had a greater moral influence in Africa than Christianity - "....the political activities of Christian missions and their anti-Arab bias puts them in no position to grumble if they are kicked out". He considered the style of government to be benign and just, and was struck by the honesty he experienced, as compared with Kenya and Northern Rhodesia. How would he have seen this today?

A pragmatic approach to the problems of resources' conservation is apparent through-out the journals. Darling is not one of those ecologists who cry for (or over) the wilder-ness: in his concern for the maintenance of conservation values, he sees the great danger of the misuse of resources by the holus-bolus importation of techniques from the west: successful though such techniques might have been elsewhere, so often under African conditions increased agricultural productivity results in reduced diversity leading to ecological instability; in other words, how the land is used is a matter of life or death for most species of wildlife and plants.

A side effect of Darling's travels was his influence on the thinking of field men. His personal contacts inspired many of them to adopt an ecological approach to wildlife management problems. His African experience contributed to the success of the far-reaching CTCA/IUCN Conference at Arusha in 1961, remembered as a milestone in conservation in Africa and marked by the Arusha Manifesto; and where he was a leading personality and took much credit. All this had ramifications; for example the Rhodesian Government (now Zimbabwe) in 1969 set up a Wildlife Commission with international personnel to enquire into the status of wildlife and its management, and this led to the Department becoming a leader in Africa.

FD's Wild Life in an African Territory, on the integration of wildlife conservation with human needs and development, gives the lie to the nonsense that some detractors of colonialism have published concerning the motives of former Game Departments in the onetime British territories. These detractors imply that the wildlife administrators had ignored the human dimension, and that this has led to the deterioration of the resource. How can these people understand the significance of an era that was unknown to them? While the pattern of vanishing wildlife was clearly on the wall in FD's time, not even his perspicacity could have forecast the corruption and inefficiency which has followed to bedevil most efforts at wise management. Is not Africa dying of self-inflicted wounds?

Darling dominated the field in African ecology in the late 1950's and early 60's, and contributed to the complex and unpredictable science of wildlife management; yet as Boyd rightly remarks, his name in Africa today has passed into history and may be almost forgotten. Since his time there has been a flood of international wildlife biologists and ecologists to advise African governments: perhaps the ecological maxim 'it is in the nature of succession that the climax does not recall the sub-series that enabled it to mature' is applicable to his importance in the conservation history of Africa.

This is a handsome book which in part is a historical background to current environmental problems in Africa. It should be enjoyed by ex-colonial servants and will have particular appeal to nature wardens, ecologists and travellers.

British Empire Book
J. Morton Boyd
Edinburgh University Press


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe