The British Empire Library

An Impossible Dream - Some Of Kenya's Last Colonial Wardens Recall The Game Department In The Closing Years Of The British Empire

Edited by Ian Parker and Stan Bleazard

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Dr Richard Leakey (Director, Kenya Wildlife Service 1989-94, 1998-99)
I enjoyed reading An Impossible Dream for a number of different reasons and I can commend the book to anyone who has an interest in Kenya. It is also a useful account for those concerned with wildlife conservation in Africa and it provides an insight on how well-intended policies can have detrimental consequences. There are 38 chapters of varying length and substance and although the two editors Stan Bleazard and Ian Parker have 'pruned', to use their own words, the unevenness of the text is irritating.

To a certain extent, the editors set the scene in their introduction as to what the reader can expect. We are informed that "the Game Department was never particularly intellectual. . . game wardens did not take written exams.... Wardens did not like paper work and filing systems were usually the third fixed copy in a triplicate note book. " The narrative is largely anecdotal and one is left to make one's own analysis and assessment of the actions of the Game Department in colonial Kenya.

In the period before independence, the indigenous people of Kenya did not have individual land ownership or title rights in contrast to the settler community who did. Similarly, the native Kenyans had no political voice and game control was very much a public service. Many settlers were authorized to control game on their farms themselves through various legal devices such as honorary wardenships. African subsistence farming required protection from wildlife from the government and this was the primary role of the Game Wardens and their Game Scouts. To this day, government is expected to 'control wildlife' and to protect crops from elephant, buffalo and other game. The huge growth in Kenya's rural population, much of it entirely dependent on small scale farming has made adequate control of wildlife impossible in modern Kenya. The consequence of this failure is a constant political backlash against wildlife wherever it is. For the "dream" to have been realized, land rights and political power would have had to have been denied to the majority of Kenya's population.

The Impossible Dream refers to a Kenya where the Crown or State owned all wildlife and this persists today. It is tempting to speculate on how different things might have been today if the colonial power had vested ownership of wild game in the land owners themselves. The work of the Game Wardens would have been very different and the policy of the Game Department would almost certainly have been more pro-active in protection.

The book alludes to some of the pioneering work of a few individuals who clearly saw the need for large tracts of land to be set aside as Game Reserves and National Parks. Although these references are fleeting, the problems of poaching and the efforts to stop the illegal trade of ivory are an important part of the book. Had there been greater financial resources available to the Chief Game Warden, a lot more would have been done to create extensive wildlife protected areas, especially in the northern part of the country. This is not generally known and it is good to see it brought out.

1 was interested in the accounts of early efforts at game capture and translocation. As a youngster, I well remember the excitement and drama of capturing rhino and giraffe from the 'chase truck' of Nick Carter. It is amazing that anyone, let alone the animals, survived but they did. Today's almost surgical techniques using helicopters and highly trained teams reflects the valuable pioneering work done in the 1960s.

Some of the stories in An Impossible Dream are very vivid and colourful accounts of dedicated young men who lived life to the full. I am fortunate to have known a good number of the 17 contributors and a handful of the others that they write about. Their tales ring true; they lived these lives and were a closely knit group of very unusual government employees.

In spite of the title, the book is not about failure. Dreams are not real and nobody could have anticipated the events that were to unfold. The huge numbers of wild animals living everywhere in Kenya could not have been sustained. We are fortunate to have what is left and the challenge now is to keep the estate, maintain the 52 National Parks and Game Reserves and ensure that future generations will have the chance to experience the remaining wonders of what Ian Parker so aptly describes as the Pleistocene Africa.

British Empire Book
Ian Parker and Stan Bleazard
Librario Publishing
1 904440 20 7


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