Where did all the flower-eaters go, long time passing?

The records of Waterberg residents from a hundred years ago, together with reminiscences of survivors from the years prior to World War 2 are consistent in their evidence that in those days, the plateau was all but denuded of wild animals of almost any size.

For example, William Caine managed the 117 000 hectare New Belgium estate (now partially occupied by Lapalala and Kwalata, two huge, well-stocked and superbly managed private game farms) between 1894 and 1904. He maintained a detailed diary of his sojourn on the property during the Anglo-Boer War, - and seldom encountered anything even as large as a duiker on his many horse-mounted hunting excursions.
Yet only 60 years earlier, the accounts of the flamboyant naturalist/adventurer/hunter fraternity – men such as Delegorgue, Wahlberg, Cornwallis Harris, Cumming, Millais and even Selous – were replete with dramatic stories of encounters with elephant, buffalo, rhino, hippo, lion, leopard, sable, roan and kudu, not to mention many smaller antelope. Some of these adventurers, Delegorgue in particular, can only be described as butchers, wantonly killing or mortally wounding every animal they came across, without particular regard for meat, hide or tusk. Between them, and aided by the later trekkers and armed black villagers, and in the early 1890s by the rinderpest epidemic, they managed in a few years, to wipe out virtually all the game animals of the Limpopo Province outside the residual tsetse belt along its eastern boundary. (This latter fact was to prove critical in the founding of the Kruger National Park).
It would be of great interest, therefore, to have a formalised, substantiated idea of what the wild animal – mainly mammal – population of Limpopo might have been like prior to the invasion of the itinerant hunters of the early 19th century. The records of this pre-settler period are few and scarce, being limited to the analysis of archaeological collections and the reports of the earliest missionaries, traders, hunters and other visitors. A synthesis of information from such sources has still to be made; but it could hardly do better than to emulate the recent publication (2013) of a similar compilation for the Free State and Lesotho.

Written by Drs André Boshoff and Graham Kerley, both of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, “Historical Incidence of the Larger Mammals in the Free State Province (South Africa) and Lesotho” is the culmination of a comprehensive project to identify, source, collate, interpret and summarise early historical and late archaeological reports of large mammals in that region; and then to present the findings in a way that is scientifically robust, yet accessible to the lay reader in an attractive and engrossing format.

The book is the third in a series produced so far by the Centre: two earlier volumes, whose principal author was the late CJ Skead, dealt with the Eastern Cape (2007) and Northern & Western Cape (2011) respectively. If the style of the three books is rather formulaic, this is because the approach adopted for the first was so well-suited to the task that there has been little need to modify it significantly. Rather, the latest volume has built on the Skead template by including more verbatim extracts from the old records, and by the inclusion of material from palaeontological and archaeological records and museum collections. These enhancements not only bolster the credibility of the overall record, but also render the text much more interesting and enjoyable to read, including as they do numerous anecdotes, woodcuts and sketches from the original sources.

There are 54 individual species accounts, covering mammals ranging in size from the rock hyrax (dassie) to the elephant. For each, the layout is similar: a brief description of the species; a summary of written historical evidence for its occurrence; archaeological and palaeontological records; current distribution; and an overview. A simple but effective distribution map accompanies each description. In several cases, for example that of the blue duiker, some historical records lack sufficient clarity or specificity for the authors to make a final determination; and in such cases they present the available data in such a manner as to allow the reader to form his or her own opinion. The net result is that the reader is able to come to robust conclusions about the prehistorical and historical presence or absence of most individual species in a given area.

The individual species reports are followed by a concluding chapter, which attempts to identify, summarise and explain the various trends (and anomalies) shown by the historical distribution of the large mammal species in the Free State and Lesotho. It is especially noteworthy that about 20 of the 54 species considered in the book, and which were once present throughout the region in areas of suitable habitat, had become locally extinct by the end of the 19th century. These included once iconic species such as cheetah (notwithstanding the name of the province’s rugby team), quagga, plains zebra, warthog, both species of wildebeest, hartebeest, springbok and blesbok. Many others became rare visitors. The reasons for this collapse in faunal biodiversity were not limited to the unregulated hunting for meat, hides, bones, ivory or sport that characterised the first incursions by white adventurers from the Cape – although that was undoubtedly a principal cause. Changes in land use and land management through settlement – for example fencing, domestic stock and crop farming, bush clearing, fire control - were also important contributory factors in the extermination or migration of many species.

The summary also indicates species for which there are no archaeological or early historical records in the region under review – for example, the mountain zebra. This type of intelligence is especially useful in countering the provocative, mercenary attempts made by some in the game ranching/hunting/breeding industry (behind a façade of conservation) to “re-introduce” species into an area – for purely commercial ends – despite there being no evidence of their historical presence. A relevant case in point is the recent project to introduce bontebok into Limpopo – a move that would be laughable were it not such a tragic example of the crass cynical commerciality that pervades the industry.
Boshoff and Kerley’s book is an impressive, 460 page, hard-cover tome, fascinatingly written and profusely illustrated.

It is available from the Centre for African Conservation Ecology (http://ace.nmmu.ac.za/home; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) for R450 (VAT incl) plus postage or courier charges.

A similar volume about the historical incidence of larger mammals in Limpopo Province would be a valuable addition to the literature of scientific research for our region – and the authors would be interested in its production if sufficient sponsorship can be raised. Potential sponsors should contact them at the above address.

Richard Wadley
June 2015