There are few things that sadden me more than the inevitable fate of Africa’s wildlife at the hands of “civilization.” My message, here, touches on that theme while offering a broad-brush picture of Africa, past and present.
“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” opens the richly written and highly acclaimed memoir, Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen (pen name: Isak Dinesen). In a curious chain of circumstances, my life-long fascination with Africa and its wildlife has recently been rekindled by her story and by other recent events. Many will recall the magnificent 1985 film, Out of Africa, which starred a young Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, directed by Sidney Pollack. The story’s setting recounts the sweeping panorama that was East Africa and Kenya in the early days of its capitol, Nairobi.
It was in Nairobi that many Brits and other Europeans opened up new colonial frontiers for the British Empire. People came for a multitude of reasons: Land grants from the government, pure adventure, and the opportunity to start a new life in a new place – whatever the root motivation. And those who came and risked the hardships of raw Africa in the early twentieth century were either fools or hardy adventurers, determined and pre-destined to succeed, there.
One of those who could and did meet Africa’s challenge was the Scotsman, John Alexander Hunter, who quickly became the most celebrated “white hunter” and later game warden in Africa’s history. Hunter arrived in Nairobi from Scotland in 1908 seeking adventure and a livelihood. Indeed, there was a need for “animal control” during the early days when native Africans eked out an existence among the then-teeming wildlife that surrounded them. Men like Hunter dealt with marauding elephants and rhinos that destroyed crops of the Masai and the Kikuyu farmers. And there were the occasional man-eaters, lions which had tasted human flesh and found the taking too easy. In the early days of plentiful game, white hunters paid their bills by guiding hunting safaris of the rich and privileged. Few people had the foresight in the 1920’s and 30’s to envision the dire wildlife situation which exists today in Africa. J.A. Hunter saw it coming as he later turned to work as a game warden and “gun safety” for strictly photographic safaris. It was J.A. Hunter’s iconic little book, Hunter, that first triggered my personal African odyssey more than fifty years ago. For that story as related on my earlier blog post about J.A. Hunter, click on the following link:
One of Nairobi’s early settlers not destined to make East Africa their permanent home was Karen Blixen who published Out of Africa in 1937, six years after returning to her native Denmark. Her memoir of the years 1913 to 1931 spent on her coffee farm high near the foot of the Ngong Hills, a dozen or so miles from Nairobi, creates a brilliant collage of Africa, Kenya’s bountiful wildlife, and the inscrutable native Africans who served her and her homestead. She related well to the Kikuyu and Somali Africans who worked her farm and household, even forming close bonds with several of those who served inside her home. Nonetheless, she appreciated her ultimate limits in that regard as she noted, “On our safaris and on the farm, my acquaintance with the Natives developed into a settled and personal relationship. We were good friends. I reconciled myself to the fact that while I should never quite know or understand them, they knew me through and through, and were conscious of the decisions I was going to take, before I was certain about them, myself.”
Blixen’s eloquent depictions in the book serve not only as a personal memoir of a bigger-than-life true story, but as a brilliant tapestry of early colonial East Africa, the traditions of safari and Africa’s teeming wildlife, and the challenging surroundings which engulfed the author. Earnest Hemingway, no stranger to literary honors, thought so highly of Out of Africa and its merits that he proposed Blixen as a worthy contender for a Nobel Prize in literature.
There is another prophetic book about Africa which, despite my early naivete concerning the subject, I was prescient enough to purchase in 1965, the year of its initial publication. Its title: The End of the Game, by Peter Beard. It has become something of a cult title, yet despite the author’s unorthodox style, the book was prophetic about the end of “the game” in Africa. While expressing grave pessimism over the fate of Africa’s game animals, the book’s larger thrust is a poke at “the game” as played in Nairobi and elsewhere by the early, privileged white “invaders” from colonial Britain and Europe as they went about executing new “land grants” and confiscating land from the resident natives to build their empires. Does that sound familiar to students of the American West and its history? The pages of this book contain many glimpses of the early settlers in and around Kenya including Baroness (Karen) Blixen and her lover and platonic ideal, the storied, Oxford educated white hunter, Denys Finch Hatton. Blixen and Finch Hatton came from aristocratic, wealthy backgrounds in Denmark and England, respectively. Like so many others of privilege who comprised the early colonial settlements in Kenya, they seemed by background unfit and unprepared to deal, long-term, with the demands of African existence. Blixen and her Danish nobleman husband at the time, Bror Blixen, made the ill-informed decision to plant coffee at their farm, ignoring the fact that the land was too elevated for favorable results. That fact and a later, devastating fire that destroyed the farm’s coffee processing barn, doomed Karen Blixen’s success in Africa.
On the other hand, men like J.A. Hunter and H.K. Binks arrived in Africa already equipped with a steely inner-core and flexible attitudes, tempered by the experiences of a well-grounded, challenging early life at “home.”
H.K. “Pop” Binks came from Yorkshire and arrived in Nairobi in 1900, making him one of the town’s earliest white settlers. He lived very modestly in Nairobi with his wife “Binkie” until death claimed him in 1971. During his lifetime in Nairobi, Binks plied numerous trades, including local photographer, astronomer, and author. He exhibited the attitudes and adaptability that life in Africa demanded. I have read first-hand accounts concerning the initiative and resilience of Mr. Binks, and at least one educated voice who knew him personally claimed him to be “the most interesting person I ever knew.” In his book, African Rainbow, Binks stated: “I have been lonelier in the crowded streets of a city than in the great open spaces of Africa, with all wild things for companions.”
In 1965, I received a personal note from Mr. Binks in response to a letter I wrote to him at his Nairobi address. I had asked if he had any reminiscences of old Nairobi he could share with me – strictly because of my interest in East Africa and early settlers like him. He very kindly answered my “out of the blue” letter but explained he was already involved with a “home” publisher (perhaps his book, African Rainbow) and could not comply. He wished me luck in my search.
Needless to say, I was pleased and grateful that he cared enough to reply to me. I have kept that folded little note from Binks tucked in one of my J.A. Hunter books for over fifty years, now – a prized connection to the East Africa that once was.
Over time, Africa methodically weeded out its unfit would-be residents just as it has always done within its animal populations. Changing conditions hastened the demise of the colonials who enjoyed a privileged existence in old Africa. In a similar vein, evolving world and local conditions appear also to foretell the virtual demise of Africa’s crown jewel, its diverse animal populations, roaming free and wild.
Today, population pressure from within Africa threatens its wildlife like never before. Whereas J.A. Hunter was occasionally called upon to kill a marauding elephant or rhino intent on invading a local native village, today the local human populations expand inexorably outward occupying and fencing vast stretches of what were once grazing lands where animals roamed free. And today we must deal with organized poachers who continue to cull the finest wildlife specimens from the remaining small numbers still “protected” in game preserves.
Saving Africa’s wildlife can succeed only with world-wide support. Much lip service is paid, but a comprehensive, long-range plan and adequate moneys appear wanting.
The problems involved in protecting Africa’s wildlife are very challenging, yet, in the face of halting progress to date, it seems to me that man is a failed species, himself, if he cannot prevent the decimation of Africa’s (and nature’s) crowning glory. I venture to say, in that case, man will ultimately prove incapable of saving himself from himself. If so, perhaps we deserve no better fate as a species.