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50 Years Ago: Wildlife Husbandry in Africa

It is often assumed that vast areas of Africa can be farmed whenever man chooses. There is reason to believe, however, that the best use to which most of this land can be put is to crop its native animals



© 1960 Scientific American

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Man has become the dominant species now in Africa as well as on the rest of the planet. This truism would scarcely need statement were it not a development of the last halfcentury, of the last quarter-century and even of the last decade. In Africa many races, nations and communities of men exist within the whole range from hunter and food gatherer to the urban dweller sealed off from nature by pavement, plumbing and prophylaxis. The rate of change is accelerating to such an extent that one cannot keep up to date with Africa. The African peoples have suddenly become aware of ways of life not their own and are fired with ebullient enthusiasm about they do not quite know what: nationalism, in a world that must overcome the jejune irrationality of nationalism, and a desire to copy the West in a continent which might better realize its own innate dignity.

In the intoxication with technology, Africa south of the Sahara is seen as an area of fabulous potential merely awaiting the magical touch of modern technology. What could be more inevitable than the vision of the bush bulldozed into agricultural production, of the grassy plains carrying huge herds of the familiar domesticated animals? Of course, out of deference to conservation, it is agreed that the extraordinary assemblage of wildlife that still occupies the open country may be preserved as something of the past in a few national parks.

But conservation has come to be a subject of more than purely sentimental or academic interest. As a realm of scientific investigation called ecology, it has assumed urgent importance in the maintenance of the human habitat. The vast number of species and races of plants and animals defined and named by earlier naturalists have been recognized by the ecologist as living in mutual interdependence in characteristic associations and communities. Man has been able to become a member of most terrestrial biological communities. As a hunter and food gatherer he was in the nature of an indigenous animal. Where he exists in such conditions today, limited in numbers and in the power to aggregate, he continues as a species that lives by virtue of and within the environment. The arts of agriculture and pastoralism bring about direct modification of the environment in time and space. Subsequent limited independence of the environment, with technical advance, allows human aggregations of a permanent nature and that increasing complexity of organization which we call civilization. It is at those times especially, when he emerges as the dominant species in an environment, that man must take care not to make demands upon the community that may destroy his habitat.

Time and again in recent years disastrous experience has shown that the habitats afforded by Africa are brittle and susceptible to ruin. The monumental failure of the earth nut (peanut) project in Tanganyika—a megalomaniac pipe-dream advanced in ignorance of the plainest facts about African soils—is well known. There have been other failures. Where the vegetation of the great African plateau is replaced by crop plants, many soils either set rock-hard or erode. Within a few years after pastoralism is attempted, it is found that the vegetation becomes degraded, erosion sets in and carrying capacity declines.

The record supports one radical conclusion to which many students of African ecology have now been persuaded. It is their opinion—and the thesis of this article—that only under the natural communities of game animals can a high biological capture and turnover of solar energy be maintained. This conclusion calls for the management and cropping of game to produce the protein element in the food supply. The techniques and the economics of this proposal remain to be developed. But even the little that is known about the natural history of Africa argues that to exchange the wide spectrum of 20 to 30 hoofed animals, living in delicate adjustment to their habitat, for the narrowed spectrum of three ungulates exotic to Africa—cattle, sheep and goats—is to throw away a bountiful resource and a marvelous ordering of nature.

Africa is old. Many of the soils of the great plateau are senile. They have not had the remaking influences of fairly recent glaciation and sedimentation, followed by the biological colonization typical of many rich lands in more temperate zones. What remains is the residual product of rock decay: the red pseudo-lateritic soil which is rich in iron and aluminum and lacking in the bases potassium, calcium and sodium. The few young soils, the volcanic ones, are very porous and occur most often in arid and semi-arid regions. The existing vegetation is adapted to these senile or immature soils and to the sharp divisions of rainy and dry seasons.

The plateau supports tracts of relatively open miombo forests of mainly leguminous trees, deep-rooting and productive of protein-rich beans. The interspersed grassy drainage-areas of great extent are deficient in calcium, phosphorus and nitrogen, and this fact, coupled with the long dry season, results in grass markedly deficient in protein for 10 months of the year. Only where the soils show high basic content, partly as a result of a precipitation-evaporation ratio approaching unity, does the herbage synthesize protein adequately and cure on the stalk to provide nutritious feed in the dry season. Yet these two types of land are confused and considered of equal pastoral potential by the optimists.

The truly rich and profit-yielding soils occupy but a small part of the African continent. The few such expanses are the cocoa and earthnut zones of West Africa, the White Highlands and the Kikuyu Reserve in Kenya, the coffee areas of Kenya and Tanganyika, the maize lands in parts of the Rhodesias, the alluvial sugar-cane soils of Mozambique and the cotton soils of the Sudan. Regions of great forests, showing an apparently immense wealth, are products of time and adaptation in a continent which has not known the catastrophes of glaciation. When the forests are felled, it is all too often found that the imagined wealth of soil is an illusion.

In their natural condition the several habitat types in Africa may be looked upon to some extent as a changing mosaic, with fire as the great changing factor. Wildfire has been natural in Africa for eons of time, not breaking into tropical rain forests but certainly into the forests of the plateaus and changing these secondary successional forests into grassland savannas. Fire diversified the environment. In the grasslands and open glades it was much gentler in action than the panic-inspiring conflagrations in northern coniferous forests. The many hoofed animals and their predators were well adapted to it and simply moved on to where their chosen conditions had arisen again. Thus in the vast expanse of Africa, never catastrophically changed, a wide variety of ungulate species evolved and survived. Pleistocene relics such as elephant, rhinoceros and hippopotamus are still thriving animals. The greatest threat to their existence has arisen only recently, with the shrinking of their habitat by man.

Fire has now ceased to be a natural diversifying, ameliorating factor and has become an attenuating one-manmade and far too frequent in incidence. This is apparent both in the grasslands and in the leguminous miombo forest of Tanganyika and the Rhodesias. I regard irresponsible man-made fire as one of the principal impoverishing agents in the decline of much African habitat.

It is evident that species evolve by differentiation in behavior and wants as well as in form. Differentiation implies varied demands on the environment or differing possibilities of exploiting it. A wide spectrum of hoofed animals means a widely differentiated usage of the vegetation, and to a remarkable extent this results in a mutual conservation of habitat. The environmental stratification of the ungulates is beautiful and fascinating to observe. Over and over again one sees evolution probing unoccupied niches or finding possible new niches. There is also the ecological axiom that two species in the same habitat do not occupy exactly the same niche. Man is the most adaptable of animals and succeeds by the variety of habitats he can occupy; the elephant comes next and is so successful in occupying different African habitats that he now comes bang up against an expanding human population.

The elephant is at one end of the spectrum of browsers and grazers. True desert and deep swamp are impassable for him. Of marshes he is definitely fond, and he occupies several kinds of forest: bamboo, dry bush types and savanna. His loss from the fauna would be irreparable, for he is primarily the great pathmaker, opening the country to penetration by other species. He is also the great plowman, a function which too many observers describe as destructive. But when he pulls over trees, exposillg the soil at their roots, in a vast area of uninhabited mopalli (valley) forest, what does it matter? The dense clay soil is probably aerated by no other means. Though the rotation of plowing by this method may be centuries long, it is nevertheless significant, even as is ploughing by the action of hurricanes in northern forests every two centuries or so.

The elephant is a sure prospector and digger for water. Guinea fowl and doves come in flocks at first light to the funnellike holes made by the elephants at night in dry sand rivers. The browse of trees and bushes is kept in condition for many species of antelope and for buffalo. Finally I would mention a small and pleasant observation made in the Mashi River on the southeastern Angola border; as I waded in the open lily-zone outside the reeds I noticed stickleback fish protecting nests in the cylindrical depressions that had been made in the river bed by the feet of elephants.

The wide spectrum of 20 to 30 ungulates in several African habitats goes down through eland, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, impala and the rest to the tiny dik-dik antelope, scarcely bigger than a rabbit. All have their niche in the conversion of vegetation, with subtle and indirect effects arising from this varied use that challenge the perception of the ecologist. Not only are there the different levels and kinds of browsing and grazing, but mechanical effects such as pan-making, path-making, soil aeration, seed dispersal, keeping waters open, maintenance of drainage channels (the hippopotamus) and fertilization of waters (the hippopotamus, waterbuck and lechwe antelope). The varied fauna interweaves with the habitats. In the miombo forest, for example, the game animals make full use of the browse and the protein-rich beans and are therefore better able to graze the grassy dambos, where the grass loses its protein content so quickly.

The more complex the niche structure in a biological community the more efficient the conversion cycle. As stated in the axiom of the mathematical ecologist Alfred J. Lotka, the collective activities and effects of the organisms evolve in the direction of maximum energy intake from the sun and maximum output of free energy by the dissipative processes of life and of decay after death. In other words, evolution tends to bring the whole ecosystem to a higher metabolic rate. An ecological climax—as represented by the biological communities of Africa—embodies the maximum energy-flux possible in a given set of physical and climatic conditions. Maintenance of the energy flux is conservation; reduction of it is the opposite of conservation.

At this moment in world history we might think it important to determine the rate of energy flux in any habitat before we embark on radical changes in its character. Some changes seem to be irreversible. The all-too-general experience in tropical habitats is that change is towards deterioration or lessening of the energy flux.

When man breaks good ground for agriculture, he effects a deflection in the natural process of ecological succession. If he farms well he may be able to maintain the energy flux as he deflects it through his own species to a much greater degree than in the natural, pre-agricultural state. For example, with the introduction of clover into the English farming rotation, man was able to increase the energy flux far above the level of the untouched ecosystem.

This desirable condition has even been achieved at times in Africa. It is a far more remarkable achievement than merely canalizing energy flow through the human species, as by bringing wild lands under pasture, regardless of a declining rate of flow through the ecosystem as a whole. The combing of wild lands with man's few domesticated animals is an exceedingly ancient land use. But it is a parasitic one and not constructive or additive to the habitats. Analysis of wild lands that have been thus exploited shows them to be more or less impoverished compared with their original state. Deterioration of habitat is seen in the reduction of the number of species of plants and animals and change in the array of dominant species. In other words, the delicately balanced niche structure is impaired. Fire and pastoralism, so often hand in hand, hasten the deterioration, causing bottlenecks in the conversion cycle which slow it down.

The tsetse fly still occupies two million square miles of Africa, barring such areas to pastoralism. But the tsetse fly is no longer the guardian that it was of pristine habitat and wild game; science is beating it gradually. Within the tsetse and game-rich areas there is much overhunting of the wild ungulate animals. Insofar as pastoralism is achieved, it is at the expense of the environment, bringing the fauna, flora and land into a state of progressive and sometimes irreversible deterioration.

In a perfect world pastoralism would never have been undertaken on wild lands without pilot projects and research to establish the limits of carrying capacity. We can forgive the past its mistakes if only for the truth they reveal. But in this present time there is no excuse whatsoever for bringing land under cultivation or pasture without knowing whether such use can be sustained. If it cannot, no argument of expedience can justify the despoliation of an adjusted ecosystem and the creation of a desert for posterity.

Immense areas of the plateau and volcanic soils of Africa south of the Sahara are quite unsuited to permanent agriculture. One aspect of the senility of these pseudo-lateritic soils is the meager rate at which they sustain the process of base-exchange, so essential to plant nutrition. Under the natural forest-cover the soils work up a fair store of organic matter with adequate capillarity; under cultivation they lose structure, organic matter and the power to conduct water.

These soils have been cultivated with success for generations by the primitive technique of the chitemene garden. In a circle of an acre or two the trees are lopped and burned, and the crop is planted in the ash. After three years the garden must be abandoned, and regeneration occurs in 25 to 40 years. With all our new and accumulated knowledge we know no surer way to work these soils. There is a tendency for Western man to be contemptuous of shifting cultivation. Such an attitude derives from an inelasticity of mind which takes for its criterion a home-loving population living on highly durable soils and growing food for both subsistence and export. The African, far from being wasteful in applying his traditional method, is practicing a measure of conservation in leaving the soil to recuperate under its natural cover. But chitemene gardening will maintain only a small population of human beings. Trouble has come with curtailment of the recuperative period in the effort to feed an increasing population.

It is on lands that will not withstand pastoralism or sustained agriculture that the wild game represents a natural resource of great value in providing the much-needed protein element in the African diet. Take the example of the great Luangwa Valley of Northern Hhodesia—15,000 to 20,000 square miles solidly under tsetse fly, carrying one permanent central river and one permanent transverse stream. The other watercourses fail in the dry season; in the rains the Luangwa widens to several miles, and there is water everywhere. The valley is still rich in game species which disperse over it in the rains and concentrate on the rivers in the dry season. There are elephants and buffalo by the thousands in the valley, zebra, eland, kudu, puku, roan, impala, waterbuck, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and many other species. For control purposes it is necessary to kill 300 elephants a year. Even though this slaughter is not designed for food production, every effort is made by the government to use the meat. The elephants killed represent more than half a pound of meat per week for every one of the 60,000 humans of the valley. This is but one species and takes no note of the licensed toll of game taken by Africans carrying muzzle-loading guns.

Understanding of the possibilities of wildlife management is in its infancy. Research must determine the niche structure of the many species of larger animals and must make assessments of energy flux in the several African ecosystems. In practical terms, the stock-carrying capacity of the habitats must be determined for game in comparison with that for the three domesticated animals, and cropping yields in terms of protein must be established in relation to maintenance of the habitat. There are no such figures as yet, but there is some hope that experimental game-management schemes now starting or being contemplated will yield the knowledge within a few years.

It may be argued that the cropping of wild animals in bush country is altogether impractical, and that normal pastoralism is more sound economically, even though less efficient biologically. Thinking purely in terms of Western man's fastidiousness in meat selection, this argument has point. But it is highly unlikely that Africa will be able to afford such fastidiousness for a long time. Moreover, the cattle that can be reared on African pastures cannot possibly compare in quality with the breeds from which Western man chooses his steak. Quality, in any case, may be a false standard, for game meat is very good indeed. The fault lies largely in the butchering and preparation.

Large quantities of game meat, poached by individuals and gangs and quite revolting in quality and preparation, are being sold at this moment in African villages and to the industrial compounds of the copper belt. The prices paid are high and prove the demand. With all the hurry and lack of care caused by furtiveness, the animals are butchered in the field and the meat is smoked on racks over wood fires. The nature of this traffic is indescribable. I have taken part in forays against the gangs and have seen the hiding places in dense bush where the butchering is done. And I have helped catch the purveyors of the meat, the bicycle men with sacks over the crossbar. Skin and guts are all there.

If game management schemes could be run properly under the native authorities, butchering and preparation could be taught and carried through carefully. Smoking can keep the meat from spoiling for a month or more, but experimentation with antibiotic sprays may provide alternative means of preservation. Fulbright scholars from the U. S. working on wildlife ecology in Africa have been foremost in demonstrating the practicality of cropping some of the hoofed animals for meat. Wendell G. Swank of the University of Arizona has worked out killing percentages (meat-offal ratios) of African ungulates in comparison with those of domesticated animals. Helmut K. Buechner and Irven O. Buss of Washington State University have worked on elephants; George A. Petrides of Michigan State University has studied population structure; William M. Longhurst of the University of California has shown the possibilities of herding wild game by small airplane. Longhurst also organized the shooting of 500 hippopotamuses in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. All the meat was utilized. (This last operation exposes the inadequacy of the notion that national parks should be absolute sanctuaries. The hippopotamus had so far increased as to endanger the persistence of grazing. National parks without game management can become problem areas.) Thane Riney and Ray Dasmann of the University of California are working on protein yield and the structure of the grazing community in Southern Rhodesia.

Much is expected from the newly established Waliangulu Game Management Scheme in southeastern Kenya. The area is arid during most of the year, but there is a fair head of game. The primitive Waliangulu tribe of 250 to 300 people had been badly exploited by illegal ivory agents in Mombasa, who paid them a pittance to poach the elephants. When the anti-poaching campaign broke up this traffic, the management scheme had to be instituted for the good of the tribe.

I have not mentioned the spiritual and cultural values of wildlife conservation and the scientific interest of the wonderful African fauna and flora, which are at present receiving the most unsympathetic treatment. We all believe in these values, and I personally feel the claim of the animals and the habitats to survive in their own right, irrespective of any value we reap. Most of the politicians, African and white alike, are townsmen who have little idea how their primitive fellow-men subsist, and they know little or nothing of the limitations of the African environment. Hopefully, a wider appreciation of the economic possibilities of game and habitat management may secure the conservation of the stocks of African wildlife and of the land itself.

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