Aldo Leopold was quite simply, the conservationists conservationist. He was a quiet, considered man, a hunter, forester and a pioneering ecologist. The story of his environmental awakening from the 1920s through to the 1940s could teach modern African conservationists, as well as those animal rights advocates who oppose hunting, some important lessons. In my opinion, the most important part of the young Aldo Leopold’s experience which is relevant to Africa was his first assignment to the dry south western States of Arizona and New Mexico. Dry habitats are fragile and do not respond well to overgrazing and irrigation and this mirrors the situation in many of the most important wildlife areas in southern and eastern Africa. The theories around land management that Leopold developed played an important part in our current understanding of how dry ecosystems function. All of this tends to get quite tedious unless you have a specific interest in ecology and land management, so in this post I am going to focus on his work in conservation and how hunting and conservation played an important part in the development of his approach to wildlife management. His book “Game Management” (published in 1938) was the first textbook on wildlife management based on modern scientific studies of wildlife and it revolutionised the field of conservation.
It may surprise modern conservationists to learn that the opposition to hunting, and incorrectly attributing all hunters as being responsible for the decimation of species, dates from the early part of the twentieth century and a man named William Hornaday. He started his career as a collector of specimens for the renowned taxidermy firm started by Henry Ward, which under the name of Ward’s Science, still provides biological specimens to schools and universities throughout the United States. He later trained as a taxidermist under Henry Ward and rose to become Chief Taxidermist at the US National Museum, which later became the Smithsonian Institution. When Hornaday was asked by the museums director to catalogue the collection of American bison, he discovered that the museums collection comprised mostly dusty old specimens and a few skulls hidden away in drawers. This led him to do a survey of where the last herds of American bison may be so that he could go and shoot a few to add to the collection. To his horror, the reports he received from his research indicated that there may be as few as 800 American bison left. This finding shocked Hornaday to his core. It appeared that the bison had decreased from around 10 or 15 million to less than a thousand in 20 years. Hornaday laid the blame firmly on the hunters. In this case he was correct. Commercial hunting for meat and hides had decimated the bison population. He was a man of extraordinary passion and energy and he proceeded to write books, lobby congress for the establishment of a National Zoo in Washington (successfully) and became the leading advocate of wildlife conservation (or preservation, in its later definition) before anyone had thought of the idea. He is still credited as the man who saved the American bison from extinction.
His book “The Extermination of the American Bison” (published in 1889) was a bestseller and his opinions resonated with a sympathetic public, in much the same way as incidents like Cecil the Lion resonate with the public today. He railed against hunting, the development of improved firearms that could kill more efficiently, and the commercial greed that he now attributed to the demise of all wildlife species in North America. In an extraordinary leap of logic, he had taken one example, the decimation of the American bison for commercial purposes and not only applied it to all species, but placed recreational sport hunting and hunting for the pot that was enjoyed by millions of Americans, in the same category. He campaigned tirelessly and urged congress to pass laws that restricted hunting. His later book “Our Vanishing Wildlife” was equally popular, although other than the bison it was thin on facts about animal numbers and their rates of decline. This did not stop Hornaday from sticking to his anti-hunting stance and attributing the decline of all wildlife populations to hunters. Aldo Leopold, in his quiet, considered way was to prove him wrong.
Hornaday was famous, 61 years old and at the peak of his powers when he first met Leopold in Alberqueque in 1915. Leopold was 28 and already a respected figure in forestry and conservation circles and had read all Hornaday’s books as a young forester. The two men shared a belief that extermination of a species was a crime which humanity committed against nature. They had a lot of common ground when it came to the ethical and moral aspects of conserving species, as do many of those in the pro-hunting and anti-hunting camps today. But Leopold felt that the reasons for the bisons decline did not apply to all species. He saw that other factors were at work and they required different responses from those which Hornaday was advocating in the strident and denunciatory language which echoes the calls for banning hunting today. Like most conservationists who understand ecological linkages and who take a more considered approach to problems of conservation, Leopold was coming to the realisation that it was the effect of a growing industrialised society on wildlife habitat that was the major problem. Leopold not only recognised how hunting was a part of American culture which made it impossible to ban, but that hunting represented an opportunity for wildlife. If people wanted to continue hunting, they would need to face up to the reality that wildlife in North America was in trouble, and do something about it. Banning hunting would have brought a backlash that would have discredited the new ideas of conservation in the eyes of the American public.
More importantly, Leopold understood how hunting binds you to the land, makes you really observe the habits of the animals you hunt, and provides a spiritual bond to a place where you know you can shoot a few birds every year, or enjoy the satisfaction of a clean shot and the meat that comes with it. In one of his quotes he expresses his devastation when a local marsh was drained :
“Perhaps no one but a hunter can understand how intense an affection a boy can feel for a piece of marsh…. I came home one Christmas to find that land promoters, with the help of the Corps of Engineers had dyked and drained my boyhood hunting grounds on the Mississippi river bottoms….
Hunting as a boy had created a bond with the land that no other experience can substitute. My son expressed similar sentiment recently when we had been viewing wildlife in Hwange National Park earlier this year. He was bored with watching waterholes and perhaps felt the distance that viewing wildlife from a vehicle places between a person and the environment. He said, “Dad, it’s much more fun shooting doves in the bush on Grandpa’s farm than sitting in a car all day watching elephants.” In his 10 year old innocence he had pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes. When we got back to Grandpa’s farm a few weeks later we spent hours walking with a rifle, closely observing doves, guinea fowl, and other game birds and the connection with the land was far more intense than when we were driving about in a 4×4 vehicle. The dinner of stewed dove breasts was delicious too.
A few years later Leopold was due to publish a report on his research into the decline of wildlife in North America. He approached Hornaday, now old and confined to his bed, to ask him to hold off on criticising the report until he had read it and had the chance to discuss it with Leopold. Such was the influence of Hornaday’s ideas on public opinion that Leopold felt his strident anti-hunting stance would detract from the findings of the report. Hornaday knew Leopold to be a serious and committed conservationist and he agreed to keep his opinions to himself. The report formed the basis of Leopold’s seminal work on game management which still contains many of the ideas we use to manage wildlife populations today.
What lessons can we draw from this early engagement for African conservation? Anyone who takes time to consider the issue around wildlife decline will realise that hunting, and especially sport hunting (contrasted with the commercial hunting for meat and skins which led to the decline of the bison) is not a huge factor in the decline of African wildlife. Whether it is cruel and inhumane is a separate issue which I have discussed before. Sport hunting of African wildlife has almost no effect on wildlife populations. I say almost, because some species are more susceptible to hunting. Shooting pride males out of a pride of lions has a disproportionate effect on the population because the new pride male kills all the previous males cubs. You haven’t shot one lion – you’ve shot three or four or five. Any ethical hunter would be appalled by this and modify his behaviour accordingly. But the lessons I’d like to see African conservationists learn from Aldo Leopold and William Hornaday, is how they were privately able to find common ground and temper their public utterances. Whipping the public into a frenzy about hunting is easy, but it’s a cheap shot. Is there any one who would deny that the problems around African wildlife decline are complex? Do we really believe that the phrase “Stop the Killing” constitutes a solution to wildlife decline? As a researcher, ecologist, occasional hunter and passionate advocate of solving the problems of wildlife decline in Africa I can assure you it is meaningless.
We need some Aldo Leopolds in Africa. We need quiet, thinking men and women who love the land and its people, who analyse the problems and come up with solutions that take into account the realities of changing society in Africa and its effect on the environment. I know a few men and women like Aldo Leopold in Africa, but their voices are drowned in a barrage of animal rights and anti-hunting propaganda which is designed to collect donations which support the lifestyle of whoever runs the NGO. This hysteria does not offer anything approaching a solution. Very few of these NGOs are based in Africa and they simply do not and cannot understand the complexities of the situation. Just like William Hornaday did, they should keep quiet, find common ground and let the quiet, thinking men and women of African conservation come up with solutions to the decline of wildlife populations.