Acknowledging the role that colonial hunting by Britons, Americans and other Europeans played in the decimation of rhino and elephant populations in Africa from the 1800s challenges the notion that trade in rhino horn and ivory is relatively new.
The history of rhino conservation is paradoxical. It’s tied to the very English sport of hunting. The conservation of rhino began with white hunters who were shooting them and wanted to protect them so they could continue to shoot them. These trophy hunters included the likes of Percival, Paterson and Prowse who penetrated East Africa in the 1900s. They didn’t want to protect rhinos and game only because they wanted to shoot them, they also respected them in a way that only trophy hunters understand.
Another benefit of hunting was the presence of Asian middlemen in Africa which meant that trophies could be traded, sometimes openly, sometimes not. Ivory was for carving, rhino horn for medicine and carving. Another aspect of British conservation and regulations was that the rights to hunt game leaned in favour of white hunters. In the 19th century, indigenous tribesmen did most of the hunting to supply an economically important international trade. The native kingpins reaped riches. The advent of conservation and regulations changed that. Hunting was a right that the British, Europeans and Americans sought for themselves. What happened and how the regulations were viewed by African and Asian stakeholders can’t be undone, but considering Britain and America dominate the conservation sector, they need to own the role that their founders played in the initial decimation of the rhino species and the monopolisation of hunting in trade of ivory and rhino horn.
The original pressure to protect African game such as rhino can’t be understood without first understanding the sprawling 19th century cities of elephant society. The African elephants were as crowded together in the plains and forests of Africa as houses in London or New York. Comparisons between elephants and humans are easily made. Family orientated beings of longevity, intelligence, feeling and culture, the ability of elephants to transform landscapes is only paralleled by humans. They shared the plains and the watering places with all other game including rhino. In the trade for ivory, or as one English Captain put it, “our ivory”, the black rhino grazing amid the elephant herds was bycatch – a profitable bycatch, as the horn was prized as a carving material and medicine in the Orient.
The British became accessories to the destruction of the African paradise in the 19th century, particularly the latter half in East Africa (Livingstone arrived in 1869) and earlier in South Africa. British and European explorers discovered a wealth of elephants baking on the plains and bathing in the rivers. But the explorers in East Africa also discovered a frenzy of commerce surrounding the herds. The Egyptians had thrust into the ivory resources from the north in Sudan and the Arabs and Indians had thrust in from the east coast.
The newly arrived British Consul in the ivory trading centre of Zanzibar recorded that 488,600 lbs of ivory worth £146,666 was exported in 1859. The British administrators of the colonial protectorates and British East African Company struggled in the name of the empire to wrest control of the ivory trade from the Arabs and Indians. They had mixed success as the Arabs proved to be masters of business strategy and plunder, but gradually through persistence the trade was checked, or rather it came under control of the Empire. Livingstone estimated that 44,ooo elephants were killed for export to England in 1870 with annual total mortalities up to 65,000 by 1894.
At the peak of the trade, caravans 2,000 African porters strong belonging to the Arab and Indian ivory traders bore ivory and slaves to markets in the African interior. The porters were laden with 50-80 pounds each of ivory on their heads; 18,000 pounds to 28,000 pounds were prize loads for caravans – 360 to 560 ivory porters respectively.
Ivory was a household item to the people of Europe and America in the 19th century, like plastic is in the 21st century. And like the Chinese manufacturing of plastic goods in the late 20th and 21st century, 19th century China bought raw African ivory off the Arabs, Indians, Britons and Europeans and manufactured ivory goods, games and trinkets to be exported back to the chief consumer nations of America, Britain and Europe. Marco Polo wrote in a journal, “Most of the ivory is carried to Oman whence it is sent to India and China.”
The ivory the Chinese bought was for ivory carving, both for the export market and their domestic market. The Chinese in Africa didn’t get their hands dirty (or bloody), they just brokered deals for ivory and rhino horn between the traders and the buyers and ivory carvers at home. In 1894, 80% of the ivory that went through Africa’s main port for ivory, Zanzibar, was headed for America. Billiard balls and handles for Smith and Wessons. The English steel and silversmiths in Sheffield bought sizeable quantities of ivory for cutlery handles.
Ivory was almost a currency. Everything in the East African ivory markets was bartered; the traders gave everything from blue beads to beautiful women to the African suppliers. They avoided trading arms to the tribes for security reasons, and if they did, they offered antiquated weapons. But some traders weren’t so scrupulous. A savvy Arab trader could turn $3 worth of copper into $1,000 of ivory with a series of clever barters. Ivory was the world’s most valuable commodity and travelling with it in the caravans and the ivory markets in the East African interior was rhino horn. A much lesser commodity in terms of national economies, but pound for pound more valuable.
The economic importance of the ivory trade (and rhino horn) needs to be emphasised. Written accounts since the second century and the Middle Ages show the ivory trade was more prominent than the slave trade. It was more lucrative than slaves for one obvious reason: ivory didn’t deteriorate on long marches like slave women and children did. The tribes were keen to supply it for the riches and wages it earned them. They speared the elephants, sometimes using grass fires to herd huge numbers, sometimes dropping heavy spears from trees to pierce between the shoulder blades of big bulls; 100-pound tusks had 3-foot of ivory embedded in the elephants’ skulls. The embedded tusk was difficult for the Africans to get out, but the Arab hunters had axes that made it easier. The potential for imagining brutal scenes is an unfortunate fact of history. Get that extra 3-foot out in one piece and you could trade a big tusk for a beautiful slave, a cow or a new shirt.
In the 1800s Arab merchants such as Muhammad Ali and Tipu Tib from Egypt and Sultan Said from Zanzibar were known at the ivory trading centres at Khartoum on the Nile or at Ujiji or Unyanyembe in Tanzania. Asian middlemen set up residence in Ujiji in the 1860s, the rice grown in a nearby swamp an important staple for them. Two thousand people would attend the markets daily for a trade in scissors, opera glasses, cloth, picture books, gunpowder, handkerchiefs, slaves and beads for ivory.
An Indian, Musa Mzuri, was among the Indians who monopolised the trade at Zanzibar. The Indian agencies had been operating 200 to 300 years. They dominated the main trading centre at Zanzibar. The soft ivory for carving, which was the ivory of choice for the Chinese, came from East of the Congo, while harder, more translucent ivory was from the West of the Congo line. Zanzibar, which was the ivory market for all of East Africa, supplied 75% of the world’s ivory in 1891. European agencies such as Hansing and Company, O’swald and Company, Wiseman and Company, Roux, Frassinet and Company and Meyer and Company were keen to wrestle the trade from the Indians in charge at Zanzibar. Not an easy task.
These companies, including the British East Africa Company, made sustained attempts to impose their order on the lawlessness. The chaos that swept the African plains saw gluts of ivory rot in the mud and African tribesmen become masters of bling, pictures of debauchery surrounded by beautiful female slaves and objects of debasement. The plains and forests were fetid with the rotting corpses of elephants and rhino. The trade was a free-for-all. An estimated 170,000 black rhinos were killed for the trade in their horn between 1849 and 1895 to supply 11,000kg/year to Asia, entire horns, pieces or shavings from Yemen dagger handle carving, it didn’t matter. Then the trade gradually transformed into a sport, with the losers supplying the trophies. The image of the white hunter sportsman began to dominate the frame but the trade undercurrent still ran strongly, with large profits. Then the sportsmen noticed incredulously that they’d put more than a dint in Africa’s bounty. As hunting was important to the British elite in the Victorian era, the first European regulations came around 1890, calling for hunters to “play fair”.
The 19th century South African ivory market was not as free as East Africa’s. The tribes didn’t get their piece like they did further north. The Boers saw the game as a valuable resource from first settlement, but the 1830s marked a new era of bloodlust: English visitor hunters en-route for military or civic duty in India. Englishly enthusiastic for natural history, hunting and lunch money for cucumber sandwiches from selling trophies, the white hunters and their guests shot South Africa almost out of elephant and rhino except for in a few areas, by 1860. Addo was one of those areas. Smooth bore rifles meant death for the pachyderm was never quick, but the visitors still glorified it in British best-sellers. No one, colonial or tribal, was blind to the difference just a few decades of trophy hunting had made to biodiversity.
As far as Britain was concerned the herds of its African territories were a treasure of the Empire. By 1870, colonial hunters worried about the disappearance of game, the result of “reckless shooting of excessive numbers of animals”. In 1903 UK hunter and conservation activist Edward North Buxton helped form the world’s oldest international conservation society, the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire, now called Flora and Fauna International (FFI). Buxton believed many European hunters lacked “true sportsmanship”. Buxton described Africa’s herds as “a precious inheritance of the Empire, something to be guarded like a unique picture” and Africa as “a paradise of varied life which is now irretrievably lost through the carelessness and wastefulness of white men”. The accounts of the losses were the same in Sudan, South Africa, Somaliland, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Elites and hunters who wished to protect their resource made up a large part of Buxton’s society’s membership.
Early conservation initiatives responded to the disappearance of game. These included the establishment of the Sabie Game Reserve in 1892, the Cape Act for the Preservation of Game in 1886, the establishment of game reserves and hunting licences in German East Africa in 1896 and game regulations in Uganda in 1897, hunting licences for hunters visiting Somalihand and quotas for elephants and rhino, reserves in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Malawi and Somilaland, with set limits on each species and special protection for slow breeding species like rhino and female and young. A conference of stakeholder nations including Germany, France, Britain, Portugal, Spain, Italy and the Belgian Congo resulted in the 1900 Convention for the Preservation of Animals, Birds and Fish in Africa. Hunters objected but Buxton said “the legitimate sportsman has no reason to fear it and the mere butcher should be gibbeted”. British conservation delegate Captain Keith Caldwell denigrated subsistence hunting by the natives or hunting for profit, especially when it was trophy hunting for profit. “The quickest, most certain way of wiping animals off the face of the earth was to commercialise their trophies,” Caldwell said.
The Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire, which was principally a pressure group whose two main concerns were the establishment of “sacred” game reserves and regulating the ivory (and rhino horn) trade, had to fight against its image as a club for “rich sportsmen” and reframe itself as a scientific society. Secretary of State for the Colonies Lord Crewe said in 1909 that the society was not just representing the interests of hunters. “It is not with you simply a question of preserving game for sportsmen, although that is a side of the matter in which many members no doubt take interest; but you are here, as I say, as a scientific society in the main and it is on those lines and in those interests that you wish us to help you.” However, hunting was central to Buxton’s philosophy as he extolled the model of species protection in which the revenue from hunting licences be used for conservation. The model that has persisted till today.
Kenya became an emotional pivot point for white colonial hunters in the early 20th century. The 19th-century caravans of the Arab and Indian ivory traders had dared not cross the Masai’s land for they feared losing their lives and treasure. The Kenyan game had been spared the ivory trade for a century so when ex US President Theodore Roosevelt cemented the legend of the safari hunt with his 1909 visit, he had plenty of carcasses to enjoy his lunch beside. He shot everything he could find, hundreds of animals, keen to pot specimens for the Smithsonian Museum.
The white hunters that followed the trend that Roosevelt started saw herds of game so huge they thought they were endless. It was a “prehistoric utopia” in a “tropical Neolithic slumber”. They mistook the occasional goring of a white hunter or a black porter by an angry elephant, rhino or lion as sign of fair sport. The Empire and the American industrialists had the taste for hunting safaris in Kenya. They didn’t want Kenya to change, but they soon despaired. They gazed forlorn at lakes where elephant and rhino had abounded and saw not a single animal. Why didn’t they understand that their guns were strangers in paradise?
They mourned, poetically passing down their tears in literature like Out of Africa. The white hunters, who were British, European and American elites and royalty, were no strangers to the study of history, but they were blind to the fact that endless elephant herds had already been decimated for a century in the lands north and west of Kenya. Had they not learned from Livingstone’s journals, or the account books of the ivory trading British East Africa Company, that paradise is finite? They loved paradise for sport, but the sport was spoiling, so they renamed the sport “game control” to clear land for the Empire’s cattle, sheep and railways. It was “our ivory”, according to Captain Keith Caldwell.
Roosevelt said game laws should reject animal rights philosophy. “Game laws should be drawn primarily on the interest of the whole people, keeping steadily in mind certain facts that ought to be self-evident to anyone above the intellectual level of those well-meaning persons who apparently think all shooting is wrong and that man could continue to exist if all wild animals were allowed to increase unchecked.”
Despite the sentimentality and new regulations, Kenya welcomed thousands of white hunters from Britain, Europe and America. They supplied a good portion of their ivory and rhino horn trophies to Asian markets. Ernest Hemingway and the Prince of Wales were famous examples. An ivory trading centre was set up about 1900 in Mombasa in Kenya. By 1960 Mombasa took over as the centre of the world’s ivory trade from London, evidence of the role elite white sport and game control played in the ivory and rhino horn trade.
The Game Control Officer in Lariak in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Samaki Salmon, shot 4,000 elephants. In Uganda Captain CRS Pitman shot 3,992 elephants in the name of game control. A few months of hunting for the Game Department killed 600 rhinos. From 1944 to 1946 one man, J.A. Hunter, shot 996 rhinos in Kenya. His records show he collected their horns; no doubt he traded them through the markets at Mombasa. Kenyan safari hunter and documenter Peter H. Beard sold his trophies. “Three hundred thousand square miles of unspoiled hunting lay before us – and the chance to profit from trophies!”
Beard said the era of “adventure unlimited” for “gentlemen” came to an end as Roosevelt toasted the “gentlemen adventurers of Central Africa” on his safari. Beard regretted that those early hunters had showed “natives and the Asian middlemen how to kill for profit on a large scale”. Records of three East African countries – Kenya, Uganda (a British protectorate from 1894 to 1962) and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) – show exports of 1,600kg/year or the deaths of 555 black rhinos per year during the 1930s, 5,000kg/year during World War 2, 2,500kg/year after the war, 1,800kg/year in the 1950s, 1,300kg/year in the 60s and 3,400kg or 1,180 rhinos per year (similar to today’s poaching numbers) in the 1970s. Many of those horns were from hunting trophies or game control. For the century between 1880 and 1990, only three Asian countries – Taiwan, South Korea and Japan – kept rhino horn import records. Taiwan’s main supplier was South Africa, South Korea’s was Tanzania and Japan’s Kenya, all of which were British protectorates.
Until the mid-1970s, when CITES entered the picture, the trade between countries in rhino horn was legal and somewhat documented. The records from exporting nations mismatch, with importing nations as traders at both ends under-reported to avoid customs duties. During the 1960s and ‘70s, three countries took fairly even shares of East Africa’s rhino horn: Yemen, Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong was a known entrepot for China.
History shows Britain’s dual role in conservation and hunting in Africa. Historical records also link British, European and American hunters to Asian middlemen. For 100 years, western conservation efforts disenfranchised indigenous owners, barring them from joining the commerce in hunting and wildlife. Britain’s role and the role of the conservation section in Africa for over a century must have left impressions for Asian middlemen and indigenous African hunters. Impressions that may still linger.
The toll on rhinos and elephants in the years prior to the current discourse on rhino horn and ivory since 2007 was collectively in the millions, thus tinging the current poaching crisis and conservation efforts with hypocrisy. Perhaps that needs amending in order to move forward. DM
Mic Smith is a freelance environmental journalist from the Gold Coast in Australia. He also tutors journalism at Griffith University. He worked in newspapers in Vietnam for four years during which time he covered the poaching of Vietnams last rhino. Mic wrote two major features about consumer demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, one of which won an award from TRAFFIC. This year he was nominated in his home state of Queensland for a Clarion Award in the Freelance Media Category for 'Amid rhino poaching frenzy, dark days for South African society" which he researched in SA in February. It was published by the environmental news website Mongabay.