Friday, 27 April 2012

The Happy Valley #2 Unnatural Histories

By chance I saw an excellent programme, "Unnatural Histories",  on BBC4 this week.  It was part of a series about the myth of wilderness, and this one, the first, featured Serengeti National Park in Kenya. I was interested because of my current fascination with East Africa and the colonial period 100 years ago. At that time the grasslands of Africa were deserted because a recent plague of a cattle disease, rinderpest, which had decimated the herds during the 1890s and caused native people to leave the areas, although the lands had been home to Bantu, Masai and other tribes for many years. 

The incoming European settlers saw the grasslands as a kind of pristine paradise, and an antidote to the effects of industrialisation and overpopulation in their home countries. At first these lands were exploited by white hunters (such as Theodore Roosevelt), but by the 1930s awareness was growing of the need to protect the Serengeti as a National Park. Many famous campaigners, such as Armand and Michaela Denis, led this movement, and eventually in the 1950s the park, dividing animals and people,  became a reality, although not without much disagreement on the issue of boundaries between local and central administrators. 

Because of natural phenomena, this plan was not the threat to the wild life as had been feared. But the world is always changing, and modern analysis shows that the Serengeti has in history constantly altered from grassland to forestry according to prevailing climatic conditions, and may do so again.  Man has always been a factor in the grasslands, managing the lands by burning off scrub to obtain fresh grazing.  There is no such thing as a pristine wilderness, claims the programme, and the safari myth is a part of that fabrication.  This was extraordinarily interesting as it also puts late nineteenth and twentieth century African history in a much wider perspective.  Although it has its own mythology, it was only a tiny blip of about 70 years in a much longer narrative.

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