Why big cat hunters turned gamekeepers

Against Extinction
February 4, 2005

This is a book about the history of attempts to prevent extinction over the past century. Notable early extinctions of spectacular animals such as the quagga in 1883, the dodo in 1693, the Steller's sea cow in 1768 and the great auk in 1844 drew attention to the fact that predation by humans was sending many species to extinction and so the concept of protection and conservation gradually arose.

This is a fascinating world-wide history of the conservation movement. Early ideas on the need for conservation originated from the depletion of game in Africa and the hunters' desire to preserve their quarry; it was hunters who began to promote conservation. Gradually, as attitudes changed, so did the philosophy of conservation. This volume was produced to celebrate the centenary of Flora and Fauna International.

The nomenclatural evolution of this conservation organisation tells a lot about changing attitudes. It was founded as the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire in 1903, then it dropped "wild" in 1920, changed to Fauna Preservation Society in 1950, to Fauna and Flora Preservation Society in 1980 and finally to Flora and Fauna International in 1992. It is a chronology that leads from preserving game to interest in large, cuddly mammals to recognition that these animals depend on plants and, finally, an international approach that gives more attention to the human element.

Because conservation began with the big game hunters of Britain and the US, there is a strong focus on Africa and the former British Empire. The mountain gorillas of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo could be said to be the flagship of this book. Although there is an emphasis on Africa and large mammals from a northern perspective, many other aspects of conservation feature in this carefully woven story. The author's approach is not chronological - which at times makes the story hard to follow - but it is put together in a logical sequence of chapters on relevant topics.

A chapter is devoted to the history of the National Parks movement in the US and another to the ideas behind the growth of the many different types of protected areas. One chapter looks at the emphasis on the single species approach and the Red Data books of the 1960s and 1970s and at the captive breeding of animals.

The chapter on the human impact on nature leads to the description of how the concept of the sustainable use of species and ecosystems developed in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to the Brundtland report of 1987 on "our sustainable future" and culminating in the Convention on Biological Diversity and Agenda 21 arising out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The author indicates that a strength of the conservation movement has been its capacity for self-criticism and ability to derive lessons from it. The movement has changed from a focus on wilderness and isolation to collaboration with corporations and to promoting ways to use the forest sustainably.

There are good sections on ecotourism and bush meat. Plants get meagre coverage considering their importance, but at least the Turkish bulb trade, certification of wild flower harvesting in the fynbos ecosystem of South Africa, and the People and Plants Initiative of the World Wide Fund for Nature are mentioned.

This book shows that the achievements of the conservation movement over the past century have been legion. However, after his careful and positive analysis of what has been done, the author has to conclude that after ten decades of effort, the threats to nature have not been reduced, but have rather redoubled.

Anyone who wants to do something about this sad fact should read Against Extinction to learn from the lessons of the past and to gain a vision for future action.

Sir Ghillean Prance is former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and is scientific director of the Eden Project.

Against Extinction: The Story of Conservation

Author - William M. Adams
Publisher - Earthscan
Pages - 311
Price - £55.00 and £16.95
ISBN - 1 84407 055 7and 056 5

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