A sunset. A silhouette of an acacia tree. An elephant meandering across an open plain.
If you had to guess the continent, you’d likely say this little vignette represents Africa because you’ve seen this art on so many covers of books about the place that it’s become clichéd.
“That’s how Africa gets packaged to the public,” said UNLV history professor Jeff Schauer. “But what I’d like people to think about is, what happens if you pan the camera out a little bit more? What else comes into that frame?”
For Schauer, the answer was nuanced and problematic. Amid the archives and museums of London, where he’d spent a year abroad as an undergraduate, Schauer found something inextricably intertwined with the hides and bones of African animals depicted and displayed: a story of human history and politics that transformed the way Africans related to native wildlife. His research expanded to African archives, becoming the subject of his dissertation and first book, Wildlife Between Empire and Nation in Twentieth-Century Africa.
“I wanted to unpack how Africans engaged in conversations about wildlife with the European empires and various groups who governed the African continent during that time,” Schauer said. “I wanted to understand how outsiders came to create their messages about good guys and bad, how they shaped the perspectives others had, and the power dynamics involved in that.”
For most pre-colonial African societies, wildlife had been embedded in economic and cultural practices like hunting, Schauer explained. And even in the instances when the state controlled migration and other matters concerning wildlife, citizens accepted these terms because the rules were written by their own authorities, thereby lending legitimacy to the laws.
That all changed when Europeans arrived, Schauer said. Colonialists assumed rule over Africans and their native animals against their will, displacing African groups that had been regulating the wildlife, preventing Africans’ access to the animals, and making it exceedingly difficult for Africans to influence conversations about the wildlife in their own backyard. Thus began the alienation that continues to this day of Africans from the animals that had been invaluable natural resources and a vital part of their culture.
In his book, Schauer explores the shifts in control over British colonies in Africa over the course of a hundred years as well as what those shifts meant for the animals in the region and the people who relied on wildlife for their economic well-being. He begins in the period from 1890-1920, when a small lobby of British imperialists in London solely controlled what happened with humans and animals in their colonies. He then tracks the expansion of this control to civil societies within the colonies from the 1920s through the 1950s, detailing each group’s differing views about wildlife’s value, the various rationales cited around its value, and what the groups felt was to be done with wildlife given its value. He traces the next power shift, which occurs in the 1960s and 1970s as African nations were decolonized, to those newly independent nations ever so briefly before control over wildlife was once again appropriated by new outside groups—this time, international institutions promoting the protection of wildlife.
Schauer ends the book in the 1980s, as global lending institutions established new parameters around the control of national parks in order for African countries—many of which were still undergoing political structural adjustments—to obtain money from them. But the story, just like the impact of foreign rule on Africa, continues.
“The world of wildlife we see today and the groups involved in the conservation world have their origins in the colonial period,” Schauer said. “It started with people who were ruling over Africa against the will of the majority living there, and those colonialists had their own goals and agenda. That’s something people who work in today’s conservation world should be aware of.”
The effects of colonialism are still felt in Africa among animals and humans. Schauer said the alienation of Africans from their wildlife has likely been harmful for animal populations because people are more fearful of them, knowing that the state may value its wildlife above its own citizens. And while upper- and middle-class Africans might enjoy visiting their national parks and the wildlife that now live there, people who were evicted from those areas or who struggle to make a living near the borders of now-protected land have different experiences.
Today’s global community has a better chance to relate to and understand some of these complexities inherent in the conversation about African wildlife, Schauer said, because similar issues have arisen closer to home.
“If we look at conflicts around the borders of national parks in the U.S., for example, we can see and appreciate that there is a complex group of constituencies—Native Americans, ranchers, federal agencies, tourism organizations, conservationists, etc.—and they all understand these spaces and the wildlife there differently,” Schauer said. “If we accept this complexity in our own backyard, it shouldn’t be hard to accept that there’s a similar degree of complexity in Africa.”
Schauer plans to return to the continent later this year for a new research project on the long-lasting impacts of colonial rule in Africa as well as a book tour. He hopes his work will spark conversations among laypeople and scholars alike. He also hopes that the broader historical perspective his book provides can help today’s activists engage in their work.
“It would be constructive if those who weigh in on wildlife issues today and fund some of the contemporary conservation organizations were aware of the whole story, that there is a history around these interactions,” Schauer said. “It might leave everyone with a better sensibility about why people talk about the issues the way they do on both sides.”