Monday, 5 May 2014

Peter Matthiessen and the Selous: The End of the Game

Last autumn, I was fortunate enough to spend nearly two weeks in southern and western Tanzania.  I was on safari, in the backcountry.  I visited two reserves or areas: Ruaha National Park, which is in the west of the country, and the Selous Game Reserve, which is in the south.   I flew to Dar es Salaam via Qatar, and then by small planes into the bush.

This was high-end travel, and expensive and cossetted.  Nevertheless, it was utterly enthralling.  Being there fed an enthusiasm that runs deep into my life.  I've been fascinated by East Africa and its fauna since I was a very young child.  My mother, with very little money to her name, acquired a cheap record player of a kind that was popular at that time - it looked like an overnight bag, which split into a half which contained the speaker, and a half which contained the turntable.  The first record she bought me was entitled Sounds of the Serengeti.  It was a series of animal recordings made by Graham Dangerfield, and featured a voice-over commentary by Sir Peter Scott, the first director of the World Wildlife Fund.  And so it was replete with lions roaring, and eating, and elephants flapping their ears, and hyaenas giggling and whooping, and the sound of thousands of wildebeest fording the Mara River during the 'great migration' which takes place every year over the plains of the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara.  I adored it all.

Later, I devoured articles in National Geographic magazine, about lions, hyaenas, wild dogs, gorillas, chimps.  Though I did not fully understand it at the time, these pieces, published at the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, were the results of important fieldwork by a group of mostly American students and proteges of Louis Leakey, the great English-Kenyan paleoanthropologist associated with the excavation of Olduvai Gorge: Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Hans Kruk, and, perhaps preeminently, George Schaller.  I got a secondhand copy of Bernhard Grzimek's wonderful and ultimately heartbreaking account of the first aerial census of the Serengeti, Serengeti Shall Not Die.  I read books by Schaller, Goodall, Hugo von Lawick, and Myles Turner, the first warden of the Serengeti.

In my middle teens, other interests took over - militaria, the world of Tolkien, music, girls.  I never seriously considered a career in zoology or biology. But the old fascination never altogether disappeared.  In 1978, I won a school prize for academic performance, and with the book token awarded, I bought a book from Hodges Figgis on St Stephen's Green (the building was more recently the headquarters of the ill-fated Anglo-Irish Bank): The Snow Leopard.  The author was an American, Peter Matthiessen.  The book remains one of the finest accounts of friendship between men and of travel in the wild.  It tells the story of Matthiessen joining George Schaller, who by the middle 1970s had moved his research into the high mountains of Central Asia, on a journey from Nepal over the Himalayan watershed, and into the remote Dolpo region of Tibet.  Schaller was at the time conducting studies of Himalayan blue sheep, one of the main prey animals of snow leopards.  For a while, Schaller was reckoned to be the only Westerner ever to have seen a snow leopard in the wild.  Matthiessen never sees a snow leopard - they are exceptionally elusive and shy creatures.  But, partly because the book is also suffused with Matthiessen's allegiance to and exploration of Zen, the metaphor of the search widens out in the richest way in the account of the journey.

Subsequently, I began to learn that Matthiessen was already an established and important American writer, not only on nature and travel, but also of fiction.  Yet I had found him at a crucial moment: The Snow Leopard won the American National Book Award in 1979, and consolidated his reputation.   He had been part of a group of American writers, including George Plimpton and William Styron, who gravitated to Paris shortly after the Second World War.  There, he was one of the founders of the Paris Review, a notable American literary magazine. He was also, briefly, recruited by the CIA, to keep an eye on his left-leaning colleagues.  This sleazy episode came properly to light only much more recently, unlike the capers of the Congress of Cultural Freedom and the corrupt funding of Encounter - originally exposed by, among others, Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Matthiessen began to write about wildlife and wilderness in the late 1950s.  Non-fiction sometimes fed into his novels.  In 1961, he published The Cloud Forest, about his travels in the Amazon basin; some years later, he published the novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a Conradian drama about the depredations of American power and proseletyzing in Latin America.  He had a knack for being in the right place at the right time: in 1971, he published Blue Meridian, which documented his time with Peter Gimbel, and Valerie and Ron Taylor while they were filming one of the great wildlife documentaries, Blue Water, White Death, about great white sharks.  The Taylors would be hired some years later by Steven Spielberg to shoot live footage of sharks for Jaws.

In 1972, Matthiessen published the first book in his African trilogy, The Tree Where Man Was Born, a brilliant and lyrical account of his travels in East Africa in the 1960s.  In 1981, he published Sand Rivers, an account of a long journey on foot into the southern interior of the Selous Game Reserve.  In 1991, Matthiessen published African Silences, a grim catalogue of travels in Western and Central Africa, documenting eroding wildernesses and disappearing animals.   It was because of Sand Rivers that I wanted to see the Selous.

The Selous is surely one of the world's great wilderness treasures.  It's an enormous reserve,. at least three times the size of the Serengeti, indeed nearly the size of Ireland or Switzerland in land area.  It contains an astonishing variety of landscapes and flora - jungles, savannah plains, miombo woodlands, the massive and magnificent Rufiji river and its tributaries.  It contains a vast amount of wildlife. And it has never featured on the tourist routes in the way that the Serengeti, equally extraordinary but hugely popular, up in the north of Tanzania abutting the border with Kenya, has done.

Wildlife preservation and tourism is a very big deal in Tanzania, perhaps more than in most African countries.  Tanzania has allocated approximately 25% of its land surface to game reserves of one kind or another.  When I first visited Tanzania some years ago, I was fascinated to learn that not only are there 'national parks', of which the Serengeti is maybe the most famous and greatest example, but also 'game reserves', private conservation areas, conservation areas run by local communities and tribal groups, and so on.  These different formations bring with them different levels of wildlife protection, different access and usage by human beings.  All around the borders of the Serengeti National Park, where animals are protected entirely, where humans cannot camp or farm or bring their cattle, are other forms of - usually less restrictive - preservation.  I stayed in an area in the north-east of the Serengeti plains, called Loliondo.  The 'Loliondo concession' is an area administered by the Maasai, and in it some hunting is permitted, on license.  It is a spectacularly beautiful and fertile region, even by the prodigious standards of the Serengeti.

The Selous is a 'game reserve'.  This means that in 80% of its administrative 'blocks', licensed 'big game' hunting is permitted.  Wealthy Europeans and Americans come to the Selous to hunt the 'big five' - elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, and buffalo.  To the animal-loving westerner, this may seem unfortunate.  But practically, the revenues from big game hunting have been ploughed back into the reserve, and have helped its administration and preservation.  The Selous's real difficulties, and they are various and severe, lie elsewhere.

Three main problems afflict the Selous.  The first and most immediate of these is poaching.  In the earlier twentieth century, the Selous contained one of the largest concentrations of elephants on the continent of Africa.  In the 1970s, poaching reduced this population drastically.   New management procedures were brought in, and the population rose again, up to 70,000 or 80,000.  But the 1990s, the global economic boom, the explosion of the Indian and Chinese economies, and the penetration of multiple African economies by China in particular, have brought with them a return of elephant poaching on a catastrophic scale.  While it is true that the Selous is and feels like a wilderness of the grandest order, it is also surrounded by rural Tanzanian populations - farming and trading communities, where poverty remains rife.  It is very hard to justify to an impoverished farmer the access to the Selous of some wealthy European to kill an elephant, while denying it to the locals.  Furthermore, a couple of good tusks are worth many months' income to poor Tanzanians, even at their bottom end of the hugely lucrative ivory trade.  In conditions like these, and in a territory so vast as to be almost impossible to police closely, poaching is inevitable.   A survey taken in the Selous last autumn, starting only weeks after I was there, has revealed that the Selous elephant population may now be as low as only 13,000.  Remedial action is essential.

Another problem the Selous faces is the wish of successive governments in Dar to tap the hydroelectric potential of the Rufiji in the northern Selous, specifically at Stiegler's Gorge, a dramatic rocky defile hundreds of feet deep. When I was there in September, traces of previous surveys and investigations made with a view to damming the Gorge could be seen.  Any such dam would completely alter the character of the northern Selous, and quite likely destroy or severely damage its ecosystems.

The last problem is in some ways the most alarming.   In recent years, a pairing of Russian and Canadian mining companies has found uranium deposits, just outside the southwestern corner of the Selous.  At a meeting of UNESCO in Moscow in 2012, the Tanzanian government sought and won a derogation allowing it to cut off a small area of the Reserve to facilitate the uranium development while retaining the Reserve's UNESCO World Heritage site status.  Not merely this, but it is entirely unclear what measures will be taken or can be taken to prevent radioactive waste leaching or blowing into the areas surrounding the mine, including the whole of the Selous.  It's estimated that the mine workings will necessitate the removal of an overburden of tens of millions of tons of soil and rock, bringing roads, quasi-industrial development, transient labour, deep into the wild country.  The potential for uncontrollable and unimaginable damage to the Selous, indeed to much of southern Tanzania, appears thus far not to have been taken seriously into consideration.

It is easy for a Westerner like me to romanticise a place like Selous.  Visiting it feels like viewing a primordial landscape that has never been marked by human and historical processes.  Of course, this is not true: the Selous is as much a product of human culture and political action as anywhere.  Its origins lie in the 1890s, when Germany was the colonial power in Tanganyika.  It was initially a private hunting reserve, but was both expanded and opened to the public over the twentieth century.  The shunting aside of local populations, or the denial to them of farming and hunting lands, was a concomitant of the Reserve's establishment and growth.  The Selous is not an innocent place.  This does not mean, however, that it's not now an extraordinary and unique region, a jewel in the crown of global landscape and wildlife preservation.

The protection of rare and spectacular ecosystems, like those of the Selous, is never easy.  Too often, the human relationship with nature appears to be one founded in domination - enclosure, primitive accumulation, the impoverishment and peonage of rural populations and the aggrandisement of new bourgeoisies and international elites, the tampering with native species, the fostering of bland and unhealthy monocultures, the insouciant rape of extraordinary landscapes and cultures in the pursuit of temporary wealth.  The Selous faces enemies formidable, ugly, crass and determined. 

Peter Matthiessen died on April 5.  He was 86.  He had lived a long and interesting life, and indeed a long and illustrious writing life.  Though he considered himself primarily a novelist, it seems likely that it's for his travel and nature writing that he will be remembered.  In this respect, he stands as a notable figure in a very great American tradition stretching from Henry David Thoreau to Gary Snyder and Barry Lopez, while also extending the purview of that lineage to other countries and terrains.   He would have been concerned and sad at the present straits in which the Selous Game Reserve finds itself, though he'd not have been surprised.  For all his pastoral lyricism and Hemingwayan courage, Matthiessen  never extended the 'enormous condescension' of the liberal western metropolis to the embattled countries and peoples of the global south about which he so often wrote.  But he would add his name to those rallying to defend the Selous: to preserve for a better future its ochre hills and plains, its startling woodlands, its evanescent washes and 'sand rivers', and its wildlife - its gaunt and magnificent elephants, its amber-eyed lions, its huge herds of heavy-horned insolent buffalo, its shimmering, kaleidoscopic birdlife. Here are the last words of Sand Rivers:

A cool wind out of the south; we head downstream.  A herd of impala, the emblematic antelope of Africa, springs away over the green savannah, and as we pass, the great milky-lidded eagle owl eases out of a thick kigelia and flops softly a short distance to another tree, pursued by the harsh racket of a roller.  Already tending north-northwest towards its confluence with the Luwegu, the river unwinds around broad sand bars and rock bends, and wherever it winds away toward the east, the man called Goa cuts across the bends, following the river plains, the hills, the open woods, and descending once again to the westward river.


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