The writings of early travelers in Africa hold more than just descriptions of adventure and unspoiled wilderness. For conservationists they offer a view that can’t be seen any other way.
“Historical accounts are beginning to unravel our understanding of our environmental past,” said Paul Scholte, director of Kitabi College of Conservation & Environmental Management in Rwanda. “It would be an enormous waste not to use these writings, because we don’t have other sources of information from these periods. They open our mind on a number of issues where we lack the historical perspective.”
These old writings have been overlooked for too long, writes Scholte in an Aug. 26 African Journal of Ecology article. They were once limited to patrons of well-stocked libraries. But now, as digitization projects expand their holdings, anyone who can access the web can read the records of intrepid explorers such as the scholarly Heinrich Barth or the noble Adolf F. A. Heinrich, Duke of Mecklenburg. Sites like openlibrary.org, archive.org, biodiversitylibrary.org and books.google.com, are giving conservationists new opportunities to put the records to use.
It isn’t easy to know what an area looked like and which animals and plants were present 100 to 200 years ago. While pollen sample analysis gives some indication of plant communities, and an area’s oral tradition can be valuable, they are both incomplete pictures.
Compared to oral accounts passed down through generations, historical travel records are generally more detailed, more reliable and easier to date. And historical images and descriptions have an impact and appeal lacking in most quantitative analyses.
“They’re more tangible and convincing than scientific charts and graphs,” said Scholte. “And, working together, they are complementary.”
As a prime example, Scholte points to perceptions of human and elephant conflicts in Cameroon. For several decades many have believed Cameroon’s Waza-Logone was a region historically free of elephants. In the late 1940s elephants began to trickle into the area. By the 1990s Waza National Park held more than a thousand elephants.
“Cameroon has a lot of elephant problems. Many people supposed that this was new, and should be dealt with by culling the elephants or opening it up to sport hunting,” Scholte said. “I wanted to make the point that this isn’t something recent. One-hundred-fifty years ago there were also a lot of elephants and many interactions with humans.”
Heinrich Barth’s accounts from 1851 and 1852, in Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa, mention encountering elephant herds and footprints in Waza-Logone. His company dined on elephant meat, as it was “the most commonly available.”
Demand for elephant tusks subsequently skyrocketed. By 1872 Gustav Nachtigal, a visitor to the area, wrote of the “brisk market for ivory” in Sahara and Sudan, Volume III: The Chad Basin and Baguirmi.
Adolf Friedrich, the Duke of Mecklenburg, did not find any elephants on his journey through northern Cameroon in 1910 and 1911. Instead, he wrote of former elephant hunters who changed their lifestyle because the elephant population had dwindled.
According to the old accounts, elephants belong in the area. But most elephants entering Waza-Logone are immigrants, said Scholte, pushed out of their former homelands by human activity.
The disapperance of elephant habitat, and migration corridors, from the surrounding areas is the real predicament, Scholte said. Understanding what is behind the influx of elephants to Waza-Logone will, he hopes, encourage managers to find longer-term solutions than culling, such as landscape planning.
“If you’re culling the elephants, you’re attacking the symptom, not the underlying problem.”
In his position at Kitabi College of Conservation & Environmental Management, Scholte trains the conservationists employed by the Rwandan government. Until recently, their efforts to hold back liana — a long-stemmed, native vine — was proving a major headache.
“I’m looking out on the forest and seeing it right now,” said Scholte, speaking from Kigali, Rwanda. “While it was once the major management issue, the whole perspective has now changed.”
Many people blamed the expansion of liana on the local extinction of elephant and buffalo. However, even when these animals were present, liana still crawled all over Rwanda’s forests, as shown by early pictures and descriptions.
“This was quite a discovery,” said Scholte. “Bringing back elephant and buffalo might be a good option in itself, but it will not help in suppressing the indigenous liana.”
Instead, the expansion of the vine is probably due to other forest disturbances. During the Rwandan genocide, many people fled into the forest. Scholte estimates nearly 20 percent of Rwanda’s forest was burned or disrupted, by small clearings or escaped cooking fires. As in the case of Waza-Logone’s elephants, the expansion of liana is a symptom, not the “illness.”
“I think that is often the case in these situations. You have to be very careful in deciding what is the real problem,” Scholte said. “As human beings we’re always a little bit lazy. We think in terms of just what we see ourselves, one generation at a time. These historical descriptions help us widen that perspective.”
It’s an idea, a good one, that has been suggested before, wrote Arend de Haas, conservation director for the African Conservation Foundation in an e-mail. The information, he said, allows conservationists to create a pre-colonial picture of African ecosystems, complete with vegetation cover and wildlife abundance.
Scholte enjoys digitally leafing through old travel accounts, but along with exciting accounts of travelers like Henry Morton Stanley — who was said to have asked, “Dr. Livingston I presume?” — locating the scientific gems requires requires a lot of sifting.
Some researchers may resist the idea of using travel descriptions as scientific sources. But the descriptions are by and large accurate, Scholte said. He considers photographs the most accurate, maps and drawings second.
For written descriptions, he factors in how detailed the account is and if it agrees with other records. When the accounts are used along with other sources of information, they offer a fuller, more literary view.
“In scientific work people don’t allow themselves much colorful, poetic description,” he said.
Citation: “Using the past to manage for the future: Contributions of early travel literature, free online, to African historical ecology.” By Paul Scholte. African Journal of Ecology, Aug. 26, 2011.