Thursday, March 4, 2021

Seretse Khama didn’t care much for wildlife

In her newly published book, “Chiefs, Hunters and San in the Creation of Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta; Multiracial Interactions and Initiatives, 1956-1979”, a University of Botswana lecturer gives Botswana’s founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, a “fail-and-discontinue” grade for his personal attitude and policy orientation towards wildlife.

The author, Dr. Maitseo Bolaane, uses as one of her sources, minutes of a Legislative Council meeting in which Khama does indeed come across as pointedly nonchalant, calling wildlife “dreadful” and “objectionable.” This was in November 1961 when this multi-racial Council debated a policy on game.

“By and large, African members of the Legislative Council tended to be more sympathetic to game protection than the Europeans. However, Seretse Khama, one of the cattle barons, sided with European farmers on this,” reads a part from the book.

In the Hansard at the Botswana National Archives, Khama prefaces his remarks by telling Council members about a recent conversation he had with the Director of Veterinary Services who had just returned from an overseas trip that took him to Scandanavian countries, the United Kingdom, France and Italy. Khama said that the Director “had been unable to sell our beef in some of these countries in Europe because of the foot and mouth disease we have here.” Council members like Goareng Mosinyi and Kgosi Bathoen Gaseitsiwe had spoken out in favour of protecting game. In reference to these members, Khama said he appreciated the fact that some members “have become terribly sentimental” and “very much attached to their wildebeest and hartebeest.”

“I have heard it expressed that we should allow these, at one time, dreadful animals to roam the whole of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, regardless of the harm they may do to our economy but the basis of this game policy is in relation to the cattle industry of this country which we all know is most important. It appears that some honourable members think they have a choice and if in fact they have, they must make up their minds whether they would rather breed wildebeest and various other objectionable animals like that or breed cattle,” Khama said.

To be fair to him, the man who would become Botswana’s founding president five years later did not advocate the total destruction of game. “We have to consider the fact that there are various people in this country who are very much attached to game, who have a soul, who appreciate beauty and love to see a springbok jumping all over the veld, even if they jump into a herd of prime cattle, infecting them all with foot and mouth disease.”

Such sentiment notwithstanding, Khama felt it was imperative and exhorted the Council to “do everything in our power to reduce them and stop this disease.” He said that he agreed with a fellow member, Dr. Alfred Merriweather, “when he said that inhabitants of this territory can shoot out the wildebeest and various other animals like that and drive them back to the game reserve.” In instances “where it appears the wildebeest and various other animals do not seem to be in a hurry to move off to the more remote areas, they should be encouraged to do so by a few shots here and a few shots there and by various people coming in to do this and by licence fees generally being reduced and a little more ammunition being available – not very much because we have to consider security.”

The book tells the story of how Moremi Game Reserve was established by a multi-racial and multi-tribal cast of actors who formed what came to be known as the Ngamiland Fauna Conservation Society (NFCS). The first meeting to form the Society was held in November 1962 at Riley’s Hotel which, as Bolaane writes, “was the hub of white village social life.” At this point, the supreme traditional leader in Ngamiland was Regent Mohumagadi Pulane Moremi. The heir, Letsholathebe, father to Maun West MP, Kgosi Tawana Moremi, was studying public administration in the United Kingdom, having completed his secondary school education in South Africa.

The Society’s external relations were coordinated by a British couple of born-again conservationists, Robert and June Kay, who had come to Ngamiland on a hunting expedition. Upon the couple’s arrival in Ngamiland, a “discreet” note from the Game Department warned the District Commissioner that “Robert was a molester of helpless elephants.” The alleged molester soon became friends with Jack Chase, a former veterinary officer who, upon retirement, established Chase Me Inn (later Mahalapye Hotel) in what was then called GammaNgwato.

The Society set up a global support network into which it tapped for financial and other forms of assistance. One of its sympathisers was Raymond Dart of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa who suggested to the Society’s executive committee that Seretse and his wife, Ruth, should be lobbied for support.

“This was at a time when Seretse Khama, the founder of the Botswana Democratic Party, was involved in campaigning for independent constitutional development of Botswana. Seretse Khama was more concerned with marketing beef,” writes Bolaane, before quoting another scholar, Clive Spinage, who, in his book, “Gleanings of Game Affairs in the Bechuanaland Protectorate”, states that Khama’s lack of sympathy for wildlife played itself out in the trajectory of his political career.

The statement that Bolaane quotes from the latter book says that Khama’s “less benign attitude towards game was to influence government policy from 1966 to 1980 (the year of his death), a policy not of benign neglect but of deliberate neglect.”

Khama is not the only post-independence leader to not come out smelling of roses in Bolaane’s book. The other is Colin Blackbeard, the former works, transport and communications minister and father to Botswana’s current High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Roy Blackbeard. In effort to garner international support for the NFCS’ cause, June Kay made numerous freelance submissions to publications around the world. In one article headlined “Lion cub curfew” she provided gruesome details about how some hunters were using steel jaw traps along the Khwai River to ensnare wild animals.

“Some of the Maun whites and other residents such as Colin Blackbeard and Tom Shaw were implicated in this article. June accused them of hunting lions and leopards to take their skins to their wives, and of trapping hyenas for the reward of 10/- per tail,” the book says.

This account was confirmed by one of the people that Bolaane interviewed for her book, Isaac Tudor, who – way before the NFCS came into being, had often alerted Regent Moremi about the indiscriminate slaughtering of wild animals. Tudor told Bolaane that “We knew who had shot what, and when, where and why.” Tudor lives in Maun.

Although Bolaane’s book concerns itself not with the national FMD problem within its time frame but the tsetse fly scourge in Ngamiland, there was a policy intersection between the two problems when it came to control methods. Colonial officials favoured large-scale killing and for a period of time, allowed droves of white hunters from neighbouring South Africa to participate in this exercise.

A history lecturer at the University of Botswana, Dr. Bolaane holds a B.A. in Humanities from the same university, an M.A. in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper