Wildlife at War in Angola. Book Review by Dr. George Hughes.

Wildlife at War in Angola

By Brian J. Huntley

Over the past two centuries, Africa has been the scene of some of the greatest, most dramatic, and most shameful, ecological and environmental catastrophes ever to occur on earth. I refer to the near total destruction of one of the richest and most spectacular assemblies of large mammal biodiversity ever to exist. There is little doubt that the arrival of European settlers equipped with arms of increasing efficiency, contributed to the rapid and sometimes permanent destruction of this treasure trove of wildlife.

South Africa, settled in 1652, was the first country to record the near extinction of its large mammal resources and it was only towards the end of the 19th Century that some visionary members of society took notice of the impending extinctions and took difficult but definite steps to reverse the trend and rebuild the country’s wildlife heritage. The rewards have been spectacular and should be the pride of every conservationist. They ought to be the pride of every South African. Despite civil and colonial wars of some magnitude the conservation effort took root and flourished. Today one can say with confidence that, with only two exceptions, the large mammal wealth of South Africa has been restored through the combination of an aesthetic and ethical policy of strict protection when required and a pragmatic policy of sustainable use when a species has recovered to the point where the resource may once more be used with scientific rationality.

Brian Huntley’s book on Angola thrusts a knife into the heart of anyone who dares consider the current situation in South Africa with complacency.

Angola has a fascinating history and Huntley devotes the first quarter of this riveting book to its settlement and peopling by a variety of indigenous Africans and of course, the Portuguese who first ‘discovered’ and claimed this huge country of the west coast of Africa. To these groups were added such astonishingly courageous and tenacious groups as the Thirstland trekkers fleeing South Africa’s more liberal British colonialist policies.

The country benefited from the seemingly relaxed attitude of the colonisers. As the focus was primarily on slaving there was little formal development effort nor was there massive settlement of Portuguese colonists. As a result the wildlife of Angola, although widely hunted for pot or profit, never came under the same pressure as that of many other African countries. When conservation as a goal of government became mainstream in between the world wars of the 20th Century the Portuguese promptly declared a number of protected areas of significant magnitude and value and in the post -World War II era joined a southern Africa conservation movement called SARRCUS and imported South African ecological expertise to help assess the wildlife resources of Angola and to plan for the future.

The young biologist, and self-confessed “Tree-Hugger”, tasked with this incredible opportunity who arrived with his new wife in 1971, was Brian Huntley. Both promptly fell in love with this magnificent and relatively untouched country.

For the next four years they travelled the length and width of the country relishing the wonder and excitement of an almost biologically unexplored country and developing a warm relationship with the Portuguese people and the indigenous Africans associated with the protected areas such as Iona, Quicama and others. They were faced with a surfeit of wonder and an almost equally large surfeit of problems dealing with a laid-back and relatively disinterested Portuguese bureaucracy.

The stories of achievement, landscape and botanical discoveries, including the amazing Welwitschia plant, and almost daily frustrations should be the stuff of legend and provide delightful reading. Huntley’s optimism and growing passion for this great country never wavered and one cannot help empathise with his disappointment when the political situation in the country deteriorated suddenly in 1974 with the rise of the independence movements of Unita, FNLA, MPLA and FLEC.

Forced to flee as Angola destabilised in 1975, in an epic trek to Namibia, the fear most prominent for him was the future of the Giant Sable arguably the world’s most beautiful and majestic antelope. Never occurring in large numbers, Huntley and his colleagues had discovered a surviving population within two of the existing protected areas: Luando and Cangandala. As the civil war proceeded to devastate the country over the next twenty years (also treated with scholarly thoroughness) and the wildlife disappeared from view, Huntley never gave up hope for the Giant Sable and kept trying to get back to help but with little success.

After the death of Jonas Savimbi in 2002 and the unification of Angola resulted in some stability, Huntley redoubled his efforts with the help of the international conservation bodies such as IUCN, Conservation International and WWF International and helped obtain funding for restoration efforts from the World Bank. Central to these efforts was the drive to establish a cohort of young Angolan biologists who would help research and support the conservation cause of restoring the once-magnificent biodiversity of the protected areas.

One must add that his efforts were often in direct competition with those of other interested parties whose methods and goals did not necessarily coincide with international best practice in nature conservation.

These endeavours are remarkable given that over that period Huntley held down very demanding positions in South Africa and ended his career as Director of SANBI (South African National Biodiversity Institute) based in Kirstenbosch. Since then he has redoubled his efforts for Angola but he has faced the appalling obstacles of official disinterest, entrenched self- interest within the state and a problem, fairly widespread in Africa, where lip-service is given to conservation by claiming great achievements on the ground whilst few, if any, exist.

Seldom has such a scholarly work been produced providing a grand scale overview of conservation endeavours and failures in a single country over the past fifty years. This is a must read for all conservationists and offers both a chilling example and serious warning for the conservationists of South Africa. We must avert the possibility of our protected areas becoming paper parks and, although there are some worrying signs that the importance of conservation effort may be taking second place to more political goals, these must be forestalled by ensuring that the maximum possible benefits, through tourism and sustainable use, of the success of South Africa’s wildlife industry are managed to benefit the broadest range of our people.

Huntley’s book is an enthralling read and is highly recommended.

Dr George Hughes.

The book can be ordered online from The Protea Bookshop: www.proteaboekwinkel.com