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Reviewed by:
  • Black Poachers, White Hunters: A Social History of Hunting in Colonial Kenya
  • Thomas P. Ofcansky
Steinhart, Edward L. 2006. Black Poachers, White Hunters: A Social History of Hunting in Colonial Kenya. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. 248 pp. $42.96 (cloth), $26.95 (paper).

This volume is the latest contribution to the literature on the relationships between humans and animals in East Africa. Its first part concentrates on the evolution of African hunting in Kenya's Kitui, Kwale, and Meru districts—an area that extends from Mount Kenya to the Indian Ocean and the Tanzanian border. Hunters from the northern Kenyan, Ethiopian, and Somali borders, known locally as Waata or Walliangulu, introduced bow-and-arrow hunting to Bantu-speaking groups such as the Akamba, Digo, Duruma, Tharaka, and Wameru. Killing wildlife quickly became a way to supplement their traditional agropastoral pursuits.

The next section gives an appreciation of the history of hunting in Britain and examines the influx of British and European big-game hunters into Kenya. These individuals lived cheaply and killed as many wild animals as they wished—for sport, money, or both.

The final part examines the growing cooperation between African and European hunters and the emergence of the hunting safari. The last part examines the often tense relationship between gamekeepers and poachers, the emergence of national parks, and the growing threat of poaching for profit.

Steinhart acknowledges that his "master" narrative "reflects a Marxian perspective in both its dialectical outlines and its emphasis on class." Such logic dictates that Kenya's African and non-African populations were engaged in bitter class warfare—which was not the case in colonial or postcolonial Kenya, especially with regard to the country's wildlife.

The actual relationship between Africans and non-Africans was infinitely more complex. The British colonial administration faced the daunting task of trying to balance game preservation while encouraging the lucrative business of big-game hunting and protecting agricultural lands from the depredations of wild animals, usually by killing them. Africans, in contrast, looked to European big-game hunters for employment as guides, gun-bearers, and porters. Eventually, other issues, such as reducing African poaching and encouraging tourism, further challenged the colonial government.

Given his philosophical orientation, Steinhart takes an exceptionally dim view of many key European personalities who were associated with the country's wildlife. He characterizes the late George Adamson as one who "appears to have been saved from a life of frustration and dissolution" after he joined the Game Department; subsequently, Adamson became one of Africa's most important conservationists. Elspeth Huxley is charged with "arrogance" and an "overbearing distain for Africans." In my dealings with her, I never sensed either of those qualities: like Adamson, she cared deeply about Kenya's wildlife, and she wrote many books and articles about the need for more vigorous conservation efforts. On such points, Steinhart's dogmatism undermines an otherwise exceptionally useful study. [End Page 128]

The case of Arthur Ritchie, the Chief Game Warden of Kenya, reflects the evolution of official thinking on the wildlife issue. He accepted that big-game hunting was a major source of revenue for the colony and understood that lucrative agricultural activities had to be protected from foraging wild animals. Nevertheless, in 1934, he had a change of heart and told the Rotary Club of Nairobi that the "justification for shooting . . . is becoming among thinking people more difficult day to day." His successors experienced similar transformations.

A small quibble concerns the impact of the world wars on Kenya's wildlife. Steinhart briefly discusses mass killings of wild animals to feed allied forces in Kenya during World War I. However, he does not mention the far more disastrous carnage that occurred during World War II. Some years ago, Adamson told this reviewer that feeding Italian prisoners of war and allied soldiers—who were more numerous than in the 1914–1918 conflict—required a more sophisticated and mechanized strategy. The authorities decided to deploy groups of lorries, outfitted with rear-mounted machine guns, to seek out and slaughter entire herds of animals. Adamson maintained that the mass killings constituted "a major environmental catastrophe" for Kenya.

The great strength of Black Poachers...


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