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December 14th : From Hemingway’s « Green Hills of Africa » to wildlife conservation

The Two Majesties (1883), by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Milwaukee Art Museum

According to Cambridge dictionary “Anachronism“ has two definitions. It means: “a person, a custom or an idea that seems old-fashioned and does not belong to the present“. For example the story of Green Hills of Africa (1937) happening in today’s world would be anachronistic. It is also: “something placed in the wrong period in history“. Therefore judging Green Hills of Africa by today’s moral standard is anachronistic.

From the 19th century to the end of the second world war hunting big game in Africa was very trendy, especially the Big Five. If Instagram had existed, we could have seen pictures like the ones below, hunting pictures from famous people like Karen Blixen (12 times nominee for a Nobel Prize in Literature) and Theodore Roosevelt (Nobel Peace Prize 1906). In 1909 the latter went to Africa on a scientific expedition for the Smithsonian Museum and brought back to the Museum 512 animals and more than 11,000 specimens in total (including plants, bugs, and other). This journey started a new fashion in the US and had many followers.

(On the left : Theodore Roosevelt with an elephant, 1909 ; On the right : Karen Blixen with two lioness, between 1914–1931)

But something was already changing. Due to uncontrolled hunting in the colonial era some species received special protection, like the White Rhinoceros in 1895. Several international conventions were also created to protect various species, e.g. Convention for the Protection of Birds Useful to Agriculture (1902), and North Pacific Fur Seal Convention (1911). However the idea behind most of those texts was to protect animals from overexploitation because industrialization was the most dangerous thing: “The earth gets tired of being exploited. A country wears out quickly unless man puts back in it all his residue and that of all his beasts. When he quits using beasts and uses machines the earth defeats him quickly. The machine can’t reproduce, nor does it fertilize the soil, and it eats what he cannot raise“ (Green Hills of Africa).

Like war or sport (you may choose) hunting has its own rules, its code of conduct. Some people play by them (hunters). And some just don’t (poachers or killers). It goes back up to the 2nd Century with Arrian of Nicomedia (Cynegeticus – Κυνηγετικός). According to him hunting raises human spirit only if it is done without cruelty, hence animals must be respected and protected. A hunter shall be first and foremost a responsible person.

In Green Hills of Africa Hemingway emphasized several of these rules. First the hunt must be useful. The most obvious is to target specific animals to ease natural selection in the wild (e.g. oldest). Theodor Roosevelt showed in African Game Trails (1910) the same idea of usefulness: “As always thereafter with-anything we shot, we used the meat for food and preserved the skins for the National Museum”.

Then hunters must avoid unnecessary suffering or painful death to the animal. Hemingway expressed also regrets and griefs when not being able to find a wounded animal. Hence Karen Blixen was always going out with her dogs to retrieve any prey: “when I was out in the Masai Reserve shooting I never lost a wounded head of game, if I had the deerhounds with me“ (Out of Africa, 1937).

Finally the hunter has to know when not to shoot, but also when to stop. Hemingway noted how certain areas had been overly hunted: “A country was made to be as we found it. We are the intruders and after we are dead we may have ruined it but it will still be there and we don’t know what the next changes are » (Green Hills of Africa). In his later work The Old Man and the Sea (1952) as he went unprepared too far and couldn’t retrieve a fish on his boat, he even apologized to it: “Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both”.

However these unspoken non-binding rules are soft law, and Hemingway himself admitted several times in his books he did not comply with them. Therefore more coercive measures were needed.

With the end of the second World War a new trend appeared. The animal cause started to develop, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was founded in Fontainebleau, on October 5th, 1948. Its first Director General was Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous. It set up the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species (1964), a system for classifying species at high risk of global extinction with nine categories: Not Evaluated, Data Deficient, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild and Extinct. As an example White Rhino are Near Threatened. This marked the effective step for a global understanding of the situation.

(“White Rhino fight, picture by and special thanks to Christophe Vasselin. Website : Christophe Vasselin Photography)

The decolonization created new dangers for animal life: poaching for trade, and reductions of carrying capacity due to development of human activities (Milner-Gulland E. J. & Beddington J. R., The exploitation of elephants for the ivory trade: an historical perspective, The Royal Society, 1993). To fight poaching, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1973), also known as the CITES, was made to provide a rigorous framework for trade of such animals. For example, by 1977, all African rhino species were listed on CITES Appendix I. But law needs means to be enforced, and, in 2016-2017, 95% of Rhino horns sourced in Africa for illegal markets in Asia came from poached animals in the wild (Emslie et al. 2020). A Rhino horn weighs an average 10kg and prices range from US$ 10,000 to 60,000 per kilo. It attracts attention.

In the 90s authorities finally understood that to preserve wildlife it was necessary to protect their habitats and ecologically rich natural environments. According to IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platformon Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), less than a quarter of the land is believed to have escaped the substantial effects of human activities, and only 10% would remain in 2050. A new movement set off with the 1992 Rio Declaration and its 3 Conventions : the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. It takes into account this new issue thanks to the notion of sustainable development.

(Best way to shoot endangered species (Mountain Gorilla) nowadays, picture by and special thanks to Christophe Vasselin. Website : Christophe Vasselin Photography)

Sun Tzu said to win a fight we have to know ourselves and our enemy. We could say in today’s world the enemy is the hunter. It is easy as obvious examples are shown in the media. These examples denote a lack of common sense (e.g. Spain’s King 40,000€ elephant hunting trip while recession hit country), are against the spirit of hunting (e.g. South African lion farm), and arise from controversial practices (e.g. Cecil the lion case). But they are within the law. These exist because the “who we are » part is forgotten. It is just the tip of the iceberg. Humanity, its way of life as a whole, its desire for economic development, is the biggest threat. Paraphrasing a great professor: “Dark times [for wildlife] lies ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right“.

To go further, have a look at Animals in International Law (Collected Courses of the Hague Academy of International Law, vol. 410, 2020) & Global Animal Law, by Anne Peters, director at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law Heidelberg. See also, Sandrine Maljean-Dubois, La droit international de la biodiversité (Collected Courses of the Hague Academy of International Law, vol. 407, 2020).


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