The World Surrounding the Big and Little Fives

Conservation – Past and Present


By Dr Ian McCallum, 1999

Have we forgotten that wilderness is not a place,
but a pattern of soul
where every tree, every bird and beast
is a soul maker?

Have we forgotten that wilderness is not a place,
but a moving feast of stars, footprints, scales and beginnings?

Since when did we become afraid of the night
and think that only the bright stars count?
Or that our moon is not a moon unless it is full?

By whose command
were the animals through groping fingers, one for each hand,
reduced to the big[1] and little fives[2]?

Have we forgotten that every creature is within us
carried by tides of earthly blood
and that we named them?

Have we forgotten that wilderness is not a place,
but a season
and that we are in its final hour?

[1] Big five – a name given by hunters to the five largest and most dangerous African mammals: rhinoceros, elephant, buffalo, lion, and leopard. [2] This term was introduced by conservationists who wanted to draw conservation attention to the smaller creatures of the bush, many of whom are just as fascinating as Africa’s larger animals.  Cleverly, the names of the Little Five animals correspond to those of the Big Five celebrities: the elephant becomes the elephant shrew, the buffalo – the buffalo weaver bird, the leopard – the leopard tortoise, and then there are the rhinoceros beetle and the antlion. 

Who and what would we be without wild areas and animals in our lives? This was a question asked by Dr Ian Player, a leading South African conservationist who recognised the fight for the natural environment to be a fight for human sanity. This poem by Dr Ian McCallum was written for him.

More than a century before, poet John Muir wrote “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

The well-known speech given by Chief Seattle (1854) is a powerful plea for respect for environmental values and native American rights. Seattle criticized white people’s imperialistic attitude and their way of reckless developments affecting the natural environment. It was one of the earliest instances where someone expressed great concern over the degradation of nature and ecological balance. He warned against the rapid progress of western civilization and for the need to protect nature. “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together… Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.”

The indigenous people of southern Africa and Australia similarly held clear values of sustainability and conservation. As hunters and gatherers, they depended on natural resources for their survival. Prior to the immigration of pastoralists and European colonisation, access to natural resources was regulated through their society. Particular areas and superstitions protected certain areas and animals from hunting and harvesting. Interestingly, Aboriginal land has been less impacted by the presently raging fires thanks to their historical fire management strategies.

The first areas protected by Colonialists were dedicated to conserving hot springs and geysers (Yellowstone, 1872, later bison) and giant redwoods (Yosemite national park, 1890) in America and the indigenous forests of the Cape coast (Knysna and St Lucia, 1886) in South Africa, both hard hit by logging for railway and mining industries and the navy. The Kruger (1926) was the first national park proclaimed in Africa, focusing on the protection of the large mammals favoured by hunters. The forced relocation of indigenous communities worldwide (in South Africa legislated by the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936) from proclaimed protected areas and the loss of their rights and access to natural resources created resentment. Conservation became elitist and access to parks required social privileges. In SA following 1994, new practices for protected areas propose to enable indigenous people to be owners, managers and shareholders, with many accompanying challenges.

The focus of conservation has shifted over time becoming more inclusive, increasingly reflecting the sentiments of Chief Seattle (more than a century before) and other indigenous peoples. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the first of conservation organisations, defines conservation through their mission statement as “Influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.“ The Union brings together governmental bodies and non-governmental organisations from around the world to face conservation challenges through policy initiatives and on-the-ground actions.

Among the greatest threats to wildlife are political regimes around the world that negate climate change and support illegal logging, pollution and biodiversity loss. It is clear that in a time of declining government resources and commitment, non-governmental organisations play an increasingly important role in conservation worldwide. Habitat destruction, deforestation, invasive species, pollution and more recently climate change represent extreme challenges to humans and wildlife, species needing to migrate to new places in order to survive drought, floods, fire and temperature rises. Conservation will have to develop novel ways to support the freedom to move when conditions become unfavourable. “Only by knowing how to protect animals, ecosystems and natural areas and stopping our contributions to climate change will we be able to protect our planet.” L. Hannah 2019. Biodiversity and Climate Change: Transforming the Biosphere.

“To secure our common future, we need a new international vision based on cooperation and a new international ethic based on the realization that the issues with which we wrestle are globally interconnected. This is not only a moral ethic but also a practical one, the only way we can pursue our own self-interests on a small and closely knit planet.” G.H. Bruntland, Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development. 1992.

“UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Theodore S. Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, 1971. The Lorax.

Kirsten Neke