“An Ecological Anomaly”: Wildlife policy on the Northern Rhodesian Copperbelt – Jeff Schauer

Photo of cover of Roan Antelope, May 1953.

Jeff Schauer is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The Copperbelt region played a distinct role in wildlife management in the colonial territory then known as Northern Rhodesia. That role was shaped by the region’s centrality to colonial political economy, and meant that the Copperbelt was perceived and acted upon in different ways to other parts of Zambia. The Copperbelt appears only fleetingly in the archives of Northern Rhodesia’s Game Department. However, its urban and industrial character, dominated by mine companies and the complex legal and land regimes created around them, challenged established models of colonial wildlife conservation and shaped regional enforcement of game laws in the colonial period. This in turn shaped the thinking of wildlife officers elsewhere in Northern Rhodesia and created conflict between different wings of the colonial state.

In wildlife-rich regions, colonial authorities sought to remove people from land or tightly constrain the terms of its use. The creation of game reserves and national parks are the most dramatic examples of aggressive resource management. Scholars who focus on the experiences of such regions—the Gwembe Valley, the Kafue floodplain, and the Luangwa Valley, for example—have amply documented policies of displacement and the social dislocation that followed from them. However, this picture flattens variations in colonial wildlife policy, and examining how policy was applied to and shaped by the Copperbelt illustrates how the region’s prominence affected political economies and imaginaries of hunting and policymaking alike.

Colonial wildlife management regimes across Northern Rhodesia sharply curtailed farmers’ ability to augment diets and budgets with small-scale hunting, as well as to protect their crops from animals whose numbers increased under the protection of the colonial state. The loss of crops to herbivores, and of stock to carnivores, along with the growing requirements for manpower to protect increasingly unprofitable farming, generated migration from rural areas to the Copperbelt (NP 1/1/114). This movement did not, however, rupture links between urban workers and rural areas. Colonial officials across Africa became obsessed with their subjects’ consumption habits, and in the Copperbelt they viewed the consumption of game as fuelling an illicit economy in peri-urban areas, and a trade that brought game by rail and lorry from rural areas along the same routes that displaced farmers and hunters traveled to find new work. Policing this trade in small game meat—largely various species of antelope—preoccupied the Game Department on the Copperbelt and beyond. In the minds of officials, an industrial economy generated industrial-scale poaching. This reflected a wider colonial belief that Copperbelt urbanites were responsible for immoral and illegal activities encompassing prostitution, illegal brewing and charcoal burning.

To combat this trade, game guards joined the police in raiding homes and businesses looking for illegal firearms or biltong for sale, making them among the most hated officials by those who sold game meat along the rail line or in towns (Schauer, 53).  The Game Department sought to catch traders before they reached the mine townships. The department also pressured district commissioners and police to launch night-time raids in Native Reserves outside mine company control in order to confiscate animal products and arrest offenders. However, local officials were wary of association with the Game Department—its officers were regarded as uncompromising ideologues whose work had provoked unrest in other regions of the colony. Provincial authorities occasionally banned game guards from participating in raids and sent messengers ahead to warn about impending raids (SEC 6/93). In the mid-1950s, wildlife officials pressed for the seizure of all firearms on the Copperbelt, but as elsewhere in Northern Rhodesia, provincial authorities worked to moderate or undermine the Game Department’s policy, which it regarded as provocative and unworkable (Schauer, 112-13). 

On occasion, district officials, police, and game department staff cooperated, both in law enforcement and in surveying Copperbelt residents to gather intelligence on the trade.  Residents reported that much hunting in the region occurred at night. Authorities seeking to monitor such activity saw the flicker of lamps and heard shots, but had great difficulty catching hunters in the act. Such “night shooting” involved both Europeans and Africans, although as elsewhere in the colony, it was the latter’s activity which mainly concerned the authorities (SEC 5/184). 

There were, hunters and buyers reported, two channels of trade. The first involved rural hunters selling directly to consumers in mining towns. The second involved entrepreneurial urban agents purchasing game from hunters and then selling it to town residents. Archival records do not provide explicit detail on what urban trade intermediaries paid hunters, but they sold the meat in its various forms for around twice what hunters earned when they sold it directly to residents. For example, while hunters secured between £1 for a reedbuck and up to £3 for the hind leg of a larger antelope like a sable, town traders charged nearly double those amounts (SEC 5/184). 

The Game Department pressured Copperbelt courts, District Commissioners, and police to pursue hunters more aggressively, stiffen sentences, and raise fines. In the 1950s, those convicted could choose between a fine and a term of imprisonment with hard labor. Either option also required the confiscation of the offending firearm, if it had been found (SEC 5/184).  African Copperbelt residents, however, regarded these efforts as rank hypocrisy, noting the devastating effects of hunting by Europeans on wildlife populations earlier in the century (SEC 5/693).

The effects of the trade in game meat to the Copperbelt were nonetheless felt elsewhere in Northern Rhodesia. On the Kafue Flats in Southern Province, district and provincial authorities seeking to control lechwe hunting claimed that the region’s integration into Copperbelt-linked trading routes distorted the virtuous, “traditional” hunting of their rural subjects and became the pretext for banning communal hunts (Schauer, 81-87). Mining was invoked in a different fashion by Lake Bangweulu fishermen, who defended their fishing rights by describing the lake as their “god given” mine, in contrast to the Copperbelt which they portrayed as a European space (SEC 5/122). Just as the Copperbelt posed challenges to the model of governance central to the British colonial state—one rooted in a static conception of rurality—so too it challenged the agents of that state charged with conceptualizing the place of wildlife in colonial political economy. The Copperbelt developed its own gravitational pull, tugging at regional markets and weaving them into territory-wide channels of trade. People travelled to the mines to labour underground, but they also did so in order to hunt and to sell the fruits of that hunting. Characterized by a visiting British ecologist as an “ecological anomaly”, (NAZ SEC 5/486) the Copperbelt rather represented both the effects of colonial states and economies on land and livelihood, and the diversity of people’s responses to those effects.

References and further reading

NAZ NP 1/1/114. Mpika Tour Reports, 1958 to 1959. 

NAZ SEC 5/122. Complaints from Africans, Ushi-Kabende Area, 1951 to 1953.

NAZ SEC 5/184. Game Preservation, 1954-1960.

NAZ SEC 5/486. Statement of wildlife policy, 1960-1961.

NAZ SEC 6/93. Copperbelt Game Patrols, 1954-1956.

Colson, Elizabeth. The Social Consequences of Resettlement: the Impact of the Kariba Resettlement upon the Gwembe Tonga. Manchester University Press, 1971.

Haller, Tobias. The Contested Floodplain: Institutional Change of the Commons in the Kafue Flats, Zambia. Lexington Books, 2012.

Marks, Stuart. Life as a Hunt: Thresholds of Identities and Illusions on an African Landscape. Berghahn Books, 2016.

Schauer, Jeff. Wildlife between Empire and Nation in Twentieth-Century Africa. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.