Preventing Plagues, Bringing Balance: economic zoology and wildlife-protection as public health in 1920s-30s South Africa

Activity: Talk or presentation typesPresentation


At the turn of the twentieth-century, South African fauna was under significant threat. Devastating zoonotic diseases, plagues of birds, locusts, and carnivora had convinced veterinarians and farmers that wildlife and ‘civilisation’ could not coexist. Corn, citrus, and cattle had evicted big game, bushveld, and buchu. Wild animals were being shot, poisoned, and incinerated in the thousands. In the 1920s, economic ornithology, a US-born discipline which studied the value of birds to agriculture, posed a powerful counter-argument, and found strong-footing in South Africa. Numerous publications argued the indispensability of wildlife in consuming plague-bearing rats, trypanosomiasis-spreading tsetse-flies, malaria-bringing mosquitos, and crop-devouring locusts. Influenced by African ideas, zoologists Frederick FitzSimons and Alwin Haagner argued that humanity was not independent of, but part of a rapidly tipping balance of nature. The veld, contra-veterinary opinion, was hospitable, and humans had caused epidemics, crop-failure, and desertification by upsetting its balance. In this intellectual environment, South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts would, in 1926, coin and define the term ‘holism’ itself.

In southern African environmental history, much attention has been drawn to how settlers violently segregated spheres of ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’. This, the argument goes, was achieved by creating game reserves, and exterminating animals on rural frontiers. The possibility that living wildlife might have been integrated into agricultural modes of production and public health strategies has largely been overlooked. In this paper, I will show how biologists and farmers attempted to do exactly this by redefining species classified as ‘vermin’ as agricultural-labourers and medical workers, and reconstructing farms to capitalise upon their natural agency. Farmers began planting trees, building dams, and constructing nesting boxes to attract insectivorous birds. The Department of Public Health incorporated the ‘natural enemies’ of rodents, insects, and molluscs into disease-control strategies. Imbued with economic and medical utility, living fauna could no longer be regarded as ‘reservoirs of disease’ and commercial nuisances. Instead, maintaining the population health of animals once considered ‘vermin’ became critical to maintaining human population health, and economic prosperity.
Period30 May 20191 Jun 2019
Event titleThe Nature of Health, the Health of Nature: Perspectives from History and the Humanities
Event typeConference
LocationBeijing, ChinaShow on map
Degree of RecognitionRegional