The Economy of South African Nature: the value of African fauna to health and wealth

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 bushveld, buchu, and big game. Wild animals were being shot, gassed, and incinerated in the thousands. In the 1920s, economic ornithology, a US-born discipline which quantified the value of birds to agriculture, posed a powerful counter-argument, and found strong-footing in South Africa. Numerous publications argued the utility of wild animals in consuming anthrax-infested carcasses, plague-bearing rats, trypanosomiasis-spreading tsetse-flies, and crop-devouring locusts. In an intellectual environment of holism, naturalists Frederick FitzSimons, Ernest Warren, and Alwin Haagner argued that nature, contra-veterinary opinion, was hospitable, and humans were responsible for epidemics and crop-failure by upsetting its balance. The diminutive Western historiography of economic ornithology has depicted it as a short-lived science, supplanted by pesticides. In South Africa, on the contrary, it was controversial, but influential in epidemiological, agricultural, and conservationist thought. Farmers began capitalising upon the agency of insectivorous birds by planting trees, building dams, and constructing nesting boxes. The Ministry of Health incorporated the ‘natural enemies’ of rodents, insects, and molluscs into public health strategies. The destruction of numerous animals was criminalised. 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.
Period1 Nov 20184 Nov 2018
Event titleHistory of Science Society Annual Meeting, 2018
Event typeConference
LocationSeattle, United StatesShow on map