Domestication, degeneration and the establishment of the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, 1910s-1930s

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This article examines conflict between farmers and elephants in the Addo region in 1910s–1930s South Africa to explore the porosity of the concepts ‘wild’, ‘tame’, and ‘domestic’, and their relationship to race, degeneration, nature conservation, and colonialism. In the 1910s, settler farmers indicted the ‘Addo Elephants’, as ‘vicious’ thieves who raided crops and ‘hunted’ farmers. This view conflicted with a widespread perception of elephants as docile, sagacious, and worthy of protection. Seeking to reconcile these views, bureaucrats were divided between exterminating the animals, creating a game reserve, and drawing upon the expertise of Indian mahouts to domesticate them. Ultimately, all three options were attempted: the population was decimated by hunter Phillip Jacobus Pretorius, an elephant reserve was created, the animals were tamed to ‘lose their fear of man’ and fed oranges. Despite the presence of tame elephants and artificial feeding, the reserve was publicized as a natural habitat, and a window onto the prehistoric. This was not paradoxical but provokes a need to rethink the relationship between wildness, tameness, and domesticity. These concepts were not implicitly opposed but existed on a spectrum paralleling imperialist hierarchies of civilization, race, and evolution, upon which tame elephants could still be considered wild.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-27
Number of pages27
JournalThe Historical Journal
VolumeFirst View
Early online date4 Feb 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Feb 2020


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