Recording their own extinction

Some twenty years ago in Cape Town I met a German taxidermist, Reinhold Rau, who dreamt of bringing the quagga back from extinction. The quagga – which resembled a zebra, but with stripes on the front half of its body and a brown backside – grazed the Karoo, a vast semi-desert area of ​​grassland in South Africa. Its name is onomatopoeic, inspired by its distinctive alarm call. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Dutch pastoralists, the Trekboers, moved into the Karoo, and their guns, cattle and sheep spelt doom for the quagga; This docile animal became extinct within decades. Photographs of only one survive, a lonely mare in London Zoo that died in 1872. A handful of stuffed quaggas are on display in museums, mostly in Europe.

Rau scoured southern Africa for living zebras that looked like quaggas, and selectively bred them together. His “breeding back” project would not recreate a genetically authentic quagga, as he acknowledged, but he hoped to produce a herd of quagga-like zebras that might one day repopulate the Karoo.

The eradication of the quagga was only one chapter in the wider ecological catastrophe wreaked by Europeans on the Karoo. When Julia Blackburn travels across this landscape in Dreaming the Karoo, she is shocked by its desolation. The great herds of springbok are no more. The kudu, the eland, the lions, the rhinoceroses and elephants have all gone. In their place are farmer’s fences and sheep, “such ungainly creatures, so unsuited to this environment”.

The indigenous people of the Karoo, Bushman hunter-gatherers who had lived there for tens of thousands of years, have also disappeared. The /Xam (“/” denotes a tongue click) saw themselves, Blackburn writes, as “just one small part of the complexity of the natural world”. But to the Trekboers they were dogs or vermin, to be enslaved or shot. When the /Xam’s wildlife was destroyed and they killed the Trekboers’ sheep in order to eat, they were imprisoned for stock theft. They were beaten for speaking their own language. Sometimes they were massacred in their hundreds. “They do not seem to know we are people”, lamented a man called Dia!kwain (“!” denotes a guttural click, made at the back of the mouth), who was murdered in 1876 by a group of Trekboers seeking to avenge the earlier killing of one of their friends.

That Dia!kwain’s voice, and those of a handful of other /Xam of the late nineteenth century, survives at all is thanks to a German-born philologist, Wilhelm Bleek (1827-75), and his English sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd. Based in Cape Town, they worked for years to learn the language and culture of several /Xam whom they rescued from the city jail. If Bleek, in Blackburn’s assessment, “never doubted the European was the most pure incarnation of human being-ness”, Lloyd comes across as a more sympathetic figure, “increasingly aware of the underlying story of loss and displacement that she was hearing, while respecting the personalities of the people who were talking to her.”

Bleek and Lloyd left behind an archive of extraordinary raw materials, and Blackburn makes good use of them: transcriptions of dreams and memories, together with the philosophy and poetry of Dia!kwain and his dwindling numbers of fellow /Xam, are threaded throughout Dreaming the Karoo and haunt our conscience. They believed that “all things were once people”, recognizing the interconnectivity of life. “Grandfather turns himself into a little bird. He comes to where we live”, said Dia!kwain.

He flies above our heads. He sits looking at us, to see if we are different and what has happened to us since he left. He seems to listen when we speak to him. When he has heard us say we are not ill, he flies away.

Reading these thoughts, Blackburn feels herself to be “grabbing at the tail of a memory that escapes from me even as I reach out to catch hold of it”. For the /Xam are recording their own extinction: “The place becomes dry, therefore the Bushmen become dead on account of it, the rain does not fall and the springbok are not there and the locusts vanish”.

Two weeks into Blackburn’s research journey across South Africa, lockdown begins and she returns to the UK. Alone on the Suffolk coast in that strange spring, she experiences fear and powerlessness: “My heart sometimes races with the cacophony of the dangers that are crowding towards us from every direction. The loss of small things. The loss of enormous things. The sense of being voiceless in a world without pity”. Like the /Xam, she says, we are buffeted by forces we feel we cannot control. We too are caught in an environmental catastrophe, albeit of our own making and on a global scale. “My friend asked if I thought we had reached the beginning of the end of the world”, she says of a conversation in January 2021. Perhaps the /Xam had similar conversations.

These parallels bring complexity and immediacy to the book, but it’s tempting to wonder whether Dreaming the Karoo might have been different if Blackburn had spent longer in the Karoo, or had traveled north to the Kalahari Desert, as she had hoped to. There some Bushmen survive and lead a semblance of their pre-colonial lives. Blackburn powerfully evokes the Karoo: “The dusty surface of the land was thick with sheep shit and marks of the movement of sheep. I tasted a drop of water from the trough and it was indeed bitter.” Her search for traces of the /Xam in this blighted landscape reflects her lifelong fascination with “places that still hold echoes of what once was”. Her observations of her fellow travelers – Capetonians – are insightful. “None… were shocked in the way that I was shocked, by the desolation of the landscape. They were able to concentrate on its qualities: the scattering of stars, the sliver of the moon in the dark sky, the looming presence of the hill and its storytelling boulders.”

Though Reinhold Rau died in 2006, his Quagga Project lives on, scientists and enthusiasts driven by his laudable aim of “rectifying a tragic mistake made … through greed and short sightedness” with the eventual release of a herd of quagga lookalikes onto the Karoo. But the /Xam’s understanding of the transience and fragility of life was perhaps more profound. “Clouds come out when we die, and when we die the wind blows dust because it means to blow away our tracks … For if our tracks were visible then it would seem as if we still lived.”

Barnaby Phillips is Director of Communications for the Elephant Protection Initiative. His most recent book is Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes2021

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