Systematic extinction of North African wildlife by French colonialism


French colonization of Africa in the 19and and 20and centuries have inflicted double victimization on the continent’s indigenous lands and peoples. First, the arrival of white European settlers launched a coercive appropriation and over-exploitation of the “natives” and their virgin lands. Second, France’s colonial scorched-earth policy ravaged environmental and ecological systems, leaving colonized nations economically, socially, and environmentally weakened.

Postcolonial critique provides a large, interdisciplinary body of theories that critique and overturn colonial power relations and certain dogmatic, pseudoscientific, and racial assumptions about Indigenous peoples. However, the literature has largely ignored the effect of imperialism on wildlife and ecological systems. French colonialism in North Africa wreaked havoc on the environment, leading to either the extinction or the dramatic decline of many animal species.

French colonialism in North Africa wreaked havoc on the environment.

French historian Charles Seignobos coined the classic adage “No documents, no history”. Almost six decades after the independence of Algeria, the last North African country to gain independence from France in 1962, the French government still restricts access to its North African colonial archives. Therefore, the paucity of historical references to the damage inflicted by French colonialism to biodiversity and wildlife in the Maghreb, let alone other genocidal crimes, makes finding historical records and reconstructing history almost impossible. The available data is largely transmitted in the form of oral testimonies or reported by wildlife safari hunters in their books, or by newspapers of the time.

The French colonial archives that are available are full of proud accounts, memoirs and stories of safari hunts from felids (the wildcat family) and other large animals by the colonial elite who, through the killing of big game, expressed their dominance over nature and the powerless natives who inhabit it. In addition to its recreational purposes, the act of hunting articulates a language of power within the framework of expatriate colonial societies. It also symbolized the triumph of culture over nature, and of the colonizer over the colonized.

French hunting federations and travel agencies in North Africa have encouraged hunting expeditions and advertised the benefits of game hunting in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in North African Hunting and Fishing (North African Hunting and Fishing), newspaper printed in colonial Algeria. This commercialization explains the interest of postcolonial historians, filmmakers and scholars in the historicization, romance and analysis of the colonial hunting tradition in works such as, notably, John McKenzie’s book, “The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism», the epic and romantic film by Sydney Pollack, «Outside of Africa”(1985), and in a number of other books and articles by prominent postcolonial critics.

The extermination of animals was systematic and organized by local colonial authorities.

The hunting and extirpation of lions, panthers and animals that once roamed North Africa in large herds has taken different forms. Sometimes armed settlers would kill these animals when encountering them in the wild. At other times, French zoologists and naturalists captured these animals and sent them to French zoos to entertain the public. More often, however, the extermination was systematic and organized by local colonial authorities who viewed the big cats as a threat to settlers, native populations and their livestock.

[The Importance of Cats in Morocco—and Islam]

[Readings of French Colonial Postcards in Morocco]

French Commander P. Garnier (b. 1811), an officer of the Legion of Honor and General Councilor of the Côte-d’Or, said he was very concerned about the growing number of big cats in Algeria, especially after many unsuccessful hunting attempts. Garnier wondered, “Given the ineffectiveness of the means of destruction that have been examined, what should be done to achieve a significant reduction in the number of these voracious carnivores in Algeria?”[1]

In his book Mammal Hunting (Mammal Hunting), published in 1883, Garnier lists several animals that once lived in large groups in Algeria, including Barbary lions, panthers, serval cats, caracals, striped hyenas, jackals, caama foxes, fennec foxes, ichneumon mongooses, common genets, Atlas deer and African wild boar. It describes in detail the attributes of animals and lists their distinguishing characteristics, size, length, weight, diet and natural habitats. However, the commander also gives direction on the most effective and safe hunting methods and strategies, a common feature of regularly written and widely distributed guides.

Poaching in colonial North Africa was a common practice.

Poaching in colonial North Africa was also a common practice. Hunting of all types posed an existential threat to many animal species and to the region’s biodiversity. Today, many prized North African animals, such as the Barbary lion, are either completely extinct, critically endangered, or held in captivity in small numbers for conservation purposes.

Jules Gérard (1817-1867), another 19th century French soldier, explorer and hunter, recounts his lion hunting experiences in Algeria in his book titled The Lion Hunt (Lion hunt). In the preface, he tells us: “This. . . The collection is intended to introduce the reader to my lion hunts, to the hunting possibilities offered by Algeria and to the means used by the French and by the natives, such as shooting, hunting with hounds and falconry.[2] Gérard was an expert hunter reputed to have killed 25 lions in 11 years, earning the title of “lion killer”. He was often requested by the Algerian tribes (Ouled-Meloul, Ouled Cessi and Chegatma)[3] to rid them of the menacing lions. According to the contemporary French novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), whenever Gérard went hunting, he “returned to the camp followed by a large number of Arabs, bringing the skin of the lion on his back, just like Hercules and the Nemean lion.[4]

Gerard and his fellow legionnaires whose hunting experiences went undocumented during colonial times in Algeria killed more than 100,000 wild animals between 1850 and 1938, according to unofficial statistics. The number of lions exterminated during the same period amounts to 833 males, 981 females and 1207 lion cubs.

The Atlas lion, also known as the Barbary lion, is now thought to be completely extinct in the wild.

The Atlas lion, also known as the Barbary lion – which has lived safely in North Africa for thousands of years – is now considered completely extinct in the wild. According to several studies,[5] the last wild Barbary lion in North Africa was shot by a colonial hunter in 1942, on the Tizi-n-Tichka pass in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Luckily, Moroccan Sultan Mohamed V had a few Barbary lions in his exotic private park. Therefore, the lineage of this once considered extinct animal has been preserved. The remaining direct descendants of Barbary lions are kept in captivity at Rabat Zoo in Morocco, and efforts are underway to breed these animals and reintroduce them to their natural environment.

Like the Barbary lion, the panthera pardus the leopard is almost extinct in North Africa. Recent sightings have confirmed that leopards still roam freely in parts of North Africa (particularly Morocco), but at very low population densities. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the leopard as highly vulnerable. In 2015, the leopard was placed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Colonial practices, such as decades of rampant poaching and deforestation, are responsible for the destruction of biodiversity and the natural habitats of many animal species in North Africa. While pernicious indigenous behavior has also interfered with nature, the role of centuries of colonialism, driven by the pragmatic economic logic of capitalism that has crushed everything in its path, has been cataclysmic.

[1] Pierre Garnier, Mammal hunting (Paris: Jules Martin, 1883), p.25. [Translation from French by the author].

[2] Jules Gerard, lion hunting (Paris: Librairie Nouvelle, 1855) p. 7.

[3] Ibid., p. 50.

[4] Jules Gérard, My Last Hunts (Paris: Former Michel Lévy Frères House, 1882), 10.

[5] Some of these studies include “Examining the extinction of the Barbary lion and its implications for big cat conservation” by Simon A. Black, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!”: Extinction and uncertain sightings of the Barbary lion”, and “Evaluating Uncertainty in Sighting Records: An Example of the Barbary Lion” by Tamsin E. Lee.


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William D. Babcock

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