Door Dhoya Snijders During my wanderings through Southern Africa I encountered a charming creature that goes by the name ‘kudu’. The majestic antelope with its twisted horns is something of an icon in South Africa, appearing on its coins, traffic signs and menus. When I heard there was not one species of kudu, but multiple, my ears twitched. I initiated a brief taxonomical study of which the results became increasingly disorderly.
Scientists publishing in the journal ‘Molecular Ecology’ differentiated four subspecies of kudu in 1971. More recent publications describe just one type, while a well-cited 1997 taxonomy distinguishes three. There thus seems to be some epistemological uncertainty regarding the large ungulate – an uncertainty that kudus are most probably unaware of. However, this may not be the case as classifications have consequences and human taxonomies are not limited strictly to the domain of life sciences. In our everyday lives we classify animals as edible, holy, or ugly, while officials classify animals as protected species, damage causing animals, or protein. The South African government, through new conservation legislation, is currently deciding on the kudu species that it recognizes. As biological science has failed, up until now, to come up with a unique set of biological kinds, government officials have an arduous job deciding upon their taxonomies. Lists now speak of two species of which the Greater Kudu is recognized as an indigenous kudu and the Lesser Kudu is an alien. The indigenous is to be protected, while alien access to the country is restricted. After heavy critique by those who earn a buck selling alien species, government finds itself revising its official taxonomies. The taxonomical opposition, members of the wildlife industry, have their own ideas on kudus. An Eastern Cape wildlife rancher told me:
“This place is the kudu mekka of the world. The Eastern Cape Greater Kudu is beautiful and we have plenty. But it is not recognized as a subspecies. By government? No, not by government, not by Rowland Ward. We got it tested, blood samples sent to labs, I called the guys in England and all that, and they won’t accept it. And Safari Club International? Yes, they do have it.”
You may not be aware of this, but Safari Club International and Rowland Ward are the most prominent hunting registers of the world. In their catalogues it is registered who shoots what trophy where and when. Most importantly, they rank ‘bagged animals’ hierarchically by means of their horn size. In this case, the unrecognized Eastern Cape kudu has significantly smaller horns than its relatives. Eastern Cape wildlife ranchers reason that this difference in horn size seriously affects their hunting industry as hunters are reluctant to travel to the kudu-packed Eastern Cape for prize trophies. For that reason an appeal was made to scientists, government and hunting journals to create the new subspecies ‘Eastern Cape Greater Kudu’. Rowland Ward did not accept the appeal and lists only one kudu species. It is unclear if government will accept the Eastern Cape inhabitant as a subspecies, but the largest hunting fraternity, Safari Club International, did.
Kudus themselves are of course incapable of entering such discussions. Their categories are inevitably built up by one-way relationships, that is, animal classification systems are necessarily administered in a top-down, anthropocentric manner. Having said that, animals do influence category discussions. Anyone who has travelled through South Africa will be acquainted with its extensive fencing system. So-called game fences, of 2.40 meters high, cut through South Africa’s countryside, fencing some species in and all others out. These fences are based on antelope’s abilities to jump high, as well as on humans desire to own and capitalize on wildlife. In South Africa, wildlife has been legally shifted from common goods to private goods, which has resulted in a booming wildlife industry and millions of game-fenced hectares. Animal classifications thereby do not only affect animals, but also physically divide and subdivide humans. Taxonomies that tinker with official frameworks to proclaim species as ownable goods and include new commodities such as the Eastern Cape kudu, thus have the potential to either amplify enclosures and amplify human-human conflicts, or to abolish them. Therefore, I believe that the scrutiny of animals and their official classifications should not only be left to biologists. Social scientists, legal scholars, policy analysts and others should do so too. A fruitful starting point could be that there are countless ways of taxonomizing species, which differ, simply, depending on our interests. Some are based on academic ambitions, some on conservation ideas, others on making money. Taxonomies are borrowed back and forth across the scales to back-up interests, while novel classifications are produced when existing taxonomies do not merge with active ideas. I believe this is what John Dupré calls promiscuous realism. The truth sleeps with everyone and everyone sleeps with the truth. For the sake of kudus and humans, it is for us to find out who is sleeping with who, and with what interests.
Dhoya Snijders is an Organizational Scientist at the VU, doing his PhD research on the socio-economic impacts of wildlife ranching in Southern Africa. He is currently in Windhoek, Namibia