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Destroyers and Preservers - Big Game in the Victorian Empire

Continuing our History and the Environment series, Harriet Ritvo looks at the role of big-game hunting in spreading awareness of the need for conservation

Humans have, apparently, always hunted wild animals. At first for business, and subsequently, after the development of agriculture provided a more profuse and reliable source of calories, for pleasure, albeit pleasure with a purpose. Variously ritualised and institutionalised, the hunt has served the elites of many societies as recreation, status symbol, and para-military training. The killing of valuable animals has both enacted and represented social prestige and power. In Britain the exclusiveness of hunting had deep medieval roots. Access to game animals was limited both physically, through enclosure, and through laws that severely punished unauthorised slaughter. By the eighteenth century hunting was structured by a rhetoric of scarcity and privilege. Among sportsmen only fox hunters routinely claimed that their pastime served any useful purpose, and these claims were not especially persuasive.

The contributions of big game hunting to the imperial enterprise were multiple and complex. The vast territories of Asia, Africa, and North America were very different from the settings of domestic sport. Initially, there seemed to be little need for restraint or exclusivity. Game was plentiful, sometimes too plentiful. It could be large and ferocious, which made hunting both more dangerous and more useful. No longer purely recreational, the removal of wild animals could be appreciated as a service to humans, both colonists and indigenous inhabitants. Inevitably, imperial hunters adapted many of the sporting practices that they had learned at home, exchanging horses for elephants in some situations, guns for spears in others.

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