JAMES STEVENSON-HAMILTON was born in Dublin, Ireland, of Scottish parents, in 1867, where his father was then posted. His childhood was spent at the ancestral home Fairholm, in Scotland, and was educated at Rugby School. He proceeded to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and obtained a commission with the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, then in South Africa..
He was on active service with his regiment in the South African War (1899-1902), at the end of which he was offered the wardenship of the Sabi Game Reserve by the Milner Government of the Transvaal.
He obtained a two-year leave of absence from his regiment to begin the great task of saving the remnants of the once great herds of game left by hunters and soldiers of both sides fighting in the war.
He became involved in the welfare of his animal charges to such an extent that he stayed for more than forty four years until his retirement in 1946. The continued existence and development of the Kruger National Park is largely due to his dedication and sound administration.
The reserve was in a sorry state and the balance of nature was seriously impaired, especially as regards the larger mammals, and game laws virtually existed on paper only. Giraffe, hippo, buffalo and rhino were extremely rare, elephants occasionally wandered in from Mozambique but did not stay at first, and other species were scarce and very wild.
At Komatipoort, he was fortunate enough to engage Rupert Atmore, Harry Wolhuter and also several Black assistants before proceeding to Sabi Bridge in November 1902 which was to be his permanent headquarters.
So started his labour of love, involving the patience of Job and careful diplomacy, for he had neither the funds nor the authority to make haste other than exceedingly slowly. Stevenson-Hamilton was given very vague instructions, the only one he remembered clearly was ‘to make himself as unpopular as possible’ amongst the hunters and poachers. One of his first operations was to evict all people other than those required for service in the maintenance of the reserve. For this reason he earned the name ‘ Skukuza’, which means: ‘he who sweeps clean’.
This brought him into conflict with various Native Commissioners. He consequently had to rely on persuasion after personal contact, which necessitated many wearisome journeys. Finally he decided to travel to Pretoria and Johannesburg to seek approval and legislation for a set of regulations confirming judicial powers on the Warden of the Reserve. These were ultimately approved and he became Native Commissioner, Customs Official and Justice of the Peace for the territory and appointed rangers to help him in his task.
It was not long before Stevenson-Hamilton realised that the boundaries of the Sabi Game Reserve, defined roughly by the land between the Sabie and Crocodile Rivers, the Lebombo Mountains and the Nsikazi River to the west, were too confined. He decided, on his own initiative, to call on the manager of every land-company owning property north of the Sabie River. A Mr Pott was responsible for effecting the introduction to most of the other managers and advising the modus operandi for approaching each individual, in order to obtain a sympathetic hearing.
Eventually these companies agreed to the safeguarding by the Reserve staff of the fauna and flora on their properties in exchange for the collection of rents and taxes and general supervision for a period of five years.
In 1904 the Sabi Game Reserve extended from the Crocodile to the Olifants River and to this was added a new area between the Letaba and the Limpopo called the Shingwedzi Reserve, excluding a strip of’ foreign territory which was proclaimed mining area between the Olifants and the Letaba. The area under control now comprised nearly 14 000 square miles and was guarded by a staff of five White and fifty Black rangers.
The rangers were Maj James Stevenson-Hamilton at Sabi Bridge (Skukuza), Harry Wolhuter at Pretoriuskop, C R de Laporte at Crocodile Bridge, T Duke at Lower Sabie and Major A A Fraser at Malunzana, Shingwedzi.
There was no ranger available for patrolling the area between the Sabie and Olifants River, so the Warden decided to prune expenditure by reducing his own salary and curtailing the transport and climatic allowances of the staff, and thus provided sufficient money to employ G R (Tim) Healy for this purpose.
The animal population gradually expanded, slowly at first but nevertheless steadily. To encourage this expansion and to assist the balance of nature, the Warden and rangers shot lions, wild dogs and crocodiles. Herds of antelope began to be seen in place of single animals.
During the Great War of 1914-1918 Stevenson-Hamilton left to serve in the Imperial Forces. During his absence a Commission was appointed to investigate the desirability of reducing the areas of the Sabi and Shingwedzi Reserves.
For many years there had been agitation by Lowvelders, farmers for the most part, that the Game Reserve was a waste of time; that it occupied marvellous farming land; that it harboured disease for stock such as East Coast Fever, foot-and-mouth, etc.
But the Commission, after inspecting in loco, was convinced that the whole area was a sound one and recommended that the Reserve’s status should be raised to that of a National Park.
In 1919 three new rangers were appointed: P L (Piet) de Jager, J J (Kat) Coetzer and W W Lloyd. Coetzer was placed at a new station north of Shingwedzi near the Pafuri River, which he called ‘Punda Maria’.
Coetzer was an ex-soldier and had served in East Africa, where he had come across the Swahili word for a zebra, Punda Miliya, or striped donkey. He had thought that the last word was Maria, his wife’s name, and thus christened his new home in her honour.
The years 1921 and 1922 were difficult and dangerous ones for the Reserve. A coal syndicate, backed by political influence, had secured a concession to prospect north of Crocodile Bridge, the Railway Administration was advocating the sale of farms within the Reserve to make the Selati Line pay.
Winter grazers (having secured rights in the buffer area of Pretoriuskop) were all for a deeper penetration into the Reserve and farmers just south of the Crocodile River were clamouring for land on the north bank. Various minor newspapers attacked the expenditure of the taxpayers’ money and alleged that the Game Reserve was a harbour for dangerous animals and a focus for disease.
The attitude of the Government began to veer in favour of what appeared to be public opinion and Stevenson-Hamilton became alarmed. In 1923, at a meeting in Pretoria, several Government Departments claimed the land occupied by the Sabi Game Reserve.
However, opportunely as it happened, the SA Railways began its ‘Round-in-nine’ service and a night’s stop-over with camp-fires was arranged at Sabi Bridge. The passengers declared this the most exciting and interesting episode of the whole tour, and immediately the Game Reserve began to be recognised for the tourist attraction that it was.
Col. Deneys Reitz became an enthusiastic advocate of the National Park scheme and so did various other prominent personalities such as Sir William Hoy, the General Manager of the Railways, who requested Stratford Caldecott, an artist, to be the Railways publicity agent for the advertisement of the Sabi Game Reserve as a potential asset. Caldecott was also an enthusiastic writer and after spending two months in the Reserve, his influence in South Africa was such that soon there was hardly a man, woman or child in the country who had not heard, or read, or seen pictured some aspect of the Sabi Game Reserve.
After a change in the government in 1924, which for a time had cancelled all his efforts, he finally won the confidence and support of the Minister of Lands in the new government, P J Grobler, a grand-nephew of President Kruger.
His efforts were crowned with success when, on 31 May 1926, the National Parks Act was adopted unanimously, adding many hectares of land north of the Sabie River to the old Sabi Game Reserve, which was henceforth known as the Kruger National Park in honour of President S J P Kruger who had done so much for wildlife conservation in South Africa. Important enthusiasts who had done most to assist in the passing of the Bill were Col Deneys Reitz, H B Papenfus KC, Oswald Pirow, Gen Jan Smuts and Dr A A Schoch.
The struggle to achieve recognition for his beloved “Cinderella” was over for Stevenson-Hamilton and the reaction set in. In terms of the Act the existing staff would be retrenched from the Government Service and new appointments made, and he considered resigning even if his appointment was renewed.
But he was sent for by Piet Grobler, who had very kind things to say about his service and who urged him to continue as Warden, which he was thankful to do. All the staff was re-employed.
The first three cars entered the Park over a road prepared by Harry Wolhuter in 1927. In 1928 the number was 180 vehicles and in 1929, when it was possible to travel as far as the Olifants River, 850 came. There was nowhere to put people up and the rangers were obliged to give up their homes and sleep wherever they could outside.
They were also obliged to forsake their normal section duties in order to check permits, answer questions, supply petrol, etc. A rapid building programme was initiated by the Parks Board and by 1930 the Park had constructed 100 concrete rondavels in six camps and obtained additional personnel.
Stevenson-Hamilton was always concerned that the Park should never lose its character and become a glorified zoological garden.
The old-timers complain that things are not the same, but for most a visit to the Park is a very rare enjoyment and a pleasure that no South African should miss.
Retirement came in 1946, when he and his wife settled on his farm Gibraltar, adjacent to Longmere Dam, north-east of White River, where he died on 10 December 1957, at the age of 90. He married Miss Hilda Cholmondeley in 1930 and they had three children, Margaret (1931), Jamie (1933) and Anne (1935). Margaret died at the age of 4 years. Hilda died 10 January 1979 and their ashes were left to the wind on 10 April 1979 by their daughter, Mrs Anne Doyle, of England, near Shirimantanga, 12 km south of Skukuza, in their beloved Kruger National Park.
Gleaned from “Lowveld Pioneers” by Hans Bornman and from other sources.
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