French colonization of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries inflicted a double victimization on the continent’s indigenous lands and peoples. First, the arrival of the white European settlers launched a coercive appropriation and over-exploitation of the “natives” and their pristine lands. Second, France’s scorched-earth colonial policy ravaged the environmental and ecological systems, leaving the colonized nations impaired economically, socially, and with respect to the environment.
Postcolonial criticism provides a broad interdisciplinary corpus of theories that critique and subvert colonial power relations and certain dogmatic, pseudoscientific, racial assumptions about indigenous peoples. However, the literature has largely ignored the effect of imperialism on wildlife and the ecological systems. French colonialism in North Africa has wreaked havoc on the environment, leading to either the extinction or the dramatic decline of many animal species.
French colonialism in North Africa has 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 colonial archives of North Africa. Hence, the scarcity of historical references to the damage inflicted by French colonialism on biodiversity and wildlife in the Maghreb, not to mention other genocidal crimes, makes researching historical records and reconstructing history almost impossible. The available data is largely passed down as oral testimony or reported by wildlife safari hunters in their books, or by newspapers at the time.
Those French colonial records that are available abound with proud accounts, memoirs, and stories of safari hunts of felidae (the family of wild cats) and other large animals by the colonial elite who, through their killing of big game, expressed their domination over nature and the powerless natives who inhabit it. Besides its recreational purposes, the act of hunting articulated a language of power within the framework of colonial expatriate 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 encouraged hunting expeditions and advertised the benefits of game hunting in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in Chasse et Pêche Nord-Africaines (North African Hunting and Fishing), a newspaper printed in colonial Algeria. This commercialization explains the interest of historians, filmmakers, and postcolonial scholars in historicizing, romanticizing, and analyzing colonial hunting tradition in such works as, most notably John McKenzie’s book, “The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation, and British Imperialism,” Sydney Pollack’s epic and romantic film, “Out of Africa”(1985), and in a number of other published books and articles by prominent postcolonial critics.
The extermination of animals was systematic and organized by the local colonial authorities.
The hunting and extirpation of lions, panthers, and animals which once roamed across North Africa in large herds took different forms. Sometimes, the armed settlers killed these animals during their encounters with them in nature. At other times, French zoologists and naturalists captured these animals and sent them to French zoos to entertain the public. Most often, however, the extermination was systematic and organized by the local colonial authorities who considered big cats a threat to the settlers, the indigenous populations, and their cattle.
French Commander P. Garnier (born in 1811), Officer of the Legion of Honor and General Councilor of the Côte-d’Or, expressed much concern regarding the increasing number of big cats in Algeria, especially after many previous failed hunting attempts. Garnier questioned, “ln the presence of the ineffectiveness of the means of destruction which have been examined, what should be done to achieve a significant reduction in the number of these voracious carnivores in Algeria?”
In his book Chasse des Mammifers (Mammal Hunting), published in 1883, Garnier lists several animals that used to live 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 boars. He extensively describes the animals’ attributes and lists their distinctive features, size, length, weight, diet, and natural habitats. However, the commander also gives guidelines on the most effective and safest hunting methods and strategies, a common feature of regularly written and widely circulated guidebooks.
Poaching in colonial North Africa was a routine practice.
Poaching in colonial North Africa was also a routine 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, gravely endangered, or held in captivity in small numbers for conservation.
Jules Gérard (1817-1867), another 19th century French soldier, explorer, and hunter, recounts his lion hunting experiences in Algeria in his book entitled La Chasse au Lion (Lion Hunting). In the preface, he tells us: “This . . . collection is intended to initiate the reader to my lion hunts, to the hunting possibilities that Algeria provides, and to the means used by the French, and by the natives, such as shooting, hound hunting, and falconry.” Gérard was an expert hunter with a famed reputation of killing 25 lions in 11 years, thus gaining the title of “the lion-killer.” He was often called upon by Algerian tribes (Ouled-Meloul, Ouled Cessi, and Chegatma) to rid them of threatening lions. According to contemporary French novelist and playwright Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), whenever Gérard went hunting, he “would come back to the camp followed by a large number of Arabs, bringing the skin of the lion on his back, just like Hercules and the Nemee lion.”
Gérard and his fellow legionnaires whose hunting experiences went undocumented during the colonial period 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 believed to be completely extinct in the wild.
The Atlas lion, also known as the Barbary lion —which had safely lived in North Africa for thousands of years—is now believed to be completely extinct in the wild. According to several studies, the last wild North African Barbary lion was shot by a colonial hunter in 1942, on the Tizi-n-Tichka pass in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. Fortunately, Moroccan Sultan Mohamed V had some Barbary lions in his exotic private park. Therefore, the bloodline of this once thought-to-be-extinct animal has been preserved. The remaining direct descendants of the Barbary lions are kept in captivity in Morocco’s Rabat Zoo, and efforts are underway to breed these animals and reintroduce them into their natural environment.
Like the Barbary lion, the Panthera pardus leopard is almost extinct in North Africa. Recent sightings have confirmed that leopards do still roam freely in some regions of North Africa (especially in Morocco), but in very small population densities. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has designated the leopard as very vulnerable. In 2015, the leopard was placed on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species.
Colonial practices, such as decades of rampant poaching and deforestation, are responsible for the destruction of the 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 crushed everything in its way, has been cataclysmic.
 Pierre Garnie, Chasse des mammifères (Paris : Jules Martin, 1883), p.25. [Translation from French by the author].
 Jules Gérard, La chasse au Lion (Paris : Librairie Nouvelle, 1855) p. 7.
 Ibid., p. 50.
 Jules Gérard, Mes derniers chasses (Paris : Ancienne maison Michel Lévy frères, 1882), 10.
 Some of these studies include Simon A. Black’s “Examining the Extinction of the Barbary Lion and Its Implications for Felid Conservation,” Houari Jardini’s ““I tawt I taw a puddy tat!”: Extinction and uncertain sightings of the Barbary lion,” and Tamsin E. Lee’s “Assessing Uncertainty in sighting Records: An Example of the Barbary Lion.”