Visions of an African Doctor and Conservationist


By Delwin E. Benson


Del is a professor and extension wildlife specialist at Colorado State University, USA. He has often attended wildlife events and hunted in South Africa


Visions of an African doctor, student of medicinal plants, landowner, wildlife manager, professional hunter, and landscape conservationist arenít always visible in the same person.Dr. Mark Sutherland fits all of those traits and more.Husband and father are also part of the resume.Mark grew up in the bush in a family of nature conservationists with a dream of managing his own piece of earth.He now lives his dream.††

He studied nature conservation, wanted to become a wildlife veterinarian, but the stars aligned for him to practice medicine.Never wanting to work with the terminally ill, he finds most patients with HIV-Aids and a bleak future for survival.The drugs needed to address HIV symptoms are too expensive for local Zulu people to afford.Markís return to Northern KwaZulu Natal enabled use of his Zulu speaking ability in a medical practice and to own a piece of Africa to manage and to love.

When I arrived at Markís farm for a nyala hunt, I was greeted by a man 13 years older than when we last hunted together.The bush hat he wore had to be double that age.The folds, creases and accumulated sweat and dust on the hat accentuated the maturing lines of hard work that werenít on the face of the young student that I once knew.I saw another side of a character that I soon learned would have a few more surprises.

The first indication of his character came to me via an unexpected email which arrived a couple of years ago inviting me to hunt nyala on his farm if Iím ever in South Africa again.After a previous kudu hunt together the hair had slipped on the cape and Mark wanted to make up the loss years later.That is professionalism, friendship and good business all in one package.†††††††

Mark showed me around the camp site and property in true bush style--that old hat must have stories to tell--then a surprising contrast greeted me at camp each evening.Mark showed up after dark, but the old hat was not present.Rather, he was dressedin medical whites, full locks of flowing hair and showed peaceful calm after treating at least 70 persons in need most days.I was so impressed with the visual contrasts that I visualized a movie about the many aspects and contrasts of Africa reflected in his life.

Understanding must wait about primitive medical practices, medicinal plants from the bush, and the attitudes of cultures that live and die within earshot of the hut where they were born.Birth and death within the sterile halls and walls of western hospitals are not part of their culture.Neither, does their culture allow for the dilemmas of nature conservation that persons from westernized cultures face.†††

For Mark, even being in the bush, his bush, for only a short time to visit his hunting guests created complications.He knew that his wife and young children were still home where he left them in the dark each morning because he was out the door to reach his medical clients.The youngest child might even be in bed when he returns home.

Most nights, Mark brought the family with him.They love the bush.They love Mark.Life is a balance and doing more requires balancing more.

The same balancing act can be seen in Markís nature conservation and hunting philosophy.Hunters walk and stalk on Markís property.They cannot hunt near the camp or from vehicles.Mark prefers that hunters experience the thorns, stickers, snakes, ticks, and mosquitoes of the bush as part of their experience.That means knowing wind direction, stalking techniques and having a little good luck with you.†† A tracker and perhaps a professional hunter are there to assist.

The bush is dense on his property and the animals have the advantage with their senses of smell, sight and hearing.He prefers that hunters avoid hunting around water holes, but allows it.

I assure you that my nyala taken under hard conditions was just as valuable to me, perhaps more so, than a larger one that another hunter took while waiting at the water.He could be more selective and could brag more about the trophy quality, but I had bragging rights about the hunt.Besides, I saw a black mamba and python nearly under foot, making the days much richer.Mosquito and tick bite scars still remind me of the days crawling under thorn bushes and through alien plants.

South Africa wildlife ranchers and all hunters face a dilemma with hunting and conservation ethics.†† The economics of producersí profits and consumersí time are often promoting multiple species hunts on small properties with less than sporting methods.Perhaps we should have different classifications for shooters of game than for hunters of game.

Some hunters do not book with Mark because of his fair chase rules.Other hunters keep coming back because the rules promote sportsmanship and outdoor skills.They like what they experience.

Mark is living his dream and must take care not to nurture a nightmare.Perhaps he can afford lower profits to maximize a conservation ideal, but that too has its limitations.He has interest payments, and there are costs to understanding and managing productively of landscapes, balancing animal numbers with the carrying capacity, live capture costs, facility construction and maintenance, compensation to workers on the property, and alien plant control.Encouraging and using wildlife is possible when revenues exceed costs.If costs get too high then more profitable alternatives must be found.Business is business.

Perhaps the ultimate question is whether landscapes are better off now with the trend to buy properties formerly used for livestock and converting them to wildlife operations.I vote on the side of wildlife management within reasonable parameters of wildness.Some degree of artificial wildlife management is better than no wildlife.

Mark is using his property well, trying to do better and surviving conservatively. He represents what conservation means in human-altered landscapes: wise use.Mark makes the best of what he has within a philosophy of good land, wildlife and hunting ethics.I left his property and Africa with good feelings.I bet that his patients have the same feelings once leaving his office.