Sunset over Rufiji River in Selous Game Reserve
Photo: Rainer Voegeli
Though its remote location in southern Tanzania means few westerners have a chance to visit, the Selous Game Reserve is not only the largest protected area in Tanzania, it’s the largest on the entire continent of Africa!
The massive size of the reserve—it spans nearly 50,000 square kilometers—means that it contains a huge variety of both ecosystems and wildlife. Riverine forests, swamplands, rocky hills, grasslands and lowland rainforests contain stable populations of dozens of species, including some extremely endangered animals, like the black rhinoceros.
But how did it get the name “Selous?” Is that Swahili for something? A word for the region in the language of a tribe that has lived there for centuries? Just something that sounded nice?
No, it’s the name of one of Africa’s most famous explorers, Frederick Selous. A Victorian who helped chart the region, expand the world’s zoological knowledge, and champion conservation, his legacy in East Africa continues to this day.
Born in 1851, Selous was inspired as a child by stories of the adventures of David Livingstone and his companions. Even at 10 years old, he knew what he wanted to be; caught once sleeping on the floor of his boarding school dormitory, with no cover but a thin nightshirt, Selous explained himself: “Well, you see, one day I am going to be a hunter in Africa and I am just hardening myself to sleep on the ground.”
At the age of 19 he set off for South Africa, where he began his years-long explorations of the continent. An affable man, Selous quickly ingratiated himself with tribal leaders wherever he traveled, regularly receiving permission to hunt on their lands.
And much of what he did in Africa was hunt; explorers and naturalists of the time were almost exclusively big game hunters, and Selous was no exception. But there was an upside; Selous was able to donate over 500 mammal specimens to the Natural History Museum of London, including examples of several previously unknown species. He also donated thousands of plant specimens to the museum from his travels on three continents.
Athletic and generally abstemious, he embodied the Victorian ideal of manhood, excelling at sports, riding, and warfare. His almost superhuman romantic qualities, in fact, led to many portrayals in literature (not to mention thousands of eager readers for his many books about his journeys).
Even decades after his death (in 1917) Selous occasionally pops up; Selous appeared twice in the 1990s TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, as well as in a TV mini-series about his real-life friend and compatriot Cecil Rhodes (titled Rhodes).
After Selous’s death in battle (though he was 66 at the time, he fought the Germans in the colonial skirmishes of World War I), his friend Theodore Roosevelt, former president of the United States, said:
He led a singularly adventurous and fascinating life, with just the right alternations between the wilderness and civilization. He helped spread the borders of his people’s land. He added much to the sum of human knowledge and interest. He closed his life exactly as such a life ought to be closed, by dying in battle for his country while rendering her valiant and effective service. Who could wish a better life or a better death, or desire to leave a more honourable heritage to his family and his nation?
Serving as the namesake for Tanzania’s largest and most diverse nature preserve seems a fitting memorial to such a life, one lived in—and for—the wild.