National parks are emblematic of conservation as a venture in the mind of many white Americans and South Africans. Their protagonists perceive and present them as its purest and most altruistic expression. Yet game reserves, national parks and similar wilderness areas are systematically and sometimes intensively managed spaces subject to a wide variety of crosscutting interests. Many blacks in both countries have seen them as exclusive spaces catering to the cultural and recreational tastes of the monied and mobile middle classes. Historical analysis of these areas must begin with these recognitions. Moreover, the very idea of wilderness, as we have emphasized, is a cultural construct rather than a precise physical entity. God, according to an American aphorism, may have created the world, but only Congress can create wilderness. While ecological interrelationships have their own dynamics, the leeway given to nature is increasingly shaped by human intervention.
The areas involved are not vast. In the United States (excluding Alaska), only 1.75 per cent of the land is reserved as National Park; the South African figure is higher at about 3 per cent. In other parts of our subcontinents, such as Alaska and Botswana, where cold and heat constrained intensive settlement, a higher proportion of land has been defined as parks at about 28 and 15 per cent respectively. Considerably more land in the United States and South Africa qualifies for less stringent protection as state and provincial parks, wildlife reserves/ refuges and forests. In the former, Wilderness Areas (both within and outside of parks) represent the most demanding category of federal land management. Parks are ‘special’ places but it should be remembered that a host of regulations govern human exploitation of vulnerable plant and animal species beyond their boundaries too.