Kruger Park's First Warden

An Unlikely Heir

James Stevenson-Hamilton, or JSH, is both an iconic and iconoclastic figure in the history of the Kruger National Park. He was an altogether remarkable man and it is due in no small part to his redoubtable strength and passion that we have the financially healthy and biologically wealthy Kruger Park of today. 

©Robert Hofmeyr
Impala, Kruger National Park.

But at the outset, he was certainly an unlikely saviour for an unloved game sanctuary in the wild South African Lowveld. JSH was born in 1867 to Hilda Hamilton and James Stevenson. When he was still in his teens, his uncle (on his mother’s side) died without leaving an heir and the young James inherited the Hamilton family estate, a substantial affair called Fairholm in Western Scotland.

One condition of his inheritance was that he adopt the family name ‘Hamilton’ and thus he gained a rather cumbersome surname along with his title of Laird.

Sabi Reserve a Go!

The iconic James Stevenson-Hamilton met Sir Godfrey Lagden in South Africa. Ladgen, was the newly appointed authority in charge of native affairs and game reserves in South Africa. Lagden was impressed with the forthright military officer who had shown so much initiative and independence during the Second Anglo-Boer War, and he offered James Stevenson-Hamilton the post of warden in the then re-proclaimed Sabi Game Reserve.

James Stevenson-Hamilton finally resigned from his military post and agreed to give the Sabi Reserve a go. At the time, he had no experience of wildlife, nor could he speak Afrikaans or any of the local languages, but these shortcomings didn’t seem to deter him and he looked forward to his new adventure.

A Legacy Created

©Robert Hofmeyr

It would prove to be a momentous decision, both for James Stevenson-Hamilton and for South Africa. For the first time, the restless Laird from Scotland found himself wholly responsible for a task that was both challenging and potentially important. Upon arrival in the Lowveld, James Stevenson-Hamilton quickly fell in love with the reserve.

He would devote the rest of his life to protecting and nursing his new charge, often referring to it as his ‘creation’ and his ‘Cinderella’. Despite his considerable interests back in Scotland, James Stevenson-Hamilton was officially hooked and he remained the park’s custodian, through thick and thin, for the next 44 years.

By David Fleminger