EXPLORERS OF THE WORLD
Colin Trapnell (1907 – 2004)
Colin Trapnell, who died on February 9 2004 at the age of 96, was one of the last of a breed of British scientific explorers who conducted work of startling geographic proportions in an era when technology was yet to provide little help. Widely regarded as one of the earliest practitioners of ecology in the African continent, and one of the fathers of a generation of subsequent conservation ecologists, he continued his passion for conservation into retirement, publishing his final work at the age of 90 and overseeing the publication of a three-volume work on his African travels well into his nineties.
Colin Graham Trapnell was born on April 10, 1907. He was the older son of John Graham Trapnell K.C., Recorder of Plymouth and Judge Advocate of the Fleet. He was educated at Sedbergh and
Trinity College, where he read Classical Greats. A keen botanist from his schooldays his real interests lay in science, and while at Oxford Oxford he joined with Max Nicholson (late of the Nature Conservancy) in founding the Oxford University Exploration Club in 1927, and in organizing its first expedition, to Greenland in 1928. His Greenland work was published in 1933.
His interest in natural history led Trapnell (rather than following his father into law) to apply for a post as ecologist with the Colonial Office. He later described how on his way to the interview he saw on a W.H. Smith’s bookstall one of the then popular science publications “Ecology”, which he bought. “I have never read before or since” he later said “with greater concentration”. In 1931 he was posted to Northern Rhodesia, now
, as Government Ecologist, the second of two such posts created in the Colonial Service. Zambia
On board ship returning to assignment in Northern Rhodesia Trapnell met and fell in love with Jeanne Mary Bourdas who was travelling with her mother. They were married soon after in
London, following which Jeanne Trapnell accompanied her new husband back to Northern Rhodesia where in her first year of marriage they lived in no less than six separate houses.
In Northern Rhodesia Trapnell was posted to Mazabuka, and he often received letters addressed to “the geologist” or “the evangelist”, ecologist being an unknown word there. Trapnell’s brief was both broad and ambitious; he was to reconnoiter and map the soils vegetation types and indigenous agriculture of the whole territory, a task which would take him ten years. The survey was carried out in two parts: North Western Rhodesia (1930-1936) and North Eastern Rhodesia (1937-1942). He was at various times accompanied by and assisted in this work by a number of people including Neil Clothier, Peter Greenaway (later director of the herbarium in Nairobi) and William Allen (author of the seminal work: “The African Husbandman”).
This work was largely undertaken on foot, as there were in those days few tracks usable by motor vehicles. Typically Trapnell and his colleagues would depart for up to six months, with a team of native bearers carrying essentials, which generally included medical and food supplies and a copper bath. For the majority of African natives they encountered this would be their first view of a white man, and the evening ritual in the copper bath apparently drew substantial curious crowds. On one journey, as a Trinity,
Oxford man, Trapnell and a travelling colleague who happened to have been at Balliol once organized a boat race on the Limpopo river, using local natives in canoes. Unhappily for the competition the course passed a sacred worship point, at which point both crews stopped paddling and stood in their canoes.
These surveys, the first of their kind in
Africa to cover a whole country were published after the war and have recently been republished as they are still the basic source of essential natural resources data for the country. There are two volumes and accompanying maps: “The Soils, Vegetation and Traditional Agriculture of Zambia” Volume 1 Central and Western Zambia, Volume II by C.G. Trapnell and J.N. Clothier and C.G. Trapnell respectively. This work led Professor Hugh Bunting (Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Botany, University of Reading) in a Tropical Agricultural Association Melville Memorial Lecture to describe Trapnell along with others including Geoffrey Milne, Clement Gillman and John Phillips as “Giants who walked the earth in East and Southern Africa in earlier years.” Bunting also noted elsewhere that Trapnell was perhaps the first to establish the farming system concept by systematically describing the traditional agriculture practices found in . Zambia
In 1948 Trapnell was to have been transferred as ecologist to
. He was on his way there with his wife Jeanne and their children when he was recalled by a telegram from the Colonial Office requiring him to organize experiments across Malawi to assess land for possible groundnut production. Survey plots which were duly laid out produced excellent crops in their first year. In the second year, however, several suffered devasting loss from a root fungus, thus endorsing the almost universal practice on the Zambian plateau of planting ground nuts only on new land or else on land that had previously been used for other crops. It is significant that the Overseas Food Corporation did not start groundnut schemes in Zambia Northern Rhodesia. Major schemes, which failed in Tanganyika, lacked the surveys which had been conducted in Northern Rhodesia.
Trapnell’s ecological work in Northern Rhodesia was seen by the colonial office as a rational foundation for a wide field of development, particularly of African Agriculture and in 1950 he was invited to train ecologists for the African Territories in fields which varied from large scale vegetation and soil surveys to game and tsetse and Desert Locust investigations. This work was based at the new East African Agriculture and Forestry Research Organization (EAAFRO) at Muguga in
. Meanwhile with the development of the Mau Mau in Kenya , Trapnell was enrolled in the Kenya Police Reserve for local night patrol work. The field work of the training scheme ranged from the Turkana desert region to the Kenya Congo rainforest and the highlands, according to the need of students, seven of whom were trained in the techniques of field survey and air photo interpretations. Malawi
In 1957-58 Trapnell was engaged in basic ecological studies and in 1960, in cooperation with J.E. Griffiths, he completed an important study of the rainfall-altitude ratio in relation to the natural vegetation zones of southwest
. Meanwhile the Kenya Department oif Agriculture asked him to extend information on ecological zones gathers by District Agricultural Officers by preparing an overall vegetation map. This coincided with a visit to EAAFRO of M.A. Brunt, Land Use Officer of the Directorate of Overseas surveys. Provisions were made for a full year’s secondment of Mr. Brunt who became and remained a valued colleague and great friend. The survey was to cover 40,000 square miles of Kenya Southwest Kenya with field data drawn in on the air photos which were then to be processed at the Directorate and plotted at 1:250 000. This was to prove a very major undertaking which was continued through to its conclusion several years after Trapnell’s retirement.
Following his retirement, Trapnell became actively involved in conservation and joined the small group of people engaged in founding the Somerset Trust for Nature Conservation, now the Somerset Wildlife Trust. He organized land use surveys for conservation purposes of the Mendip Hillsand the
peat moors. He was responsible for the acquisition of their first nature reserves at Catcott and Westhay, the latter since extended as a National Nature Reserve, and was the donor of the major woodland areas Great Breach and New Hill Woods.He also joined the newly formed Mendip society, which, at his instigation secured the scheduling of the Mendip Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. He was chairman of the Leigh Woods Committee of Management for the National Trust for thirteen years, and negotiated the the lease of the woods to the Nature Conservancy to form the Avon Gorge National Nature Reserve. Somerset
At the same time he was engaged at his home in
on the completion of the air photograph interpretation for the vegetation and climate maps of South West Kenya, the sheets of which were published successively by the Directorate of Overseas Survey between 1966 and 1986. The Kenya Survey work was Trapnell’s last piece of major ecological fieldwork in Bristol Africa. However, he continued to work on field data from his time in Northern Rhodesia and together with Dick Webster of Rothamstead Experimental station he has published papers on this work. Aged 90 he published a paper entitled ” Biodiversity and Conservation of the indigenous forests of the highlands”. In this he made a plea for the remaining indigenous forests to be preserved as such and not to be exploited for timber. Kenya
In 1994 Colin Trapnell established the Trapnell Fund for Environmental Field Research in Africa at
. The fund was formerly instituted in the university statutes in 1995 with the specific object of supporting research concerned with the African environment with reference to local climate variation and geomorphology, pedology, soil biology, and soil conservation. The present chairman of the Trapnell Fund is Professor Andrew Goudie - Master of St. Cross College. Most recently the Trapnell Fund has established the Trapnell Fellow in African Terrestrial Ecology at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University . The first Trapnell Fellow, Dr. Lindsey Gillson was appointed on September of 2001. Oxford University
Aged over 90 and despite the infirmities of failing eyesight and acute deafness Trapnell then collaborated with Paul Smith and the
Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to produce a three volume work entitled “an Ecological Survey of Zambia”. The publication was completed in January 2002. Of Paul Smith who worked closely with him Trapnell has said many times “I am so lucky to have found him”.
Colin Trapnell was awarded the O.B.E in 1957. His dearly loved wife Jeanne, who accompanied him with great cheerfulness through many adventures in
Africa, died in January of 1999. He is survived by his children Jennifer Trapnell of Bristol, England, Priscilla Higgins of Santa Ynez, California and Robert Trapnell of , and six grandchildren. Torun, Poland
© Martin Brunt 2004