The Last Protectors; the history of The National Parks Department

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by Hannes Wessels

As the decimation of wildlife throughout Africa gathers pace it seems certain that, barring an intervention of miraculous proportions there will soon be little left to fret about. Wars, internecine strife, unbridled corruption throughout the continental public sector, exploding populations and insatiable demand for meat, ivory and rhino horn fueled by a growing Chinese presence all add up to a deadly matrix that looks irreversible.

It need not be this way and there are some measures that could be taken to at least stem the destructive tide but the answers do not lie in passing resolutions at the UN, or in countless conference halls around the world where ‘experts’ gather to agree on little more that they can actually accomplish other than when and where to gather for the next talk-fest. Anyone who watches the wildlife crisis closely enough will be well aware the conservation challenge has been met by a mountain of laws, regulations and moratoriums so it might be fair to say there has been some well-intentioned activity at the political/bureaucratic the end result of this has been colossal failure to achieve any of the intended goals.

This is because, quite simply, there are not enough ‘good men’ on the ground to give teeth to the verbiage. And to understand the massive divide between intention and action it is necessary to read Mike Bromwich’s book on the history of the National Parks Services of what was then the Rhodesias and Nyasaland  during Federal days and then the developments that followed after the dissolution of Federation in what became known as Rhodesia then Zimbabwe.

The book contains a large collection of photos and is full of fascinating, entertaining and at times hilarious anecdotal material from the men and women who served in this remarkable department. But the reading also brings sadness because it is a vivid reminder of what once was in stark contrast with what is now and the demise of this breed of civil servant has proved concurrent with the demise of the wildlife and the precious resource they dedicated so much to protect.

The reader is taken right to the conception of conservation in these colonies through the foresight and generosity of spirit of the original ‘white colonialist capitalist pig’ Cecil John Rhodes who donated his properties in Southern Rhodesia to the state as ‘public parks’. This was visionary thinking bearing in mind Yellowstone in the United States, the world’s first national park, only became a reality thirty years earlier. This precedent was then followed by Major W.J. Boggie, who, as a member of the colony’s first Legislative Assembly introduced a motion calling for the establishment of game reserves to control hunting pressure on wildlife. And so the stage was set for the establishment of mechanisms that would regulate and control the consumptive use of wildlife for future generations and bring into being one of the finest conservation organisations in history.

Big names to emerge include ted Davidson the ‘father’ of Wankie who carved a great national park out of barren wilderness containing no perennial rivers and very seasonal game populations. Rupert Fothergill is another towering figure famous for leading the operation (Operation Noah) that saved thousands of animals from the rising waters of what is now known as Kariba Dam. But there are many others who played big roles in this story who get the recognition they richly deserve.

But for those who want to learn in addition to being entertained this book contains important lessons. What the reader will note is these men were few in numbers, their pay was poor and their resources paltry. They did not fly around the world to conferences, they did not have any state of the art technology and they did not have any international support such as CITES or INTERPOL (because the country for much of this history was an international pariah) and yet they performed their tasks beyond all reasonable expectations and wildlife in the country thrived.

The reason was the players were dedicated, tough, talented, innovative and brave. And of critical importance, they were leaders who motivated their magnificent black scouts and associates to rise to the sometimes unimaginable challenges that confronted them and win through.

When war came to them they filled sandbags, rearmed, turned their isolated camps into forts and continued to do their duty as best they could. Some died in the process but they would not be deterred. When the guns went silent and peace returned a thriving population of over 2,000 black rhino populated the Zambezi Valley.

While the world cheered the ‘liberation’ of another formerly oppressed country these men were weeded out and replaced. Some like Clem Coetzee were charged with crimes they had not committed to encourage their departure but soon the new political masters had had their way and these men were banished from the wilds where they were so sorely needed. Today there are no black rhino in the Zambezi Valley and the tragedy continues to unfold. Latest news suggests Chinese-sponsored poaching gangs are busy in Hwange and reports of illegal hunting throughout the region are rife.

Anyone serious about wanting to know what can be done if there is the will must read this book. Hats off to Mike Bromwich for his efforts in making sure there is a record that will ensure these great people and their achievements are not forgotten.

I see the book is dedicated to God. One can only hope and pray God responds decisively and some sort of divine intervention is visited upon the benighted continent to save the little that is left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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