Conservation Heroes and a Legacy Squandered

by Hannes Wessels

Leafing through the pages of Mike Bromwich’s detailed history covering the lives of the men and women who staffed the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, first in Rhodesia, then through the transition to Zimbabwe I am filled with sadness, pride and anger. Sadness for all the sacrifices, pride in that they were my countrymen and some were my friends, and anger because so much of what they worked for has been squandered in the tumult surrounding the ‘Liberation’ of Africa.

The list of casualties and acts of courage is long and telling.

  • 1959 Ranger Dannie Bredenkamp mauled by lion near Chirundu on the Zambezi.
  • April 1965 Warden Rupert Fothergill who masterminded and managed Operation Noah (the rescue of animals imperilled by the rising waters of the Zambezi following the building of Kariba Dam), gored by black rhino near Binga.
  • Ranger Willem de Beer mauled by lioness which was killing cattle in the then Tsholtsho Tribal Trust Land.
  • January 1968 Game Scout Tivani severely wounded with five axe-wounds to the head by poachers.
  • November 1968 Research Officer Tony Ferrar injured by elephant at Mabalauta.
  • September 1970 Ranger Paul Coetzee severely wounded by rhino in the Debungwe area.
  • April 1972 Warden Len Harvey is killed by a lioness in Wankie National Park. Despite being mauled by the same animal Ranger Willem de Beer tackled the lion and killed it while it was attacking a third person.
  • May 1972 Ranger Clem Coetzee returns to the blazing wreckage of a helicopter and fights through the fire to rescue the pilot trapped in his seat by his harness.
  • May 1973 Rangers John Hatton and Peter Mitchell rescue a wounded tourist in the Victoria Falls gorge after being shot by Zambian soldiers. Two girls accompanying him were killed.
  • October 1973 Ranger Robin Hughes killed in action against terrorists.
  • January 1974 Ranger Richard Aylward loses a leg in a landmine blast in the Zambezi Valley.
  • April 1975 Ranger Willem de Beer rescues a Scout at night from Shashi River floodwaters.
  • June 1975 Rangers Mike Jones and Dave Winhall detonate an anti-personnel mine. Their lives are saved by Sergeant Keni.
  • December 1975 Ranger Oliver Coltman gored by wounded buffalo.
  • Rangers Bromwich, Tomlinson, Scammell, Mackie and Hull all decorated for actions and conduct in the course of operations against terrorists.
  • Game Scouts Simuyamba and Angus killed by terrorists.
  • February 1976 Ranger Richard Smith killed in action against terrorists.
  • November 1976 Ranger Nick Gregory killed in action against terrorists.
  • Game Scouts Jolamu, Ndabezinhele and Marume killed by terrorists.
  • Tracker Jere mauled by lion in Chirisa Safari Area.
  • March 1977 Ranger Gerry Bell, Scouts Mafairos, Marafu and Zovoro killed in action against terrorists.
  • January 1978 Ranger Kerry Fynn killed in action.
  • January 1978 Ranger Russell Williams killed in action.
  • May 1979 the Parks post in Mana pools subjected to one of the heaviest attacks of the war. Outnumbered and outgunned the defenders prevailed.
  • October 1979 Ranger Tim Wellington killed by elephant.
  • May 1980 Ranger Roger Evans and Scout Kasesse killed in action against poachers.
  • June 1982 Ranger Derek Adams mauled by lion near Gokwe.

Those are just some of the more momentous events but behind that lies a much bigger story which is about dedication to a cause by selfless people who loved wild animals and wild places. These men were poorly paid and operated on shoe-string budgets which forced them to improvise and invent to get the tasks allocated them done. Unusual initiative came into play, toughness and an indomitable determination was part of the ethos. Thanks to them at the end of a horrible war the wildlife estate emerged, not only intact but in some cases enhanced. Facilities had been destroyed in attacks but the country’s game was thriving and the new government of Robert Mugabe inherited a wildlife windfall. Unfortunately it meant little to him and his fellow ‘liberators’ and soon this remarkable breed of men, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone to continue their work, would be under siege

The first victim would be Ranger John Ralston murdered by North Korean trained 5th Brigade troops while on station in Chirisa. Ranger Steve Attwell, Tsetse Officer Tom Smith and his wife arrested and were it not for the intervention of the police, they may well have been murdered.

Next to feel the wrath of the new rulers was Willem de Beer. Unbeknown to him a patrol had arrived at his Marongora Station having recovered a discarded hand grenade which was then placed in the gun safe. Police and Intelligence personnel arrived, accused Willem of illegal possession of arms of war and arrested him. A hero from another time he was handcuffed like a common criminal, thrown into the back of a truck and publicly humiliated. Five days later, having been incarcerated in a tiny cell in filth conditions he was finally allowed a visit only to be told he was not to be released. A big, proud man, dirty and dishevelled was almost broken. Eventually, following ministerial intervention, he was released but the writing was on the wall. Another attempt to frame a European member of staff quickly followed. Clearly the purge on whites was in full swing.

When ‘Blondie’ Leatham, at the time in the frontline in the campaign against rhino poachers in the Chewore, opened fire on absconding Zambians, he was jailed and charged with murder. The charges were later dropped.

A burglary of the ivory store in Kariba followed and Ranger Graham Hall was accused of complicity but not a shred of evidence was ever produced. From this time on Hall was subjected to harsh and continual investigative abuse.

Also on trumped up charges Rangers Barney O’Hara and Peter Fick along with Tourist Officer Jane Watson were jailed under harsh conditions but never charged. Next was Clem Coetzee who was accused of holding ivory illegally.

Later, a Scout was brutally beaten by investigators when he refused to implicate his white warden. Ranger Alistair Hull was harshly interrogated by police in Victoria Falls who accused him of holding ivory illegally. Harassment of whites became the norm and even the most committed realised they would have to pack up and leave the work they loved. In not a single case, did a charge against the European members of staff yield a conviction. In 1988, Clem Coetzee was told he would be ‘investigated’ until he left and so he finally did.

Along with him really went the end of an era. Clearly the people in power wanted nothing less than total control and liberty to do as they pleased with the wildlife that had been protected and nurtured by the men they would now hound out of office.

Soon the Department was a shambles, corruption spread and protection of the wildlife estate collapsed. It has never recovered but thanks largely to the intervention of the private sector some order has returned. Some, not all of this support had been provided by hunting companies and as is so often the case the staff in the field have responded enthusiastically when given support but once again one is left asking where are the NGO’s and other supposedly charitable organisations are when they are needed.

In 2010 the World Wildlife Fund had an annual income of £457 million making it one of the richest NGO’s in the world and well positioned to tackle the problems besetting African wildlife but alas that is not so.

In just one shindig, masquerading as a conference this useless entity probably expends more money than the budget for the entire Department of National Parks in an era when the men on the ground did little talking and lot of walking.

 

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Highly respected, Writer, Blogger, Wildlife Conservationist, Hunter and Father.......