by Hannes Wessels
Growing up on the Zambezi near the Victoria Falls, in the early 50’s Norman Monks developed a passion for wildlife and wild places at an early age. Determined to join the Rhodesian Department of National Parks on leaving school, his hopes were dashed when he was turned down. Turning to a possible career in medicine he worked as an orderly at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town and watched the great Chris Barnard and his brother Marius in surgical action at this time. Returning to Rhodesia he completed a three-year Science Diploma at the Blair Research Laboratory in Salisbury, but the hankering for a post in the Wildlife Department remained and late 1977, he pitched a tent at the Municipal Campsite outside Salisbury while awaiting another chance to apply. This time he prevailed, was accepted and posted to Wankie (now Hwange) National Park, “… in my sparkling new uniform, socks, four-fingers below the knee, beret at the right angle… all eyes were on this new apparition when I arrived… a few weeks later I was on my first elephant cull.”
A rude introduction followed: “In Chizarira, where we were culling, I was sleeping in the open away from the rest of the guys who were in tents, when the hot and putrid breath of a lioness breathing on my head woke me up. I had a tin trunk beside my bed roll and banged this making a loud noise. The lioness moved back some meters but did not go anywhere. I got out of my sleeping bag facing the lion, picked up my FN automatic weapon and backed away slowly and made it to the tent of our pilot where I spent the night. Needless to say, the following night I joined the happy campers in a tent.”
Thus began a career that would include postings to remote stations all over the country including four years as Area Manager (Warden) in Mana Pools National where he studied the diminishing lion population. Here, there was more excitement to be had. “Walking from the office to my house along the Zambezi, I was attacked by a buffalo bull. There were no trees and as it came for me, I got on the ground on my back so that it could not hook a horn into me. It tried to but I rolled each time. Eventually it straddled me and with its boss tried flattening me into the ground. A couple of my ribs were broken but it eventually ran off and I was able to get home where my wife, a medical doctor, was able to check me out. The park staff, when they heard about it wanted to shoot the buffalo and asked if I would recognize it. I said yes, but only if I was looking up at it from the ground!”
While making light of it, Norman has worked through the Bushwar while based in remote places and endured terrible political turbulence that saw whites purged, sometimes ruthlessly, from all positions in the country’s civil service. Dedicated, and doggedly determined to do his duty as a conservationist he weathered the storms and remained at his post until late 2014 when he was the last white man standing. During that time, he obtained an MSC and a PHD making him one of Africa’s most knowledgeable wildlife ecologists.
Now, as the Director Conservation of the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) Norman is back in Chizarira, a wildlife wilderness he loves, where he is part of a private-sector initiative aimed at management, research and protection. “Unfortunately, the Park has been through a bad time, but we have some good people back on the ground and we have backing from the chiefs and the local community for our efforts. Thanks to technology we can minimize the threat to cattle from marauding lion in the surrounding Communal Areas and this is a big step forward in securing their support. We now estimate over 3,000 buffalo, under a 1,000 elephant and healthy impala, waterbuck and zebra populations. Regrettably, the black rhino are all gone.”
While also trying to teach new ecologists what he has learned over the years, Norman’s life-long love affair with lions continues and his new project is not without controversy. Aimed at perfecting a process of taking the progeny of captive lions from Antelope Park in the Midlands and reintroducing them to the wild some critics see this as commercial opportunism and a waste of resources.
Norman denies this. “The young lions we are working with, have had no contact with humans at all. We are learning all the time, but we see this initiative, if successful, as a groundbreaking advance in the conservation field. The wild lion population of Africa has been decimated but the habitat remains and if this works it can be transposed all over the continent to boost numbers. We have two in the field now and we are hopeful. All I say is how will we ever know unless we try. In some areas lion populations are diminishing because they are too isolated as a result of human encroachment and new genetic inflows are required. If this works, we can help solve this problem. With collars and GPS tracking it has been a most interesting time. Recently, we monitored three lions on their 300 km journey from us to Hwange National Park.”
Like many of the realists with extensive practical experience in the field, Norman is gloomy. “I fear we are living in a ‘post-truth culture’ where facts, no matter how compelling, are ignored by people in powerful positions. At a recent CITES meeting I attended I was very disappointed by the inability of delegates from some of the world’s more influential countries, to face up to the realities of managing and protecting wildlife in Africa. Their primary concern is accepting the conventional wisdom which is invariably wrong. A case in point is the elephant over-population in western Zimbabwe. I am convinced the recent deaths are due to dietary issues brought about because of environmental damage caused by too many elephants. Numbers must be reduced to avoid a catastrophe and the only way to achieve that is to cull but nobody wants to hear that, so they make up all sorts of other reasons for the die-off. Until this mindset changes, we are heading for big trouble.”