"For five hours he had been swimming, and he was a long way from any land now. And he became frightened. The aching tiredness brought fear, for it was becoming almost impossible to keep his head up and the tip of his trunk clear of the water. The tip had taken on a pale, almost bluish pallor. And the old bull began to flounder, the confusion and fear amalgamated into panic. His tusks were beginning to pull him down.
That was how the game rangers found him, there in the spreading waters of this new man-made lake in the Zambezi Valley." - K. Meadows (1996) : Rupert Fothergill; Bridging a Conservation Era pg. 96
When I was a child, had I known who he was and what he had done, Rupert Fothergill would have been one of my greatest heroes. For a boy weaned on Marlin Perkins and Jacques Cousteau, the shy senior game ranger from Rhodesia would have captured my heart for leading the effort to save African wildlife from drowning in the waters of rising Lake Kariba over four grueling years against impossible odds. As it is, the world paid brief attention to the "Animal Dunkirk" in 1959, then turned its fickle gaze elsewhere while the understaffed and underfunded effort went on until the Lake basin finally filled in 1963. Few outside of southern African conservation circles know the name Fothergill today, or remember the extraordinary effort he and a few others made and the hardships they endured to rescue nearly 6,000 animals from the flood. With the exception of Keith Meadows excellent biography published in Zimbabwe in 1996, there is little to remind us of Fothergill and his conservation legacy. There is not, astoundingly, even a Wikipedia entry for Fothergill, nor yet the briefest of stubs for the wildlife rescue effort he led dubbed Operation Noah: a deficiency I shall try to rectify here.
I first learned about Fothergill when I happened upon Meadows' book in the gift shop of the monumental Elephant Hills Inter-Continental Hotel in Victoria Falls. Later in a bit of great serendipity I stumbled upon a well-preserved copy of Life Magazine from June 29, 1959 featuring photographs of Fothergill's wildlife rescue effort. Rupert Bellamy Fothergill was born in the Transvaal goldfields and moved with his family to Southern Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) in 1922 when he was 10. He and his two younger brothers served during World War II in the South African Division and saw heavy fighting during four of their five years of service. He later had an engineering business in Umtali (Mutare) but he spent as much time as possible in the bush, prospecting like his miner father before him, tracking game, or just sleeping beneath the stars with the roaring of lions for company. He was a fearless, restless spirit, and in 1955 at the age of 43 he saw an advertisement for a position with the fledgling Game Department of Southern Rhodesia and applied for the job.
It is remarkable to think that a colony with as much wildlife resources as Southern Rhodesia should have been without a wildlife agency until 1952, but then these were different times and in Africa conservation priorities took a back seat to the drive to modernization and colonial resource exploitation. The Game Department was housed in the Department of Mines, lands and Surveys and when Fothergill joined the staff there were only four employees to cover the entire self governing colony. As Meadows writes in the introduction to his Fothergill biography;
"Rupert Fothergill was an outstanding example of a breed of men who just got on with doing an honest constructive job, accepting as out of their control the maneuvering and manipulating of power hungry politicians that have plagued mankind for centuries. He was unfettered by academic superiors from the seat of higher learning. He had many unpleasant tasks to carry out, such as the shooting of wounded and trouble making elephants, lions and buffalos. Someone had to do these tasks...Many of the problems Rupert had to solve were caused by the policies of big companies 'developing' the country. There was a strange lack of general understanding of wildlife, and its rightful place in a community."
Despite the challenges of his first years with the Game Department, nothing in his or anyone else's experience could have prepared him for the wildlife catastrophe brought on by the great hydro-electric scheme to dam Zambezi gorge in 1959, flooding the Gwebe valley and displacing untold numbers of wildlife as well as requiring the forcible relocation of the indigenous Batonga people. The Batonga - 50,000 strong - were dispossessed and resettled on far inferior lands in the name of progress. The wildlife of Northern and Southern Rhodesia in the wake of the flood were largely forgotten.
Damming the Zambezi to form Lake Kariba was a vast engineering undertaking. The effort was spearheaded by the colonial federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (modern Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi). The sheer scale of the thing was breathtaking.
"Building the dam wall began in the late 1950s. Well over a million cubic metres of concrete was poured into the 36.6 metre high wall with a thickness of over twenty four metres to sustain the pressure of nearly ten million litres of water passing through the spillway each second."
Lake Kariba would flood the Gwebe Valley and the Zambezi upstream for 174 miles.
The dam claimed the lives of 87 workers during construction, including 18 who fell into the concrete and 4 who are still sealed within the arched wall. A coffer dam burst during construction in 1957 under pressure from torrential rains, thought by some to be the wrath of the river god Nyaminyami who dwelt in a whirlpool deep in the Zambezi gorge. Despite these setbacks, the dam wall was plugged in 1958 and the river started to back up into the valley.
Wildlife rescue efforts happened almost as an afterthought and in the beginning were an ad hoc affair. Fothergill and two colleagues from the Southern Rhodesia Game Department were given the assignment to "take such measures as they thought necessary to save animals from the rising water." They had little besides a couple of commandeered boats, some rudimentary equipment, and their own ingenuity and the skills of their small team of Game Department employees and volunteers to meet this unprecedented challenge. On the Northern Rhodesian side, efforts took longer to get underway, but eventually a similar approach took shape under ranger Tad Edelman and struggled to save animals from the flood.
Operation Noah is truly the stuff of legend. Dead barbel and tiger fish were found floating in the rising lake, bloated to bursting from gorging themselves on the swarms of insects driven from the saturated ground. Birds lost successive broods as the waters forced them to rebuild their nests in higher branches. The drowned trees were festooned with snakes, monkeys and leopards. Mats of floating vegetation seethed with scorpions. Mountains became peninsulas, and hilltops ever-shrinking islands crowded with game. The larger animals found swimming in the lake were herded toward shore, or secured to the sides of boats with ropes if they showed signs of distress. This latter technique was used with the old bull elephant mentioned at the beginning of this post:
"At first the old bull fought, smelling the smell of man, desperate against this new enemy as well as the water. But he was exhausted and his struggles diminished. The rangers improved their initial rope supports around the huge head, maneuvering their launch so that the elephant was up beside the bow, tusks pointing ahead, away. The trunk was held aloft so he could breathe. And slowly, very slowly so as not to create too much of a bow wave, they guided the elephant back across the flooded country to dry land."
That first year, they saved 1,700 animals, from birds and reptiles to large mammals. They also recorded the loss of 529 animals, drowned or succumbing to shock or shot because there was no way to save them. The media caught wind of the effort and for a few months there were a series of reporters, photographers on hand and some articles published about Rupert's team and the heroic work they had undertaken. Time Magazine described some of the techniques of Fothergill's "3 white game wardens and eight native trackers":
"To capture the deadly black mamba, the wardens use a fishing rod adapted to pull a noose around the snake's neck; the snake is then gingerly deposited in a pillowcase. Dassies (shrill-voiced, rabbity creatures, distantly related to the elephant, and porcupines are deliberately driven into the water since, despite their small size, dassies bite when cornered and porcupines have quills. Even in the water, it takes three men to outwit a porcupine."
Time admired the tenacity and dedication of small band of rescuers, but took the colonial authorities to task for their negligence and disregard for the consequences of the dam for wildlife in the flooded region that created the crisis in the first place.
"The government of Southern Rhodesia is being censured for having done too little too late to save the Kariba animals. But the government of Northern Rhodesia, across the lake, has done even less. It has sent a single game warden to the scene, and his duties are to kill two elephants each week to provide meat for the Batonga tribesmen evacuated from the lake site. The Northern Rhodesia Game Preservation and Hunting Association last week appealed to its members to devote their holidays to rescue work. It is unlikely that either the holidaying hunters from Northern Rhodesia or the exhausted eleven-man team from Southern Rhodesia can save more than a tiny fraction of the valley wildlife."
Necessity became the mother of invention in Operation Noah. Nylon stockings were knotted together to make game nets. Fothergill pioneered the use of tranquilizer darts to subdue big game such as buffalo and rhino, field testing doses on animals trapped on some of the new islands in the lake and scrounging materials from the dam construction site to make a raft to tow the animals to shore. 43 rhino were rescued during the nearly five-year effort, many through these techniques.
As the seasons progressed and the waters rose, the press lost interest in the story but Fothergill and his colleagues continued to make forays into the lake to save animals on islands where resources had been consumed and the waters were steadily encroaching. One of these in the Bumi Complex - Starvation Island - represented the final and in some ways most difficult task of Operation Noah. Encompassing nearly 5,000 acres it was initially too big for a game drive and yet crowded within its thickets were 200 buffalos, 11 rhinos, 4 elephants and 11 lions as well as countless other species. The elephants and lions were chased off into the water and swam to shore, but the rhinos and the rest needed to be subdued and removed. 200 animals were eventually relocated - many others perished. Meadows describes in his book the risks that the rangers took to capture the starving animals:
"A few buffalos had been removed before the starvation crisis reached its peak. Rupert's team...removed five adults. Then they ran out of drugs for the darting equipment and there was no response from Salisbury as to when new supplies would be arriving. So Rupert went after the buffalos with the Land Rover. In the gloom of the dust pall, amidst the snorting, lumbering, desperate animals, they looked for targets. As the younger animals slowed and dropped behind, the men would race from the vehicle and, bare handed, through force of numbers and in desperation at the plight of the game, wrestle the buffalo to the ground. Then the creature would be trussed up and carried to the raft. More often than not the bellows of the calves would bring angry mothers charging back and a free-for-all would ensue."
In the end they were battered and bruised but no one had died and more than 6,000 animals had been rescued during the years of Operation Noah - nearly 5,000 by Fothergill's team - including 1866 impala, 585 warthog, 23 elephant and 6 scaly ant-eaters. Fothergill and his colleagues went on to help establish the Southern Rhodesia Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management as one of the best conservation agencies. Throughout the Kariba crisis, a vast store of knowledge was amassed about wildlife habits -particularly the response of various species to flood and their swimming capabilities - and many ground-breaking capture techniques developed through trial and error. Mostly, it was grit and determination by a band of white and black Africans - men who were unafraid to take the bull by the horns and do what had to be done - that overcame what might have been a Quixotic undertaking doomed to failure into and salvaged something good out of all the destruction.
Rupert Fothergill died at age 62 in 1975, and today an island in Lake Kariba bears his name. I have visited the Lake and sailed on its waters, and found its shores a vast wildlife refuge. The skeletons of trees still poked from the dark waters, and fish eagles nested in their bleached branches. It is a world far different from when the Zambezi ran through the Gwebe Valley and Nyaminyami dwelt in his whirlpool in the gorge, but because of Rupert Fothergill and others like him, something of that wilderness spirit remains even in this man-made lake. It is good to remember them and what they accomplished against the odds.