Melissa Shales
United Kingdom GB
Feb 4, 2014 February 4, 2014

Melissa is an award winning travel writer for Fodors, Frommers and Insight, including guides to Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Categories: African Wildlife, Conservation & Sustainability, Safari History

Operation Noah - a Huge Wildlife Rescue Mission

The year was 1958, in the town of Kariba along the Zambezi Valley, when Operation Noah was born. The last concrete was being poured into the great arc that was damming the Zambezi River. It was a vast curved wall, standing 128 m (420 ft) tall and 579 m (1,900 ft) long. It had taken four years to build at a cost of US$135,000,000.

baTonga

According to the local baTonga people, the Zambezi river god (Nyaminyami) had withdrawn from the world of men in anger and despair. The dam across the Kariba Gorge had separated him from his wife. He showed his wrath during the building, visiting floods and death on the workers. But nothing had stopped the machines. And so he waited for the moment when he could destroy the dam and be reunited with his love.

As for the baTonga, 57,000 people were being forcibly resettled as the waters of the mighty Zambezi river slowly backed up against the wall. This createed the world’s largest artificial lake. It measured a staggering 223 kms (140 miles) long, up to 40 kms (20 miles) wide and covered an area of 5,580 sq kms (2,150 sq miles). The people might have been safe but it was fast becoming clear that many thousands of animals were about to perish. They sought refuge on islands that were shrinking and sinking under the rising waters. And so Operation Noah was born.

Fothergill

Then, as now, the Zambezi Valley which forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe (then Northern/Southern Rhodesia) was one of the richest wildlife sanctuaries on the planet. Rhodesia’s Chief Game Ranger was Rupert Fothergill. In 1958, he was tasked with rescuing the Kariba wildlife. Over the course of the next five years, until 1964, he (plus his team and volunteers) worked under the most rigorous conditions. They lived in basic bush camps, often travelling in rowing boats. They used equipment no more sophisticated than ropes, sacks, nets (made of old nylon stockings), boxes and dart guns.

The men rescued and relocated over 5000 animals, from zebra and warthogs to snakes, rhino and elephant, lion and leopard. Most were taken to the Matusadona National Park. Tad Edelman headed up a second Northern Rhodesian team which saved another 1,000. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before and it was an astonishing feat.

Rupert Fothergill and Peter Jones

Herding zebra

Tony Bruce was a volunteer on Operation Noah. He vividly recalls the difficulty of capturing the terrified animals. “We could hear the game crashing towards us, for most of the islands were fairly small. This was the time of greatest tension, for anything could be coming at us. It usually turned out our catch was impala, bushbuck, kudu, warthog and a variety of smaller antelopes. The method of capture was straightforward: The nets had been camouflaged and the animals saw them too late to stop and ploughed straight in. This was our cue to leap out from the hiding places and pull the nets down over the animals if the nets had not already fallen. Holding the animal down under the net, a game guard quickly wrapped a nylon-stocking rope around the front and back legs before we untangled ourselves and the animal from the net. Once tied, the animals were hurried to the boats and loaded until the gunwales were almost awash. The reason for speed was to minimise shock -- the longer the animal was tied, the greater the risk of death.

The loaded boats set off for the mainland and, on arrival, stood off about 50 feet from the shore. Each animal was then swung over the side, the ties holding their legs immobile pulled loose, and the animal dropped into the water. As they'd seen the shore they usually swam strongly into the shallows and raced off into the surrounding bush. I say "usually", for we had the odd beast that was determined to go in the opposite direction and we had to turn the boats and herd them like cattle in the right direction. On one occasion a bloody-minded zebra, having been shepherded swimming with some bigger animals across, kept trying to bite chunks out of the boat. The zebra ended up having a noose put around its neck and towed into deeper water until exhausted, and then brought back to the shallows where it stumbled ashore.”

Home movies

Fothergill also found time to document the rescue on 16mm. Some of it was cut together by the Rhodesian government. I remember watching it at the movies as a little girl. But most of it never saw the light of day.

“I never met my maternal grandfather,” recalled his granddaughter Kirsten.  “He died ten years before I was born. But I grew up watching him chase rhinos, nurse baby kudu, hold eight-foot pythons and coax porcupines out of their burrows. For almost half a century, his footage of charging rhinos, drowning monkeys, netted antelope and caged lions sat in boxes in our family home.  Mum and Dad used to dig out the four half-hour episodes edited by the Rhodesian government and project them at our childhood birthday parties, or invite the neighbors over for screenings in the garage on rainy Sunday afternoons.  But the bulk of the raw footage has not been seen for almost fifty years.”

Thanks to Kirsten, some of it is now on YouTube (see Operation Noah on Memories of Rhodesia, Operation Noah part 1 and  Operation Noah part 2) and there are a couple of books on the subject, a biography, Rupert Fothergill; Bridging a Conservation Era, by Keith Meadows  (1996) and a book about Operation Noah, Animal Dunkirk, by Eric Robbins, but both are hard to find. However, this heroic first, that led the way for translocation programmes across the globe, should be far more celebrated than it has been.

Safari history

The history of Africa – its people, culture, landscape and wildlife – is full of wonderful and interesting tales like this one. To read more stories, and specifically those on wildlife conservation, go to the SafariBookings blog site.