And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.—Genesis 9: 1-2.
Long ago, as the first book of the Bible reports, when the waters of the flood receded, the Lord made a covenant with Noah and put the race of man in charge of the lesser creatures of the earth. In all the years since the big flood few men have lived up to the terms of the original contract better than a small company of Africans who are at this moment trying to save the animals of one great valley in the bushland of Southern Rhodesia.
In 1958, when the 420-foot-high Kariba Dam was finished across the Zambezi River, the backwater spread rapidly over the Rhodesian wilderness. Rolling hills soon became islands. In the valley of the Zambezi, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo, waterbuck and antelope, bush pig and warthog, leopard and monkey and ant bear and snake—a zooful of ordinary and bizarre species—were marooned and doomed to starve or drown as the waters kept rising. In Noah's day, with the first threat of rain the animals got the message and boarded the ark without a fuss. The animals in today's flood do not understand, and few of them come quietly.
Along the Zambezi, each busy rescue day is filled with the grunts, snorts, squeals and roars of beasts and the shouts of men. The men chase the rhinoceros; the rhinoceros chases the men. The elephant flees and, almost cornered, turns and charges. Men and warthogs scrimmage in the dust. At the end of the hot, sweating day the men return to camp, their clothes torn and their bodies stinging from the jabs of tusks, hoofs and claws.
November 13, 1961
Relying mainly on trapping nets, small boats to ferry the animals to the mainland and their stubborn sense of duty, the rescuers have been racing against the rising waters of the Zambezi for close to three years. Thinking back on the scuffles and frustrations, 48-year-old Rupert Fothergill, the tight-lipped game ranger who is bossing the job for the Rhodesian government, recently observed: "They just told me to take the animals off. There was no guidebook. We made it up as we went along." By the hard process of trial and error, in three years Fothergill's rescue team—six white rangers and about 100 Negro helpers—has saved more than 4,000 head of game and lost only 200. Some of the animals died of fright, and a few from injury. A good part of this small loss is attributable to the stubborn reluctance of a few of the animals which were too big and truculent to be moved and too single-minded to be coaxed into saving themselves.
The water behind Kariba Dam is still 25 feet below the planned maximum, but it is already by far the largest man-made lake in the world. When the water reaches the brim of the dam about two years from now, the lake will cover 2,000 square miles and contain 168 islands. These permanent islands are of no concern to Ranger Fothergill and his band of Noahs. Their task is to clear the thousands of islands, large and small, that are continually forming and disappearing as the waters rise.
As the rescuers move from island to island, their mode of operation follows a general pattern. Fothergill and his assistants first try to force all game that can—and will—swim to strike out for the mainland under their own power. Then the rescuers tackle the biggest of the remaining animals, removing them next so that there will be fewer problems to deal with when trying to gather the smaller ones. Elephants and rhinoceroses are not only dangerous but, if not cleared out early, tear up the nets and fences set to trap antelopes and warthogs. After contending with the behemoths and trapping the fleet quadrupeds, the rescuers flush out the burrowing animals—ant bears, honey badgers and porcupines—which ordinarily would stay in their holes until the water started to pour in.
The wise lions
To their grateful surprise, Fothergill and Company discovered that they did not have to deal with lions, all of whom seemingly sensed something was wrong and left the islands at the first sign of encroaching water. The rescuers were relieved, too, to find that elephants were adept swimmers, that, in the face of hooting and hollering and some bravado on the part of the rescuers, usually headed for the water and swam a mile or more to the mainland. Buffalos swam well, too, and as a last resort left their shrinking islands of their own accord. But the rhinos did not swim and would not try, and most of them resented any kind of civil help offered by Fothergill and Company.
In the frequent skirmishes and duels with reluctant animals no man has been killed, but there have been some close ones. Ranger Frederick Stokes was jumped by a leopard and badly mauled. Ranger Frank Junor was hospitalized after being gored by a buffalo. Junor survived the goring only because the mad buffalo had a stiff foreleg and could not get its horns low enough to pick up the prostrate ranger and throw him. Fothergill himself has been flattened by a rhino, and had a 200-pound ant bear explode out of the ground under him when he sat down on a slight rise where there was no burrow in sight.
After three years the rangers and native beaters are blasé and generally laugh uproariously when one of their number is attacked by an animal. In the night, if a rhinoceros stumbles through camp snorting intemperately, no one gives the clumsy invader a thought. Each man takes the sleep he deserves, and on awakening for the next day of battle, carefully inspects his boots before putting them on, to be sure a puff adder has not crawled into one of them during the night.
For the past two months Fothergill and his rangers have been working on an island covered with mopani trees and acacia thorn, known in the logbook simply as "Island 100" because it is the 100th the rescuers have tackled in 1961. Island 100 is by far the biggest area to be cleared in the course of Operation Noah. It covers more than 15 square miles. It is too big for the rescuers to work efficiently, but they could not afford to wait for the island to shrink because the stranded animals were already running out of food.
To clear oversized Island 100, Fothergill and his crew built sturdy brush fences to divide the island into several parts, then cleared the parts one by one. In order to make use of the fences, it was necessary first of all to clear off elephants and rhinos that would tear them down.
The 19 elephants on Island 100 proved more reluctant than expected. Lines of native beaters marched across the island, rattled beer cans filled with stones, fired off cherry bombs and shouted at the tops of their lungs. They drove the elephants to the water, but the huge beasts refused to swim to the mainland, two miles distant. For days the beaters made drives. For days the elephants resisted. Finally they turned nasty and started charging their tormentors. Reluctantly, Fothergill ordered five of them shot. The elephants got the message swiftly. Next day they were gone, having swum to the mainland under cover of darkness. Fothergill was disconsolate as a surgeon who had just lost a patient on the table. "I did everything I could to get them off peacefully," he said. "But they were fouling the whole operation. Ordinarily we carry only one gun for last-minute self-defense when we expect to encounter elephant or buffalo. Otherwise we go unarmed, even after rhino. They're too scarce to kill. When we go after the rhinos we purposely don't carry a gun, otherwise in the confusion of a charge we might be tempted to use it."
The 50 buffalos on Island 100 were ignored on the theory that they would leave the island in their own time—if other animals were removed, there would be enough grazing left to sustain the buffalos until the rising waters force them to head for shore.
The nine rhinos on Island 100 had to go quickly. Rhinos are browsers, and the supply of food for them was low. So Fothergill and his crew straightway embarked on rhino rescue, the most involved and exacting of all rescue procedures.
Fothergill stalks each rhino armed only with a rifle that shoots darts of gallamine triethiodide, a paralytic drug. The dose must be calculated carefully, based on the rhino's estimated weight within 100 pounds. Too much is fatal. Too little has no effect. The shot must strike home either in the rump or in the shoulder to penetrate the rhino's hide. It cannot strike a main artery, or the animal will die quickly. It must lodge in the muscle tissue. To be this accurate in delivering the shot, Fothergill must hold fire until he is within five or 10 feet of the rhino and in danger of a charge.
No margin for error
Once the shot strikes home, if the dose is accurate, it takes the rhino 16 minutes to drop. "During this time," says Fothergill, "you just concentrate on staying close ro him and avoiding his charges. Once he drops, you've got to be right there to give him the antidote injection or he dies." Along with the antidote of neostigmine methyl sulfate goes a tranquilizer to keep the beast relatively calm. Swiftly the rhino is tied securely, its feet roped together. Then the native boys roll it onto a sledge, and 50 to 60 of them drag it to the water's edge where the sledge is slid atop a raft made of oil drums. The raft is towed to the mainland while native boys pour water on the rhino to lessen the chance of sunstroke.
At Matuziadona on the mainland, which forms part of a game reserve into which most rescued animals are released, the rhino is dragged ashore on its sledge. Cautiously, the rangers untie its feet. Fothergill sloshes a bucket of water on the beast and then runs for the boat on the lake as fast as he can. The rhino comes to with a snort and a toss of its head, leaps to its feet and charges the first thing in sight, which is usually Fothergill. The enraged rhinos often follow him into the water. On one occasion, after Fothergill had climbed into the boat, the rhino kept right on coming and drove its horns into the gunwale. Since that attack the boat has always been judiciously moored farther offshore in water deeper than a rhinoceros.
The rhinos on Island 100 were, as expected, ornery, but two already were weakened from lack of food. One of these died before Fothergill could administer the antidote for the paralyzing dart. The other was so exhausted from its capture that it didn't move for three hours after being untied on the mainland. After untying it, Fothergill tenderly covered the beast with wet grass to keep the sun off. Then, as the rhino started coming to its senses, Rupert tried to help it to its feet, first by brazenly grasping its horn and tugging, then by pushing its ponderous rear end. Finally the rhino came alive, and the chase was on. Rupert bolted for the lake, the angry rhino not three feet behind. Rupert reached the boat and turned to face the rhino, which was snorting angrily in the water but was unable to attack because of the water's depth. "That's the thanks I get for saving your life, you leathery old bastard," cried Fothergill, taking off his bush hat and belting the rhino with it three times across the nose. The rhino snorted and retreated. The native boys gave Rupert a loud burst of applause.
Down and almost out
The next day, Fothergill had worse luck. When he socked a dart into a young bull rhino, it charged. Fothergill retreated behind a fallen tree trunk, confident that the beast would stop short of the obstacle in typical rhino fashion. But not this time. The rhino struck the trunk hard, snapped it in two and ran right on top of Fothergill. "Get him off me—quick!" shouted Rupert. Game rangers and native boys rushed up shouting and drove the rhino away. Luckily, Rupert had escaped the feet and the huge weight of the young bull. He suffered only cuts, bruises and six broken ribs.
Other animals on Island 100 were a problem, each in its special way. Big waterbuck, though good swimmers, often could not make it to the mainland when forced off the island. Males were particularly weak, pulled down by the weight of their huge horns. From boats the rescuers lassoed them, dragged them aboard kicking and thrashing and tied them down. Fragile impala, driven into 10-foot-high nets and wrestled to the ground by rangers, nearly died of fright before they reached the mainland despite tender ministrations from Fothergill and his lieutenants, including frequent sponge baths and even an occasional tot of brandy. Baboons and many warthogs were driven into the unfamiliar element of the lake, then noosed, grabbed by the tail and dunked underwater to dampen their resistance before they were dragged spluttering into boats. To reduce wear and tear on animals, plaited ropes made from discarded nylon stockings were used to bind them. Still, many cried, wailed and struggled all the way to shore. Warthogs were an exception. Once their jaws were roped shut and they were tied down, they often reconciled themselves to their fate, fell asleep in the bottom of the boat and snored loudly.
Zebras and other animals too big to wrestle with on even terms were run down to the point of exhaustion by lines of beaters rattling cans and shouting, driving them relentlessly to and fro until they collapsed. The same technique was used with baby buffalos and rhinos who were captured for transportation to national parks for restocking. Once a buffalc or rhino calf was chased into the lake or run to ground, like football players in a goal-line stand, a dozen or more rangers and native boys leaped on the wildly thrashing animal and subdued it by sheer weight of numbers in a screaming, shouting melee.
Island 100 was the last to be cleared during the 1961 season. The long dry season is at hand. This and the opening of the spillway gates in Kariba Dam will keep the lake level stable until early next year when the rains upstream will send Kariba's waters surging higher once more. In February, Fothergill and his men will embark again for the flooded valley. After another year of attacks and counterattacks, as the waters stabilize, their job will be done. They will have fulfilled their part of the original contract and will have, if not medals, at least a few scars to prove it.