June 17, 2008

Catching Wild Game With Old Nylon Stockings

Paignton Probus Club met at the Redcliffe Hotel to see a film of the five-year operation to save game and wildlife from the advancing waters of Lake Kariba.

In the late 1950s, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) became home to the world's largest man-made dam, a hydroelectric power station built across the Zambezi River, about 400km from Victoria Falls.

It would provide power for most of the country, but in the process form Lake Kariba and flood the Zambezi Valley, home to thousands of native animals.

The government of Southern Rhodesia was being censured for having done too little too late to save the Kariba animals. But the government of Northern Rhodesia, across the lake, had done even less. It had sent a single game warden to the scene, and his duties were 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 appealed to its members to devote their holidays to rescue work.

In a wildlife rescue operation lasting five years, more than 6,000 animals, from anteaters to zebras, were relocated from the shrinking islands of Lake Kariba to the mainland.

Codenamed 'Operation Noah's Ark' the operation was the brainchild of head game ranger Rupert Fothergill.

Rupert owned a 16mm film camera and documented their efforts. For almost half a decade, his footage of charging rhinos, drowning monkeys, netted antelope and caged lions sat in boxes in the family home.

Four half-hour episodes, edited by the Rhodesian Government Information Service in the 60s, were shown in Rhodesian schools and used to promote tourism but the bulk of the raw footage has not been seen for almost fifty years.

Fothergill was mostly concerned with keeping his men alive. He had himself been bitten by a python and a rufus-beaked snake and one of his staff, while swimming, was bitten on the lip by a hissing sand snake. More than the animals and reptiles, Fothergill feared the dangers of diving into the lake where there was always the possibility of losing an eye on a tree branch or being impaled on a stake. Lions and elephants would be relatively easy to handle. Fothergill said: "An elephant can swim a long way, it will merely be a matter of shepherding him in the right direction; as for lions - we have nets!"

The operation had two large, metal, open motor boats and a fast, wooden-hulled smaller runabout.

Approaching the selected island they pushed through the tangle of half-submerged trees whose branches snagged boats and clothing causing much cursing.

Once ashore two groups of game guards carrying the capture nets would spread out across as much of the middle of the island as possible.

They hung the nets, made of nylon stockings (obtained from a world-wide appeal for used stockings and tights), braided and tied into a four-inch mesh 30 feet long and 8-10 feet high, on trees. The nets fell, curtain like, across the area selected and were joined side to side. The stop group then took up positions behind the nets hiding in bushes as best as possible. The drive group with a few game guards with rifles and thunder flashes would take one boat and go to the point farthest away from the nets.

One group then came ashore making a 'hell of a racket', driving the terrified game towards the waiting nets. It usually turned out that their catch was impala, bushbuck, kudu, warthog and a variety of smaller antelopes. Once caught, the animals were hurried to the boats and loaded until the gunwales were almost awash.

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, released and dropped into the water. As they had seen the shore, they usually swam strongly into the shallows and raced off into the surrounding bush.

One evening, after a long day, the rangers were sitting in a circle around the campfire. That afternoon they had snagged too many antelope to transport as quickly as desired, and by the time they got to the last batch one female bushbuck, on release from the boat, simply sank beneath the water and had to be rescued. They brought her back into the boat, wrapped her in blankets and, as the light was fading, returned to camp, laid the bushbuck under a tree and forgot it was there. As they sat drinking their coffee, getting ready to turn in for the night, the bushbuck staggered to her feet. In the guttering light of the campfire and pressure lamps hung on trees, they watched in silence as she walked around the ring of sitting game rangers and volunteers. She made three turns around the circle and finally turned into the darkness and disappeared from view. The chief game ranger, an unsentimental man, let out a long breath. "My God, she was thanking us," he said unbelievingly.

The film, though showing signs of age, was enjoyed by all present and club president Roger Sheldon was able to answer questions from his personal recollection of the operation in the country of his birth.

The Paignton Probus Club will recommence its weekly Wednesday meetings in mid-September. Any retired professional or businessman interested in attending or joining can ring the secretary, Bob Life, on 01803 522501 or chairman, Ken Temple, on 01803 842507.

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