By Cathy Buckle
“AN elephant never forgets” is a very well- known saying and I shouldn’t think there are many people who have had the opportunity to put the saying to the test. I am one who has and it was an
experience I will never forget.
In the 1980s, shortly after Zimbabwe’s Inde-pendence, I spent nine years as an estate manager of a wildlife conservation centre on the outskirts of Harare. One of my duties was to hand-rear orphaned baby elephants and then calm them to a degree where they could safely be reintroduced into the semi-wild environment of Zimbabwe’s game farms.
In the four years that it took to rear a baby elephant until it could fend for itself, I became a surrogate mother. I taught it how to suck my fingers which were dipped in milk and then to drink from a bucket. I learnt how to lance an abscess, how to discipline it the way its mother would by biting its tail, how to rescue it when it got stuck in mud, how to help it when it got bloated from eating too much cabbage, how to imitate its rumbling call and how to introduce it to other elephants.
One of the elephants I reared was named Rundi and she took a piece of my heart the day she left my caring and loving hands to be relocated to one of Zimbabwe’s most famous game farms.
Twelve years later and just before Zimbabwe’s political madness began, I went to that game farm and saw Rundi again and yes, it is true, elephants do not forget. Standing in a group of a dozen other people, Rundi knew me immediately. By then she towered over me and had enormous tusks but she walked past everyone and came straight to me, rested her trunk in my hair, sniffed my neck and face and rumbled softly before gently mouthing my arm.
Three and half years into Zimbabwe’s land invasions I cannot find the strength within myself to discover what has happened to Rundi. I could not bear the pain of knowing that perhaps she has been killed by poachers, starved by men who may have seized that game farm or is terrified, hiding and running from government supporters and political heavyweights who seem hell bent on completely destroying Zimbabwe’s wildlife heritage.
There is one very brave man in Zimbabwe desperately trying to help save what is left of Zimbabwe’s wildlife. His name is Johnny Rodrigues and this week I heard his incredible story. In 2001 Johnny went to our Minister of Tourism, Francis Nhema and offered his services for free to the minister. At that time Johnny was concerned about the appalling levels of fish poaching in Kariba and the minister was delighted to accept Johnny’s help. There were illegal nets to be seized, poachers to be caught, boats to be repaired and food and fuel needed to give to men conducting anti-poaching patrols.
When Johnny discovered that a minister’s sister was at the head of the fish-poaching ring, he was cut off by the Minister of Tourism and banned from our National Parks. Members of the CIO tried to have him deported, his house was raided and his life’s work and possessions stolen. To add insult to injury, Johnny’s partners then asked him to withdraw from their small business saying they were being politically targeted by having Johnny in the company.
Johnny is determined that he will not stop. He has made it his mission to save what he can of our wildlife and to expose politicians who are raping Zimbabwe’s heritage. Johnny’s lone voice, for the love of an elephant or sable, a fish or a river, is one that is in desperate need of support.
Whenever he can Johnny goes out to what is left of our game farms. What he is discovering is horrific beyond words. On one remote game ranch he recorded the decline in wild animals due to poaching and hunting since land seizures began. In 2000 there were 200 eland on the property, now there are 12. Zebras have gone from 120 to 35, giraffe from 60 to 9 and nyala from 30 to 0.
On some game farms owners have been forced to herd the game into small paddocks and bomas and feed them from bought stock feed, desperate to save whatever they can. In one boma Johnny found a herd of 160 sable antelope which were waiting to be exported by a wealthy businessman who had apparently acquired them from an evicted game farmer. The sable were hugely malnourished and had badly infected feet from living for so long in cramped conditions and on heavily soiled ground. Thanks to Johnny and a few donors, the sable were professionally darted, tranquilised, had their hooves treated and were given antibiotics to start them on the road back to health.
In five weeks time Johnny and his family will have nowhere to live as they have been told to vacate their rented home in Harare. Johnny needs money for fuel so that he can get out to remote areas. He needs to be able to pay people to conduct anti-poachinng patrols. He needs finances for feed and drugs for animals who are being kept alive in bomas. I dare not ask Johnny to find out what has happened to Rundi, that little baby elephant I reared, who had not forgotten me. But I do ask you, if you want to help Johnny and be a part of saving what is left of our wildlife, please contact him urgently. His email address is: email@example.com.
Cathy Buckle is an author and human rights activist based in Marondera.