7 April 2021


 Operation Noah - A recollection.

Two Kudu calves coming to drink while cautiously accepting my presence without fear.

In May of 1959, I was fortunate enough to accompany my father on one of his many trips to Kariba dam on the Zambesi river in what was then the border between Southern Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe and Zambia respectively.  My memories of that trip are fragmented and incomplete but what I do remember are probably the most important experiences, such as spending a day alone with Sir Rupert Fothergill on a boat out on the immature lake.  I write this before the memories that I do have are lost, and as a tribute to Sir Rupert, who invited me to join his team of game rangers when my schooling was complete, one of life's opportunities lost.  Rupert Fothergill was a visionary and dedicated to the conservation of the wildlife of Africa at a time when the very word "conservation" brought shivers of discomfort to bureaucrats everywhere, especially those who walked the department-of-public-works-green corridors of government in Bulawayo and at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall.  It was with a good deal of fortitude and foresight that the Federal government asked Rupert Fothergill to "take such measures as he thought necessary to save animals from the rising water"  of the slowly filling Kariba dam.    Fothergill's rescue effort became known as "Operation Noah."  In the end, Fothergill, two junior game rangers and some assistants from the then Game Department rescued over 7,000 animals from the rising waters of the newly formed Lake Kariba.  Rupert Fothergill was one of the giants of African wildlife conservation.

Kariba Dam in 1959, about 60% full


I don't remember which day of our six day visit to Kariba, I was asked if I would like to accompany Rupert Fothergill out onto the half-filled lake in one of the small boats, but it was a day I shall not forget.  Denis was busy filming on the dam construction site, and didn't need my help.  Rupert sat me in the bow of the little boat and pulled the cord to start the outboard  engine, and we powered our way from the landing below the dam wall to the opposite side of the still filling lake, a distance of about two miles.  Rupert proceeded to mark the location of newly formed islands on a map.  These were places where animals, reptiles and monkeys would be stranded and in need of rescue.  We had a couple of hessian sacks with us and Rupert used these to hold a couple of vervet monkeys that he fearlessly caught by the tail as they clung to the branches of trees that had become surrounded by water.  He then gripped them by the scruff of the neck and I held the sacks open while he deposited the monkeys inside and tied the sacks closed with a piece of fencing wire.  We freed the monkeys on the nearest shore.  This was my very small participation in what would become one of the biggest animal rescue undertakings ever known, Operation Noah.

The Operation Noah team setting out for a day's work

Rupert Fothergill and his team study a map on which newly formed islands have been marked.

"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.  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, manoeuvring 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." - K. Meadows (1996) : Rupert Fothergill; Bridging a Conservation Era pg. 96

A ranger carries an antelope to a boat.

Antelope being checked by Rupert Fothergill

While we were out on the lake we were chatting about rifles and calibres for different types of game and to demonstrate the effect of trajectory to me, Rupert allowed me to fire a shot with his Wetherby .375 H&H Magnum big game rifle loaded with a 270gr bullet.   He told me to count off the seconds from the shot until I saw the splash of the bullet in the water.  I counted six seconds!  The recoil actually shunted the boat back a bit.  I had never fired a large caliber rifle before and I was suitably impressed, surprised and duly bruised.  I now realise how privileged and fortunate I was to have been able to spend time in the company of such a great man at such a momentous time and in such a beautiful place.  The innocence of youth precluded me from fully appreciating it at the time, but I cherish the memory now.  

A Rhinoceros is brought ashore for release 

 A Rhino being released on dry land. It has woken from the tranquilliser before the restraining ropes have been freed.

"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 manoeuvring 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."   K. Meadows (1996) : Rupert Fothergill; Bridging a Conservation Era.

One of the newly formed, ever diminishing, islands was dubbed "starvation island" and became one of the most difficult and dangerous locations of Operation Noah.  Almost 5000 acres in extent, it was too vast to accomplish a successful game drive and yet it held  200 buffalos, 11 rhinos, 4 elephants and 11 lions as well as countless other species.  Less than a half mile from shore, the elephants and lions were eventually chased off into the water and they swam to safety, with a little "herding" from the boats, but the rhinos and the rest had to be captured and removed.  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."

The team load a buck onto the capture boat 

Rupert checks the health of a rescued N'yala female buck before releasing it.

Kariba Dam in 1956

Eventually more than 6,000 animals were rescued during the years of Operation Noah - nearly 5,000 by Fothergill's team - including 1,866 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 in the world. 

Graham Serretta

London December 2015


Tim Abbott


Kirsten Drysdale

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