Africa Speaks

BY RON THOMSON

I was born in England of Scottish parents on the 15th August 1939, two weeks before the outbreak of World War II.  The place!  Corby in Northamptonshire!  My father was an electrician in the then recently opened Stewarts and Lloyds Steelworks. 

When War broke out, my father joined the Royal Air Force as a pilot and was shipped off to Southern Rhodesia where the British Government had implemented what it called The Commonwealth Air Training Plan.   Similar air force training schools were set up in Canada, Australia and South Africa.

I lived throughout the war years in Great Britain, therefore, spending many long nights camped out in our small underground Anderson’s air-raid-shelter in the back garden, to which my mother, my two younger brothers and I, retreated every time the sirens warned us of enemy night bombers overhead. On many such nights, as a little boy, I watched the searchlights seeking out the enemy aircraft and the RAF’s night-fighters attempting to shoot them down. And, one night I remember listening to the heavy explosions when the Germans bombed nearby Coventry.  

After the War – in 1947 – with Britain in tatters, my father took our family out to Southern Rhodesia where, during the period of his pilot training, he had befriended many Rhodesian farmers.  He believed starting his family-life afresh in ‘the colonies’- when the home country was in ruins – was a wise move.

He learned all about growing tobacco – for which Rhodesia was famous in those days – and maize, and he taught himself, by observation and practice, how to husband both dairy and beef cattle.  After five years as a tobacco-farm-manager he made enough money to buy himself 3 000 acres of virgin land in the northern Karoi area of the country.  And there he set himself up as a farmer growing tobacco and maize, and husbanding Hereford beef cattle. He worked hard and diligently and very quickly he became affluent.

In 1953 Southern Rhodesia joined the British-orchestrated Central African Federation (comprising Southern and Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland).

My two younger brothers and I attended Rhodesian boarding schools where we all passed our Overseas Cambridge School Certificates.  At school, I excelled at athletics, rugby, cricket and hockey and when I left school in 1957, I joined the Royal Rhodesian Air Force as a pilot. I left the air force in 1959 and joined the Federal Department of National Parks. Here I found my niche.  And, during my service, I became a university-trained, cum laude, “Field Ecologist”.  

That was a very long time ago. My work entailed many things.  First of all I was trained how to run a national park’s tourism infrastructure; how to administer all the park’s many other facets; how to construct and maintain dirt roads; I became a builder and a plumber; a mechanic;  and I learned how to ‘manage’ the park’s wildlife. This included the hunting down and the killing of a wide variety of ‘problem’ animals – all the ‘big six’ (elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards, hyenas and hippos) – and I pioneered the capture of black rhinos in the Zambezi Valley.  Indeed, I became the country’s leading expert in black rhino capture.

Elephants, buffaloes and hippos raided farm croplands.  Buffaloes carried the fatal-to-cattle foot-and-mouth disease. Lions, leopards and hyenas killed cattle on the farms adjacent to the national park boundaries.  Some lions became man-eaters.  And, in later years, I was tasked with the job of reducing the elephant population in the Gonarezhou National Park from 5 000 to 2 500 – because they were destroying the park’s natural habitats; and because they were wiping out the park’s giant baobab trees.

I spent twenty-four years of my young adult life in the service of the country’s national parks.  I ended up becoming the Provincial Game Warden-in-charge of Hwange National Park, the country’s premier wildlife sanctuary.  Hwange is 5 000 square miles in extent (14 600 square kilometers) and it is famous for its elephants and its lions.

On the basis of my 24 years of service in what is now Zimbabwe’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management, my active role in wildlife management affairs throughout the country over quarter-of-a-century, my training as an ecologist, and my 30-odd years of experience as a wildlife investigative journalist in South Africa, I suggested to the Editor of the Country Squire Magazine, Dominic Wightman, that I use the good offices of his magazine, to provide the people of Great Britain with some rational explanations surrounding any of the controversial  wildlife management issues out of Africa, that have recently been “going the rounds” of your country.  And with a great deal of grace he agreed. Thank you Dominic!

So, from one “Africanised-Brit” to a whole population of “British-Brits”, I ask you to identify whatever controversial wildlife subjects you would like to know more about, and I will answer your questions.  I have most of the answers at my finger tips.

With my kind regards to you all.