Theresa Warth, the “Elephant Lady” of Wasara Game Ranch, Chiredzi Conservancy, Zimbabwe, died on June 2, 2015.
“We do not know any details yet,” posted Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force founder Johnny Rodrigues, “but it seems she was in Harare and collapsed. For those who did not know Theresa, she was a very special lady, who devoted her whole life to wildlife. This is a huge loss for the wildlife and conservation. The animals she has left behind are a testament to her good work. We offer our most sincere condolences to her husband Gary, who will no doubt feel lost without her.”
A citizen of Switzerland, Theresa Warth joined her husband in purchasing property within the Chiredzi Conservancy in 1997. The Warths’ struggles to protect the arid habitat for wildlife were frequently mentioned by commentators on the land invasions and expropriations by well-connected officials that have characterized Zimbabwe under 30 years of rule by Robert Mugabe and his ZANU/PF political party, especially since 2000.
Trouble started with 2001 arson
Wrote Cathy Buckle, for example, in a 2001 installment of her blog News From Zimbabwe, “On Chiredzi, a 5,000 hectare section of the conservancy recently bought by Theresa and Gary Warth, has been entirely burnt out. Says Theresa, ‘It all went up in a day and they’re still burning what’s left now. Burnt land is easier to poach than thick bush. It enables the poacher to hunt with dogs as the animals are in clear view. The wildlife here are deeply unsettled and are also rapidly losing condition as there is no graze or browse for them now that it’s all been burnt out.’”
Observed Buckle, “Overall in Chiredzi, 50% of the 270,000 -care conservancy has been destroyed by burning and clearing.”
Elaborated Buckle a few days later, “On Wasara Ranch in Chiredzi, the Warths are trying to get elephant-back safaris into the conservancy and have two adolescent elephants, whom they are in the process of training. They moved onto the land three years ago when there was no game on the property. They have slowly been building it up, using their own money to bring in eland and giraffe,” from Samba Ranch, which was then experiencing severe drought. “They can only afford two game guards,” Buckle wrote, “who are continually being confronted by groups of 15-30 people. In October the scouts found 30 poachers driving game into nets.”
Said Theresa Warth, “It’s so sad. They’re doing so much damage. It took years since the droughts to build up the game and it’s still not up to the levels it should be, and now what’s happening is worse than a drought. It’s not selective. The strong are being taken out as well as the weak.”
Continued Buckle, “Recently Theresa found a warthog who had been stabbed 30 times in the face as the poachers had tried to extract her from her burrow. The warthog was a pregnant female. The poachers had taken off the front and back leg and left the rest to rot.
“The Warths had a number of community projects they were in the process of implementing before the invasions took place,” Buckle added. “All the projects have had to be shelved. A building on the farm has been taken over by the squatters and is being used as a ‘shebeen’ [bar] and store. Recently three bundles of poached game meat were found dumped at the store and in the process of being sold. Gary went to investigate and was attacked by one of the poachers with a pick handle when he tried to take back the meat. It’s since then that the farm has been burnt out. ‘The damage that’s been done is not only going to effect the country in the short term, it’s going to take at least 20 years for this land to recover.’”
More trouble in 2008
The Warths persisted.
In October 2008, reported former Chiredzi farmer Gerry Whitehead on Nehanda Radio, “The few remaining farmers are still getting harassed by ZANU/PF bigwigs. The latest to suffer are Gary and Theresa Warth. On September 22, 2008 Mrs. Enita Maziriri, ex-Member of Parliament for the Chivi Masvingo district arrived to take over their small irrigation block, which is security-fenced, near the homestead. She was also demanding that Gary and Theresa provide her with accommodation at the homestead. This they refused, as all available accommodation was fully used by their staff and game scouts. Mrs. Enita Maziriri has been back several times with local militia to try and force the issue. They have cut fences, broken gates and threatened Theresa, who was alone at the time as Gary had rushed off to Masvingo and Harare to try and get some kind of intervention.”
The siege continued, reported Alex Bell of Southwest Radio Africa, on April 7, 2009, when “Theresa Warth was arrested on her Wasara Ranch in Chiredzi and was told by police that she was being used as ‘bait.’ Her husband Gary has been in hiding for six weeks and police hoped her arrest would flush him out of hiding to face arrest and prosecution. Teresa was forced to leave behind her frail parents-in-law, as well as their animals, including three tame elephant and a herd of cattle. The Warths’ property has come under brutal attack before and many of their animals have been slaughtered by land invaders, in acts of cruel intimidation. Theresa was later released, but was expected in court to face as yet unknown charges.”
Elephants poached in 2012
A semblance of justice eventually prevailed. The Warths rebuilt the Wasara Game Ranch, and the resident elephant herd, but were overrun by poachers in January 2012.
“After seeing 44 wild elephants at our little dam on January 14,” Theresa Warth e-mailed to friends, “we heard four shots from our homestead on the western side of the dam.” Further volleys of shots were heard for several days before the Warths discovered the remains of two elephant cows and a young bull, all with tusks removed.
“How many more are lying rotting in the bush, how many more are running around with bullet holes, how many calves have lost their mothers?” Theresa Warth wondered.
“Fears that the police may be involved”
Confirmed and elaborated Fungi Kwaramba of The Zimbabwean, two months later, “Some rowdy villagers in Chiredzi are disrupting the farming operations of conservationist, Theresa Warth of Wasara Ranch. Warth is leading figure in anti-poaching operations in the area. Police in Chiredzi confirmed to the Zimbabwean that Warth and her husband were being disturbed by some people whom there are yet to apprehend, as they quickly disperse whenever they hear that the police are coming. Sources in the area say that the poachers who have decimated wild animals for meat and for cash are now turning violent. There are fears that the police may be involved in an elaborate plan to intimidate Warth and her team. Some senior Zanu PF officials are said to be involved in the poaching syndicates.”
In October 2013, blogged Canadian writer Oriane Lee Johnston, “My friend Theresa Warth needs help right now for digging a new borehole to get water to 43 wild elephants who visit the perimeter of her farm. Access to their usual water source is blocked by increasing numbers of relocated ‘settlers’ who are harassing and threatening the wild herd.
“Five elephants Theresa has rescued live on her farm,” Johnston added. “The wild elephants come to visit them. Staying close to the farm keeps the wild ones safer from poaching.”
Said Tracey Bridges, a longtime friend who has been helping the Wasara Game Ranch from her home in Australia, “Theresa Warth’s friends and family are all in the know and are carrying on with her work and caring and loving her animals just as she did. No one and nothing has gone forgotten or has been re-homed. For as long as we are able to stay on this land, the Ranch and all its inhabitants (four legged and two legged) will be cared for exactly as they have been up until this point, and life will carry on as before.”
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