Little noticed Operation Noah inspired Operation Gwamba
Before there was Operation Gwamba, documented by John Walsh and Robert Gannon in Time Is Short And The Water Rises, there was Operation Noah, a five-year rescue begun in 1958 by Rhodesian chief ranger Rupert Fothergill.
Fothergill, then 46, began relocating animals from the Zambezi Valley to Matsudona National Park and other habitat near Lake Kariba in 1958, after the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River was closed.
Fothergill was still at it in 1964, to little outside notice, when Operation Gwamba began.
174 miles of water
The Kariba Dam, then the biggest in the world, impounded water for 174 miles below Victoria Falls.
“To save the trapped game and reptiles, the Southern Rhodesian government assigned three game wardens and eight native trackers,” the February 23, 1959 edition of Time magazine noted, in one of the few media notices of Operation Noah.
“The government of Southern Rhodesia is being censured for having done too little too late to save the Kariba animals,” Time continued. “But the government of Northern Rhodesia, across the lake, has done less. It has sent a single warden. His duties are 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 has appealed to members to devote their holidays to rescue work. It is unlikely that either the holidaying hunters or the exhausted eleven-man team from Southern Rhodesia can save more than a tiny fraction of the valley wildlife.”
Equipped with only two boats, Fothergill’s team rescued more than 5,000 animals. A Northern Rhodesian team, headed by Tad Edelman, saved more than 1,000. Among the rescued animals were 1,866 impala, 585 warthogs, 200 buffalo, 43 rhino, 23 elephants, and at least a dozen lions.
The critical difference in media notice of Operation Noah and Operation Gwamba, and in public support for the two rescues, may have had to do with perceiving the value of nylon stockings.
Fothergill recognized that they had multiple uses in capturing and safely translocating animals, but Massachusetts SPCA fundraiser Bob Smith, assigned to help the International Society for the Protection of Animals for the duration of Operation Gwamba, took the matter to another level by appealing to women to donate used stockings.
The appeal attracted global publicity. When thousands of women responded, they were thanked promptly and were later asked for donations of money. Many became regular donors not only to Operation Gwamba but also to the other work of the International Society for the Protection of Animals.
Film seldom seen
Fothergill documented much of Operation Noah on 16-millimeter film, but except for four half-hour documentary episodes distributed by the Rhodesian government, little of the film ever reached an audience.
Fothergill died in 1975. A biography, Rupert Fothergill; Bridging a Conservation Era, by Keith Meadows, was published in Zimbabwe in 1996, but is not easily found to buy. A project history, Animal Dunkirk, by Eric Robbins, publication date unknown, is even scarcer.
“I never met my maternal grandfather,” recalled his grandson Piggy, in a series of 2007-2009 blog postings. “He died ten years before I was born. But I grew up watching him chase rhinos, nurse baby kudu, hold eight-foot pythons and coax porcupines out of their burrows.
“For almost half a century,” Piggy Fothergill wrote, “his footage of charging rhinos, drowning monkeys, netted antelope and caged lions sat in boxes in our family home. Mum and Dad used to dig out the four half-hour episodes edited by the Rhodesian government and project them at our childhood birthday parties, or invite the neighbors over for screenings in the garage on rainy Sunday afternoons. But the bulk of the raw footage has not been seen for almost fifty years.”
Rediscovering the footage in 2007, Piggy Fothergill had at last report begun digitizing it, reel by reel, while pursuing his own career in media work in Brisbane, Australia.