Felled by cancer after surviving two wars, poachers’ gunfire, & the Mugabe regime
QUARTEIERA, Portugal––Johnny Rodrigues, 69, founder of the the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force and an enthusiastic contributor of information and occasional guest columns to ANIMALS 24-7, died on September 17, 2018 at his daughter Lorraine and son-in-law Gavin Randall’s home in Portugal, after a prolonged battle with cancer that attacked his colon, bladder, urethra, gall bladder and lymph nodes.
“The last few months with my dad were some of the most difficult times anyone could ever imagine,” Lorraine Randall posted to social media. “He stayed at home with me, my husband Gavin and my daughter Kylie right until his last breath. One of his wishes was to stay at home and not go to the hospital and I honored this as it also meant we would have him for a little longer. My poor dad suffered to no end during his final days and I had only wished that he could have passed peacefully as no one deserves to suffer the way he did.”
“Hero, soldier, defender of animals”
Johnny Rodrigues “was and always will be an amazing person, a hero, a soldier, a defender of the animals,” Lorraine Randall eulogized.
“He drove many times to Imire Sanctuary to deliver milk to his beloved Tatenda the rhino,” orphaned by poachers in 2007, deceased of unknown causes in 2015, “and to Hwange to deliver water pumps and fuel for the animals dying of thirst” in drought-stricken Hwange National Park” Lorraine Randall recalled in particular.
Recalled Rodrigues himself, in a 2007 memoir, “I was born in Funchal, Madeira,” a Portuguese island, “on March 27, 1949, and moved to Zimbabwe with my family in 1955.
“I grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe,” Rodrigues said. “My playmates were the children of African farm workers and through my interaction with them, I learned to speak several African languages fluently.
“I left home at the age of 15,” Rodrigues continued, “joined the Merchant Navy, and worked on ships for the next three years. I then returned to Zimbabwe,” which was then called Rhodesia, “and joined the Special Air Services. In 1974, I married Cheryl,” his wife of 32 years, who died,also of cancer, in March 2016.
“By this time the bush war had started,” which eventually brought about the transition of the former Rhodesia to indigenous rule, “and I joined the army,” Rodrigues narrated. “After a couple of years as a soldier in the regular forces, I applied to join the Selous Scouts,” an elite fighting force that operated from 1973 to 1980, “and was accepted thanks to my ability to speak African languages.”
Robert Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe from 1980 to 2017, ascended to power in 1980, disbanded the Selous Scouts, and ordered all members to leave the country.
“By this time, Cheryl and I had two small daughters,” Lorraine and Brigitte, “so in the interests of their safety, we complied with his instructions,” Rodrigues recalled. “The South African Special Forces were very keen for the ex-Selous Scouts to join them so we spent the next six years in Phalaborwa, South Africa, fighting in the South African bush war,” which eventually brought about the end of apartheid and the transition to indigenous rule in South Africa.
Son Shane was born in South Africa in 1983.
Securing permission to return to Zimbabwe in 1986, Johnny and Cheryl Rodrigues “started a vehicle repair business. This didn’t make us rich,” Johnny Rodrigues admitted, “but we were able to live fairly comfortably and educate our children. By 1992, the country’s economy had started floundering and we began to have financial difficulties, so we decided to diversify. We bought a 30-ton truck and started an international transport company. I drove the truck myself for the next three years, hauling goods all over southern Africa, and saw very little of my family. We were then able to buy two more trucks, but the constant driving had affected my health, so I employed drivers and concentrated on maintaining the trucks.
Johnny and Cheryl Rodrigues found their calling in wildlife conservation, but lost their business, when Mugabe in 2000 encouraged mobs of “war veterans” to invade farms and nature conservancies owned and operated by people of European ancestry.
Promised land in exchange for backing Mugabe, the land invasion leaders had grown tired of waiting, nearly 20 years into Mugabe’s tenure. About 70% of Zimbabwe remained in the possession of the 6% of the citizens of European ancestry. Mugabe took the pressure off of himself and his regime, at least temporarily, by allowing the land invasions; but because the invasions took much of the agricultural land in Zimbabwe out of production, food shortages and economic collapse soon followed.
Wholesale poaching followed, partly for food and partly to sell animals’ body parts for money. Runaway inflation, however, made Zimbabwean money worthless. The nation began to operate on U.S. currency instead. But with only heavily armed trophy hunters inclined to visit Zimbabwe amid the chaos, the remaining trophy hunting operations were given grossly unsustainable quotas of trophy species.
“I was so desperate to try and do something about this,” Johnny Rodrigues recounted, “that I neglected the transport company and that fact, combined with the hijacking of one of our trucks and the total loss of another through an accident, resulted in the collapse of the company.”
Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force
The Zimbabwe National Parks & Wildlife Management Authority was “almost bankrupt, so they were unable to carry out anti-poaching patrols,” Rodrigues remembered. “I approached the Minister of Environment & Natural Resources, Francis Nhema, and offered to raise funds and go to Kariba with volunteers to assist National Parks with anti-poaching patrols on a regular basis. He was very pleased with the idea and instructed National Parks to co-operate with us.
“The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force was inaugurated in April 2001,” Rodrigues continued. “All went well for the first year. We pulled thousands of meters of illegal netting out of the water and destroyed it, sunk many poachers’ boats, burned down their base camps, and recovered tons of fish, releasing the live ones and donating the dead ones to National Parks. At the same time, volunteers scoured the bush and removed hundreds of wire snares.
Worst poachers were government officials
“We donated fuel and oil to National Parks so that they could continue with the patrols in our absence. We also repaired their boats, which had previously been out of order.”
“As time went on,” Rodrigues said, “we discovered that the main poaching rings were actually controlled by top government officials, police, army and National Parks staff themselves. We reported this to Nhema. He reacted by refusing to have anything further to do with us. We tried to continue with the patrols but the National Parks scouts who had previously co-operated with us now showed open hostility toward us. My volunteers got cold feet and started drifting away, leaving me to continue practically alone.”
Rodrigues “was seriously considering throwing in the towel in March 2002,” he acknowledged, “when I received a tearful phone call from Charlene Hewatt,” the rhino researcher and conservationist who in 2013 was officially appointed “Rhino Ambassador of Zimbabwe.”
Hewatt “told me that ‘war veterans’ had invaded Gourlays Ranch, a black rhino conservancy and breeding program,” whose owner, Richard Pascall, “had been given 24 hours to vacate his property,” Rodrigues remembered.
As the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force had declined to just Rodrigues himself, he “went alone to Gourlays Ranch and was confronted with about 200 drug-crazed ‘war veterans.’ This title was a misnomer,” Rodrigues pointed out, “because most of them were in their early twenties and would have been very small children during the bush war. I was obviously no match for them and I had no choice but to spend the night at the ranch as they wouldn’t allow me to leave. The following morning was the deadline for Richard Pascall to vacate the property and the invaders tried to behead him with an axe, so the farm manager fired a shot into the air to disperse the mob. The police arrived and arrested Richard, the farm manager, and a neighbor who was there for moral support. They were charged with attempted murder for firing the shot into the air and sent to prison. The war vets got off scot free and took possession of the black rhino conservancy.
Turned to exposure
“I was so angry about the injustice of all this, not to mention the inevitable fate of the rhinos, that I decided to do everything in my power to preserve what was left of the wildlife,” Rodrigues finished.
During the next 15 years Johnny and Cheryl Rodrigues rebuilt the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force to provide support services to the elements within the Zimbabwe National Parks & Wildlife Management Authority who were still trying to protect and preserve wildlife, and to relay as much information as they could gather to keep the outside world informed about the ongoing crisis, which tended to lurch from bad to worse.
Protected by Portuguese diplomatic passports, Johnny and Cheryl Rodrigues developed a nationwide network of sympathetic informants, many of them within the Zimbabwe National Parks & Wildlife Management Authority, and extensive media contracts abroad.
Cecil the lion
Most famously, Johnny and Cheryl Rodrigues in July 2015 were first to disclose the infamous killing of Cecil the lion by U.S. trophy hunter Walter Palmer. Ironically, in view of the media spotlight on the Cecil killing later, the first word of it to percolate to the outside world was just a three-line mention buried deep in a Zimbabwean Conservation Task Force electronic newsletter, beneath a report about the export of baby elephants from Zimbabwe to China:
10th July 2015
LION KILLED IN HWANGE
A beautiful famous lion in Hwange National Park has been shot. His name was Cecil and everybody wanted photos of him. A big game hunter shot him last week. He could have earned a lot of money by being alive and having photos taken.
The initial information was soon updated:
With regard to the report we have just sent out, the date Cecil was shot should be 6th July 2015.
The furor erupted from there.
“Prior to 2000, there were approximately 240 ranches with wildlife [in Zimbabwe], 84 of which were registered as official areas designated by National Parks for wildlife,” Rodrigues said.
By 2007, only 15 were left. “We estimate, from reports and statistics received, that we have lost between 90% and 100% of the wildlife on private game ranches, 60% to 70% on the larger conservancies, and about 40% in the National Parks game reserves,” Johnny Rodrigues posted to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force web site.
But Rodrigues did not oppose the concept of land redistribution itself.
Argued for environmental education
“I believe that if the rural folk were given title deeds to the land surrounding and adjacent to wildlife areas,” Rodrigues said, “they could become stakeholders in the tourism industry. They could be entrusted to look after the wildlife and carry out their own anti-poaching patrols and then receive a share of the revenue generated by tourism. It would then be more profitable for them to preserve the wildlife than to kill it.”
Rodrigues emphasized in particular his belief that, “Environmental education needs to be aimed at school children so that they grow up with the idea of preserving wildlife and sustaining the natural resources.
“Prior to 1980 when Mugabe became the president, environmental studies was part of every school curriculum,” he recalled, “but thereafter, this subject was dropped, especially in the rural schools, and replaced with political studies. The children who never learned about the environment became the adults who are destroying it.”
Tributes to Rodrigues’ work came from around the world as word of his death slowly spread.
Praise from Down Under
“The committee and members of Save African Rhino Foundation would like to pay tribute to Johnny for all the hard work he did on behalf of Zim’s wildlife, especially the elephants of Hwange,” wrote Nicholas Duncan from Australia.
Wrote elephant researcher Sharon Pincott, “You will have read about Johnny in Elephant Dawn: The Inspirational Story of Thirteen Years Living with Elephants in the African Wilderness,” her 2015 book, which Rodrigues reviewed for ANIMALS 24-7.
“I knew him since 2001,” Pincott continued, “when I first arrived to live in Zimbabwe,” at a time when almost everyone else who could was leaving. “Referring to the 10 years following, I wrote in Elephant Dawn, “Johnny has been the only person inside the country who has been brave enough to distribute regular bulletins about the plight of the wildlife. He has endured extreme criticism, death threats and the attention of the dreaded Central Intelligence Organization. Without Johnny even those of us inside Zimbabwe would be aware of far less going on around the country.”
Even Pincott herself eventually fled Zimbabwe, in 2014, but Johnny and Cheryl Rodrigues stayed on, in Cheryl’s case until her death in Harare, and in Johnny’s case until declining health forced him to seek treatment abroad.
Africa Animal Welfare Conference
ANIMALS 24-7, in frequent communication with Rodrigues during his last 15 years in Zimbabwe, recalls in particular his first and apparently only visit to an international animal advocacy gathering, the 2010 Africa Animal Welfare Conference, hosted by the Africa Network for Animal Welfare in Nairobi, Kenya.
Rodrigues, having never met anyone else present, sat alone at the conference breakfast the first morning, shyly staring down into his oatmeal until ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton sat down on the opposite side of the table and said, “Where are you from?”
Looking up, Rodrigues mumbled, “I’m Johnny Rodrigues from Zimbabwe.”
Standing up, Clifton announced to the room, “I want everyone here to meet Johnny Rodrigues.”
It was not necessary to say another word. Johnny Rodrigues, now blushing into his oatmeal, got a standing ovation.
Last man standing at the bar, first up in the morning
That night in the conference facility lounge, Rodrigues nursed a big Tusker beer until well after midnight, discussing African conservation and animal welfare issues with perhaps a dozen other delegates.
Then, at dawn, he was the first delegate in the breakfast room. He may never have enjoyed another such opportunity to discuss his passion in life with so many mostly like-minded people.
Five years later Rodrigues outlined some of the same thoughts he had expressed then in a guest column for ANIMALS 24-7: Conservation or not? Johnny Rodrigues looks at trophy hunting.
“They did not sleep that night”
Among Lorraine Randall’s favorite memories of her parents was how, “On one of their first trips to Hwange, they installed new pumps and witnessed the thirsty animals coming out of the bushes to drink,” Randall continued. “Many different species came down to the watering hole that day. My mother was awestruck by the euphoric atmosphere whilst the animals drank. They did not sleep that night. They sat at the watering hole savoring the moment before them.”