Operation Noah: Rescuing Rhodesian Wildlife As Kariba Dam Floods
“there was no precedent on which to work, concerning the extent and swiftness of the pattern of flooding. Nor the reaction of the animals that would be faced with the greatest inundation since Genesis.”
Operation Noah images from Elizabeth M Reece.
Rhodesia’s Great Animal Rescue
60 Years ago, as Kariba Dam was being built, one of the greatest animal rescue operations since Noah’s Ark was launched in Southern and Northern Rhodesia. As the waters steadily rose, many animals found themselves trapped on hills that quickly became islands. Soon all vegetation was eaten and some of these islands became scenes of starvation.
To Avert Tragedy
While initially it was assumed that wildlife in the rapidly flooding valley would move to higher ground, the reality was that many found themselves marooned on temporary islands and began to starve, or drown. As the Northern Rhodesian government failed to mount a worthwhile rescue operation, the Field magazine published: “Four Men vs the Scandal at Kariba Dam” to publicise the plight of the animals. This launched an appeal by the Wildlife Preservation Society and Operation Noah was born. Women in South Africa donated stockings with which to bind the animals during rescue, to avoid rope burns.
Erica and the Ark
The Northern Rhodesian Game Preservation Society raised funds for the Erica, a boat dedicated to rescuing animals trapped on these rapidly shrinking temporary islands. The Southern Rhodesian government provided funds for the Ark. The Erica was built by the Benthaols in Salisbury at a cost of £6,800 and launched on 3 January 1960, by Lady Hone, wife of the Governor.
The 45-foot Erica regularly towed four boats and a dingy as they set about rescuing sable antelope, rhino, lion, impala, baboons, kudu, honey badgers, ant bears, porcupines, bush buck, duiker, steenbok, warthogs, leopard, even elephant!
As Keith Meadows observed: “there was no precedent on which to work, concerning the extent and swiftness of the pattern of flooding. Nor the reaction of the animals that would be faced with the greatest inundation since Genesis.” Some of these temporary islands were given names by the rescuers, including: Starvation Island, Rhino Island and Elephant Island.
From 1959 through to June 1963, when Operation Noah came to a conclusion, over 5,000 animals had been rescued on the Southern Rhodesia side, involving 35 species, including 44 of the endangered Black Rhino. Including birds and reptiles, over 6,000 were rescued. The Northern Rhodesia rescue efforts succeeded in rescuing nearly 2,000 more wild animals. No statistics were kept of reptiles and birds rescued in the North.
There is an Operation Noah Memorial at Kariba Heights. Operation Noah remains a tremendous testimony to the dedicated labours of a small team of game rangers and conservationists. As Bryan O’ Donoghue in Wild Animal Rescue, wrote:
“They did it for love. Not the sloppy, self-centred type of love one sometimes hears drooled on animals, but the love to preserve that which is wild, to remain so. It was the Bible being relived. They called it Operation Noah.”
As Henry Olivier wrote:
“Operation Noah attracted worldwide attention. I often receive the impression that this Operation did more to focus world attention on Kariba than our engineering efforts.”
Source: Kariba – Legacy of a Vision by Jonathan Waters