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.”

By Dr Peter Hammond, continuing from Kariba Hydro Power & Dam: Testament To Rhodesian Ingenuity & Foresight Ahead Of The World

Operation Noah images from Elizabeth M Reece.

“A marvel of modern engineering, which in the future may well rank with the seven wonders of the Ancient world.” In terms of volume, 60 years later, Kariba remains the world’s largest man-made lake, with a volume of 180.6 kmᵌ. Kariba covers an area of 5,580km². The height of the wall is 128 m and the length of the lake is 282 km.

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.

Operation Noah was led by Rhodesia’s Head Ranger, Rupert Fothergill. He and his vets pioneered the use of tranquilizer darts to subdue big game such as buffalo and rhino. Through trial and error! Frank Junor was gored by a buffalo on Sunday 8th March 1959 while trying to dart the terrified animal.

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

Launching 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.

Mike van Rooyen searching for another island to begin rescuing its struggling inhabitants.

Wildlife Rescue

Some of the small green boats. The Buffalo, Warthog and Tess.

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!

Camp scene at one of the islands. Rupert Fothergill, Peter Jones and Tinkie Haslam

Unprecedented

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.

Operation Noah was for All Creatures, Great & Small. Frank Junor capturing reptiles.

Magnificent Success

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.

Guiding an elephant to safe land, when possible, without capture.
A cheeky Rhino unimpressed with his rescuers, who are more than impressed by him!
An unwilling porcupine.
A prickly business! Rescuing an unwilling porcupine.
Another unwilling Rhino with no intention of cooperating.
Sedated at last, now what?
Heave! Heave! Heave!
With the help of more than 20 men for just one of the 6,000 animals rescued, the Rhino is loaded onto a pallet ready for a boat trip to safety.
The men are tiring but far less nervous.
Tagging, inoculations and health checks were often performed.

Monumental Achievement

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.” 

Leader of Operation Noah Rupert Fothergill.

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.”

All Creatures Great And Small

Source: Kariba – Legacy of a Vision by Jonathan Waters

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