|Noah's Ark to save
W Johnson, Harare
venturing back onto his game park four months ago, after it had been invaded by
war veterans, Ian Rutledge found his chief tracker hanged from a tree.
The sight of John Mugwise, his best friend, swinging among the branches where the men had tied leopard bait, has stayed with him since. It was the beginning of a nightmare that culminated last week in the news that Rutledge's land was to be handed over to the veterans permanently: his was one of 211 farms dotted around Zimbabwe that President Robert Mugabe had decided to confiscate.
Rutledge, 39, has no idea if he will ever be compensated for the loss of his life's work. But he is clear in his resolve to leave the 8,500-acre Dindingwe game park, 150 miles southwest of Harare, with dignity. For him that means saving as much wildlife as possible.
Rutledge is preparing a unique Noah's Ark-style operation to save the animals from a rain of spears and bullets that will otherwise accompany the handover to the landless.
He has managed to rent some land at nearby Lalapanzi and this week will use a helicopter to begin the tricky process of herding large animals into about 50 containers that will then be driven to the new park.
In all he hopes to save 15 giraffe, 300 impala, 60 zebra, 100 sable, 250 kudu, 100 wildebeest, 100 warthog, 40 duiker, 60 bushpig, 50 waterbuck and 30 ostriches, together with anything else he might round up.
The predators - jackals, baboons, caracals, civets, genets, cheetahs and leopards - will be left to their own devices. "Inevitably, we'll probably leave 20% of the animals behind," said Rutledge, who also has to look after his wife Lou, daughter Renee, and dozens of farm workers.
Theirs is a race against time, for when Rutledge was served with his expropriation order he was also told that at least 60 squatter families - about 400 people - would be brought to Dindingwe during the coming days. "Everything left here will be extinct within a fortnight," he said.
A country that until last year was one of the healthiest and most successful in Africa for white farmers and wildlife alike is in the grip of Mugabe's revolution. Closing the gates of Dindingwe behind him, Rutledge will be leaving for an uncertain future. The loss of Mugwise will always pain him.
"I relied so heavily on him," he said, remembering that awful day in April. "Everyone knew that if you wanted to attack Dindingwe, you had to get past John, and so the 'vets' did. When all this is over, I'd like to find the guys who did it."
Murder victim: John Mugwise, tracker, was
Rubbing salt into the bitterest of wounds, the local police, compliant with the reign of terror, concluded that Mugwise had committed suicide, even though he was found with handcuffs attached to one ankle. "There's no knowing what he went through," Rutledge said.
The changes seen at Dindingwe since April point to an environmental crisis that awaits as white farms and game parks are closed down.
"There's little water here and within a year this will be desert - and the squatters will move away again," Rutledge said.
Experts in Harare warn that the cost to wildlife of Mugabe's chaotic rule will be heavy. "This is, or was, one of the world's treasure houses," said Don Heath, editor of African Hunter magazine. "But in the national parks the battle was lost some time ago."
Heath said that as early as 1993 Mugabe had allowed most of the country's white rhino to be poached into oblivion. With corruption endemic in the Wildlife and Parks Directorate, up to 1,500 elephants are thought to have been killed in the Zambezi valley last year.
Heath and his colleagues believe predators such as Zimbabwe's 7,000 cheetahs and 20,000 leopards have suffered most. The veterans blame the big cats for attacks on their cattle and have used packs of dogs to hunt them down.
Thousands of zebra, impala, kudu, eland and other antelope have been slaughtered with automatic weapons and sold for meat. "The squatters want everything off the land so it is safe for cattle," said Heath.
Rutledge and other rural whites are clinging to the forlorn hope that Mugabe's promise to expropriate more than 3,000 farms is mere hot air.
They hope that the threat of more nationwide strikes, such as a "stay away" last week, coupled with spiralling inflation and food shortages, could make the government think again before pursuing policies aimed at keeping Mugabe in power after the 2002 presidential elections, when he will be 78.