Chipangali, founded by Viv Wilson is a wildlife orphanage, just outside Bulawayo. I first saw Mr Wilson on TV when I was about seven or eight. I can remember sitting, open-mouthed watching him picking up snakes, explaining all about them in his squeaky voice.
“Well, Ken,” he would say while holding the slithering serpent in his bare hands, showing its amazing fangs. “A bite from the Gaboon Viper…”
Until then, what I knew about snakes, was that they bite. All of them. All of them were poisonous and all should die. Immediately. Accompanied by a lot of yelling and screaming “Tshiya! Tshiya!” The lifeless body and squashed head should not be touched. It should be held with a foshola or stick on its way to the fire, cos it could still poison you.
When I was about ten, a female steenbok was savaged by dogs leaving behind a little orphan. We could have kept it, but the last one, a duiker, grew up a nuisance. It ate all my mum’s roses and when it got around to eating my dad’s seedlings, he said it had to go.
So to avoid the pain of what happened to ‘Spikey’ we called Chipangali. Viv Wilson himself arrived. I clearly remember standing off to one side, while the adults talked, amazed to see the man in the flesh. I mean, he was famous, he was important. He had a TV show!
He spoke first to the adults, but when he asked who found it, I said I did. Which was sort of true. I happened across it, curled up in a nest of sorts in the grass, fast asleep, its mother nowhere in sight. I took to watching it over the next few weeks. It lay hidden, perfectly still, its tiny head tucked against its body. From my vantage point up a tree, I once watched the mother approach to feed it. She moved so silently through the bush, I almost missed her.
I guess the baby was about three weeks old when I was told by the goat herd (Kasari) that two stray dogs had killed a steenbok. When he held up the body and I saw the swollen udder, I wondered if it was the one I watched.
Mr. Wilson hunkered down and I told him the story. I knew everyone thought I was telling fibs; adults have that look about them when they don’t believe kids. He didn’t. He waited a bit and when the adults got bored and drifted away, he asked me more about the other animals I watched. He was particularly interested in a pair of owls I had observed for three years. Later, when the museums people came, I discovered the pair were very rare, almost extinct species and the experts were pretty annoyed that I knew about them for years, without reporting it. They could have been doing studies, taken the eggs, or whatever else it is that PhD’s do.
There has been a lot of talk over the years about Chipangali. Some people say that Chipangali is just a Zoo. That money meant for research isn’t used for proper research etc. I don’t have an opinion on this. How could I? I’ve take my children there a stack of times over the years and they have seen animals close up they usually only saw running away, or by the lights of the car.
I’ll not argue about Mr. Wilson’s fund raising abilities though: he’s good. Very good. He had to be, to keep a place like Chipangali going. I won’t get involved with the debate, but I can say, I was involved with a research project to do with leopards and dealt with Barry Wilson. At no time did I think that he skimped on the terms of the project. Later I was involved with a lion, when Mr Wilson was trying to work out how to release them back into the wild, and again, I was impressed by his dedication.
And children…they can pick a fraud a mile away and no way, was Mr. Wilson’s love for animals not real and enduring.
But, as I said, he is very good at fund raising. He knew how to get money, who to butter up and how to get publicity.
In the early ‘80’s Mrs Chitepo was the Minister responsible for National Parks. She is a very nice lady, very quiet spoken and she tried hard for the Parks in the time she was in Cabinet. I was invited by some of my Parks buddies to the opening of the Elephant enclosure at Chipangali. They all looked very smart in their Nat Parks uniforms, putting on a good show for her.
She was smart too, very well dressed in a powder blue outfit with a cute little hat. She wore round glasses and wasn’t accompanied by all the security guards bristling with guns we later associated with government ministers.
I don’t remember Mr Wilson that day, but I bet he was there.
Mrs Chitepo was to give a speech and the mic. etc. was setup in the viewing platform overlooking the elephant pen.
The Jumbo stood around ever so patiently, eating his grass, occasionally scuffing the ground with his foot, while she murmured on, slightly above his eye level. He posed for the ZBC TV cameras, throwing dust over his back or drinking, with Mrs. Chitepo in the background, the microphone in her hand.
It’s hard to set up a decent public address system outdoors and hey, this is Zimbabwe…but us, oh so polite people, stood four metres below her, heads tilted up with that attentive look we all learned in our good, old fashioned, Zimboe schools…
Obviously the Ellie didn’t attend school, because he listened for a while, sucked some water into his trunk and blew it, all over Mrs Chitepo …
He ruined her dress and shorted out the public address system. Luckily, she couldn’t see a thing through her glasses… but she was a good sport about the whole thing. I’m sure ZBC got enough footage to put on TV and I hope Mr Wilson got whatever funding he was rooting for by inviting her to Chipangali that day. And it certainly cut the inaudible, boring speech short.
Sadly, Mr Wilson died last year. I saw him shortly before, at a sponsored walk , a crowd of kids all around him. I noticed he still talked to kids. Really talked to them. He knew it’s through them that we pass the message. Once again, I noticed his unswerving dedication to wildlife conservation and love of animals.
RIP Mr. Wilson.
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