After three years the rangers and native beaters are blas� and generally laugh uproariously when one of their number is attacked by an animal. In the night, if a rhinoceros stumbles through camp snorting intemperately, no one gives the clumsy invader a thought. Each man takes the sleep he deserves, and on awakening for the next day of battle, carefully inspects his boots before putting them on, to be sure a puff adder has not crawled into one of them during the night.
For the past two months Fothergill and his rangers have been working on an island covered with mopani trees and acacia thorn, known in the logbook simply as "Island 100" because it is the 100th the rescuers have tackled in 1961. Island 100 is by far the biggest area to be cleared in the course of Operation Noah. It covers more than 15 square miles. It is too big for the rescuers to work efficiently, but they could not afford to wait for the island to shrink because the stranded animals were already running out of food.
To clear oversized Island 100, Fothergill and his crew built sturdy brush fences to divide the island into several parts, then cleared the parts one by one. In order to make use of the fences, it was necessary first of all to clear off elephants and rhinos that would tear them down.
The 19 elephants on Island 100 proved more reluctant than expected. Lines of native beaters marched across the island, rattled beer cans filled with stones, fired off cherry bombs and shouted at the tops of their lungs. They drove the elephants to the water, but the huge beasts refused to swim to the mainland, two miles distant. For days the beaters made drives. For days the elephants resisted. Finally they turned nasty and started charging their tormentors. Reluctantly, Fothergill ordered five of them shot. The elephants got the message swiftly. Next day they were gone, having swum to the mainland under cover of darkness. Fothergill was disconsolate as a surgeon who had just lost a patient on the table. "I did everything I could to get them off peacefully," he said. "But they were fouling the whole operation. Ordinarily we carry only one gun for last-minute self-defense when we expect to encounter elephant or buffalo. Otherwise we go unarmed, even after rhino. They're too scarce to kill. When we go after the rhinos we purposely don't carry a gun, otherwise in the confusion of a charge we might be tempted to use it."
The 50 buffalos on Island 100 were ignored on the theory that they would leave the island in their own time—if other animals were removed, there would be enough grazing left to sustain the buffalos until the rising waters force them to head for shore.
The nine rhinos on Island 100 had to go quickly. Rhinos are browsers, and the supply of food for them was low. So Fothergill and his crew straightway embarked on rhino rescue, the most involved and exacting of all rescue procedures.
Fothergill stalks each rhino armed only with a rifle that shoots darts of gallamine triethiodide, a paralytic drug. The dose must be calculated carefully, based on the rhino's estimated weight within 100 pounds. Too much is fatal. Too little has no effect. The shot must strike home either in the rump or in the shoulder to penetrate the rhino's hide. It cannot strike a main artery, or the animal will die quickly. It must lodge in the muscle tissue. To be this accurate in delivering the shot, Fothergill must hold fire until he is within five or 10 feet of the rhino and in danger of a charge.
No margin for error
Once the shot strikes home, if the dose is accurate, it takes the rhino 16 minutes to drop. "During this time," says Fothergill, "you just concentrate on staying close ro him and avoiding his charges. Once he drops, you've got to be right there to give him the antidote injection or he dies." Along with the antidote of neostigmine methyl sulfate goes a tranquilizer to keep the beast relatively calm. Swiftly the rhino is tied securely, its feet roped together. Then the native boys roll it onto a sledge, and 50 to 60 of them drag it to the water's edge where the sledge is slid atop a raft made of oil drums. The raft is towed to the mainland while native boys pour water on the rhino to lessen the chance of sunstroke.
At Matuziadona on the mainland, which forms part of a game reserve into which most rescued animals are released, the rhino is dragged ashore on its sledge. Cautiously, the rangers untie its feet. Fothergill sloshes a bucket of water on the beast and then runs for the boat on the lake as fast as he can. The rhino comes to with a snort and a toss of its head, leaps to its feet and charges the first thing in sight, which is usually Fothergill. The enraged rhinos often follow him into the water. On one occasion, after Fothergill had climbed into the boat, the rhino kept right on coming and drove its horns into the gunwale. Since that attack the boat has always been judiciously moored farther offshore in water deeper than a rhinoceros.