Tackling the big issues of African wildlife – and some babies of the bush

Review: John Yeld

A Rhino in my Garden – Love, life and the African bush, by Conita Walker (Jacana)

CLIVE Walker of Lapalala Wilderness fame is one of southern Africa’s best-known conservationists, his name synonymous with that of rhinos, the Endangered Wildlife Trust andenvironmental education in the African bushveld.

So the old adage of “Behind every successful man stands a woman” probably applies here, right? The answer to that is a definite “No”, because Conita Walker stands firmly alongside her husband of 50 years, as this wonderful story of her life and of her adventures, achievements, successes and heartaches – some shared with her husband, some intensely personal – makes clear.

Extrovert Clive had a clear headstart through his work as wildlife artist, writer and game ranger in the Tuli Block, among many other strands in his professional career, and undoubtedly garnered more publicity than his wife during their long journey together. But Conita’s role was clearly that of partner, complementing much of her husband’s work rather than ever being a mere supporter or cheerleader.

Through him, this feisty former air hostess also became, as she puts it, “one of them – bush-baby, tree-hugger, umweltfreak (environmental fanatic)” – and her rich narrative, written with the help of Sally Smith, is a fascinating and moving account of her introduction to the world of conservation and of the many rewards, triumphs, setbacks and struggles that she and her family sometimes celebrated and sometimes endured.

Conita had an early introduction to the bush, being born just months before the start of World War 2 into a German Lutheran missionary family and raised in the then still remote rural area of Sekhukhuneland, straddling present-day Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces.

Her story ranges widely, taking in family history on both sides of her marriage over several generations, and includes many emotional memories – of her family’s long and difficult journey returning to Germany while the war was still raging (her father had been interned in South Africa until 1944), of fleeing Berlin in 1945 ahead of the advancing Soviet army with just a single favourite toy and the clothes on her back, and further “wrenching goodbyes” when her father decided to resume his missionary work in South Africa in late 1949.

Often as a result of her personal experience, Conita tackles some of the big issues of her time, both global and local – war, apartheid and racial polarity, the tensions between nature conservation and human socio-economic development, environmental destruction, the TRC, and, particularly, poaching and the “Rhino Wars” and land restitution – and she’s not shy to offer opinions.

But the heart of this book is really her life with Clive in the Waterberg area of Limpopo and of her pioneering work in raising and caring for orphaned rhino calves – the first, a black rhino baby named Bwana who arrived as “a photogenic, defenceless orphan”, followed a white rhino calf Munyane, another black rhino Moêng, and even a baby hippo, Mothlo.

If you thought such work would be fun and deeply rewarding you’d be right, but then you may not have considered all the other aspects that Conita describes with such clarity: the utter dedication and passion needed 24/7, the assault on all your senses, particularly when a young animal is ill – “You’ll see, touch, hear and especially smell things you’d much rather not” – the despair and desperation when things go wrong or aren’t working out as you’d hoped for, and, above all, the humour and massive emotional energy needed to cope with the many ups and downs involved in caring for young wild animals.

You’ll find yourself smiling, laughing, frowning and grimacing as you follow Conita and her helpers – and you’re quite likely to end up shedding a tear or two with her as well.

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would, and can thoroughly recommend it.


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