EXTRACT | Saving the last rhinos: The life of a frontline conservationist

Saving the last rhinos: The life of a frontline conservationist by Grant Fowlds and Graham Spence, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.
Saving the last rhinos: The life of a frontline conservationist by Grant Fowlds and Graham Spence, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

Goats are not the most glamorous of animals.

They are not cute or cuddly like kittens, they don’t obey commands like dogs, and they are not sleek and beautiful like lions or leopards.

But I have huge affection for them. Not only are they among the most indomitable of creatures, goats were the start of my love affair with animals and the magnificent wild places of Africa.

I was born on a 2200-hectare farm called Leeuwenbosch outside Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. It was a sheep and cattle ranch which had been owned by the Fowlds family since 1872, and much of the land was still untamed. Aloes stood tall like spires of stately cathedrals, while grasslands and savannah spread lush-green in the valley of the Bushman’s River that snaked through our lands on its way to the sea. On the higher ground, shrub thickets and thorn trees with spikes like daggers dotted the terrain, sprawling up the rocky kopjes – the hillocks – as they had since time immemorial.

It was a childhood with unimaginable freedoms compared to today. Like many other white boys growing up in southern Africa, my first language was Xhosa and my playmates black kids living on the farm. When I was six or seven, I would often disappear into the bush for several days, and after a night or two my mother would start worrying and ask the workers if they knew where I was.

The answer was always the same. Yes, I was fine and had just eaten breakfast of umphokoqo – dried, crumbly maize meal sometimes served with sour milk called amasi – at the staff huts. To this day, I would choose umphokoqo, the Xhosa staple diet, over any other breakfast, although it is equally delicious for lunch or dinner.

Mom would then despatch a search party to bring me home for more food and wash my ears, which were so filthy she could have planted potatoes in them.

I was the oldest child, born a year before my sister Ros. We had a younger sister, Mary-Nan, who drowned in a reservoir when she was three. My father was away playing cricket at the time, and the anguish that caused my parents was incalculable. A decade was to pass before they had children again; my brother William and, a year later, Jayne. Both Mom and Dad came from rugged pioneer stock and were tough people, but they were always gentle with us. My dad once said to me that parents who are hard on their children have never experienced the loss of one.

Despite that period of almost bottomless grief, Leeuwenbosch thrived as a farm. There had been tragedies before Mary-Nan, as the unusual appearance of four cypresses outside my parents’ home attests. The trees are the sole alien species in an indigenous landscape. They were planted by my great-grandparents, William and Gertrude Fowlds, in memory of the four children they lost in a row as infants early last century. As my father wrote in his memoirs, ‘One is astounded to think how parents could cope with such a tragedy.’

Cope they did. The people of the Eastern Cape district of Alexandria are mainly descendants of the resilient British settlers from the 1820s onwards and the impressive Xhosa tribes with whom they clashed during a hundred-year-long border war. There is much blood in our history, much tragedy, much courage and much goodness. I was privileged to grow up there.

The defining moment of my childhood was when my maternal grandfather, Claude Rippon, took me to a trading post at the Carlisle Bridge on the Great Fish River one weekend. I still have no idea why, as Carlisle Bridge is one of the most barren places in the country. The joke is that when a plague of locusts swarmed, looking for countryside to strip bare, they bypassed Carlisle Bridge figuring they had already been there.

We passed a yard where goats were sold. I even remember the name of the breeder, Mr Norton. For some reason, I decided there and then that I was going to become a goat farmer. With the dogged persistence of youth, I persuaded my grandfather that I simply could not live without the animals.

What he made of a seven-year-old wanting to buy semi-wild goats, I have no idea, apart from scratching his head and assuming I was a little unusual. Or, more likely, crazy. But grandfather Claude was the kindest man I have ever known and he bought me five ewes and a ram.

A few days later I returned home from school and was told that ‘the present’ from my grandfather had arrived. I can’t remember ever being so excited. My life changed on that day.

The goats were as skittish as wild horses, which came as a surprise to me as I was expecting something tamer, like sheep. I was rudely disabused of that notion as we tried to corral them into a nearby camp. Fortunately, the workers on Leeuwenbosch were experienced stockmen and somehow we coaxed the wild, rangy animals into a grazing enclosure.

My new life began. Soon I was breeding the animals, and my dad seconded one of his workers called Tolly Masumpa to help me.

Tolly was a godsend. He had been badly burnt in a veld fire some years ago when he tried to kick a can of paraffin out of the way and the flames flared up his legs. His limbs were covered with pink scar tissue and, as a result, he couldn’t do the hard manual labour that mainstream farm work required. He also couldn’t ride any more, which was a problem as this was before the time of off-road motorbikes and most stock herding was done on horseback.

But Tolly was undefeatable. Being lame was just a minor hassle as far as he was concerned, and we bought him a Scotch cart – a two-wheel cart – at an old farm auction with a drawing horse to help him get around.

Every day Tolly would ride to the camps in his cart and we would round up the goats if they needed to be herded to new grazing, or for dipping. He even had a compartment in the back of his cart where he put the kids that couldn’t keep up with their mothers.

Boer goats are extremely hardy creatures, requiring very little maintenance. They only need to be dipped for lice and ticks every week or so. Other than that, they fended for themselves, but I always kept them in camps close to our house where I could be with them. I was so fanatical that my dad eventually told me to stop physically handling them. It worried him that I loved the animals too much.

The herd was expanding nicely and I persuaded my dad that we needed to increase our stock at an even faster rate. We went to an auction and bought the mangiest black and blue goats we could find. We only paid a pittance for them, but they were pitiful specimens. However, that was my plan; to put decent rams on substandard ewes, which both accelerated the growth of the herd and upgraded bloodlines. Each generation would produce better-quality animals.

Goats were the focal point of my life. So much so that I was called ‘Goat’ at school, which wasn’t the coolest nickname to have. But it gave me some minor celebrity status as every Wednesday afternoon I got time off to attend auctions and buy and sell animals while other kids were playing rugby or cricket. I even got a write-up in the local newspaper, which in those days was the street-cred equivalent of getting a hundred thousand likes on Facebook.

By the time I was sixteen, I was running more than a thousand animals. The profits paid for my school fees, which was no mean feat seeing I was at St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown, an expensive private school.

I couldn’t have done it without Tolly. He was brilliant. He could not read or write – in fact, he could only count to five – and yet he knew every animal by sight. At times we would be driving a herd of more than four hundred to the dip and he’d tell me one was missing. I would say no, they’re all there. He would shake his head, muttering that the one that always walks at the back, or the one with the red patch, or the one with the bent horn, was not in the herd.

We’d go back and search the camps and, without fail, Tolly was right. We always found the goat he had described, whether it was lost, sick or, sadly, dead.

I still find it incredible to think that the entire herd of unruly creatures was run by myself, barely a teenager, Tolly, who was lame, and my border collie Kola, who slept by my bed each night. Kola had never been formally trained, yet he could corral the animals as expertly as any of the top sheepdogs in Britain.

Despite his injuries, Tolly lived until he was eighty, dying soon after my fiftieth birthday. He was one of the best; my finest mentor and friend, even with our age difference.

What I didn’t realise at the time was how much dealing with goats drew me deep into the ancient spirituality of Xhosa culture. A goat to both Zulu and Xhosa tribes is more than just a sturdy animal uniquely adapted to the harshness of this continent. It is a mystical creature used in rituals and ceremonies. Ancestors are extremely important in all African cultures, and almost all my buyers were black South Africans wanting quality goats to commune with the spirits of their forebears through sacrificial slaughter.

I did on occasion send my animals to the abattoir, but was so upset at seeing them driven into the slaughterhouse that I gave it up. The slaughterhouses also paid peanuts. A Xhosa wanting a goat as lobola, or bride-price, to impress a future father-in-law paid far more than any abattoir catering for the white market.

Even that was hard for me. I hated to see my animals tethered by the neck and led off down the road. I had constantly to tell myself that I was a businessman, not a pet breeder.

At that stage, I was also still running wild with Xhosa boys on the farm, hunting, fishing and unravelling mysteries of the bush with barefoot botanists who may not have known any Latin names, but sure as hell knew how to live off the land. I discovered how to dig deep in the soil for succulent bulbs that could be squashed for drinking water and then the pulp could be eaten. I learned how to pick prickly pears without getting ripped by cactus thorns and how to smoke out a beehive with a match and tattered piece of hessian to get the honey.

We would be gone for days, but this was no camping with fancy tents, fleece-lined sleeping bags and blow-up mattresses. We sheltered in an old rusty water tank with a hole for a door. The days were blazing hot, but the nights often cold with thin frost crisping the ground. We huddled around red-glowing log fires, roasting small animals or birds we had shot for dinner, then creeping exhausted under a shared blanket on the hard earthen floor.

My friends were almost always older than me. Some were abakhwetha, teenagers who had just been through a circumcision ceremony known as Ulwaluko, which in Xhosa culture is the transition from youth to adult. Sometimes they showed me their recently circumcised manhood, which looked extremely painful. I believed that I too would have to undergo an Ulwaluko before becoming a man, and was not looking forward to it. The Xhosa youths laughed when I told them that. Ulwaluko was not for white boys, they said.

I also learned how to hunt with my black friends, first with catapults, then, as we got older, with .22s and a .410 shotgun for guinea fowl and other game birds.

But I soon discovered the hard way that my love for animals would kill my love of hunting stone dead.

It was one of the most traumatic and long-lasting lessons of my life.

* This is an extract from Saving the last rhinos: The life of a frontline conservationist by Grant Fowlds and Graham Spence, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers. Readers are invited to attend to book launch on Wednesday, November 27 at 17:30 at the Banneton Cafe and Bakery in Port Elizabeth.

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