Lion research turns harrowing for Soldotna biologist

Out of Africa

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2001

An area wildlife biologist had no idea what lay ahead when he took a trip to help capture lions in Zimbabwe.

"I never saw a lion the whole time I was there," said Larry Lewis, who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.

Instead, Lewis was caught up in the turmoil that erupted after President Robert Mugabe began encouraging veterans of Zimbabwe's war for independence to seize white-owned farms.

Since March last year, militants have seized more than 1,700 white-owned farms and turned the land over to blacks. The government has announced plans to seize 4,600, farms -- nearly all of the farms controlled by the nation's white minority.

"I really equate it to Nazi Germany and the brown shirts terrorizing everybody," Lewis said.

He and his wife, Valerie, traveled at the invitation of Norman Monks, senior wildlife ecologist at Mana Pools National Park in northern Zimbabwe. Lewis met Monks when the Alaska chapter of Safari Club International invited him to speak on his research in Soldotna. They only talked for a few minutes, but Monks invited Lewis, who has considerable experience capturing big game animals in Alaska, to help capture lions at Mana Pools. He repeated the invitation by e-mail.

"I came home and told my wife, 'Guess what. We're going to Africa whether we can afford it or not,'" Lewis said.

He took five weeks leave without pay, and the couple left July 14, stopping two days in London before flying to Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. Lewis said there was civil unrest and strikes when they arrived. The streets were full of potholes, and guards wielding AK-47 assault rifles lined the streets by Mugabe's two presidential palaces. The street between them was sealed at night.

"If you go down that street, you get shot," he said.

Visitors don't photograph the palaces, he said, and cars leave the streets when Mugabe passes.

"If his motorcade is going down the street and you don't get your car completely off the road, you get shot," he said.

Monks came with two Land Rovers to drive them to Mana Pools, a five-hour trip from Harare. They took two-lane paved roads for most of the way, then followed a rough dirt road for the last hour and a half.

"Elephants run out in front of you," he said.

Monks' house was on the banks of the Zambezi River. There was no glass or screen in the windows, only chicken wire.

"My wife said, 'There's these giant spiders on our wall,'" Lewis said. "He said, 'That's good. They eat mosquitoes.'"

Lewis bought that, since they were to sleep under mosquito nets, anyway. Then a giant lizard ran down the wall. A rat peered from under the corrugated roof. Monks chased that off.

"There were frogs hibernating in the bathroom. They were stuck all over the walls," Lewis said.

Monks' family took meals outdoors under a giant mopani tree. Mana Pools was magical.

"As you're eating, these animals are just walking by -- elephants, cape buffalo, warthogs, impalas, hippopotami," Lewis said.

Elephants looked in the windows of the house, he said. One day, an elephant came and Monks called them back to the house for safety. They didn't have time, so they hid behind a termite mound. Lewis peaked over the top for a picture.


A bull elephant browses through the forest. Lewis said it wasn't uncommon to see elephants, cape buffalo, warthogs, impalas and hippopotami "just walking by"

Photo courtesy of Larry Lewis

"He flared his ears, trumpeted and charged," he said.

He ducked out of sight, and the elephant wandered off.

Though Lewis never saw a lion, he accompanied Monks twice on trips trying to capture them. To lure them, Monks played recordings of a lion killing a warthog from giant speakers on top of his Land Rover.

"It can be heard from three kilometers away. We were on the Zambian border. When we shut off the tape, we could here dogs barking in the Zambian villages," Lewis said.

The stereo broke, so Lewis helped Monks to track radio-collared lions. Monks carried the radio equipment, and Lewis carried a fully automatic rifle.

"We were following fresh spoor. We were going through a creek bottom. We could smell the cats. We knew we were within feet of them, but the vegetation was so thick, we couldn't see them," he said.

Monks told him to fire single warning shots if a lion charged.

"I told him I'm not worried about the collared animals. I'm worried about the ones that aren't collared. He said what he's really worried about is poachers, and if we see one, we'll probably have to shoot.

"I said, 'How do you know if they're poachers?'

"He said, 'That's easy. They'll be shooting at us.'"

Poachers use machine guns, AK-47s and high-powered rifles, Lewis said. Luckily, they did not encounter any.

The Lewises stayed about a week with the Monks. Then, their host took them to visit a hunting camp in the park. They wound up staying there a week with a white farming family. Zimbabweans have a different style of camping, he said.

"It was a large family with inlaws, outlaws, servants. They brought a kitchen sink and a maid to wash the dishes," he said.

Lewis said they became friends with the farmers, David and Eileen Matthews, and returned with them to their 40-acre farm in Banket, about 100 kilometers northwest of Harare. In Banket and nearby Chinhoyi, they found turmoil.

According to a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. account, the 17-year bush war that led to Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 was all about land reform. But there has been little reform during Mugabe's 20-year rule. While Britain has offered money to buy white-owned farms for redistribution, the few that have been bought mostly have gone to Zimbabwe's elite.

Recent news reports say whites, which comprise roughly 100,000 of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people, own from 30 to 70 percent of Zimbabwe's arable land. Corruption is destroying the economy and much of the population has AIDS. Mugabe has pursued a costly war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In February 2000, Mugabe's government lost a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would have allowed land to be seized without compensation. Even so, the government has encouraged seizure of white farms.

Critics say Mugabe, who faces a difficult election next year, is using the issue as a political tool.

Lewis said militants have seized many farms around Banket.

"The government brings them in government vehicles, drops them off and says, 'There's your farm.' They steal everything. Legally, the farmer has six months to leave, but they don't give them that. They terrorize them. These farmers have to barricade themselves in their homes."


A crop guard named Tiger poses with Lewis and a warthog that Lewis shot in the Zimbabwean bush.

Photo courtesy of Larry Lewis

Militants beat white farmers' servants and burn their homes, he said.

"More blacks have been killed than whites," he said.

Farm houses have bars on the windows and doors and most have steel gates to seal off bedrooms at night.

Behind the gates, the farmers keep two-way radios and firearms. Farm compounds are enclosed behind fences topped by barbed wire and protected by armed guards and dogs.

Whites are beaten or killed if they resist confiscation. Lewis said some of the Matthews' friends were beaten and murdered while he was there. Police turn a blind eye.

"A lot of people are beaten at the police station. If they fight back, they are arrested for inciting violence," Lewis said.

Lewis attended a security meeting where white farmers agreed not to resist the seizure of their farms. They decided instead to radio their neighbors in case of trouble for help escaping their compounds. Lewis said one man radioed for help and a neighbor brought a motorcycle to rescue him. When they told police in Chinhoyi that the farm was being looted, they were arrested for not wearing helmets.

Lewis and his hosts went to a market in Chinhoyi. Ten minutes after they returned home, they heard a warning on the radio to stay out. Militants had thrown a brick through the windshield of a white farmer's car. The farmer escaped, so the militants robbed some black South African tourists.

The turmoil intensified after Mugabe declared a Heroes Holiday to encourage militants to seize white farms.

"There was an uprising in the town. Anyone white was captured and beaten. The white stores were looted," Lewis said.

He joined a dozen farmers who went to escort their children home from the school in Chinhoyi. The only police escort was a motorcycle with two young officers. Luckily, the school buses were not attacked.

One day blacks set up road blocks outside Chinhoyi and threatened to kill any whites who passed. The whites set up roadblocks further from town to warn whites not to go near.

Lewis visited a mining town called Alaska just north of Chinhoyi.

"We drove through, but it wasn't safe to stop. That's where a lot of the murders were taking place," he said.

He and Valerie visited a farm near Banket whose owners raised elephants to ferry tourists to a camp in the mountains.

"We showed up, and they put on this great big show with the elephants. Then they put us on elephants. After five minutes, I was ready to bail out. It's not very comfortable. Your legs stick straight out, and they have wire-bristle hair," he said.

The next day, militants seized the farm. The owners escaped with the elephants, Lewis said.

He managed one day of hunting in Banket, and shot a warthog. He gave the meat to servants on the Matthews' farm who dressed it. After that, it became too dangerous to hunt.

"If the war veterans spot you with a firearm, they accuse you of shooting at them and you're arrested," he said.

He said he knows white farmers aren't blameless.

"One thing that I got upset about and finally spoke up about is, they call their servants 'boy,'" he said. "I said, 'Why do you call them 'boy?' They support their families, they work hard and you obviously trust them.'"


Traditional rural frican homes made of mud and thatched grass sit in a village in Zimbabwe

Photo courtesy of Larry Lewis

Farmers answered with stony silence, he said.

Lewis said black servants are loyal and grateful for work, and the farmers treat them like family. But it's a benevolent dictatorship.

"They say, 'We love you, you're part of the family, but you'll never be equal to us,'" he said.

Monks had planned to drive the Lewises from Banket to Lake Kariba. There, they were to catch a plane to the town of Victoria Falls in western Zimbabwe. But Monk called and said the drive was no longer safe.

The Matthews drove them instead to Harare, where they caught a different plane. They spent three days at Victoria Falls. When it came time to leave, their Air Zimbabwe plane was 11 hours late. The airline cited mechanical problems. Later, Lewis found out that Mugabe had commandeered it.

Three days after the Lewises left Victoria Falls, insurgents looted the town and beat local residents.

Because their plane was late, the Lewises missed their connections in Harare. The airline put them up in a hotel.

"They brought a big bus, like an army bus, to pick us up at Harare airport," he said. "They hadn't told us where we were going. The streets were deserted. Occasionally, we'd see a barrel burning with some people around it."

The bus turned a corner and a crane blocked the road.

"The driver jumps up and leaves the bus. I'm waiting for the guys to come out with machine guns," Lewis said.

No one spoke, Lewis said, but looking around, he could tell other passengers had similar thoughts. It turned out the driver had gone to find the hotel. When he returned, there was a collective sigh of relief. The hotel was luxurious.

"It was a five-star hotel with concierges and all that. Then there's a bag lady on the street begging," he said.

At a market in Harare, the Lewises were mobbed by poor Zimbabweans hawking Native art. People crowded close shoving wares in their faces and didn't back away when Lewis yelled.

"Finally, I grabbed my wife by the hand and ran across the street. It made me nervous. All these people followed us, and they weren't even carrying anything," he said.

The crowd scattered when a police car began backing out of its parking place.

Finally, the Lewises left Harare.

"There was a lot of high-fiving going on in the plane. People were very happy to get out," Lewis said.

After the Lewises came home Aug. 19, Zimbabwe's government ordered the Matthews, their daughter and son-in-law to leave their land. Lewis said he has not heard from them since.

Zimbabwe agreed Sept. 5 to halt the occupation of white farms, protect freedom of expression and act against violence and intimidation. The United Nations Development Program is to work with Zimbabwe on land reform, and Britain has reaffirmed its offer to provide money to finance land reform.

However, a CNN report said Mugabe has not publicly endorsed the agreement.

Lewis said he knows from e-mails that the violence and seizures continue. Whites are trying to flee Zimbabwe, he said, but few other nations will take them. He said Australia, New Zealand, England and the United States have closed their doors. Canada was advertising for immigrants but wanted only highly trained professionals, he said. The fleeing farmers are hard workers, and the United States should take them in, Lewis said.

He said he did not consider himself a partisan in the turmoil around Banket and Chinhoyi.

"I just saw what I saw," he said.

Still, he has become a supporter of a bill before Congress promoting U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwean leaders who have encouraged lawlessness and violence and discouraging international loans and debt relief for Zimbabwe until the rule of law is restored.

Meanwhile, Lewis said, he will spread the word for Americans to steer clear of Zimbabwe.

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