Only the elephants could have delivered such a moving tribute to Norman Travers. Shortly before he was buried last month on his farm, Imire, in eastern Zimbabwe, two 40-year-old bulls arrived unbidden, wandered through the crowd of 250 mourners, lumbered up to the coffin and sniffed it, long and intently.
When the last spadeful of earth had been cast on the grave, they stood together on the heap of ground he lay beneath. Three times in the ensuing week, they returned and stood by the grave. Travers’s family is convinced they were mourning, for elephants are known to have a fascination with death.
Travers was an eccentric Englishman, a war hero, an inspiring community leader and a lover of wildlife whose affection for his elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, hyenas and warthogs was as close as it was for his children. His numerous innovations in breeding, training and establishing techniques to enhance their survival drew scorn from experts but he was always proved right.
His three sons and daughter grew up in a household where his animals, including a half-ton juvenile rhino, wandered in and out of the house, ate up the flower beds and shared breakfast with the family on the lawn on Sundays. Most days he and his wife would go for walks with Cassius the lion (named after Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali), Bere the hyena, Dudley the warthog, Potter the otter, two labradors, a dachshund and a cat.
Cassius was barred from the sunset strolls after Travers noticed the lion slavering at the farm workers’ children they passed. Cassius’ favourite treat was being fed ice cream from a bowl by Travers, but despite that, died when he was well into his twenties, advanced years for a lion. His pelt ended up on the Travers’ lounge wall.
Rough-and-tumbles on the lawn with their pets often resulted in serious accidents. His wife, Gill, had a chunk of her calf taken out by a pet hyena. His son John nearly lost an eye to the swipe of a leopard. Cassius once tried to “serve” Travers, leaving him badly bruised and scratched.
But he was best known for being the first person to prove that African elephants, hitherto regarded as too dangerous and unpredictable, could in fact be domesticated. He developed a rhino breeding programme that doubled the rate of their unusually drawn-out reproduction. He pioneered the first buffalo herd free from foot-and-mouth disease that is endemic in the species.
Norman Meckiffe Travers was born in 1921 in what is now North Korea, where his mother, Amelia, ran a seaside hotel. His father used to hunt Siberian tigers before he abandoned the family for good when Travers was 6.
The boy was put on a boat to England to attend school in Tunbridge Wells. While back in Korea on holiday in the 1930s he was interned for three years with his mother by the Japanese during their annexation of the pensinsula.
He joined the British Army in the war and rose to command a tank regiment. In a battle with a German Panzer unit in Italy, one of his tanks took a direct hit, and Travers plunged into the blazing vehicle to pull one of the men out, an act for which he was awarded the Military Cross.
After the war he joined thousands of British veterans looking for a better life in Rhodesia, where he worked on a farm in the rolling hills of the Wedza district, about 110km east of Salisbury (now Harare). In 1950 he bought Imire nearby and began farming tobacco, maize and cattle.
In the late 1970s, during the country’s independence civil war, he was awarded the Legion of Merit award from the Rhodesian government for holding together the small white farming community at Wedza while under frequent attack from black nationalist guerrillas.
Around the same time, bored with conventional agriculture and longing for the presence of wild animals, Travers decided to branch out into game farming, and bought a herd of impala. They thrived and in ten years the farm was fully stocked with waterbuck, kudu, sable and eland as well.
In 1980 he took on an orphaned baby elephant from a wildlife sanctuary in Harare. As Nzou began to grow out of the confines of the Travers’ yard he decided to train her, defying the conventional wisdom that the African elephant was safe only behind a solid stockade.
The Indian mahouts’s technique — of subduing elephants with painful jabs behind the ear from a sharp iron rod — was anathema to him. Instead, he used kindness, affection and rewards of bucketfuls of horse cubes to overcome the animal’s mistrust of humans and to condition it to heed commands willingly. Soon Nzou was taking tourists for rides on her back, and Travers, simultaneously with a separate project on a farm north of Harare, could claim to be the first to domesticate the species.
He put Nzou and a bull elephant in a large paddock to breed, alongside a herd of buffalo. The bull died, and Travers stumbled onto another nuance of animal behaviour — that elephants, rather like Konrad Lorenz’s geese, could take on the identity of species other than their own. Nzou adopted the buffalo and became their matriarch.
She has continued to protect the bovines fiercely since then, and has killed 13 buffalo bulls who tried to separate females from the herd. When a bull pinned down one of Imire’s guides and was on the point of goring him, Nzou came to the man’s rescue and crushed the bull under her knees.
Ironically, Travers learnt of elephant behaviour close at hand from hunting expeditions since the 1950s in the Zambezi Valley. With curious detachment, he shot his last elephant at the age of 72. He argued that keeping down elephant populations was a vital strategy for their conservation in the wild.
In the 1980s, when Zimbabwe’s black rhino population crashed in an onslaught of poachers seeking rhino horn, Travers recognised the threat to the suddenly endangered species’ gene pool and decided to set up a breeding programme. Most experts derided him, insisting that a species from the dry heat of the Zambezi valley could not possibly survive in the freezing winters of Wedza. Travers’ answer was the 700-year-old cave paintings of the San people (Bushmen) near his farm and the many rhino depicted in them. If they were abounding there then, they could survive there now. He got approval for his project.
However, the two-and-a-half year weaning period for a baby rhino — after gestation of 15 months — would be too slow to stabilise the population. Travers applied the basic barnyard precedent of early separation of cattle calves from their mothers. He took baby rhinos from their mothers at a year to be bottle-fed, and had the mother back in oestrus within months. In 20 years Imire’s three female rhinos produced 14 calves to restock private and national reserves, twice as fast as other rhino breeding programmes.
Travers also pioneered the first introduction of wild buffalo on to farmland in 1980. Until then, buffalo were natural carriers of foot-and-mouth disease and had been restricted to corridors on the country’s extremities, outside a foot-and-mouth disease barrier. The African buffalo is one of the “big five” large mammals prized by big-game hunters, and its absence from private wildlife ranches in the rest of the country was a drawback to the industry.
Scientists at a research station near Harare, however, had developed the nucleus of a herd bred free of the pathogen and needed to test their hypothesis that buffalo could live on ordinary cattle-ranching land. Travers took them, and Imire soon became a breeding centre for foot-and-mouth-free buffalo too.
Travers is survived by his wife, Gillian, two sons and a daughter.
Norman Travers, MC, farmer and game conservationist, was born on October 10, 1921. He died of a heart attack on March 18, 2010, aged 88
Rest in Peace Norman. Condolences to the family from all ORAFs.
ORAFs records its thanks to the Times.
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