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Ian Thomson

FGASA Member Number One l Ian Thomson

Have ever wondered who was the first member of FGASA? His name is Ian Thomson, and his FGASA number is 1. He still lives and breathes wildlife and nature conservation.

Humble Beginnings
Born in Scotland in 1945, as a child Ian moved with his family to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Finishing school at the unique bush-orientated Plumtree School, where he developed his first love of the wilds, Ian managed a tobacco, cattle and maize farm, before deciding to join his two elder brothers in the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management.  Thus Ian not only pursued his passion for wildlife but had an in-depth hands-on training in all aspects of wildlife management and conservation.

The Road to Conservation
Initially based in Chirundu, on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia, Ian was responsible for a huge hunting concession consisting of five hunting camps, hosting local and international clients.  He was predominantly involved with everything that had to do with reserve management, from elephants and buffaloes to even the smallest creatures, insects and plant life that constitute an eco-system.

After every hunting season wildlife assessments had to be undertaken.  This was done by vehicle on the few existing tracks, but mostly with foot patrols, going from waterhole to waterhole, along elephant paths and rivers, up and down hills and even sitting up in trees doing 24-hour game counts.  Although some aerial counts were undertaken using small aircraft, large numbers of rhino, buffalo, elephants and many more wildlife species was best done at water holes. Today’s modern computer technology was unheard of in those days, which meant lots of paperwork back at the office once the appraisals were completed.

Ian pointed out that “In those days’ conservation had to be done on your feet so one knew very inch of your area.”  Ian remembers clearly when one night a herd of buffalo came through the camp surrounding his tent grazing until daybreak. When counted at the nearby waterhole it was estimated there were 1,200 buffalo in that herd. “The now critically endangered Black Rhino were so numerous as to be a nuisance during foot patrol!”

After 6 years in the Zambezi Valley, Ian was relocated to Nyanga National Park as Senior Ranger. Situated in the north of Zimbabwe‘s Eastern Highlands and one of the first national parks to be declared in the country, it features the highest rugged mountains in Zimbabwe.  Whilst stationed here Ian studied Ecology at the University of Rhodesia after which he focused on environmental education, a subject he is particularly passionate about.

As a Warden in the Matopos and Hwange National Parks, Ian gained further experience of different ecologies and wildlife management. Leaving Zimbabwe for South Africa in 1982 he was the Chief Conservation Officer with the Department of Agriculture in the Ciskei, assisting in developing the Double Drift Game Reserve. He also organised a Hippo capture operation at Ndumu Game Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal and transported a number of animals to the Fish River which bordered Double Drift. These Hippo are still doing well there today.

Ian then joined the Department of Conservation of Kwazulu-Natal as Head of Tourism and Wildlife Management, becoming Deputy Director then Director.  During this time, he qualified in Environmental Management (and EIA’S) from The University of Cape Town and Human Resource Management through Wits University.

Discussions about guiding standards in South Africa
While working for the Department of Conservation, Ian and his peers had become concerned about the standards of safari guides and guiding, and that there was no formal qualification available.

This was when Clive Walker called a meeting at Lapalala with Ian Player, Nick Steele, Ian Thomson and Drummond Densham from Natal Parks Board.  FGASA has grown from there with Ian being one of the first members to enrol for his Field Guide qualification.  Thus being at the right place at the right time is how Ian became FGASA membership # 1.  Ian is also qualified as a Professional Field Guide (formerly known as Field Guide level 3) and has an SKS dangerous game qualification.

Role-player in various development projects

  • Leaving the Department of Conservation, Ian consulted as the Technical Advisor for the German KFW Development Bank in Malawi, rebuilding the Nyika National Park and Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve. This included all aspects of Park Management, provision of new vehicles, habitat management, uniforms, rewriting of management plans, security and up-skilling of staff. During the 5 years, a tourist lodge was refurbished, new lodges designed and built.
  • Ian worked on an embryo plan with Zambian National parks to establish a Trans-Frontier Park. Although this project started in 2000, it was only completed two years ago.
  • As a consultant, Ian has worked in Saudi Arabia, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi and most regions of South Africa.
  • Assisting with the development of Manyoni Game Reserve (previously Zululand Rhino Reserve) and Zulu Waters Private Reserve (formerly Dalton Private Reserve), Ian wrote their original management plans. Whilst at Manyoni, working through the Board of Directors, he arranged with the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project to introduce a founder population of Black Rhino, and with Kruger National Park to introduce a founder population of elephant. At Zulu Waters, he introduced one of the first breeding herds of disease-free buffalo into KZN.
  • Ian coordinated the Rhino and Elephant Security Group of Southern Africa. This was a SADC range state group which held annual meetings in different SADC countries. A policy document, which was signed by all member states was produced for the management and security of these animals for the SADC region. This policy also formed the backbone of the SADC wildlife protocol document.

The word retirement does not exist in his vocabulary

Recently, while working in Zululand, Ian has been lecturing international students from universities and colleges in the United Kingdom England about all aspects of Wildlife and Environmental Management.

Ian does not believe in retirement. Being very active in wildlife and conservation, continuously thinking of new ways to empower people with environmental knowledge and sharing his experiences and knowledge, Ian enjoys guiding and taking people on walking safaris in dangerous game areas. If that does not inspire you, then nothing will!

It takes only one person to make a difference… Ian is one of those people!

If you find yourself daydreaming of being in the African wilderness or have a passion to make a difference. Why not take a look at the EcoTraining Courses that we offer.

10 things you did not know about Hippo

It seems unfair that the Hippo did not make it onto the Big 5 list. Surely, since they are the 3rd largest land mammal after the elephant and the white rhino, and they are considered to be the most dangerous, they deserve some sort of recognition? That being said there are many stories and legends about the huge ‘River Horse’.

Hippo in water

David Batzofin (cc)

Here are some of the facts that you might not know about this fearsome creature:

  1. Given the right conditions, a hippo can live up to 40 years.
  2. When hippos bask in the sun, they secrete a red, oily substance. This has given rise to the myth that they ‘sweat blood’. The liquid is a natural sunblock and moisturizer.
  3. Although it seems that hippos can submerge for inordinately long periods of time, they need to surface every 3-5 minutes to breathe. This is a natural reflex and can be done even when the animal is sleeping.
  4. Despite their bulk, hippos can attain speeds of up to 30 km per hour over short distances.
  5. They spend most of their time in the water although they leave the water in the cooler parts of the day and night in order to forage for vegetation. They have been known to walk up to 10km in order to find food. Considering their bulk, the fact that they can consume up to 68kg in a night is a relatively small amount.
  6. Hippo’s are not only territorial in water, but it is also when they are out of the water that hippo can be extremely aggressive towards humans. They have been called the most dangerous animal in Africa as they have been known to cause many a death, especially in communities that are near or are surrounded by water.
  7. Much like the Rock Hyrax is the closest living relatives to the elephant, the hippo is closely related to whales and porpoises. Albeit that their evolutionary paths diverged about 55 million years ago.
  8. Both reproduction and birth take place in water, and it is here that the huge bulls become fiercely territorial. Adult males have been known to injure or kill both females and youngsters when competing for space.
  9. Hippos can neither swim nor float! They give that impression while they are in the water, when in fact they are walking along the bottom surface.
  10. Often seen rearing up out of the water, mouth agape, this is not a yawn but a sign of aggression. Accompanied by a loud series of grunts and honks, it is a warning not to be taken lightly.

David Batzofin (cc)

A famous South African hippo:

One of the most famous South African hippos was Huberta (originally called Hubert, she was correctly named after her death). Her fame lasted for three years as she walked several thousands of kilometre from KwaZulu Natal to King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape back in 1928. No one knows what started her walking, but she certainly captured the attention of the media, both local and international during this time.

Hippo up close

David Batzofin (cc)

An African myth about hippos:

How the hippo came to live in the water is one story that is often repeated around an evening campfire. Many millennia ago, most of the African animals lived together on land and only very few could be found in the rivers and lakes. The baking hot sun caused many of them discomfort, but they were lucky and had feathers, fur or scales to protect them from the energy-sapping rays. However, Hippo’s skin had none of that protection and as he grew in size his skin stretched and became extremely sensitive to the harsh rays of the sun. Finally, Hippo could endure it no more. He asked the Creator if he could live in the water to keep cool and protect his sensitive skin. “You may”, said the Creator. “You must ask the permission of those already living in the water as you are large, and they fear that you will eat all their food”. To allay their fears, Hippo explained that he did not eat fish, but only consumed the vegetation that could be found on the riverbanks. As the river inhabitants were still sceptical, Hippo made them the following solemn promise. “I will open my mouth wide every day, in order for you to see that there are no fish bones or scales in my mouth. And I will use my tail to spread my dung, to prove that there no bones” Finally, the river animals were convinced and from that day forth, the hippo has lived in the water, opening his mouth and spreading his dung. The next time you come across a hippo, take a moment and give it the respect that it deserves.

Hippo in water

David Batzofin (cc)

Do you have any specific questions about hippos you would like answered? Is there another specific non-Big 5 animal you would like us to write about? Drop us a comment below and we will respond to you.

Or if you want to learn more about the bush have a look at the career courses we offer, or if you want to teach those that aspire to become guides have a look at what jobs are available with EcoTraining.