Rewilding Africa: Restoring the Wilderness on a War-Ravaged Continent tells the story of one man’s decades-long mission to preserve the habitats of elephants, rhinos and other iconic wildlife that have populated the vast continent of Africa for thousands of years. Over a lifetime, Grant Fowlds has worked with fellow conservationists to educate and inform individuals, governments and charities across the globe about the devastating impacts that deforestation, poaching and human interactions have had upon the ever-decreasing homes and populations of some of the world’s most endangered species. Rewilding is simple: allocate more wild spaces to the animals whose homes are being reduced by our impact on their world. Reality is complex: politics, illicit underground activities – and now pandemics – are a constant threat to these animals’ lives and their natural surroundings. Fowlds and Graham Spence bring us right into the heart of African wildlife and the world of conservation, recounting heartening stories about the collected efforts being made by communities, both big and small, to tackle these threats head-on as the effects of decreased wildlife and their homes will soon threaten our own livelihoods on this precious planet.
Rewilding Africa is published by Jonathan Ball. This excerpt is published by permission.
Blood on the Beach
For many people in more affluent parts of the world, Mozambique’s main claim to fame is that Bob Dylan wrote a song about it.
Even that was clouded in controversy, as the song came out in 1975, just as Portugal abandoned its colonies and FRELIMO took over Mozambique. FRELIMO was a hardline Marxist liberation movement in those days, but Dylan’s lyrics didn’t reflect that. It was more of a whimsical song about beautiful women frolicking on Mozambique’s sublime beaches. Even so, the right wing considered it to be a paean to communism, and the left wing regarded it as frivolous bourgeois nonsense.
Despite Dylan’s Mozambique reaching number 54 on the Billboard Hot 100, the country is little known internationally. It has always played second fiddle to Portugal’s richer African colony, Angola, with little investment coming its way. When it gained independence, it took a double whammy with crippling cross-border raids from South Africa for harbouring ANC insurgents, and Rhodesia, which repeatedly bombed Robert Mugabe’s ZANU camps below the Chimanimani Mountains. Also, when the Portuguese administration fled in disarray, the country had perhaps a couple of dozen Black university graduates out of a barely literate population of about 20 million. Then it plunged into a civil war lasting fifteen years. As a result, this beautiful, resource-rich country with some of the most outstanding wildernesses in the world did not exactly have a running start.
Now, just as it is beginning to get its act together with a firm commitment to progress and prosperity, the threat from ISIS-linked Ansar al-Sunna in the far north erupted.
We had to take the jihadist situation into account regardless of what we planned to do in the country. Even though most of the projects we were looking at were some distance from the heart of the insurgency, it could easily flare up elsewhere.
Then, suddenly, this conflict came close to home. Frighteningly so.
It happened in April 2021 when a heavily armed Ansar al-Sunna group raided a town called Palma in Cabo Delgado, specifically targeting European expats as well as local villagers. Their actions were barbaric beyond description, with more than a hundred people being disembowelled, beheaded and slaughtered in the sort of random cruelty not seen on the continent for ages.
Also killed was a South African. His name was Adrian Nel, and any doubts that this was getting personal were dispelled when I discovered he lived in Zinkwazi, a town just up the road from where I live on the KwaZulu-Natal coast.
A professional deep-sea diver, Adrian had previously worked in the DRC (another of my stamping grounds) but lost his job due to the pandemic. He then joined his stepfather Greg Knox and brother Wesley to work on the French energy company Total’s multibillion-dollar gas project in Palma, Mozambique. It was scheduled to be the largest liquefied natural gas venture on the continent, and many, including the Mozambican government, claimed that the poverty-stricken province of Cabo Delgado would soon be transformed into Africa’s ‘Dubai’.
Describing the events leading to his brother Adrian’s death, Wesley Nel told TV reporters that they were in the Amarula Hotel a few miles outside Palma on the Tanzanian border when Ansar al-Sunna fighters surrounded the building. Along with other expat workers staying at the hotel, Wesley said they hunkered down in the bar making repeated calls on their cellphones for help. When these went unanswered, Adrian risked his life to retrieve an AK-47 stashed in an abandoned military vehicle. He would use it if the insurgents stormed the hotel, but otherwise it was of little use against the jihadists’ RPGs and mortars.
In fact, the besieged workers’ only protection was from a few makeshift helicopter gunships circling overhead, flown by a private South African security company, Dyck Advisory Group (DAG). However, DAG had no ground force and the small choppers had little or no passenger-carrying capacity. Even though they were doing heroic work in holding off the insurgents from overrunning the hotel, they could not launch an actual rescue mission. They also were not equipped to fly at night, and as Total has a policy not to supply fuel to private military contractors, DAG would soon be out of operation.
After three days of fruitlessly pleading with the Mozambican army for rescue, it was clear to those holed up in the Amarula that they had no choice but to make a run for it. The few DAG pilots could not keep the jihadists at bay for much longer, and Adrian and his besieged colleagues had no illusions of what would happen to them if captured. It was well-known that Ansar al-Sunna favoured decapitating any Christian or ‘Crusader nation’ prisoners.
The men drew up a rudimentary plan to rush out of the building and commandeer whatever vehicles they could in the hotel parking lot, smash through the insurgents’ roadblocks, and just keep going as fast as possible until they reached the beach. They had heard that local fishermen, at huge personal risk, were using dilapidated dhows and anything that could float to get people out of the killing zone.
Adrian, Wesley and Greg were among the desperate group’s leaders and gave the command to run for the vehicles. Making sure that women and children were secure in the sole armoured vehicle outside the hotel, the men scrambled for the cars. Adrian, Wesley and Greg jumped into one of the front vehicles and Adrian grabbed the steering wheel. As he keyed the ignition, Wesley said, ‘It’s going to be the drive of your life, bro.’
The seventeen-vehicle convoy raced along a dusty bush-lined road and within minutes came under intense fire. Somehow they managed to plough through the roadblock, but shortly afterwards they ran into a second ambush. Adrian was shot in his shoulder and leg but, despite bleeding copiously, kept driving for several miles.
Eventually he passed out, and Wesley grabbed the wheel while Greg frantically tried to staunch his stepson’s gaping wounds. It appeared that an artery had been hit.
Finally, they reached a quarry that the convoy drivers had designated as a rallying point. Wesley felt for his brother’s pulse. There was none.
The forty-year-old father of three would have celebrated his birthday in three days’ time. It had indeed been the drive of his life and, although he had saved others, it cost him his own.
Stepfather and brother then pulled Adrian out of the car and fled into the bush. They were damned if they were going to let the gunmen find Adrian’s body. They hid in the dense undergrowth for two days while jihadists sped up and down the roads searching for survivors to behead.
When help eventually arrived, seven of the hotel group were dead and several others wounded. Of the original seventeen vehicles, only seven made it to the beach.
Most of those who survived the jihadist attacks at both the Amarula Hotel and the town of Palma owe their lives to DAG pilots. However, the company, led by African bush war veteran Colonel Lionel Dyck, only had three helicopters, two microlight gunships and two fixed-wing planes in Mozambique. But that shoestring air force was the sole lifeline for fleeing expat workers and Palma residents. About three hundred people were directly saved by DAG, while countless others were able to run for their lives as the mercenary pilots held back the advancing insurgents.
Colonel Dyck, who fought for both the Rhodesian and Zimbabwean armies, made his name in Mozambique fighting poachers and landmine clearing before landing the contract to assist the local police against the ISIS-linked jihadists. Interestingly, at least from my point of view, another South African company helping the Mozambican authorities is Paramount Group, whose chief negotiator is Ahmed Kassam, my neighbour who introduced me to the Saudi Arabian rewilding project. However, unlike DAG, Paramount doesn’t supply mercenaries, instead providing training and military equipment such as armoured vehicles and aircraft. Ahmed could later prove invaluable in providing on-the-ground assessments for our future projects.
His help would be needed as Colonel Dyck believes that unless the Mozambican military roots out Ansar al-Sunna, the northern province of Cabo Delgado will be ‘lost’. The jihadists, he said, were now integrated with established, well-organised criminal networks trafficking in ivory, drugs, rubies and emeralds: ‘However, the big billion-dollar business is heroin, which is transported through the area and distributed to the north and south. This has now taken on an Islamic face and is a highly effective combination with strong external support.’
This was not what I wanted to hear. Suddenly, Mozambique took on a new dimension. Everything now seemed to loom much larger. As the story of Adrian Nel graphically showed, we would be targets if the insurrection spread. There was no skirting the fact that this is the price one pays for doing business in some of the world’s rougher neighbourhoods.
Chris, Joe and I chatted about this at length, then decided to be philosophical about it. In Africa, there is always risk. We knew that, and we had to accept it. To fret too much is tantamount to not getting out of bed in the morning.
For us, there was no turning back.
A month after the ISIS-linked attack, Chris and I drove into Mozambique to meet our new partners. We had also earmarked the Mozambican project we were most interested in kicking off the new venture.
This was Massingir Safaris.