"What can I say, I'm still here and doing what I love doing."
Whether as an undaunted pilot in the fight against poachers or as co-developer of a development-centred nature conservation policy - Gerald Bigurube is the face of nature conservation in Africa. He has a track record of 44 years in conservation work and if it isn’t chairing meetings in boardrooms, he must be in the field, doing what he loves the most. In November he has been awarded the Africa Award 2018 for his outstanding contributions to conservation in Tanzania.
Mister Bigurube, how did you become a conservationist?
Back then growing up in the village, being a conservationist was not considered an attractive career for my peers and me. However, my journey as a conservationist started taking shape when I was in high school in Tanzania’s Iringa District during a tour to Ruaha National Park, Tanzania's second largest park. It was such an exceptional trip for me, and I would say I drew my inspiration and passion of what I do today from this one trip.
What happened then?
Upon finishing high school, I went for a one-year compulsory national service military training. Later I joined the Wildlife Division in 1973 as an intern. My first posting was in Saadani Game Reserve where I stayed for eight months before going back to the Wildlife Division. A few of my peers quit along the way, probably because of the harsh conditions they encountered during our deployment in the field. For me it was an amazing time.
You are a passionate zoologist?
Absolutely! Upon completing my course, I joined the University of Alberta for my Bachelor of Zoology with specialisation in Wildlife Management under the government of Canada scholarship. I would later return to the Wildlife Division and was stationed at the research department for seven years before I was appointed as the head of the Selous Game Reserve in the 80s.
Was there a lot of poaching back then?
By the time I joined Selous, the poaching crisis was at the peak, and things were out of control. Wildlife, particularly elephants, were being massacred mercilessly. It was a very distressing time.
How did you handle the situation back then?
I was instrumental in initiating the "Operesheni Uhai" in the late 1980s, a campaign that sought to bring poaching under control in the Game Reserve. This was a joint effort that was coordinated by the Tanzania Peoples Defense Forces and the Police Force. The operation was led by the late Major General John Butler Walden - aka the “Black Mamba”. The man was just as dangerous as the celebrated snake but thanks to his commitment and passion for wildlife, the operation was hailed as a success, and things were under control. Besides troubles at the very beginning, my time in Selous Game Reserve remains the most nostalgic. This was also the first time that I interacted with Frankfurt Zoological Society.
Was there anything you would say was a crucial step against poaching?
You are a pilot yourself, so you will certainly experience a lot, right?
Yes, flying is an adventure! 1982 I was flying a Cessna 102 which was owned by the Wildlife Division from Matembwe in Selous, to Dar es Salaam. Suddenly it developed mechanical failure mid-air and I was forced to crash-land in a forest somewhere in Kisarawe. Miraculously, I got off the plane unscathed. How this happened still puzzles up to this day. Tired and weary, I had to think carefully about what to do. I only had two choices: either remaining inside the mangled aircraft and die of hunger and thirst or get off the plane to look for water! I opted for the latter. First I've found a small pond and later I retired back to the aircraft as it was getting dark. The plane’s battery had died which means I had no communication with my office and nobody knew my whereabouts at that moment. I, therefore, had to spend the night inside the aircraft.
And how did you manage to come back home?
With a lot of luck and thanks to two guardian angels. Next morning, I heard voices chattering from a distance. Long story short, the women those voices belonged to, couldn’t easily believe how I survived the crash and a night in the wild, they welcomed me and served me sweet potatoes for breakfast.
But you were really lucky! Have you ever thought about quitting?
After the incident, my wife was quite adamant that I should quit. However, I am still here doing what I love doing.
Even though none of my children has shown an interest in filling in my shoes, I have received overwhelming support from my family as far as my career is concerned.
What is your opinion about the future of nature conservation in Tanzania?
I believe the youth have a vary considerable part to play in protecting not only Tanzania’s wildlife and wild places but Africa’s as well. We, therefore, need to encourage them to take up the task. Biodiversity is one of Tanzania’s most precious heritage with outstanding attributes. Big names like the Serengeti National Park known for its great migration, is a resource we cannot find anywhere in the world. These areas support our economy through tourism that contributes up to 17 percent of Tanzania’s Gross Domestic Product as well as serves as catchment areas which protect water sources. We have a lot at stake if these areas disappear.
Where do you get your energy from? What pushes you?
Commitment and passion. This is what it takes to become a conservationist. It’s is not easy. Worthwhile efforts aren’t anyway!
In November 2018, Gerald Bigurube has been awarded the Africa Award for his outstanding contributions to nature conservation in Tanzania. Read the award news here (German).