When he was 19, Bongo Woodley won a tug-of-war with a crocodile that had sunk its teeth into his girlfriend’s ankle as they waded across a river.
Both came out fine. And in the two decades since, Woodley has survived charging buffalo and rhino, avoided bullets from poachers and had to hunt down rogue elephants.
As a senior park warden with the Kenya Wildlife Service, none of this seems out of the ordinary. In fact, Woodley (41) has to stop and think when asked about his close calls in the Kenyan bush among elephants, lions, rhinos and buffalos.
Did the poachers who decimated elephant herds in this East African nation in the 1980s and ’90s ever shoot at him? ”Um, yeah, quite often … basically from the air,” says Woodley, who used to fly a small plane over Tsavo National Park to search for the hunters. ”You can hear the bullets breaking the sound barrier as they go past … none hit mine, always had a look when we landed.”
His father, Bill, spent 44 years working in Kenya’s game reserves after joining the colonial-era Kenya National Parks as a 19-year-old in 1948 — shortly after a trip to Mozambique during which he shot 90 elephants for ivory.
Bill Woodley became one of Kenya’s most famous game wardens. In the 1950s, he won Britain’s second-highest military honour, the Military Cross, for infiltrating nighttime meetings of the Mau Mau rebel movement, even though he was white. In the 1980s and ’90s, he played a leading role in the fight against elephant poaching,
before his death in 1995.
”My earliest memory was he was basically the hero. He had such an amazing job, which obviously involved everything that I do now and more,” says the younger Woodley, whose first name is William but who is universally known by his nickname, Bongo, after a rare forest antelope.
Bongo, a third-generation white Kenyan, a fading group of some 5 000 people, carried on the tradition. ”It’s a great job in many ways, very challenging, but it’s quite exhausting. It will age you prematurely,” he says.
The square-jawed, thick-shouldered ranger could do without the paperwork. ”There’s so much administration,” says Woodley, who hated school and anything academic. ”We go from one crisis to the next.”
This year, his main problem has been dealing with elephants invading farmland around the foothills of Mount Kenya, destroying crops and sometimes killing people. In recent months, his wardens have had to shoot three elephants.
Woodley, who was given his first gun when he was six, considers himself a conservationist — but one who accepts that animals sometimes have to be killed.
”It was the talk of my household: If an animal kills somebody, then the wildlife department will kill the animal,” he says.
”That’s one of the ironies of the job. As a park warden you have to shoot the animals which you are meant to protect. Shooting elephants is always a tragic thing.”
British colonial rulers set up Kenya’s first wildlife agencies in 1946. The Kenya National Parks service was in charge of protected areas, while the Kenya Game Department was responsible for wildlife outside parks.
Thirteen years after Kenya’s 1963 independence, the government merged the two agencies to form the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department, which eventually became burdened by a lack of resources and corruption.
Woodley joined the department in 1989, shortly after paleontologist Richard Leakey was named head to clean it up and stamp out the poaching that was destroying Kenya’s elephant herds. Leakey created the Kenya Wildlife Servicein 1990 as a government entity but with greater autonomy.
Woodley’s first job was helping his father at the Tsavo National Park, where ivory poachers were slaughtering an average of three elephants a day.
The poaching got so bad, the government finally sent army helicopters to help fight the gangs. Woodley flew a plane over the park at about 90 metres, looking for the rotting carcasses of elephants and signs of poachers.
In April 1990, Woodley got his dream job — a move to Mount Kenya. He’s been here ever since, rising through the ranks to senior warden with overall responsibility for protecting wildlife on Africa’s second-highest mountain. Since July 2000, he has also overseen the 2 124-square-kilometre forest reserve that surrounds it.
It’s not easy. Illegal logging and increasing human settlement in and around the forest have exacerbated the conflict between man and wildlife. And the Wildlife Service, with an annual budget of around 1-billion shillings ($14-million), mainly from park and game reserve entrance fees, doesn’t have enough money.
”I don’t have enough rangers. My vehicles are dilapidated. That age old story — being expected to perform miracles with negligible resources,” Woodley says.
The service employs about 4 300 people, half of whom are rangers. It’s not nearly enough, considering parks cover eight percent of Kenya and the agency also must protect wildlife outside the reserves, spokesperson Edward Indakwa said. On average, one ranger is responsible for 70 square kilometres, he said.
Woodley’s biggest concern is that Kenya may find itself without any free-roaming wildlife, mainly because farmers are snaring animals to sell as bush meat.
”I think you will find a situation whereby national parks will have elephants only,” he says. The smaller animals are ”going without anybody actually noticing it,” he adds.
That would break Woodley’s heart. He’s lived for little else but life in the wilderness, working as a farm manager and safari guide before joining the Wildlife Service.
When he was 23, Kenyan law required that he choose between his Kenyan and his British passports. The choice was simple.
”Having gone to school there (Britain), that gave me the grounding to realise I probably wouldn’t be comfortable living there,” Woodley says.
Why? He couldn’t find a place there ”where you are properly alone.” – Sapa-AP