Lapolosa Wilderness and C.A.R.E. were the first of the many conservation projects the Lion Foundation chose to support through EnkosiniEcoExperience.com.
In 2004, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the “Baboon Woman,” Rita Miljo, Grand Dame of the South African conservation community. On meeting Rita, one’s first impression is that she possesses a saint-like serenity. Soon enough, however, you see the fire of a woman who still pilots planes and is passionate about conservation.
Rita runs C.A.R.E. (the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education), a facility on the banks of the Olifants River in the Limpopo province of South Africa. C.A.R.E. is primarily devoted to the care and rehabilitation of primates, with particular emphasis on chacma baboons.
Baboons live in troops with a social structure more like man’s than any other creature on earth. They are reportedly as intelligent as chimpanzee, the primate with DNA nearly identical to mankind’s. Baboons are listed as a threatened species on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Despite this, powerful South African state agencies that control all flora and fauna through a permit system, do not protect them at all. In fact, these agencies universally categorize baboons as “vermin.” As a result, game officials and veterinarians must euthanize them whenever the opportunity arises. This stance often puts game officials at odds with the South African conservation community.
“If I were a better shot,” says Rita, “I would be in jail.” She refers to instances, early in the history of C.A.R.E. when on several occasions, she fired a rifle at game officials bent on confiscating animals given to C.A.R.E. to rehabilitate. She did not have proper permits to possess the animals and, in any case, permits would not be forthcoming for “vermin.” It is part of the legend of Rita Miljo that she successfully stood her ground. When I asked her whether she fired at the game officials, or was just trying to scare them off, she replied, “I fired at them. I’m just a bad shot.”
Decades later, with the sponsorship of American based IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), and additional funding provided a steady stream of volunteer workers, scientists and students, C.A.R.E. is a research and rehabilitation facility respected by primatologists around the world. The freedom that Rita demanded at the point of a gun continues in a more or less permanent truce. Nelson Mandela lent the weight of his stature to Rita’s cause by participating in the successful release of one of her rehabilitated troops in 2002. Since then, game officials have not tried to enforce the requirement that C.A.R.E. have permits to continue its good work.
C.A.R.E.’s ultimate objective is the successful release of cohesive troops of baboons into the wild. Most of the 300 or so baboons in captivity at C.A.R.E. (and there is a large resident troop of wild baboons at C.A.R.E. as well) are the offspring of mothers that have been shot, poisoned or hit by automobiles. They are raised in captivity, assembled into troops, and at an appropriate age, hopefully, released back into the wild. Finding suitable places that will accept the introduction of a troop of “vermin” is one of the biggest challenges facing C.A.R.E.
My wife and I were guests at C.A.R.E. in March of 2004 because of Rita’s relationship with my daughter Kelcey, who had her own well-publicized differences with game officials while establishing the wildlife sanctuary Lapolosa Wilderness in nearby Mpumalanga. Rita graciously gave us a tour of the entire C.A.R.E. facility. We had a chance to chat with volunteers and helpers bottle-feeding the very young baboons, and others socializing and feeding the youngsters in troop sized groups in cages.
The most memorable portion of our visit came when we entered a cage with about 20 immature baboons and interacted with them for more than an hour. Rita cautioned us to sit quietly in the cage and let the baboons come to us, and not to try to restrain them at any time. Anyone who has seen a full-grown baboon bare its fangs (a full grown baboon will hold its own in a fight with a leopard) understands the wisdom in this advice.
With excitement and some trepidation, we entered the cage. At first, the baboons were cautious and shy, but soon the littlest ones were trying to crawl down our shirts to curl up and suck their thumbs in a place of warmth and security. The older ones jumped into our laps, or onto our shoulders, demanding grooming and grooming us in turn. The biggest youngster in the cage was a lively one-eyed fellow named Simon. He took great delight in climbing a pole in the center of the cage and launching himself through the air to be caught by his human visitors. To the uninitiated, the sounds and teeth baring faces Simon made were scary. Very quickly, however, we learned the differences between anger and snarls and baboon faces lit with grins and squeals of delight. Many times, as I held, patted, scratched or picked at the baboons vying for my attention, I found my hands, arms, fingers, or even an ear in their mouths, but not once was I bitten. They were shy or assertive, agile, hyperactive and childlike. Soon we began to see them as individuals, recognizing their looks and personalities. I left the cage with a profound sense of closeness to these intelligent, loving, almost human creatures.
Rita accepted an invitation to dine with us that evening at Leopard’s View where we were staying. Leopard’s View is a nearby lodge in the Balule Game Preserve with fabulous cuisine prepared and served by the proprietor and his wife, Jann and Erna Bader, also acquaintances of Rita’s. Our host, Jann, was so excited to hear that Rita accepted our invitation to dinner he insisted that Rita be his guest. A retired advertising executive, he practically waxed poetic about the importance of Rita’s research. He made it clear that, in his opinion, she deserves a place alongside Dianne Fossey and Jane Goodall in the importance of her work and contribution to conservation. Unlike the contributions of those primatologists, Rita Miljo’s story is relatively unknown. Jann voiced how great a loss it would be to let her story go untold, emphasizing the importance of recording for posterity the wealth of knowledge she had accumulated. For my part, I was more interested in hearing about Rita Miljo the woman, how she came to Africa, and came to be doing what she is doing. Sometime, well into our second glass of wine, I asked her those questions. She smiled in a way that makes one think of deep still water, got a faraway look in her eyes, and began.
Perhaps because I am American, she began her story with her first contact with Americans. As a young girl in Germany during World War II, her mother would send her to the village market some miles from her home with the warning, “Look out for the planes!” This was the motherly understatement of all times. The path to the market led along the railroad lines. Often, American planes would fly down the rail lines strafing anyone on the ground. On several occasions, Rita found shelter under overpasses or along the tracks while being shot at.
She recalled her first contact with American troops on the ground, which happened to be an African-American unit. She described how her family cowered in their home furtively watching the American troops crouching and crawling from house to house in their hamlet. Stories of African-Americans killing and eating Germans preceded these troops and her family’s fear of this moment was intense. Suddenly, an American burst through their door and in perfectly accented German asked, “Are there any German soldiers here?” They replied, “No.” Again, in perfectly accented German, the soldier said, “Thank you, I’m sorry to have disturbed you.” For them that moment marked the end of the war.
Rita became engaged to a brilliant engineering student. Soon, however, he left to go to South Africa to show the mines how to use a new invention his mentor had designed. She kept waiting to hear from him, but after months without contact, she resigned herself to the fact that he had forgotten her and got on with life. Suddenly, she received a letter from him with an airline ticket to South Africa. Somewhat offended by his long silence and the presumptive nature of his summons, she was torn as to what to do, but finally decided to go to South Africa.
She boarded a train to Holland, arriving only to find her flight rescheduled for the following week. The airline was particularly helpful, putting her up in a hotel for the week, and the next day a young pilot she had met at the airport came by to show her the sights of the city. It took her another day to realize that young Rolf, the pilot, was not squiring her around as some goodwill gesture of the airline, but courting her in earnest on his own account. By the end of the week, Rolf was madly in love with her, and she with him. He proposed and she accepted. Recalling wistfully one of those crossroads in life that mark a path not taken, Rita said she seriously considered not going to South Africa. Finally, she decided she owed it to her fiancé to go tell him in person that she had decided to marry Rolf.
In spite of the fact that her plane was a week late in arriving, her fiancé met her at the gate. He achieved this feat by simply meeting every plane that arrived from Europe for the entire week. His solicitousness softened the offense of ignoring her for months and her resolve weakened. Nonetheless, she told him of her love for Rolf and her decision to marry him.
Very sensibly, and without anger, her fiancé sought to bring her back to his reality. “And tell me again how long you have known this boy?” he asked. Small step by small step, over time, he eroded her confidence that marrying Rolf was the right thing. However, she realized she could not be in love with him, if she had been so in love with Rolf. She decided she would stay in South Africa and marry no one.
Her ability to speak German earned her a job in an office. She learned Afrikaans in the vernacular simply by listening and repeating, with many unladylike phrases she had learned by ear escaping at embarrassing moments. Ultimately, the cloistered life a chaste young European female must live, outside of the presence of men in South Africa in the 1950’s, frustrated her beyond endurance. She decided to marry her old fiancé to secure her freedom from the predations of a multitude of other suitors and the limitations of a single woman’s life. It was a marriage of convenience, not necessarily love. “But he always knew how to treat me,” Rita said, with a twinkle in her eye.
Over time, because her husband’s engineering expertise was so valuable to the mines, they became rich. She learned to fly a plane at a time when few women in South Africa even drove cars. Then, characteristic of her independence and passion for adventure, she became an accomplished acrobatic pilot.
The birth of a daughter brought great joy to her life and she and her daughter shared many adventures. Once, Rita announced her intention to go on safari with her daughter to Botswana. Understanding her unyieldingly headstrong nature, her husband took this announcement in stride. The trip entailed much risk. Readers of The Cry of the Kalahari will understand the monumental preparations involved for such a lengthy trip into the wild, especially decades before the trip described by that book. When mother and daughter returned, not one but four months later, her husband looked up from a book and greeted them casually, “Ah, so you are home ...” “He always knew how to treat me,” Rita repeated.
However, she also said of her husband, “The richer he became, the less nice he became. So, there was a time when it was my goal to spend money as fast as he could make it.” At one point, she owned three planes and “would fly to Mozambique for lunch.” Then something happened that changed her life forever. “It was stupid negligence,” she said, and her eyes clouded and her voice took on a sorrowful tone, so deep I could not press her for further details. Father and daughter perished in an airplane crash.
The loss plumbed the greatest depths of Rita’s soul in the times that followed. Her indomitable spirit held her just short of despair, as all purpose left her life. At one point, she sought to deaden the pain by bricklaying. The mindless repetition of laying brick after brick satisfied both her need to create and her need to numb the pain. Emotionally and spiritually, Rita stepped back from the abyss with the creation of C.A.R.E. in 1989. Her passion for life, for adventure, returned full force. Only that eerie serenity one feels in her presence remains to indicate the depths from which she emerged.
Remembering what Jann Bader had said about the need to get Rita’s story told, I asked her whether she had considered collaborating with anyone to that end. She admitted she had. At age seventy-three, she voiced some concern at her mortality, and the possibility that some of her work would be lost. She told me about a writer IFAW had engaged to write “her story.” She said she had sent him away because he wanted to spend two months writing one of those “what a wonderful person I am books …” She revealed that she really would like to have her story told but that her work not personality must be its center.
Proud yet humble, regal yet unassuming, serene yet passionate, my impressions of Rita Miljo seem inconsistent, yet they all come together in this amazing woman. At the end of the evening, before she and Kelcey left to go back to C.A.R.E. for the night, my wife Camilla and I each got a hug and kiss from Rita. It was a day we will treasure.
Pete Grimm - copyright 2004 - All rights reserved