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Zambezi Valley The Lost Stronghold

Zambezi Valley The Lost Stronghold

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Lesley Cripps Thomson chats to author and dedicated conservationist Silvana Olivo about her highly acclaimed book Zambezi Valley: The Lost Stronghold.

Q: Silvana, you originally come from Italy, but are now living in France? What triggered your passion for Africa?

I grew up in Italy but we regularly came to Zimbabwe and South Africa to see my maternal family. My parents’ passion for Nature had a strong influence on me and when I was studying veterinary in Milan, I visited Zimbabwe again and literally stumbled upon the so-called Zimbabwe Rhino War.

Having avidly followed African conservation issues only from afar, suddenly being involved at the deep end in the effort surrounding the anti-poaching war in Zimbabwe, sparked my underlying deep connection with Africa.

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Q: Silvana you have done a great deal to encourage people to visit Africa.

I instinctively wanted to build a bridge between Europe and Southern Africa. Loving Europe as well as Africa I have never fully committed to living in either. As a result, I built a link with this part of the world through my writing, the promotion of ecotourism initiatives, the marketing of destinations and experiences that ultimately supports the use of land for conservation.

Q: Your greatest achievement is exposing the threats by poaching, especially of the rhino, and helping anti-poaching units on the ground, particularly in Zimbabwe. Tell us a little about why and how you started being so passionately involved, and continue to be so.

After my first visit to the Mana Pools National Park in 1988, where I spoke to the rangers who were facing the mounting poaching assault against pachyderms, I decided to become involved personally. I went back to Milan and founded the Savana Society, a non-profit association to raise funds for various anti poaching teams, who provided me regularly with a shopping list of badly needed items to carry out their underfunded and underpaid work.

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I developed the Adopt a Camp scheme whereby every six months I provided urgent field items for each chosen field station on the frontline and in the Intensive Protection Zones of Operation Stronghold from Mana Pools to Chewore, Chizarisa, Chirisa and Matusadona. I also shipped via British Airways (which used to offer free cargo to conservation NGOs thanks to the commendable BA Assisting Nature Conservation initiative) toys and clothing donated by members in Italy for the game scouts’ families, as well as some GPSs and radio collars for the monitoring of the last rhinos of Matusadona in 1992.

I was a very small player within a group of great international supporting NGOs but the direct connection with the game scouts’ daily lives encouraged me to devote all my energies and savings to that cause. I left university and started publishing reports from southern Africa in the Italian press and organising tours following the rangers in the field furthering a career in ecotourism marketing, publishing several guide books and as a freelance writer.

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Above: Glen Tatham, then National Parks Chief Warden, Operations, initiated Operation Stronghold in an attempt to protect the endangered black rhino of the Zambezi Valley. Operation Stronghold was at the fore-front, tracking poachers, going undercover to gain information on traffickers, translocating and de-horning rhino, and living rough whilst surviving in critical economic times.

Q: Your book Zambezi Valley, The Lost Stronghold, which in many ways is partly a memoir, was obviously extrememly well researched. Your evocative descriptions of the country and empathy for the people you worked with make this a fascinating as well as an important book. How long did it take you to write it?

It took me more than 15 years to complete it. I jotted down the first chapters a long time ago but never had the time to dedicate myself to it. But when the terrible rhino poaching wave hit South Africa, my dear friend Clive Walker, one of the central players in the history of rhino conservation in Africa, told me in no uncertain terms that it would be ‘the right thing to do’ to complete the book and put the story out there.

We felt it was necessary to tell of the process that Operation Stronghold actually was: not only an antipoaching guerrilla war type exercise as it is often too simplistically described, but one aspect of a vaster, innovative conservation vision and process that took shape through highs and lows on a national scale during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

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Above: Silvana and Clive Walker, Clive has been actively involved with conservation and environmental education for over 40 years. He founded the Endangered Wildlife Trust in 1973 and is the author and co-author of several conservation books, including most recently The Rhino Keepers.

Q: You have also been involved in helping the San Bushmen people, were voted their Italian spokesperson for the Working Group for Indigenous People in Southern Africa (WIMSA) and sourced sponsors for bursary funds for the first Bushmen college students in Namibia.

Yes, this happened while I was doing research and interviews in the field in Botswana and South Africa for my first (Italian) book, ‘Kalahari – Journey amongst the Bushmen of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa’ in the early 2000s. When my book was published in Italy, I formed another association called Heritage with local entrepreneurs and found sponsors and prestigious venues near Venice. There were, and still are, huge international organisations advocating for the rights of the San as one of the ‘First Peoples’, and to this day I believe the situation of many San communities is still one of difficult negotiation within local political realities.

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Q: Having promoted tourism from Europe to Africa for 15 years, what do you think the European market is looking for in Africa?

We are clearly going through very uncertain times. Those who can afford to travel from Europe are very motivated travellers; they would be looking for significant experiences and unique products satisfying their expectations of an authentic Africa… that connection with the vast wilderness, the thrill of adventure and the interaction with very different cultures.

Q: Silvana, you have a young son, Steve, who you and your late husband have brought to Zimbabwe many times, do you think he will follow in your footsteps?

My son has acquired a true love for Africa. I wish for him that he can find his calling in whatever field and country he chooses, but I know, following all the times I have involved him in my travels that he has developed the love and respect for Nature as well as the curiosity that my parents had instilled in me… Only time will tell!

Q: What next?

I use the royalties from this book to support conservation in Africa; I am networking for the promotion of conservation tourism; I have an online French company to channel wildlife illustration in support of biodiversity projects; and a story to write for a young audience about Africa’s dwindling wild habitats – and a couple of other books in the pipeline…

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Zambezi Valley, The Lost Stronghold is available from Amazon, selected bookshops in Zimbabwe, and directly from the author Silvana Olivo at silvana.olivo@gmail.com