No account of wildlife warriors in South Africa would be complete without mentioning Rita Miljo. Of her, I can speak only with reverence.
She was by far the most knowledgeable wildlife rehabber in South Africa, and an internationally renowned expert on primate behaviour.
In her 80s she still ran CARE, the baboon sanctuary up in Limpopo province, which currently gives sanctuary to around 500 baboons. Contrary to conservation dogma, which insisted vehemently that it could not be done, she pioneered the release of baboon troops back to the wild. Even the great man himself, Nelson Mandela, attended one of her baboon troop releases.
Widowed by a light aircraft crash that took her husband and her daughter from her, Rita established CARE as a sanctuary for baboons against ferocious opposition from what must surely be one of the most hostile conservation services to animal welfare anywhere in the world. Baboons were classed as vermin. It was illegal to rescue or care for them.
She used to phone me of an evening, most often just to chat with someone who understood the problems she had to live with. Officials learnt to respect her. Once she rescued a baby baboon from far-off Barberton, and found herself once again in court on the usual charges of transporting and keeping an animal without a permit. She phoned me, chortling with glee, to give me the news.
“Well, Chris, there I was in the dock giving evidence and the prosecutor asks me in cross-examination: ‘Why do you waste your time on problem animals like baboons?’
So I said to him: “Who are you to tell God that he should not have created baboons?”
I saw the magistrate smiling at that. Anyway, I was acquitted. The magistrate said I was acting out of necessity to save the animal’s life and that was a good defence, even though I did not have a permit.”
And she chortled with glee again. What an indomitable woman. It takes a special strength of character and purpose to derive humour from a situation where one is being victimized.