I have ghost-written six books and they all have been about animal-people.
This has put me in touch with some truly remarkable characters. Some are larger than life, such as Lawrence Anthony; others ordinary people doing extraordinary things such as Gail Gillespie-Fox who risked much to save an orphaned chimpanzee in Ebola-stricken Liberia.
But they all have one thing in common. They care.
So it is with some sadness that I learned one of Africa’s most colourful eco-warriors, José Tello, has died.
I never met him, but wish I had. When writing The Last Rhinos with my brother-in-law Lawrence Anthony, he told me about meeting this wild Portuguese-Mozambican of the bush and the story has stuck with me.
Lawrence was on a mission to save the last pocket of Northern White Rhinos deep in the untamed northeast of the DRC and arrived at Garamba Park with ex-frontline soldier JP le Roux to assess the situation.
To call Garamba ‘wild’ is understating the case. By comparison, Afghanistan is a hip holiday resort. More tourists climb Everest than go to the Park. At the entrance was an Ebola-quarantined village, while a few miles inland, the Lord’s Resistance Army were letting off steam terrorizing and pillaging.
Soon after arriving, they were met by a tough-looking man with a luxuriant beard who introduced himself as José Tello, the park manager.
Tello was not impressed with what he thought were a couple of bunny huggers. However, he agreed to take them for a game drive, mainly because his staff were too terrified to do so. They had picked up LRA traffic on two-way radios, which meant that they were in line of sight of the terrorists.
José soon revised his opinion of the ‘bunny huggers’ and invited them for supper. The two South Africans decided this would be an ideal opportunity to find out why Tello’s bosses, African Parks and the DRC conservation department, were giving a confusing picture of the rhino situation. JP produced two bottles of Johnny Walker to loosen Tello’s tongue.
After the first bottle was sent clanking into the bin, JP fetched another. Surely that was enough to make José a little more garrulous?
Not so. In fact, José was as steady as a rock. Instead, Lawrence and JP were starting to fall about. Lawrence surreptitiously poured his drink into a nearby flowerbed.
JP picked his moment. “What is going on in Garamba, my friend? Why are we being given the runaround with the rhinos? Or must I give you more whisky to get a truthful answer?”
“All in good time,” said José pouring more drinks. It was a rare occasion that he had visitors in this chaotically feral corner of Africa and he was going to milk it.
José uncorked a third bottle. But by now they had run out of mix. The only water was from the Dungu River about 30 yards away, and a staff member — very bravely considering the plethora of crocs and hippos — went and filled a kettle.
River water could only be drunk after being boiled, so José lit the stove. But it took too long to cool, so he poured the still steaming liquid straight into their whisky tumblers. Lawrence later told me that drinking tepid three-fingers of Scotch mixed with two-fingers of bath-temperature water slap-bang on the equator was not for the fainthearted.
Eventually José opened up. He didn’t mince words. The complete antithesis of a desk-jockey, he had no interest in painting pretty pictures for foreigners. There were probably no more rhinos left in Garamba, he said. Lawrence was ‘chasing a rainbow’.
José’s suggestion was to re-populate with Southern White Rhinos, which are almost identical, and defend them with round-the-clock firepower.
It was the first truthful answer Lawrence got, although not the one he wanted.
After flattening three bottles of Scotland’s finest, José escorted the South Africans to their bungalow. He walked straight as an arrow while Lawrence and JP staggered to bed.
His parting words were ‘good whisky and good friends are difficult to find’. José obviously put Lawrence and JP in both camps, something Lawrence treasured.
José died on November 28, 2017, in Lisbon. RIP, eco-warrior extraordinaire.