Now it's time to save the humans

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THEY called it Operation Noah, and they must have been pretty pleased with the name. It certainly caught the world's imagination - and mine.

As a boy, I was given a book about the exercise, which saved thousands of animals from the waters rising behind the Zambesi's giant Kariba Dam. I remember vivid pictures of stranded wildlife being rescued from disappearing islands.

Now the dam powers both Lusaka and Harare. Luxury tourist lodges have sprung up around the 175-mile-long lake and the specially stocked waters yield 15,000 tons of fish a year.

A happy ending? Well, no. For, like Noah himself, the rescuers were much keener on animals than on people. The four-legged inhabitants were cosseted by the programme, financed by British and American aid. The two-legged ones, as I found when I visited Zimbabwe last week, were left to rot.

Forty years on, 100,000 desperately poor people are still stranded on the harsh, barren land they were given after being forced to flee the valley. Despite promises they have little water, though their homes are now buried beneath 300ft of the stuff; most have no electricity, although the dam's hydro-electric turbines churn out over six billion kilowatt hours of it every year.

"One generation has seen the failed promise of electricity, drinking and irrigation water - and another will too," said Isaac Mackenzie, one of the people's leaders. And village elder Mrs Simpongo Munsaka added: "We need the water we left behind to follow us."

The Zimbabwe government is now finally launching a fund to help the people of the dam. But the story illustrates the preference for animals over humans that has given much conservation in Africa a bad name.

MOST rural Africans see wildlife as a nuisance, and worse. The lion that kills a cow or the elephant that tramples crops bring economic disaster. The locals get little of the money taken by tour companies and lodges from the Westerners on safari.

But it is now increasingly dawning on conservationists that there is no hope of preserving wild animals without the support of the local people, and they have begun to work out ways of ensuring that they benefit from them.

Zimbabwe is helping to pioneer this. It gives communities the legal right to manage the wildlife in their areas, as long as they show that they can do it. The communities then work out their own ways of profiting from it, in consultation with the wildlife department, often selling concessions to photograph or hunt the animals. As the communities benefit from the wildlife, they take care to conserve it: poaching has fallen dramatically.

I was there to speak at a conference, organised by LEAD International, to train emerging experts in the environment and development from around the world. Another speaker, Professor Keto Mshigeni, vice-chancellor of the University of Namibia, told how conserving and exploiting wild plants brought jobs, prosperity and health. Seaweed farming in Tanzania, for example, now brings the country $15m a year in exports and gives 30,000 once-poor villagers incomes higher than middle-ranking civil servants. And a blue-green algae in Lake Chad, eaten by local expectant mothers in the belief that its dark colour stopped sorcerers seeing their unborn babies, has turned out to be the highest protein source ever found.

PROFESSOR Mshigeni , by the way, explained why God could never get a Chair at a university. "He has only produced one major publication. It carried no references and was not published in a properly refereed journal. There is some doubt whether He wrote it allHimself. And the international scientific community has found it very difficult (indeed impossible) to replicate the results of His work."