Obituary:Mervyn Cowie

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The Independent Online
The great task of Mervyn Cowie's life was the pioneering of wildlife protection and the development of tourism throughout East Africa.

Cowie was one of only a few who had the vision to realise that the animals' saviour was going to be the tourist. Only tourism could attract the sort of revenues needed to establish parks and all the elaborate infrastructure necessary to make them a success. Many millions would be required - but even more millions would be earned, virtually all of it in foreign currency.

Cowie was born in British East Africa in 1909, his father having resigned as Chief Magistrate of Johannesburg in order to settle in Kenya. His mother was the archetypal colonial wife: dauntless, indomi-table, fiercely determined in the overcoming of every obstacle and difficulty of living in raw Africa and raising two sons.

Cowie loved to narrate the tale of his parents entertaining some important government guests to dinner. The meal was to begin with soup and crouton, all carefully prepared under the supervision of his mother. When the soup arrived it was almost consomme-like and devoid of any crouton. After the guests had gone Mpishi, the cook, was asked why he had removed the crouton to which he replied that memsahib had left all these things floating in the bowl and he thought they should not be there. She enquired as to how they had been removed and was informed that one of bwana's socks had made an excellent sieve; then, seeing the look of horror on her face, he hastily added that she need not worry, it was not a clean one!

Cowie was educated initially in Nairobi before going "home" (as Britain was refer-red to by the colonials) to study at Brighton College and Oxford. He returned to Kenya in 1932 after qualifying as a chartered accountant. Almost immediately he became alarmed by the very obvious depletion of wild-life since his departure, which was the result principally of a total lack of any governmental policies on conservation.

Between 1932 and the start of the Second World War Cowie served as a district councillor in Nairobi, trained with the King's African Rifles as a reserve, and above all, campaigned tirelessly and with missionary zeal towards his great vision of a series of National Parks and an efficiently run system for game conservation.

Frustrated by unshakeable government lethargy, he embarked upon a ploy of anonymously advocating, via the press, a policy for the destruction of all wildlife in East Africa with a view to enhancing agriculture. His ruse worked: the government was so startled by public reaction to such an outrageous suggestion it was forced to do something. This consisted simply of forming a committee to examine the matter, but a start had been made.

Nairobi Park, the first in Kenya, was opened in 1946, with Cowie as Executive Director. Gradually he opened a whole series of parks throughout East Africa, later to be exalted to the title of Royal National Parks. These included the famous Tree-Tops, where Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were staying in 1952 when she learnt of her accession to the throne. Cowie was tasked with protecting the royal party from wild animals during their stay. There was a bull elephant lurking in the trees nearby and the problem was how to shoo him away. Ever resourceful, Cowie, who could charm birds from the trees, found the solution. Approaching the bull carefully, keeping out of sight and downwind, he selected a large pebble, rubbed it vigorously under his armpit and then hurled it past the animal and upwind of it. Hearing the thud as the stone dropped, the elephant turned in that direction, picked up Cowie's aroma and immediately charged, happily in the desired direction.

Despite his tireless and often lonely and frustrating efforts to further the animals' interests, Cowie nevertheless found time to assist and advise on the forming of similar parks in Uganda and Tanganyika, to sit on the Kenya Legislative Council (as his father had done) for 10 years, to run the demanding office of Director of Manpower during the Mau-Mau emergency in 1953, to co-found the Kenya Wildlife Society, act as East African representative for the Alliance Internationale de Tourisme, organise and manage extensive anti-poaching operations and of course travel extensively world-wide.

Cowie published three books on his life's burning passion, Fly Vulture (1961), I Walk with Lions (1964), and African Lion (1965). The popular film, Where No Vultures Fly (1951), was a dramatised story of his work.

Not shown in that film was a curious adventure which befell him once whilst visiting one of his park out-stations in a light aircraft. Landing on a rough and dusty strip cut from the surrounding bush, Cowie, as he slowed to a halt, was horrified to see a rhino charging straight towards him. Then followed a pure Keystone Kops sequence as he was chased in his aeroplane by the rhino, twisting and turning desperately as he tried to dodge the creature whilst endeavouring to get to the end of the strip so that he could take off again.

In 1963 Kenya became independent; three years later Cowie resigned from the Parks. By 1970 he was established as a Senior Consultant to the World Wildlife Fund, spending much of his time in London, where he was particularly involved with fund-raising. He found that to be disagreeable and in 1972 he joined the African Medical and Research Foundation in Nairobi, the flying doctor service, as their financial director, a post which he held for seven years.

In time Kikenni, the house which Cowie's father had built in 1926, was sold, and he and his second wife Val returned to Britain. His latter days were much devoted to the writing of his last book which, sadly, he did not live to see published.

Francis Chamberlain

Mervyn Hugh Cowie, conservationist: born Nairobi, Kenya 13 April 1909; Founder and Director, Royal National Parks of Kenya 1946-66; Vice-President, East African Tourist Travel Association 1950-65; CBE 1960; married 1934 Molly Beaty (died 1956; two sons, one daughter), 1957 Valori Hare Duke (one son, one daughter); died 19 July 1996.