NAIROBI, Nov 8 (Swara) – John “Steve” Stephenson, who died in Nairobi on October 26 at the age of 101, was born in a mud hut in 1920 to Canadian missionary parents who had trekked inland from the East African coast to set up mission stations in the remote Ukambani region.
A founding pupil at the Rift Valley Academy, he enlisted into the Kenya Regiment as soldier No. 663 when World War II broke out. He was posted to Somalia where he served five years in the burning rock and desert of the Horn of Africa, trekking thousands of miles with camels, keeping the peace among warring clans and looking out for Japanese submarines that never came. Several fellow officers went mad or killed themselves in the extreme conditions and loneliness of that peculiar campaign.
Noted for his love of remote postings, fluency in Kiswahili and dedication to duty, he was ideally suited after the war, to join the Tanganyika Administrative Service where he served with distinction, becoming the last District Commissioner of Masailand at Independence. Whilst trekking over the Ngorongoro Highlands and Serengeti Plains in the 1950s as part of that role, he was preparing for the next.
The experiences thus far were to set Stephenson up for his greatest legacy, as a pioneering conservationist who made a lasting contribution to the preservation of East Africa’s magnificent wildlife. In 1963 he joined Tanzania’s fledgling National Parks Department, learned to fly a small plane and set off for the south where, during ten years as Chief Park Warden Southern Tanzania he set up Ruaha, Mikumi, Gombe and Katavi National Parks, all of which still flourish some 50 years on.
Stephenson’s role necessitated such diverse skills as bush flying, leading anti-poaching patrols, road building, legislating, nurturing community relations, entertaining a string of VIPs, planning for hotels and introducing tourism. Somehow, he also built a home in the bush for his family. His final role was to manage the Serengeti National Park, but he said his greatest satisfaction came from the nurturing and mentoring of Tanzanian wardens who later took over the National Parks.
Stephenson moved to Ethiopia as wildlife adviser to the government, arriving weeks after Emperor Haile Selassie had been toppled and assassinated. The Marxist military dictatorship forced him to carry a security agent in his small plane as he flew across that country’s extraordinary landscapes. Never one to be pinned down, he threw his plane around so violently and made his passenger so ill that no agent ever flew with him again. Stephenson was left free to travel to every wild corner of that land and established the Yangudi Rassa National Park specifically to protect the threatened Danakil Wild Ass.
By now in his 60s, he was persuaded by scientist friends to join them as administrator on a large United Nations project studying desertification across Northern Kenya. Retirement – in name only – followed but Stephenson was called by conservation bodies around the world to consult on wide ranging issues: a tourism management plan for the Ngorongoro Conservation Authority; a rehabilitation management plan for the Selous Game Reserve for GTZ; a strategy for endangered wildlife in Somalia for the World Bank; similar projects in Iran, Lesotho and Sudan; and even bringing some reality to a Hollywood studio who were making the film of Serengeti Shall Not Die.
He stopped flying aged 65 but was still consulting on conservation projects into his late seventies, patiently learning how to use a laptop, wired up to his Land Rover battery, to write up reports.
Courteous to all, firm but fair, an inspiration to many and never more at home than in the bush among nomadic people with his pipe clenched between his teeth, grandchildren never tired of impossibly exotic tales about hunting man-eating leopards or rescuing stranded tourists.
Stephenson chose to end his days in Nairobi, Kenya. But ever curious, he travelled the world with his second wife Yvonne and died on 26 October, aged almost 102. Having lost his daughter in 2001, he is survived by Yvonne, four sons, multiple grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Soldier, conservationist, developer of modern Africa and witness to a bygone era, he was a proud member of the East African Wild Life Society since May 1965 and the last expatriate Park Warden of Tanzania National Parks.
(See Steve’s reflections on his long membership of the East African Wild Life Society in the print edition of Swara magazine dated January-March 2017.)