Tuesday, May 01, 2007

WILLIAM ASTLE. 11 December 1932 – 2 March 2006

Bill Astle, Gaborone c.1977

Bill spent 17 years working in Northern Rhodesia and Zambia, first as an agricultural research officer in the Agricultural Department, and later as a biologist in the Department of Wildlife and National Parks – most of it in the Luangwa Valley, and finally, as Chief Biologist stationed at our HQ in Chilanga. He left in 1973, the early 70’s being the period when a corpse of men consumed with the passion of conservation departed the Game Department for ever: Frank Ansell, John Clarke, Phillip Berry, Barry Shenton, Johnny Uys…

Bill was a wonderfully eccentric man whose generosity of spirit was combined in such delightful ways: I well remember the saga of the jacket many years ago; Bill lending his only jacket to his malonda, pitying him for the cold nights of winter in the Luangwa, then, when it was time for him to go to England on leave, looking for the jacket in irritation, then remembering what he had done with it, and ‘borrowing’ it back for his three month’s leave. And before that, in the 60’s when he gone on leave again and had returned with a wife, a beautiful and exotic creature from Brazil called Mercedes, news of her arrival drawing us to his fence, peering though with binoculars to see if it was true. And how many are the Zambians, who, having worked as labourers or carriers in the bush for Bill, or taken under his wing as research assistants - and later assisted financially by him, rose to be university lecturers, senior civil servants and the first fully certified Zambian tourist guides.

Of course, Bill’s patch in life was the Luangwa Valley, a place which he loved deeply, where indeed I found him in 1966 – already a veteran bachelor and biologist it seemed in our beloved Game Department, already with a reputation as a plant ecologist with a deep knowledge of the miombo forest. In the early 1970’s, Bill became the Department’s Chief Wildlife Research Officer, he, Mercedes and their daughter, Marilia, leaving soon after in 1973. He then went into consultancy work, moving to Botswana to carry out ecological studies for F.A.O. in the Okovango and at a research station near Gaborones. In the late 80’s he was back in the valley, again doing some remote sensing work with Steve Prince, his former protege, moving back into the same research camp he had left long before at old Mfuwe.

Bill I saw as the quintessential Englishman of the north of England: careful with his money, generous, disdaining of affected ways, a man who found great delight in a quaint phrase, a humourous gesture…a man who loved a good laugh. Of that we had many. And of course there was cricket: we played together in many places: in Fort Jameson, on the old Mfuwe airstrip in the Luangwa amidst the calling cards of a herd of buffalo that had rested there the previous night, in Gaborone and in Lobatse, and had watched cricket at his beloved Old Trafford in the sun, and in the cold. He will soon be there again, or in the valley, striding rapidly along, the carriers struggling to keep up with him; Bill, our friend.

Astle, WL. (1969). The vegetation and soils of Chishinga Ranch, Luapula Province, Zambia. Kirkia 7, 73-102
Astle, WL. (1971). Management in the Luangwa Valley. Oryx 11, 135-139
Astle, WL, Phiri, PSM & Prince, SD. (1997). Checklist of the flowering plants and ferns of the South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. Kirkia 16(2): 109- 160.
Astle, WL. (1999). A History of Wildlife Conservation and Management in the Mid-Luangwa Valley, Zambia. British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol
Astle, WL. (1988). Republic of Zambia, South Luangwa National Park Map, landscape and vegetation. Lovell Johns, Ltd, Oxford
Astle, WL, Lawrence, CJ, and Webster, R. (1969). Land classification for management planning in the Luangwa valley of Zambia. Journal of Applied Ecology, 6, 143-169

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