Theresa Warth tribute

Tribute to Theresa Warth of Wasara Ranch in Zimbabwe – “The Elephant Lady”


1 July 2015

For those of you who did not get to meet Theresa, or for those of you who did not make it to Chiredzi to celebrate her life, here is a collection of stories and messages that were written for her. 

A celebration of Theresa’s life

Theresa was born on the 11th of March, 1959 in Linz, Austria to Bob and Elizabeth Henggeler. She was the second child of eight, and the oldest daughter. Shortly thereafter, they went back to the Rogogo Farm near Headlands, where she grew up . This is also where her passion and love for Africa, the bush, wildlife big and small was found. Spending a lot of time out and about with her brothers and her Father, she learned and understood the land along with all it had to offer from early on.

She was home schooled by her Mother for the first two years, before going to boarding school with her little sister Ina in Mutare and later on to Harare. 

In 1973 it was decided the three eldest Henggeler siblings would finish their education in Switzerland, so the whole family went back on holiday to drop them off. During that time, the situation back in Zimbabwe changed, and it was decided that all the children would stay in Europe. Bob and Elizabeth went back to the farm where Elizabeth packed up everything, and headed back to Switzerland to be with her children.

It’s safe to say Theresa hated boarding school in Switzerland, between the cold, the routine and feeling confined, she really struggled leaving her beloved home and Africa. This became very apparent after she left school and went to Nizza in France, when her zest for life reappeared. She went there to learn French, but really, she learned how to sail, how to cook and how to really live life to the full. She also went to Canada and stayed with two aunties for a short while, where she realised what she wanted from life and how she wanted to live it.

After Nizza, she went back to Switzerland and got her secretarial qualifications. Who would have thought!? Theresa from Wasara Ranch was actually, a bone fide, qualified secretary by profession!? But being the extraordinary person she was, she had her own way of going about it: she drove a black Deux Chevaux which she had christened Platypus, she wore a big red hat with a material flower tucked into the band and she smoked a long, slim, lady’s pipe. She was most probably wearing bell bottoms too. She got a job at IBM, and you could always see which window she was working at, as the curtains were tied back with ribbon and there was always a vase of flowers on her desk. Looking up at the big, square, concrete high rise, you could spot it a mile away in amongst all the other straight up and down curtains and bare desks.

Working in Switzerland could never replace being out in the sun and fresh air for Theresa, so she made plans to go and visit her brothers in Australia but not having had her dose of Africa she decided to go to Aussie via Zimbabwe. Little did she know that she was going to bump into the wildest wildlife Zimbabwe had to offer- enter Gary Warth in all his bushy, red bearded glory. Even though Gary said it was Chiredzi with not many opportunities and certainly no room for escape, she must have seen something as she didn’t spend very long in Australia and was back for good within two months.

When people think of Theresa, most of the time, it’s her love of animals that pops to mind first. And it all started with Tikus the Dormouse. Brought to her by her Father, while he was staying at Tambuti Lodge when he was checking out what his daughter was up to, the woodland dormouse literally fell into Bob’s lap, still bald and tiny. Jokingly, he handed it to Theresa and said ‘Here you go, here is something to raise.’ Tikus the dormouse ended up being the most cultured, adventurous and traveled little mouse in history. She went everywhere with Theresa; flying to and from Switzerland at least 3 times, the movies, skiing and  attending their wedding in the August of ’83 hidden in her dress. 

Big, small, feathery, furry or even human, Theresa’s capacity to love, heal and nurture was endless. Always humble, never wanting to take credit for anything and always just getting on with it, the impact that this one woman had on so many people, animals and causes is incredible. There is no single string of words that can put her into context, instead of words, we all have that feeling in our hearts and that is the closest we will get. 

After their wedding in Switzerland, Gary & Theresa moved on to Samba Ranch where they built up a nice home for their growing family. Theresa was in charge of all the animals and Gary used his talents looking after the crops and manufacturing things in the workshop. In the December of 1985 Phillip was born with blond hair and big blue eyes. Two years later, after another long, hot summer pregnancy, another blue eyed boy was born and Stevie joined the family. 

The drought in the early 90’s meant that Theresa’s role of Mum was stretched out even more: warthogs, eland, wildebeest, elephants & birds all needed her love and care. During this period, Gary finally gave Theresa a daughter. Rather chubby and piggy eyed, Hippy the hippo took her place in the family. Bathing with the boys, snoozing on her bean bag in the lounge with the family and even sleeping on Theresa & Gary‘s bed. Hippy is testament to Theresa’s bravery and dedication to animals. People raising a hippo was rare, so figuring out just how to keep one healthy, happy, fat and flourishing required a lot of courage, gut feel and research. Hippy became the fundraiser for her wild relatives and other drought victims and she also helped healing Theresa’s skin, by rubbing herself gently on her legs and spreading her “sunscreen“ after Theresa got burnt in an accident.

Christmas 1996 the whole Henggeler clan came out to Zimbabwe for a reunion on Samba, so everyone got the chance to see Theresa in her element with all her animals and enjoy the wildlife as well as meeting the two ele’s she had. Along with the ele’s, little Twiza the Giraffe joined the family too. Everybody knows just what elephant meant to Theresa, they gave her strength, determination and she always got that glint in her eye when she was talking about them. They were her pillar of strength as much as she was theirs.

The move to Wasara in 1998 with all the two and four-legged family members was a challenge. This being said, she went about everything with enthusiasm and determination, throughout all the trials and tribulations, she always remained positive, strong and hopeful, no matter what.

Another life changing event for her was seeing her boys growing into men, leaving the country to get educations overseas and making something of themselves and for themselves. Theresa was always very close and proud of her two boys and the love she shared with them was like no other.

Wasara was always open for friends and guests from all over the world. Theresa touched so many  with her love and passion for nature and living things. By giving people the chance to meet her wonderful eles up close and the chance to watch the wild herd at the els dam, which she fought to protect through those difficult years, she made a lasting impact. Within those who witnessed this, she planted a seed of advocacy of doing the right thing no matter what. She moved and inspired people and now it is up to us to carry on with what she believed in and live out the lessons that she taught us all.

Theresa, thank you for sharing your life, laughter, dreams and achievements with us. We still cannot believe that you just gapped it, we are all still waiting for you to walk in, laughing at us and asking us “what’s going on here!?” in that special way you do.

“I am very sorry to hear of Theresa’s death. I have only just found the sad news on my laptop. I learned something of her work with wildlife and was very impressed. In particular, her efforts to protect elephants were important. She will be sadly missed, but I am sure that those that she inspired will continue her work of restoring the Cheredzi River Conservancy and protecting the wild animals who make the area their home. ”

Jane Goodall PhD, DBE, Founder – the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace

“Her passion and determination to hold steadfast to her land, be the protector of the abandoned and to fight for what she truly believed in has created a huge outpouring of grief, admiration, respect and just a simple devastating sense of loss amongst the Zimbabwean community throughout the country.

She touched so many people from so many different walks of life, she bore no judgement of class or status, neither was she impressed by image or rank…It breaks my heart to read the hundreds of messages posted throughout the various social media forums – so many feel that her time was not up, she still had so much to do, but the stress of fighting the fight, climbing the impossible, remaining positive against all odds must sadly have taken its toll.

It was such a privilege to witness her incredible relationship with her elephants and to watch how she worked with them”.

Theresa, we promise to make you proud, we will finish what you started and we will fight to conserve, protect and preserve Wasara, the wildlife and rightful community that live there. We will educate others as to why it’s important to do this and how to do it, so that your efforts can live on and bring a better future for your grandchildren and their children.

Zimbabwe was diminished last week with the death of Theresa Henggeler Warth. I was not one of the many who have known and loved Theresa for years, yet a stone dropped into my chest when the news hit me. The few weeks I spent with her were filled with moments of truth…keep reading.

May your body return to these rich soils from where you came, and your spirit forever walk these plains and be felt on the warm gentle breeze, that people may look to the sun or stars and see you.

We will see you in everything that is beautiful.