End of an era – a tribute to Gordon Setaro
12 June 2022
The end of an era.
Back in late 1979, while working at FitzSimons Snake Park, two odd-looking guys entered the park but stopped a few paces from the ticket office and were having a bit of a conversation. This was rather odd but they eventually approached me and introduced themselves. It was Lynn Raw and Gordon Setaro.
Lynn worked at the Institute of Natural Resources, University of Natal, in Pietermaritzburg and had done great work on reptiles and amphibians. This included the descriptions of a number of species including Setaro’s Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion setaroi) from St Lucia which he named after Gordon. Gordon was very proud to have had a chameleon named after him and we often spoke about it.
Gordon grew up at 99 Juniper Street in Overport, Durban and was reptile crazy from a very young age. He qualified as a fitter and turner and was one of the best in the industry but he had little interest in working behind a lathe – he wanted to be in the field. At one stage he would work nightshift for six months without a day off and then disappear into the field for six months looking for reptiles. His other jobs included making dentures for Nolly Zaloumis and doing the tightrope act in the circus on a one-wheel bicycle. He loved his time in the circus as it toured the country and his act took a few minutes twice a day – the rest of the time was spent in the field flipping rocks. But he was terrified of heights and quit after his first near-miss.
I got to know Gordon well in the early 80s and we spent many days in the field in search of reptiles. His knowledge of reptiles and amphibians was exceptional and he knew exactly where to find them. Our favourite local hangout was Klaarwater near Mariannhill where we caught many Black Mambas – up to six in a morning – the odd Mozambique Spitting Cobra, VIne Snakes, Dusky-bellied Water Snakes and other odds and ends. St Lucia was always very productive, especially for frogs but Gordon turned up rarities like Purple-glossed Snakes, Jani’s Shovel-snout and a variety of burrowing reptiles.
Namaqualand was his favourite collecting grounds and he knew exactly where to look for the snakes and lizards of that region. We once went to Spoegrivier in a little Golf, drove down a dirt road and scratched around and ended up stuck in mud for a week. It was freezing cold but there was no shortage of reptiles to photograph.
During another visit to Springbok Gordon and a friend jumped a fence to look for snakes and the farmer found them trespassing. After a quick chat the farmer offered them accommodation in an old house on the farm and they stayed for close on a year!
Around 2004, while living in Umhlanga Rocks and commuting weekly to Johannesburg to run my business Fascination Books, Gordon joined me for a few years and moved into a small apartment below our house. He joined me on various collecting trips and caught reptiles for me to photograph while I was in Johannesburg.
Spending time in the field with Gordon was special. His knowledge of our reptiles and amphibians, absolute dedication while in the field as well as his work rate was admirable. He befriended many of my friends but was an introvert that avoided people and preferred being in the bush. He said that big sporting events were a good thing as thousands of people attended games and left the bush for us.
In recent months Gordon’s health deteriorated and I was saddened to hear of his passing earlier today. He was a very special person, extremely talented and a brilliant herpetologist who had no interest in the academic side of herpetology but knew this reptiles and just loved spending time observing them and learning more about their behaviour.
This photograph of Gordon with a Green Mamba was taken in Ballito. Despite having spent most of his life studying and collecting reptiles and amphibians, he never managed to catch a Green Mamba. While looking for Vine Snakes at our favourite spot I heard the distress calls of birds and sent Gordon to see if they had spotted a snake. He saw a thinnish green snakes and, without giving it a second thought, grabbed it at midbody thinking that it was a harmless Eastern Natal Green Snake but it turned out to be a Green Mamba. He was fortunate not to get a bite.
A good friend that will never be forgotten. My sincere condolences to his family.