Hunting the Wrong Kind of Animal
There I was, a youngster trying to gain practical experience on game management and client relations, in the middle of Zambia’s Luangwe Valley, asking myself, what am I doing here? This sounds like the opening line of a Mickey Spilane dime novel and all that was missing was the dame and the smoke-filled room. But this is my story and I feel I should tell it. It was unusually cold the night of Thursday, the 9th of August 2001. The riverine forest was showing signs of the harsh winter. The cathedral like arches , consisting mainly of Mopane, African Ebony, Tamarind and Natal Mahogany, was misty, and the only noise to be heard was the stocatto huh-huh sounds of the hippo’s as they were leaving the water.
Luambe is situated in the Luangwa Valley, between the South and North Luangwa National Parks. It is a piece of paradise and I was tasked with management of the Luangwa Wilderness Lodge (the only Lodge in the Park). I arrived in April 2001 and my brief was to manage the camp, entertain the guests, conduct the game drives as well as to undertake anti-poaching exercises. Coming from the heart of the Winelands, Stellenbosch, this was all very new and exciting to me. As I mentioned earlier I was here because I wanted to be here, but everyday was proving to be a fast pitch on a quick learning curve. Especially that night…
For some unknown reason the twelve local Chewo tribe staff members and I were still sitting in the little kitchen at the head nodding hours of the night. The tiny kitchen was made of reeds and wood, like everything else in the camp. One of the conditions of our operating license is that everything must be made from natural material from the region. Even the government anti-poaching scout on duty, although armed with a AK47, was eager to sit close to the fire with the rest of us. Maybe he knew what was to happen, or it could be that he was just cold, but somehow we all sensed something was about to happen. And it did when at about 9 o’clock we heard the telling sound of shots from the Chipuka Plains. For you who had not been to Zambia I need to explain. People generally do not own firearms and there is hardly any noise at night apart from those of Mother Nature. You can imagine the noise a gunshot makes in this natural setting.
An icy cold silence followed, the scout and I looked at one another. In an unwritten moment we realized that it was too risky to approach them at night. Poachers sometimes work in groups of twenty or more coming from the local villages of Lundazi. The poachers know a jail sentence of at least 6 years awaited them if they were caught and they will not hesitate to resist capture under any circumstances!
Although I am a Professional Hunter in South Africa, I was not registered in Zambia and thus not allowed to carry a rifle or a side arm. All I had was a “knopkierie”, a round-tipped stick one of the Madalas (old man) made for me from Mopane wood. The “kierie” has been handy a few times already when I had to deal with the odd snake in the footpath or the stray poachers. I might have been bluffing myself, but I felt safer carrying it. We knew that the “knopkierie” and one AK47 was not enough, and that we needed back-up from the anti-poaching unit head office at Janjusi, about 45 minutes drive away. I loaded the staff and the guard into the Cruiser and we set upon Janjusi at speed.
Upon our arrival the officer on duty informed us that there were no scouts available and that in typical African time concept we should return the next morning at 5am. By then it would be too late. Frustrated and angry we left. We have a saying in Africa called AWA or alternatively Africa wins again, but just before I was willing to admit defeat, AWA thoughts dissipated. My right hand man, Peter Phiri suggested that we should talk to his uncle, the Honorable Chief Chitingulu. The Chief knew that it is important for him to actively speak out again against poaching, as poaching activities in any Chief’s area reflects badly on him. We decided it was worth a try and a few minutes later we arrived at his homestead… I am not a song and dance man, but he could see from my gestures and the way I was wringing my “kierie” that I really was frustrated at entertaining the thought that the poachers might get away with this. The Chief was in a humble mood and we started rolling once again.
The Chief accompanied us back to Janjusi and ordered the officer on duty to make scouts available. Peter and I waited in silence as the Chief, the officer and the scouts argued. The argument was never on, I still have to see any bureaucrat beating a Chief in an argument. Remember, all the government officials come from the area that is controlled by the local chiefs. About half an hour later five scouts appeared from out of the woodwork and we were ready to go. It was after already 10pm, so we drove the chief back to his chiefdom and made our way to the camp.
As we came closer to the Chipuka Plains we could clearly see the dancing of silhouettes caused by a bushfire against the night sky. The eerie picture resembled a rising moon. The poachers need the fire to dry the meat during the night before leaving the park at daybreak.
In true Zambian decisiveness the unit leader, Binwell Banda, decided that we should go to bed and confront them at 4am. It took me a while to fall asleep, being all anxious and excited. At precisely 3:47 we woke up, got ready and left for the plains. Four staff members, Peter, Yotam Phiri, Martin Sakala and Peter (Pastor) Nkata accompanied us. It was still pitch dark. We stopped after a 30 minute walk in the direction where we thought the poacher’s camp was. Peter and Yotam decided to wait at the Cruiser and the rest of us proceeded, and although this was serious lion-territory, it was the last thing on our minds. After a further twenty minutes walk, Binwell stopped. We were approaching a dense Mopane-thicket and we realized that it would be safer to wait for more light. Surprising armed poachers at night in a thicket can be extremely dangerous. And at times the odd loose shot all adds to the danger, it was a risk I was not willing to take. At this stage I was very tense and there was no way I could sit still, I continuously paced up and down. Those twenty minutes felt like an eternity.
Binwell gave the signal and took the lead, walking very slowly and carefully over a bed of dry Mopane leaves… You have a lot of time to think in Zambia, it is that kind of country, and the thoughts were racing through my own head while I was tracing Binwell’s steps. One of the thoughts was a scenario that we stumbled on earlier.
A few weeks earlier we found a poached elephant-carcass, the meat stripped from the bones. The strange thing was that we also found 34 beheaded White-headed vultures around the carcass. I was told that the poachers poison the carcass to kill the vultures and then use their heads to make muti (medicine), which they believe, will help in warning them when the anti- poaching patrol unit are in close vicinity – the same anti-poaching patrol unit that I am now part of. With the help of their muti and the crunching Mopane leaves, I was certain that they must have known about us already. We walked slower and slower. Every now and then Binwell lifted his hand we fell down and waited. Needless to say, we exercised a mostly a precautionary false alarm approach. But, after about 5 minutes into the walk and stalk he suddenly grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me down with force. I could see the tension in every muscle of his body. He pointed to the blood and I could see the faint outline of the hippo spoor in the breaking light on the ground. We were very close to whatever awaited us. A few more paces and then we saw the hippo’s carcass about 50 meters ahead of us. The poachers were drying the meat, but there was no sign of them. They’ve heard us after all. I do not know whether it was relief or disappointment, but I suggested that we’d go to the carcass and look for tracks. Binwell did not agree and indicated d that we should proceed to the left in order to try and cut them off from the road to Lundazi. I was still nervy and with the rush of adrenaline still kicking in my veins still not sure what to expect. Looking at the faces of the armed scouts behind me didn’t help much either. We were so close, and I was wondering how we allowed them to get out of our grip. In Africa there are no rules and procedures, and generally doing things by the book is limited to showing your passport at the border post only. In my opinion we really were doing quite well on this venture, even if it is my first in confronting anti- poaching.
All of a sudden Binwell started running forward, so fast as if his life depended on it. I followed as fast as I could, not knowing exactly whether we were chasing or fleeing. Running with a jacket, jeans and heavy boots, my body and lungs soon started to protest. The dry branches were snapping around us and we could hear the whistling sound of our feet hitting the soft sand in the footpaths. Then I saw the poachers. They were scattered all over, Binwell already chasing one. Frank, one of the scouts running about 2 meters behind me, started firing warning shots. I wasn’t sure in which direction he was firing, but it was unexpected enough to scare the living daylights out of me. I wondered whether my lungs or my ears were hurting the most.
As we ran out of the Mopane thicket unto the misty Chipuka Plains at about 6am, shots going off all around me, I knew I did not want to die here in the depths of Africa and although it is a life-long dream to fight poaching in Africa, I would have given all I had to be back home in my favorite restaurant in Stellenbosch with a cold beer, a pizza and a nice girl next to me.
In what felt like a few seconds I can recall the first poacher was going down and the scouts hitting him. The unit leader stepped in and stopped them. But to a certain extent I could understand the frustration and anger, as I too shared their feeling. In the heat of the chase you are so tense that it is fairly easy to loose perspective. About 70 meters further we caught another one. There are two types of poachers, the firearm carrier and the skinner. So far we only manage to corner the skinners. The so-called “hunter” was still on the loose and was about 80 meters ahead of us. Binwell and I were still chasing him, but I could feel that my lungs wouldn’t make it. Binwell shouted something in Chewo and stopped. He took a dead rest with his AK47 over a broken Mopane tree and took aim. I stood a meter behind him with my hands over my ears. I wasn’t sure what to hope for – I want that poacher, because it was probably the same one that killed the elephant and al the vultures a few weeks before. I also knew that a bullet through the spine is not a pretty site. It seemed to be an easy shot – the poacher was running in a straight line and with my knowledge of running shots and the training and experience these guys have, I feared a messy result. The shot went off – it was a miss! From the corner of my eye I saw Martin Sakala the gardener at the camp) about 100 meters to our left pursuing the poacher. I felt like shouting “Good for you Martin!” A few meters further he grasped the unfortunate poacher. Our mission came to a rather abrupt end.
After everybody re-united, I looked on to a process that I could not always understand. The scouts made the poachers roll over each other in the ashes (leftovers of previous veldfires) to humiliate them. This was not my place to question the humiliation as well as the verbal abuse, and at times I wonder why we react that way, I still felt that we have managed to get a message across. This carried on for a few minutes and then we headed back for the Cruiser. Peter and Yotam were waiting for us.
A few days later the poachers each received a six-year sentence in the regional court at Lundazi. Poaching activities in the park calmed down, albeit for a short period only. After the initial lull, poaching activities picked up again and we resumed with our patrols. The more I get involved in the fights against poaching, the more I realize the seriousness of the threat. There used to be more than a hundred thousand elephants in the Luangwa Valley in the 1980’s and commercial poaching brought the numbers down to approximately thirty thousand in 2000. The realities around me made me aware of the desperate and difficult situations many other so-called natural reserves in Africa find themselves in, regardless of the conservation efforts and the anti- poaching efforts in these areas. Going back to Zambia at the beginning of May this year, I don’t know what to expect after the rainy season, but I’m sure the poaching would not have stopped and there’s a lot of work waiting for us. I am still trying to make sense of the poachers and why they are willing to take the risks. I have to be honest and advocate that in an ideal world they would have been hunters, hunting from an ample basket of meat, but we no longer live in that world. Ivory and the black-market prices have turned these hunters into commodity traders. They no longer have access to the resources and have to venture into the game parks to poach.
The answer might be in the hands of the Chiefs and their management approach, but that alone would be the basis of a PhD thesis.
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