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African hunting news - January 2009

Africa - The great Elephant debate

Edwin Mutale, didn't see the elephant standing next to the dirt track he was cycling on. He didn't notice the wrinkled grey tail, hanging idly with it's coarse tufts of wax-like hairs, he didn't see the frozen grey bulk of the young bull, with ears pinned to his side listening, trunk poised as if about to taste the air.

His bicycle, the one he had saved 2 years for, didn't make the usual noise of the cheaper bikes, wider off road tyres made a rumbling sound in the soft Luangwa dirt taking the elephant by surprise - a sound flaring up from his memory, way back to his adolescence and it immediately spurted a pure hot stream of alarm into his brain, pulling up rage and revenge!

Edwin saw the elephant too late, he was already past the tree trunk like legs when he noticed the movement 5 feet from his right shoulder, immediately knowing he had made a mistake. Edwin knew this elephant, he had seen him before, he was here most days beneath the marula tree - without a thought adrenalin pulsed through his body, pedaling as fast as his legs would allow to make the compound of the camp 500 yards ahead.

When an Elephant gets really angry they resemble humans quite closely, falling into a clouded frenzy of emotional outrage and fury. At close on 8 tons they make a formidable and fearsome sight not easily forgotten.

The elephant let out a chilling scream, half trumpet half growl as he spun and set after Edwin, ears flattened and his trunk curled up into his chest, his long smooth tusks bobbing ahead of him - he made up the gap in a matter of seconds and plucked the human off his bicycle with a smooth flowing movement of his trunk. Edwin started screaming even before the bull reached him, a high pitched shrill noise which faded as he hit the ground in a cloud of dust.

The elephant trumpeted again now bearing down on a running Edwin, limping from the impact. The beast was close behind him, he could hear the sand being kicked up, ears smacking against the beasts sides and then felt himself being pulled back as if a hand had settled on his shoulder, he screamed and managed to rip free leaving behind his flimsy shirt. He heard a great groaning sound and then silence almost too quite to bear - he turned his head. His hearing had gone and the elephant now ploughed over him knocking him down as if clubbed by a gigantic log, spit and blood spewed from his mouth splattering against the tall grass next to him - his sight dimmed and all went dark.

The elephant knelt down still screaming, shifting the full weight of his body forward to crush the very life out of the object beneath him - he smelt blood and urine and heard a popping sound. The human was silent now and unmoving yet he continued to mince with his knees and drive through with his tusks again and again, he shrieked and screamed and trumpeted. Next he lifted the human by a leg and flung it into the air chasing it down and kicking like a dirty rag and flinging it again and again. There was no life left in the object before him yet something drove him to impale the body with his tusks as if to make doubly sure it was dead.

When I found Edwin Mutale, he lay face down in a crumpled mess, his waist lay folded over his shoulders, his genitals hung by his neck, his body cavity torn open revealing snapped ribs and frayed entrails. No skin remained, he appeared as a pinkish red body of meat much as a carcass would once you had skinned it. His skull was still intact but lay distorted and half severed from his neck, his eyes dull and dusty. In the torchlight he looked to me much like a piece of bait meat would that Lions and Hyenas had feasted upon and then left. Behind me feet shuffled and voices murmured in horror, his fellow workers and family too scared to come close for fear of being witched by his spirit milled around in the dust.

In the dim light I could see the fear, the loathing and disdain in their eyes as they looked upon the body of Edwin Mutale, age 24, chief water boy of the Chikwa hunting camp. He left behind 2 wives and 5 children and a new bicycle, which was their inheritance. To the people who lived here, in this section of the north Luangwa protected areas system this was nothing new, they had lived like this for centuries, this was their tribal land and they existed amongst the game animals in a fractious relationship which saw give and take, retribution and destruction but never ended in victory for any side.

As dawn approached, with the local wildlife authority scouts in tow we followed elephants tracks imprinted with blood onto the cool morning sand of the Laungwa river. In the quiet pink light we heard the wailing in the distance of the family and relatives gathered at their cluster of huts and beating the message drums to alert neighbors of the tragedy. The elephant had crossed the river and headed into thick mopane woodland making tracking him difficult if not impossible. We tracked until the sun beat down on us and brought sweat to our hair and necks, always with rifles at the ready yet nothing appeared. Here in the Langwa it is said that once an elephant kills it does not stop, perhaps possessed by the spirits and ghosts of those who fell to his tusks. It is also law that any animal which causes the death of a human must be 'controlled' as the wildlife scouts put it.

Then as we headed into an open wooded glade one of the scouts suddenly snapped his AK 47 into gear and spun around to the right - the elephant was bearing down on us from the cover of a thorn thicket, silent and menacing in it's approach. There were three of us with heavy rifles, we'd all seen this before, an angry elephant be it a killer or not, coming full tilt intent on harm or revenge! In the instant that I swung my rifle up and took bead on the center of the bulls forehead I saw bloodstained tusks and dark patches along the knees and trunk - Edwin's blood. But in the eyes of the approaching beast I also saw regret as a scolded dog would look to his master after biting him. The elephant knew we would be after him, he knew retribution would follow and in his headlong charge he knew this would be his final moment, faced by 7 armed men he kept coming and as the first AK started popping he let out the shrill trumpeting rage he still carried within him.

When I was a kid, back in the early 70's before my father became a professional hunter our annual summer vacation was into the bush where we'd set up camp on the banks of the Kafue river and stay for weeks, simply enjoying a bit of hunting, some fishing and the wilderness, this was a tradition for my family, a time of bonding and kinship. Being only knee high, I'd have to stay behind with my grandparents, Oupa and Ouma, while the 'men' - my dad and uncles - went hunting. We'd always end up on the bank of the river, my grandfather in his deck chair and his faithful right hand man Lennart there to see that I didn't wander too far or fall into the water while he fished.

We'd sit like this for hours watching the tips of the fishing rods and then gleefully take the fish off the hook once Oupa had landed it. It was during one of these silent moments sitting watching the cool Kafue waters glide by, urging on a fish to bite the hook, that I had my first encounter with an elephant. My Oupa's hand landed gently on my shoulder and gripped me firmly which made me realize something was not right, then he also grabbed Lennart by the collar pinning him to the ground telling him not to move - he had not turned around to see what was behind yet he knew that we now sat within 5 yards of an old elephant bull who stood curiously, with ears wide open and trunk outstretched sniffing at our backs. At first I heard no sound, then I felt a slight hot puff of air on my neck, then a long muffled hissing sound like air blowing through a hose. Then a sound which would remain with me for the rest of my life, a deep guttural growl or grumble, the elephant was talking either to us or to his nearby mates. It made my hair rise and skin tingle, within me I was scared to death yet felt a calm excitement next to my Oupa.

The bull stood behind us for a few minutes and out of the corner of my eye I made out the large ears flapping gently as he rocked back and forth with each breath he inhaled of our scent, as if standing behind an imaginary line he was not allowed to cross. He let out one more deep grumble and was answered a few hundred yards upstream by another elephant - he turned slowly and walked away in total silence, not a twig snapping nor grass rustling, allowing us to turn and watch him go, his ancient backbone sticking out in lumps along his wrinkled back and his tail swaying slowly from side to side with each step he took.

In this wilderness elephants reigned supreme, you'd see them all day at play in the miombo forests, great herds that would fill the horizon, a thousand strong grumbling, trumpeting, tearing up trees and tugging off branches, the young ones scuttling amongst the adults legs as they went. You'd find them along the river, in the river bathing and splashing, playing with the young ones and other adults, diving like dolphins in the deeper sections with trunks held like snorkels. The Kafue was an elephants playground and, as one of Africa's largest National Parks, should have remained to this day the greatest repository not only for this great beast but all other African animals.

Later when I was older and allowed to hunt on my own with my own trackers and vehicle, things had changed for the elephants, things were changing for the kafue wilderness I loved so much as a kid, it seemed all over Africa things were looking bleak for the elephant. No longer did you see the great herds nor did you hear them, their sign, the massive imprints in the soft sand was almost gone. Each day we'd hear the shots, each day we'd see the vultures circling and at night we'd hear the Lions and the Hyenas. We'd find the carcasses, silent and bloody with the front of their heads hacked open, great silent masses of flesh rotting in the African sun. Sometimes we'd approach and hear voices, laughing and swearing as the axes hacked into the hard bone, and we knew to stay away, to keep our distance or risk being shot.

In another time of Zambia's history when the government was a dictatorship and tyrants in all shapes and forms reigned supreme the military was put to the task of ivory poaching and suddenly there was an excuse to occupy vast parts of the national parks in the name of national defence and security. Armed mobs of trained soldiers blasted and ripped their way through the elephant populations across the country without fear or recourse to the rule of law. Helicopter gun ships were used to massacre herd upon herd of these giant beasts while convoys laden with ivory rolled their way into the capital city unhindered on their way to the East.

It is thought that during this period, the late 1970's through to the late 1980's before the ivory ban, as many as 200 elephant a day were shot and I was witness to this, I saw first hand what was done at the hand of poachers reducing our elephant population to about 10 percent of it's original size. Considering that I am a hunter what I witnessed disgusted me and left me feeling helpless and angry, there was nothing I could do lest I risked being shot or thrown in jail. We had to watch in silence as political greed consumed our natural resources and decimated our wilderness areas.

Today it is the offspring of these martyrs - the youngsters who were left scared, confused and bewildered as their herds were taken out in front of them - it is these elephant that remember the sound of the whirring chopper blades, the popping of the AK's, the shrill dying screams of their mothers and cousins, and the shouting voices of the poachers, visions of small upright creatures with waving arms and loud banging sounds - it is these elephants that kill because of their heritage.

In some parts of Zambia still today, if you are on foot in the open wilderness and you see an elephant, you'd best beware as sometimes they will, without warning or hesitance, come at with full intent of churning you into the ground, much like Edwin Mutale's fate.

This is a true story and the shrill screams of this incident came to our ears while sitting around the campfire after a days hunting, late last year. Edwin's involvement was unknown to me yet we could clearly hear the rage in the screams of this elephant. Often we hear trumpeting yet it stops after a minute or so - this was a full 30 minutes of rage and fury coming out of an elephant, something I had not witnessed before, yet all my trackers knew instantly what had happened and came to call me, even though they didn't know who had befallen this fate.

Pete Swanepoel jnr

Next newsletter - Being hit by a buffalo never sounded so good! After an incident in Denver I welcome the advances of Africa's most feared adversary!

The Elephant debate is a thorny issue and evokes emotion in most, regardless of whether they believe in hunting or not. Simply being the lofty creature that it is, the Elephant brings out in us the human side of animals - we infer our human emotions and human pre conceptions onto this dinosaur like creature.

An elephant may appear cute and cuddly, it may look majestic and regal, a sort of mercurial flag bearer for all things mammal yet they remain wild beasts. They are extremely destructive not only to human interference but to their own habitat which they share with the rest of the African animal kingdom. By far their greatest asset is the pure strength they posses and use with destructive consequences.

The elephant human conflict isn't new and it is not something where humans have suddenly decided to settle in an elephant reserve or region thus taking away from their habitat - the people and the elephants have lived in an intermingled existence since time immemorial so who do you blame?

Today as you fish along the banks of the Kafue river you'll sometimes find elephant again, resting in the shade or cooling off in the mud wallows. Despite their protected status Elephant Poaching is on the rise in Zambia once more, fueled by a demand from the non-CITES countries of East Asia - mainly China. In a country that thrives on corruption and political ineptitude it is simple for illegal ivory to find it's way out, sometimes even in politically sanctioned 'diplomatic bags'.

While we all believe the elephant has reached a stage of proper protection, this is not the case and poaching is on the rise across the continent. A recent spate of poaching of Rhinos, in South Africa, a country considered a safe haven for the Rhino is evidence that the poaching issue is far from resolved.


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