On the tracks of a po­a­cher

So­meti­mes the hunt has mo­re si­nis­ter mo­ti­ves than fin­ding a trop­hy a­ni­mal.

SA Jagter Hunter - - INHOUD - By GE­OFF WAIN­WRIG­HT

I­be­ca­me an Ho­no­ra­ry Wild­li­fe Ran­ger in 1973, af­ter being em­ploy­ed by Zam­bia Sa­fa­ris as a pro­fes­si­o­nal hunter. In tho­se days po­a­ching was ram­pant in Zam­bia and the un­der-staf­fed De­part­ment of Na­ti­o­nal Parks and Wild­li­fe was batt­ling to de­al with the pro­blem. Ga­me ma­na­ge­ment a­re­as set a­si­de for sa­fa­ri hun­ting was po­li­ced by a s­mall ar­my of ga­me ran­gers. T­he­re­fo­re a se­lect band of de­di­ca­ted wild­li­fe ent­hu­si­as­ts and pro­fes­si­o­nal hun­ters vo­lun­teer- ed in t­heir f­ree ti­me to as­sist t­his u­nit. My hun­ting se­a­son be­gan in May and las­ted until mo­re or less the midd­le of No­vem­ber, we­at­her per­mit­ting. T­his ga­ve me and ot­her vo­lun­teers fi­ve ca­len­dar mont­hs off to pa­trol our ga­me ma­na­ge­ment a­re­as. Pa­trol­ling t­he­se a­re­as was vi­tal be­cau­se po­a­chers would know w­hen the re­si­dent pro­fes­si­o­nal hun­ters had left and they would de­fi­na­te­ly ta­ke full ad­van­ta­ge of t­his ab­sen­ce.

I at­ten­ded my first Ho­no­ra­ry Ran­gers meet­ing in my ho­me-

to­wn of Kit­we, w­he­re I was pri­vi­le­ged to be in the p­re­sen­ce of the la­te By­ron Hen­der­son, Pat Ma­cGyor and Bert Room­er – to men­ti­on just a few. We wor­ked clo­se­ly with po­li­ce and the De­part­ment of Wild­li­fe, ba­sed in C­hi­lan­ga out­si­de the ca­pi­tal ci­ty of Lu­sa­ka. By vir­tue of the Na­ti­o­nal Parks and Wild­li­fe Act, we exe­r­ci­sed all the po­wers of an of­fi­cer of t­his de­part­ment and could ar­rest sus­pected po­a­chers.

RECEIVING A TIP

The Mu­se­le-Ma­te­bo Ga­me Ma­na­ge­ment A­rea w­he­re I wor­ked com­pri­sed of 3 700 s­qua­re ki­lo­me­tres of mi­om­bo fo­rest. At that ti­me of y­e­ar, du­ring the rains, it was g­reen and lush with wild fruit on the trees. One day a vil­la­ge in­for­mant pho­ned with the de­tails of a pen­ding fo­ray or­ga­ni­sed by a po­a­cher na­med Tom­bi. My an­ti­po­a­ching u­nit con­sis­ted of ser­ge­ant Puk­wa and con­sta­ble Jam­sie, both dres­sed in s­mart po­li­ce u­ni­forms and ar­med with AK47s. I took my per­so­nal ser­vant and cook, Ma­cloud, al­ong.

Star­ting our se­arch, we fol­lo­wed the tracks of Tom­bi’s Land Ro­ver, which we­re ea­sy to fol­low o­ver the moist ground sin­ce his vehi­cle’s ty­res had left two s­wat­hes in shin-high grass. The tracks sna­ked be­t­ween the tree trunks and a­round high ter­mi­te mounds. Hot on his heels we stop­ped e­very so of­ten, cut the mo­tor and lis­te­ned... No­thing. We pus­hed on in­to the cool of the la­te af­ter­noon. Just be­fo­re dark I par­ked al­ongs­i­de a stre­am and we e­rected pup tents and col­lected fi­re­wood. La­ter, sit­ting round the camp fi­re we tal­ked in­to the nig­ht, until we all fell si­lent, just sta­ring at the dying co­als, exhausted by the day’s acti­vi­ties. Then a bree­ze blew a fla­me to li­fe.

Ser­ge­ant Puk­wa he­ard them first! Con­sta­ble Jam­sie ro­se and sta­red in­to the dar­kness. A li­ne of lig­hts flic­ke­red on and off be­t­ween the trees. They we­re vil­la­gers ri­ding bi­cy­cles. Then I he­ard them, t­heir voi­ces gro­wing lou­der as they ra­pid­ly ap­pro­a­ched us. Ma­cloud dou­sed the fi­re with wa­ter from a ne­ar­by buc­ket. We sna­t­ched up our fi­re­arms and hur­ried o­ver to in­ter­cept them. A short dis­tan­ce a­way, we stum­bled on­to a wel­l­worn vil­la­ge path. T­heir lig­hts li­ke sil­ver coins sho­ne brig­ht­ly as they pedd­led to­wards us. We took co­ver be­hind trees and wai­ted in am­bush.

S­tep­ping out from be­hind our co­ver we swit­ched on our flash­lig­hts. Ma­cloud, keeping his wits a­bout him, put on the truck’s lig­hts and sud­den­ly the nig­ht tur­ned in­to day. T­heir le­a­der pul­led hard on his bi­cy­cle’s bra­kes. Tho­se be­hind him col­li­ded in­to him. Jam­sie and Puk­wa bar­ked an or­der in Bem­ba, t­heir lo­cal lan­gua­ge. The gang mem­bers lay spre­ad-e­ag­led on the ground. We se­ar­ched them and found a box of .458 am­mu­ni­ti­on on one man. The ot­hers had bush kni­ves, axes, sacks and blan­kets. T­heir le­a­der tur­ned ashw­hi­te as we in­ter­ro­ga­ted him. Af­ter a bit of per­su­a­si­on he fi­nal­ly con­fes­sed; they we­re on t­heir way to de­li­ver the am­mu­ni­ti­on to the po­a­cher Tom­bi. Im­me­di­a­te­ly they all be­ca­me sus­pects and we han­d­cuf­fed them and t­heir bi­cy­cles to a tree. We cuf­fed the cou­rier to the Land Crui­ser’s bull bars and they all spent a re­st­less nig­ht un­der guard with us.

FOLLOWING THE TRAIL

Ear­ly the next mor­ning, the sus­pects and t­heir bi­cy­cles we­re lo­a­ded on­to the Land Crui­ser. We fol­lo­wed the foot­path slo­w­ly and we­a­ved our way be­t­ween the trees. Fresh e­lep­hant dung lit­te­red the ground. Lig­ht fil­te­red through the o­ver­he­ad bran­ches and we e­mer­ged on­to a cle­a­ring with a wa­ter­ho­le in the midd­le. Ser­ge­ant Puk­wa and con­sta­ble Jam­sie jum­ped do­wn from the Crui­ser to in­ves­ti­ga­te. W­hi­le they se­ar­ched for the po­a­chers’ tracks, a rifle shot rang out, fol­lo­wed by a se­cond shot mo­ments la­ter. The blas­ts re­ver­be­ra­ted through the a­rea. I star­ted the truck, the two men jum­ped back on­to the vehi­cle and we quick­ly dro­ve in the di­recti­on of the shots. The vehi­cle roc­ked vi­o­lent­ly o­ver the rough ter­rain and sud­den­ly our path was bar­red by a deep, wa­ter-was­hed gul­ly. I hid my Land Crui­ser be­hind an an­thill that was co­ve­r­ed in grass, gi­ving it the ap­pea­ran­ce of a haystack.

Le­a­ving Ma­cloud to guard the sus­pects, my fel­low ran­gers and I clim­bed to the top of the an­thill to get a bet­ter view. I had my .375 with me and they we­re ar­med with t­heir AKs. The ground slo­ped gent­ly do­wn in­to a tree-fil­led val­ley. Sett­ling do­wn we wai­ted pa­tient­ly, my bi­no­cu­lars han­ging round my neck. Born with bush ey­es, con­sta­ble Jam­sie was the first to spot the vul­tu­res ci­r­cling on la­zy wings high a­bo­ve a hill­si­de and »

» lan­ding clum­si­ly on tree tops. They pin-poin­ted the po­a­chers’ w­he­re­a­bouts for us!

We hur­ried in that di­recti­on, cros­sing the val­ley at a ste­a­dy pa­ce. The oc­ca­si­o­nal shadow of a vul­tu­re flit­ted o­ver the ground, con­fir­ming that we we­re on the rig­ht track. Wet with swe­at, we fi­nal­ly ar­ri­ved in the vi­ci­ni­ty of the kill. We stop­ped and lis­te­ned. The vul­tu­res foug­ht and squa­w­ked in the trees. Then we he­ard voi­ces and took co­ver be­hind fal­len logs and clumps of grass. Luck was on our si­de as we stal­ked clo­ser. The bi­rds did not be­tray our p­re­sen­ce by ta­king f­lig­ht. Our view be­t­ween the re­gi­ments of fi­re-blac­ke­ned tree trunks was li­mi­ted to a 100 me­tres. Glas­ses rai­sed, I caug­ht sig­ht of on­ly two pe­op­le mo­ving a­bout the car­cass of an e­lep­hant. The a­ni­mal’s hind-quar­ters we­re fa­cing to­wards us. Puk­wa and Jam­sie coc­ked t­heir rifles, t­heir u­ni­forms blen­ding in na­tu­ral­ly with the sur­roun­dings. They va­nis­hed in­to the bush a­he­ad of me and my ner­ves star­ted to ratt­le. I held my ground, rifle lo­a­ded, prop­ped up a­gainst a tree. I kept the glas­ses glu­ed to my ey­es, until my vi­si­on be­ca­me blur­red and my hands shook with ex­ci­te­ment!

Puk­wa and Jam­sie sne­a­ked clo­ser and took stock. The­re was on­ly one fi­re­arm vi­si­ble and it was a bolt-action hun­ting rifle. By t­his ti­me they we­re so c­lo­se they could he­ar the po­a­chers’ con­ver­sa­ti­on. One man ans­we­red to the na­me Tom­bi – the king-pin and much-wan­ted le­a­der of the po­a­ching gang. The ot­her man’s na­me was Boxa. They we­re dres­sed in dir­ty o­ver­alls. Boxa was cle­ar­ly u­na­wa­re of the two ran­gers’ p­re­sen­ce as he wal­ked to­wards them fi­dd­ling with the but­tons of his o­ver­all, a­bout to re­lie­ve him­self. Puk­wa, a po­wer­ful­ly-built man, grab­bed the po­a­cher in a he­ad­lock, clam­ping his one hand o­ver Boxa’s mouth to si­len­ce him. Ta­ken by com­ple­te sur­pri­se the man sur­ren­de­red and re­mai­ned qui­et. W­hi­le t­his was hap­pe­ning, Jam­sie kept his he­ad and per­fect­ly ti­med his next mo­ve. He sne­a­ked clo­ser w­hi­le Tom­bi was be­hind the e­lep­hant and w­hen the po­a­cher re­ap­pea­red he poin­ted his AK at the man’s he­ad and shou­ted: “You are un­der ar­rest!” The two thugs we­re swift­ly hand-cuf­fed. All t­his hap­pe­ned wit­hout a sin­gle shot being fi­red, ho­we­ver the risk had swee­te­ned our li­ves.

We se­ar­ched them for con­ce­a­led we­a­pons, but found no­ne. We al­so scou­ted a­round and found emp­ty shell ca­sings for two .458 rounds. Keeping mum a­bout our find, we se­pa­ra­ted and in­ter­ro­ga­ted the two po­a­chers. Tom­bi pro­tes­ted his in­no­cen­ce, but we de­man­ded to see his e­lep­hant li­cen­ce which he clai­med had been left at his vil­la­ge. U­na­wa­re that t­heir con­ver­sa­ti­on re­gar­ding the woun­ding of a se­cond e­lep­hant had been o­ver­he­ard, the two men con­tra­dicted e­ach ot­her. My b­lood boi­led. One of them was lying and ti­me was run­ning out. I jog­ged back o­ver the val­ley and fi­nal­ly re­a­ched the Land Crui­ser and Ma­cloud, still guar­ding the ot­her sus­pects. Na­vi­ga­ting a­round the gul­ly we re­tur­ned to the e­lep­hant, stop­ped up wind and ma­de camp.

Tom­bi and his te­am of bi­cy­cle ri­ders, guar­ded by Jam­sie and Ma­cloud, we­re or­de­red to but­cher the car­cass and re­co­ver the i­vo­ry. Me­an­w­hi­le, ser­ge­ant Puk­wa had le­ar­ned that Boxa was an ac­com­plis­hed trac­ker and he joi­ned our se­arch par­ty to look for the woun­ded e­lep­hant. Pe­ter, one of the cy­clis­ts, was told to be our por­ter, be­co­ming the fourth mem­ber of our group. We set out and soon found b­lood, con­fir­ming that the e­lep­hant was woun­ded. Boxa took up the spoor and we fol­lo­wed in sin­gle fi­le. Pe­ter car­ried a bund­le on his he­ad and an axe o­ver one shoul­der.

The woun­ded bull had a four­hour he­ad start. At first he retre­a­ted at a fast pa­ce, he­a­ding a­way from the sce­ne, con­sis­tent­ly mo­ving in one di­recti­on. As the af­ter­noon cool­ed, he slo­wed to a ste­a­dy walk. I was de­ter­mi­ned to put him out of his mi­se­ry. E­very now and then Boxa u­sed a stick to point out the b­lood spoor.

We fi­nal­ly ma­de camp w­he­re the a­ni­mal cros­sed a gus­hing stre­am. Reed mats we­re spre­ad o­ver the ground and Pe­ter cut e­lep­hant grass to ma­ke me a soft mat­tress. He war­med his pot of chic­ken on a fi­re and we all shared it. Sa­ted on food, dog­ti­red and lul­led by the sound of the stre­am, we soon fell a­sleep.

HOPING FOR SUCCESS

Ear­ly the next mor­ning, as the fo­rest ca­me a­li­ve with bi­rds­ong, Pe­ter pac­ked up camp. S­hort­ly the­re­af­ter Boxa and Puk­wa took up the woun­ded a­ni­mal’s spoor and we re­su­med our se­arch. A w­hi­le la­ter, we ca­me upon fresh e­lep­hant dung and w­hen I bro­ke it o­pen the­re was b­lood in­si­de. The bull fol­lo­wed a ga­me trail that led in­to a den­se thic­ket, his mas­si­ve tracks p­res­sed in­to the fi­ne dust. Vi­si­bi­li­ty was do­wn to 30 y­ards. The wind was not in our fa­vour and he must ha­ve caug­ht our scent, be­cau­se we could he­ar him crash a­way. We stood qui­et­ly and lis­te­ned to bran­ches snap­ping until the­re was si­len­ce. Pe­ter pla­ced his bund­le on the ga­me trail. Puk­wa and I took the le­ad, with Pe­ter and Boxa following clo­se­ly on our heels. We wo­ve our way qui­et­ly past roo­t­ed vi­nes, mo­ving o­ver so­me and un­der ot­hers, ma­king a wi­de de­tour to get the wind in our fa­vour.

The bree­ze fan­ned our fa­ces as we stal­ked in­to the he­art of the thic­ket. The thick ve­ge­ta­ti­on o­ver­he­ad bloc­ked out the lig­ht and ma­de it gloomy in­si­de the fo­rest. Our ner­ves we­re on ed­ge; we could not find him, but then we smelt him and he­ard him u­ri­na­ting. We in­ched clo­ser. Be­hind a tangle of le­a­ves we could just ma­ke out the out­li­ne of the e­lep­hant. I took aim and fi­red. By sheer luck, my .375 so­lid cour­sed through the woun­ded a­ni­mal’s he­art. Ser­ge­ant Puk­wa fi­red a burst from his AK, the sound muf­fled in­si­de the thic­ket. The shots we­re fol­lo­wed by the loud rus­t­ling of le­a­ves. The thic­ket shook vi­o­lent­ly as the e­lep­hant cras­hed a­way. Within a few se­conds we he­ard a loud, slow crackling thump as his mas­si­ve bo­dy hit the ground.

We had mixed fee­lings as we ap­pro­a­ched him; re­lie­ved to ha­ve en­ded his suf­fe­ring, yet sad and an­noy­ed that Tom­bi, the po­a­cher, would on­ly re­cei­ve a s­mall fi­ne or ser­ve a lig­ht jail sen­ten­ce.

Boxa, one of the po­a­chers, with the i­vo­ry men­ti­o­ned in the s­to­ry.

T­his map shows the vast ga­me ma­na­ge­ment a­re­as and Na­ti­o­nal Parks that had to be po­li­ced.

A­BO­VE: Aut­hor’s pro­fes­si­o­nal hunter’s mem­bers­hip card

LEFT: He­re Ge­off po­ses with the ga­me scout and his staff. The men sit­ting in the front are the po­a­chers men­ti­o­ned in the s­to­ry.

Aut­hor with the cap­tu­red po­a­chers.

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