On the tracks of a poacher
Sometimes the hunt has more sinister motives than finding a trophy animal.
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.