● A trip to Zim­babwe gives Brian Jack­man the chance to meet Boswell, a pachy­derm with a party trick

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - Weekend Life -

Read about Boswell, an ele­phant at Mana Pools deep in the heart Zim­babwe who has a party trick to get at the ripe fruit high in the trees.

Deep in the heart of Mana Pools Na­tional Park, in the shade of a mighty win­ter thorn tree, an old bull ele­phant is flap­ping his ears to keep him­self cool.

It’s al­most spring in the Zam­bezi Val­ley and at last the seed pods, an ir­re­sistible del­i­cacy for ele­phants, are ready to eat.

Most ele­phants wait for ba­boons to shake down the ripe fruits and then scoop them up from the ground; but not this bull. Al­most uniquely, over the years he has learnt how to stand on his hind legs like a cir­cus ele­phant to pluck the most suc­cu­lent pods with his out­stretched trunk.

In do­ing so, he has made him­self a YouTube star. Meet Boswell – the most fa­mous ele­phant in Zim­babwe.

Mana Pools is a land of gi­ants, of colos­sal trees and huge ele­phants that live by the banks of the mighty Zam­bezi. It is home to two leg­endary vet­er­ans: Boswell, named af­ter a fa­mous SA cir­cus be­cause of his unique feed­ing habits, is one; the other is John Stevens, Zim­babwe’s most re­spected sa­fari guide.

Both have been wan­der­ing around Mana Pools for close on half a cen­tury.

Ask any­one for a list of Africa’s finest sa­fari guides and John Stevens’s name will come out near the top. Now aged 70, he has lost none of his boy­ish en­thu­si­asm for na­ture.

“I love this place,” he de­clares. “And as for walk­ing, there is nowhere like it any­where in Africa.”

As you might ex­pect from such a sa­fari afi­cionado, John’s Camp is a gen­uine can­vas bush-camp, stripped of all trivia but un­spar­ing when it comes to the es­sen­tial lux­u­ries: com­fort­able beds, hot bucket show­ers and din­ing un­der the stars. Af­ter din­ner, sit­ting around the camp­fire while hip­pos honk out on the flood­plains, he de­scribes how the park used to be be­fore the poach­ers moved in and fin­ished off the black rhi­nos.

“The last one I saw was back in 1992,” he says, “and that’s when the poach­ers turned on the ele­phants.”

Now Stevens is de­ter­mined they shall not fol­low the rhino into obliv­ion. That is why with Nicci, his wife, he helped to es­tab­lish the Zam­bezi Ele­phant Fund in 2015.

“Our el­lies are in real dan­ger,” he says. “We just can’t let them dis­ap­pear on our watch.”

Stevens and his fel­low guides need ele­phants such as Boswell to at­tract the tourists upon which their liveli­hoods de­pend, while big tuskers like Boswell need the Zam­bezi Ele­phant Fund to pro­tect them from poach­ers who have wiped out more than half of all ele­phants in the val­ley since 2001.

When Boswell was born, Stevens was work­ing for Zim- babwe’s na­tional parks depart­ment as the war­den of Mana Pools, lead­ing anti-poach­ing pa­trols, build­ing ac­cess roads and de­vel­op­ing its tourist in­fra­struc­ture.

About that time he re­mem­bers see­ing a mag­nif­i­cent bull ele­phant with huge tusks that must have weighed about 45kg each, and won­ders if this was Boswell’s fa­ther.

“It would be nice to think so,” he says, “es­pe­cially as that old fel­low, too, would of­ten rear up on his hind legs to reach the seed pods in a man­ner few other ele­phants had mas­tered.”

In 1981, Stevens left the parks depart­ment to build Chik­wenya Sa­fari Camp at the north-eastern end of Mana Pools, and four years later he struck out on his own to be­come one of Zim­babwe’s first pri­vate sa­fari guides.

For Stevens the 90s were the hey­day of his guid­ing ca­reer in Mana Pools, lead­ing his guests on ca­noe trips down the Zam­bezi and track­ing the last of the black rhi­nos in the jesse bush – a col­lo­quial name for the dense blan­ket of bone-dry scrub that cov­ers the park’s track­less hin­ter­land.

Boswell, mean­while, was now en­ter­ing his prime; a mag­nif­i­cent tusker whose ap­pear­ance was in no way di­min­ished by the loss of half his tail – per- haps bit­ten off by a croc­o­dile.

But in 2002, fol­low­ing years of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity un­der Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe, Zim­babwe’s tourism in­dus­try crashed. One or two op­er­a­tors re­fused to budge from Mana Pools, in­clud­ing An­drew “Stretch” Fer­reira, whose pres­ence de­terred the poach­ers and helped save the lives of some of the park’s bulls such as Boswell; but busi­ness was so bad that Stevens de­cided to move his sa­fari op­er­a­tion to East Africa.

Dur­ing this time, many ele- phants re­lated to Boswell were prob­a­bly shot for their ivory, and Boswell him­self would have been a prime tar­get; but mirac­u­lously, when Stevens re­turned, the big tusker was still there.

Just as Boswell can be recog­nised by his stumpy tail and unique feed­ing habits, Stevens is recog­nis­able by his broad­brimmed hunter’s hat.

“It’s ac­tu­ally Aus­tralian,” he says, “an Akubra my daugh­ter bought for me.”

Now, im­pec­ca­bly turned out in his neatly ironed shorts and bush shirt, he leads me into the park that is his spir­i­tual home.

Mana Pools be­came a Un­esco World Her­itage site in 1988, and the Zam­bezi, the fourth long­est river in Africa, runs along its north­ern bor­der, form­ing a nat­u­ral bar­rier be­tween Zim­babwe and Zam­bia.

Mana means “four” in the Shona lan­guage and refers to a quar­tet of oxbow la­goons; but the park’s great­est glo­ries are the wood­lands that grow at the edge of the flood­plains.

All around us the tall trees reach for the light.

Arch­ing over­head like the trac­ery of a cathe­dral, their branches cre­ate aisles of dap­pled shade in which herds of impala flit away at our ap­proach, and this is where we spend most of our time search­ing for Boswell.

Hav­ing turned up at the be­gin­ning of the week he has since dis­ap­peared, and the word is he is now in must, pumped up with testos­terone and look­ing for a mate in the jesse.

This is where the ele­phants like to hang out un­til the heat builds up and there is a gen­eral move­ment to­wards the wood­lands. First come the breed­ing herds of cows and calves and then the soli­tary bulls, all lured by the prom­ise of wa­ter and a feast of those sought-af­ter seed pods.

But there is more to Mana Pools than Boswell, as I dis­cover when Stevens takes me down to the Cheruwe river, on whose banks a seven-strong pack of en­dan­gered wild dogs have made their den.

In a lit­tle while we hear a gruff bark fol­lowed by the ex­cited twit­ter­ing of the pups as the dogs re­turn, re­gur­gi­tat­ing the re­mains of an impala they killed on their morn­ing hunt.

Back in camp, I awake in the small hours to hear the Nya­ma­tusi lion pride roar­ing in the starlight, and in the morn­ing, af­ter a quick cof­fee and por­ridge, we go to look for them. But the cats are long gone, so we pick up their tracks again the next day and fol­low them across an open plain of grass.

For more than an hour we pur­sue them, walk­ing slowly through the spiky thick­ets with Stevens pro­vid­ing a mas­ter class in the art of track­ing.

It’s ob­vi­ous we are hot on their heels when he points out a tuft of dry grass that has been flat­tened un­der their feet – and is now slowly ris­ing.

When we reach the nearimpen­e­tra­ble jesse bush, he holds up his hand. “Don’t think we’ll push them any fur­ther,” he says. “It’s so thick in there we could walk right into them.”

Af­ter­wards, tuck­ing into a pic­nic lunch and a long, cold drink, I’m still men­tally re-play­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of track­ing big cats with this ex­tra­or­di­nary man, and I think to my­self: if any­one can save Boswell and his kind from the poach­ers it is surely Stevens and the Zam­bezi Ele­phant Fund.

Mana Pools is a land of gi­ants, of colos­sal trees and huge ele­phants that live by the banks of the mighty Zam­bezi


HIGH TEA: Boswell has be­come some­thing of an in­ter­net sen­sa­tion AQUA SPLEN­DOUR: Mana Pools is bor­dered by the mighty Zam­bezi River

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