• Kev Thomas Writes

Death in the Jesse

Above: Elephant cowherds with young calves should never be trifled with, and particularly so in thick bush, as they're almost suicidal in the protection of their young.

Being attacked and killed by an enraged elephant isn’t a nice way to die. And particularly so if your last panicked thoughts are probably of the irrational mistake you made. In this case, and before everything went black, the individual in question possibly had one last thought, ‘Why was I so stupid?’ It wasn’t a very nice ending for the late Alf Chasan, a successful Rhodesian tobacco farmer and businessman.

At the time of the incident in 1972, I was a Rhodesian (Zimbabwe) Department of National Parks & Wildlife Management game ranger. My area of responsibility was the Zambezi Valley’s Urungwe CHA (Controlled Hunting Area). Back then the Urungwe had three alphabetically named hunting camps fronting the Zambezi River, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Camp.

The CHA was a vast area stretching eastwards from Kariba Gorge, downstream along the Zambezi River to the Zambia/Rhodesia border hamlet of Chirundu. And then south from there inland to the Zambezi escarpment. It was wild, remote, and unforgiving country. Spread across the central area and running west east are a tract of almost impenetrable jesse thickets known as the Sharu jesse. Surrounding this vast jesse thicket the vegetation is mainly mopane woodland. A mix of canopy forest, and coppiced shoulder high scrub mopane. Within the whole there are scattered waterholes, muddy, and seasonal.

Finding elephant cowherds and bulls within the Urungwe CHA wasn’t difficult. However, to be successful normally meant venturing into a jesse thicket. Most mornings, at first light and following their nightly forays onto the Zambezi River floodplain to water and feed, they’d start returning to the Sharu jesse. These vast thickets afforded them security, and a place to wait out the heat of day. Invariably, and by about 10hr00 most of the cowherds would’ve already been deep inside the thickets.

Hunting elephant in dense jesse calls for an extremely high degree of experience, plus honed hunting skills, alertness, and a thorough understanding of elephant behaviour. Cowherds in particular can be exceedingly aggressive if they feel the herd security is threatened. Under these conditions’ elephant hunting certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted, and a lack of experience coupled to ignorance is a recipe for disaster. Once a hunter has closed with an elephant cowherd the most important thing, aside from wind direction, is to immediately place every member of the herd before any shooting commences. Equally important is identifying the matriarch, and, which cows have dependent calves. In the aftermath of the first shot it’s the matriarch who decides on a fight or flight response within the cowherd.

Above: Elephant aren't easy to see when they're resting during the midday heat inside jesse thickets. There were about eight elephant cows and sub-adults when this photo was taken and yet only one hind leg is clearly visible at this stage. Hence the importance of identifying where each individual is standing, because if things go wrong it's invariably an unseen elephant that causes the mayhem.

During the early 1970s winter months, amateur hunters could buy hunt packages in the Zambezi Valley. Package composition was decided on by the research branch of the National Parks department, and then put out via a draw. Packages which included an elephant cow were popular with commercial farmers who augmented their labourers’ protein rations with elephant meat. Included too, were a buffalo cow or bull, a kudu, a zebra, a waterbuck, four impalas, and perhaps two warthogs. However, packages varied seasonally depending on what species needed reducing. The concept being that sport hunters were the management tool, the rifle the regulator. Each camp could accommodate a maximum of four hunters. Businessman and farmer, Chasan, bought a hunt package out of ‘C’ Camp. It was to have been a relaxing hunt linked to business, and he took with him one non-hunting observer, the late Johan Mostert.

Chasan’s hunt package had included an elephant cow, and a buffalo bull, plus a mix of plains game. His borrowed rifle was a Westley Richards .425 Magnum. First introduced in 1908 its 410gr bullet giving an MV of 2,350feet/sec made it an adequate calibre for elephant and buffalo. However, by the early 1960s it’d fallen out of vogue due to the popularity of Winchester’s .458 Magnum. It later transpired that prior to departing for the Zambezi Valley, Chasan and Mostert had visited a Salisbury gunshop to purchase ammunition. A young salesman sold them a box of twenty Eley Kynoch soft-nose bullets. Why they weren’t sold solid bullets too, knowing an elephant cow was to be hunted, remains a mystery, although perhaps it was because the salesman was just as inexperienced as the two neophyte hunters.

Having arrived in the Valley, and after settling into camp they’d taken a mid-afternoon drive along the floodplain towards Chirundu. During the drive a solitary buffalo dagha bull was seen, and after a short stalk Chasan killed it with a perfect heart/lung shot. He’d used a single soft-nose round. While the labourers loaded the buffalo, Chasan was seen chambering another round and placing the weapon on safe. He’d then put the loaded and locked rifle back into its sleeve, and placed it in the vehicle. Leaving the buffalo at the camp skinning shed, they’d then driven through to Chirundu for celebratory drinks. Noisily returning to ‘C’ camp late that night.

Above: A typical game trail meandering through a jesse thicket.

Next morning, I was driving towards ‘C’ Camp with a retired US diplomat who I was guiding, en-route we’d come across Chasan and Mostert. Game scout Sgt Kuveya was on the back of their vehicle with five labourers. A rather tired looking Chasan chided me because they hadn’t seen any elephant cowherds. By then it was mid-morning and hot. My suggestion was they follow a management track fringing the Sharu jesse and look for elephant cowherd spoor entering the thickets. And then, before driving on I spoke to a clearly flustered Sgt Kuveya, and learned he’d been trying to get them to do what I’d just suggested.

We next saw Sgt Kuveya and Mostert at about 14hr00. Both were in a state of shock, and had driven to ‘A’ Camp to inform me Chasan was dead. Killed by an elephant cow. I immediately radioed the Chirundu police, and Marongora HQ. And then, with Mostert following in Chasan’s vehicle I had Sgt Kuveya travel with me back towards ‘C’ Camp, so he could explain what’d happened. Apparently, and shortly after leaving us, they’d found fresh spoor of about eight elephant cows. Departing the vehicle, they’d tracked them into the jesse thicket. Sgt Kuveya led, with Chasan, Mostert, and one of Chasan’s labourers following.

After about two hours of careful tracking in the oppressive heat, and stillness of the jesse, they’d closed with the herd. Sgt Kuveya then whispered to the group to remain absolutely quiet while he attempted to place each elephant and check for cows with dependent calves. He also wanted to try and identify the matriarch. Rhodesian game scouts were not armed, and the only firearms with the group were Chasan’s borrowed .425 Westley Richards, and a .30-06 Mostert was carrying. Crouched behind the boll of a big tree, the huddled group was a mere 30m away from the nearest elephant. While Kuveya was carefully trying to plot the position of each elephant, Chasan, suddenly stepped to one side and took a frontal brain shot at a big cow to their immediate front. She went down in a cloud of dust.

Annoyed, Sgt Kuveya grabbed Chasan’s left bicep and pulled him against the tree. It was that typically tense moment during an elephant hunt, when following the shot all goes deathly quiet. And it’s during these few seconds, that elephant endeavour to place where the shot came from. The decision thereafter, whether to flee or attack is almost instantaneous and is normally made by the matriarch. If the herd begin to mill and grumble, an experienced hunter will talk to them or clap softly, just to let them know where he is. If they become aggressive, he may shout, or fire a shot in the air, to drive them off. It normally works.

Sgt Kuveya didn’t have time to do anything because a tiny dependent elephant calf had suddenly appeared from behind the fallen cow. Seeing it, Chasan immediately broke free of the Sgt’s grip, and ran towards it shouting, ‘Look at the baby, let’s catch it’. Those were probably the last words he spoke.

From behind a curtain of tangled jesse another big cow, squealing and bellowing with rage, closed in on Chasan. Realizing his predicament, he turned to run but it was too late. Lowering her head, and on bent knees she impacted with him. Her left tusk penetrated beneath his right armpit, and exited under his left armpit. Killing him instantly. She then lifted his limp form up and after carrying it a short distance hurled his broken body against a termite mound, and then knelt on it.

While this horror scenario unfolded everyone else fled the scene. Eventually though, things quietened down, so the shocked group crept back. Finding the elephants had departed, a sapling was hurriedly cut and Chasan’s bloodied cadaver hog-tied to it, before being carried back to the vehicle. Sgt Kuveya was adamant the elephant Chasan had shot was dead at the scene, its calf still with it. With time against us, we went straight there and after the walk in found neither the shot cow or her calf. We found where she’d fallen, and a bloodstain. Of her there was no sign. At the termite mound where Chasan had been pulverized, we found his bloodied hat and binoculars, the neck strap broken. His rifle too, lay off to one side covered in blood, dust, and grit. The stock had been broken behind the trigger guard. The butt lying separate and connected to the rest by the sling. Following a 360ᴼ spoor check to confirm the cowherd had consolidated before moving off, we gathered the scattered items and with daylight fading made our way out of the gloomy jesse. Half expecting an elephant attack.

While the police prepared to remove the deceased’s body from ‘C’ Camp, I opened the bolt on the shattered rifle and ejected one spent cartridge case. The magazine was empty. Seemingly, Chasan had only loaded two rounds in the 5-round capacity magazine, both soft-nose. He’d used one to shoot the buffalo. When they’d tracked the cowherd, he’d only had the one soft-nose round he’d chambered after killing the buffalo the previous afternoon. A serious error of judgement and wrong ammunition use, when elephant hunting. The soft-nose bullet, although well placed as a frontal brain shot, had merely broken up upon impact with the elephant cow’s skull and temporarily concussed her. It’d been a costly error brought about by a litany of unbelievably stupid mistakes.

Early the next day, and with Regional Warden Paul Coetsee having joined me, we tracked the herd for nearly ten hours, closing with it frequently in the dense jesse thickets. At times, we were subject to close quarter mock charges and rushes, but none were carried through, and we couldn’t positively identify the wounded cow, so we had no reason to shoot. Eventually, we pushed the tired and demoralised herd out of the jesse and into mopane woodland. Closing with them at a waterhole, we finally managed to identify the wounded cow. All she had was a dusty bloodstained mark on her forehead, and keeping her tiny calf alongside her, she wasn’t interested in attacking us. By then it was sunset, so leaving them be we walked out in the dark, skirting the jesse and arriving back at our vehicle at about 21hr00. It’d been a long two days.

Above: As can be seen in the above photo, an elephant cow is a lot smaller than a mature bull, however, and given their maternal instinct they're far more unpredictable than your average elephant bull which is normally a gentleman by comparison. A colleague of mine, now long deceased, once described an elephant cow as 'having the pinched look of a frustrated spinster'. A fitting description!

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