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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Elephant Encounters of a Different Kind

Above: I learnt to treat elephant cowherds with the utmost respect.

Back during early 1968 when I was a 17-year-old neophyte cadet game ranger in Rhodesia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management, I witnessed for the first time how closely knit an elephant family unit are. At the time, and mere months out of school, I was still under tutelage when it came to elephant hunting. On this particular patrol I was in the company of the late senior ranger John Osborne, and we were in the Gonarezhou, which had yet to be gazetted a National Park.

John had instructed me to shoot an elephant cow while we were inside the tsetse fly corridor in the Guluene area, and the exercise was part of my training. So, with him monitoring my approach and with the wind in my favour, I made my way with a game scout to the edge of the herd. It was an ideal situation and from about 25m I selected the largest cow (not knowing in my ignorance at the time, that she was the matriarch), and quickly side-brained her with my issue 375 H&H.

Pleased with her immediate collapse, I expected to see the remainder of the herd flee but that didn’t happen. Loudly trumpeting and bellowing they immediately closed in on the matriarch’s lifeless form, and tried to lift her onto her feet. There were about seven elephants in the family unit, with a young bull some distance away in the background.

On game scout Hlupo’s advice we moved away quickly and quietly. In order to observe my performance, Osborne had ensconced himself on top of a large tree-covered termite mound, about 80m from the noisy cowherd, so I climbed up and joined him. We then witnessed about thirty minutes of elephant confusion which soon led to frustrated rage. Bunched as they were around the dead matriarch, it would’ve been easy to kill the entire group, which at the time was normal policy inside the tsetse corridor. Observing their behaviour was also a valuable lesson for me in the future. Shooting the matriarch creates an immediate leadership vacuum and the herd’s tendency to bunch around her fallen form leaves them vulnerable. This makes for a quick clinically efficient way of shooting elephant during reduction exercises, or culls. As distasteful as it is, for the good of the overall population it has to be done.

As we sat watching, the angry cowherd attempted to lift the bulky corpse and when that didn’t work one or two of them began to viciously stab her with their short sharp tusks. Another used her forelegs to try and clamber up onto the dead cow. There was a huge amount of angst, and the young bull also joined the group. Eventually, a few of their number began to systematically flatten the scrub mopane within a 15m radius of the deceased matriarch. It was as if they were trying to flush the cause of the mayhem, and given the truculence of the Gonarezhou elephant of that era, had the wind shifted in their favour, there was every possibility we would’ve been attacked. All of what I observed on that day taught me an important lesson. Never become blasé when hunting elephant cows.

Interestingly though, there were no big cows in the herd and they all looked remarkably ‘runty’. With us on the termite mound was an old Shangaan called Ndali; he was in his late sixties and worked for the Osborne’s as a gardener. When still a 14-year-old umfaan (boy) Ndali had been a goatherd for the notorious ivory poacher John ‘Bvekenya’ Barnard, written up and romanticised in T.V. Bulpin’s book The Ivory Trail (Books of Africa 1967). Although Ndali readily acknowledged Bvekenya’s elephant hunting prowess, he wasn’t very complimentary about him as a person.

However, the wily old Shangaan knew his elephant, and while taking a pull of homemade snuff, ventured that the Gonarezhou’s few elephant of smaller size were indeed more aggressive than larger elephant, maybe the equivalent of the Napoleon Syndrome in humans i.e., because I’m short I need be more aggressive. With the wind remaining in our favour the disgruntled herd eventually moved north, lingering occasionally and grumbling.

Above: Elephants have a unique matriarchal social order made up of herds, bond groups, and clans of related females.

Elephant are sage animals and have a unique matriarchal social order comprising herds, bond groups, and clans of related females. Upon reaching sexual maturity (12 to 13 + years) bulls separate from the cowherds, and form their own groups or periodically wander alone. While still in adolescence bulls often associate with their peers, although bachelor groups normally include a wide age range. Bulls too, develop unique relationships while they grow up, much of it based on a pecking order system, whereby they test each other’s relative strengths and standing within their community. It’s all about dominance and through this, a type of ‘brotherhood’ is formed.

Taking a quantum leap from my ‘Gona’ experiences of the late sixties to 1993, I witnessed another rather unique side to elephant behaviour. As has been well documented elephant seem to be aware of death, often if a herd comes across the skeletal remains of one of their number, they will quietly linger at the site, reverentially smelling the bones with outstretched trunks, as if in recognition of, and mourning for the deceased. Picking up and carrying away the odd sun-bleached bone, is also an accepted and documented part of their behaviour.

Getting back to my ‘93 season unusual elephant experience, I had a client wanting a lion so on the off chance that we’d be able to intercept one of those big black-maned cats out of Hwange National Park, I booked the hunt in Tsholotsho, a CAMPFIRE (Communal Area Management Program for Indigenous Resources) area adjacent to the national parks south western boundary. Tsholotsho is primarily an elephant concession, and a good one, the big bulls exit Hwange National Park by merely stepping over the 4’ 6” cable stranded boundary fence, at times bending the steel fence poles. Once they’re outside the Park, they head inland to plunder tribal crops. Inside the communal lands (tribal area), they’re categorised Problem Animals and over the past decades some exceptional ivory has been taken in this concession.

Above: Once they're outside of the Park they head inland to plunder tribal crops in the communal lands.

We were lucky, because on the day we entered the area, a bull elephant had just been shot by a European client, it was his last day in camp and his PH kindly allowed us the use of the hind legs for lion bait. Prior to our arrival, I’d been worried we might have been forced into buying tribal donkeys to use as bait, so the elephant was a bonus.

Solitary male lions that wander out of the Park into the Tsholotsho communal lands are normally fairly nomadic vagrants, big cats, many of them buffalo killing specialists. When part of a coalition with other males they often follow in the wake of the buffalo herd and prey on trailing, aged, arthritic, and injured buffalo. Occasionally they take a break from predating on buffalo, and exit the park to hunt easier prey, by way of tribal livestock. It’d been my hope that we’d be able to draw one of these solitary boys onto bait, and so we began to carefully select bait sites to hang the elephant meat. The furthest site was some way north east along the boundary fence and en route there we were disappointed to observe a huge herd of buffalo feeding just inside the Park. It wasn’t what we wanted, lion bait on the hoof and out of our reach.

Finding a track and dry riverbed crossing, we moved south away from the boundary and sought a suitable bait tree on which we hung one elephant upper hind leg with the skin still on. We hung it above hyena reach but not too high, and then covered it with leafy branches to keep the vultures off, and then we returned to camp.

Above: We hung it above hyena reach but not too high.

Next morning was our third in camp, and towards midday we arrived at the furthest bait, to find it’d already been visited, although not as we’d hoped, by Panthera leo. Rather,and judging by the spoor a mature, large, elephant bull had stopped by. He’d not only stopped by, he’d removed all of the camouflage meant to keep the vultures off the bait, then broken the heavy-duty wire securing the hind leg, before carrying the leg about 20m from the tree, and dumping it. His spoor told us he’d spent some time lingering near the haunch belonging to his deceased brethren, before departing. We then back tracked him to the Park boundary, and found he’d merely exited, located the bait, done what he felt he had to do, and then returned to the safety of the Park.

Above: Before carrying the leg about 20m from the tree and dumping it.

Having re-hung the leg and replaced the camouflage, we returned to camp, arriving early evening. For the next three days, we witnessed the same scenario. All of the camouflage ripped off and scattered, and the by then rank smelling elephant hindquarter pulled down and carried away before being dumped. Perhaps the old bull had stood guard over the remains of his fallen comrade, because we never found any sign of hyena or jackal having visited the putrid hindquarter. Maybe he’d only returned to the sanctuary of the Park once day had dawned; only he knows.

My tentative blind site had been about 50m from the bait and each time the intruder removed it he’d discard it about 30m directly in front of where I’d intended building the ground blind. Although old elephant bulls are normally gentlemen, there was a strong possibility that had he found us sat in the blind, he may have taken exception to our presence. I’m thankful we never had to find out.

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