• Kev Thomas Writes

Gonarezhou 1968 - Pombadzi River Patrol

Above: The pool on the Pombadzi River where we found the floating elephant cow skull. The top of the skull can be seen in the photo.

During the course of 1968 we did a lengthy foot patrol along the Pombadzi River. A tributary that flows into the Runde River from the north bank. It’s a boulder strewn river, hauntingly scenic with an almost mystical air about it. The river banks are shrouded in tangles of thick bush amongst the towering trees, and the burnished rock bed has a number of pools along its meandering and jumbled course.

At one huge deep circular pool we found an elephant skull floating in the murky water. Just prior to finding the skull we’d found the remains of an elephant calf and the indications were it’d been killed by lion. Whilst not unusual, lion normally give elephant a wide berth unless the odds are in their favour.

Initially, we assumed the calf had perhaps been sick and died, because an elephant cow won’t willingly give up its calf. They’re normally suicidal in defense of their offspring. The lion, we figured, had merely been attracted to the carcass by vulture activity during the day, and possibly hyena vocalization in the dark of the night.

However, it was only after we’d found the remains of the calf and moved on another 50 or so metres that we came across the elephant skull floating in the pool. It was virtually under water, and clearly supported by an air bubble inside the skull cavity. We could just make out the two thin tusks, typical of an elephant cow. The water was a murky pea green and looked unfriendly. It was obvious that she’d slipped and lost her footing whilst drinking. The water surface was about two foot below the rim of the pool, the sides of which were smooth worn rock, inclining towards the water. The floating skull indicated another possibility as to how the entire scenario may have unfolded. It was obvious the cow having fallen in was unable to get out, and after her family unit had eventually departed, her distraught calf had probably remained making it easy prey for lion and hyena.

Elephant subject to stress and fear are noisy creatures, and the sad events that unfolded on the Pombadzi when the cow fell in, must have caused huge consternation and panic. Knowing how loyal a cowherd is to its own, they no doubt spent a long time around the pool while the unfortunate cow slowly lost her strength and drowned. Their eventual departure too, was probably over a protracted period, with a lot of lingering while bellowing, squealing, and trumpeting.

After we’d decided to try and recover the tusks, the game scouts found a stout long mopane pole. We then tried to pull the skull towards the edge of the pool. However, it tilted to one side and the air bubble escaped, sending it down into the murky depths in a stream of bubbles.

A few weeks later myself and a few game scouts once more patrolled the Pombadzi. A river course favoured by lion, and where a pride was regularly seen during our foot patrols. This time though we approached the pool directly through the bush, and not from along the riverbed. Looking down onto the pool where the elephant had drowned, we observed two huge crocodiles lying on the rock shelf adjacent to the water. Both were in the thirteen to fourteen-foot size bracket. As we moved closer, they detected us and simultaneously plunged beneath the murky surface, disappearing from sight.

Had one or both of them, grabbed the drinking cow elephant by her trunk and through her leaning forwards and down, towards the water, caused her to lose her balance and fall in? It’s not improbable, given the tremendous strength and power of an adult crocodile. During our initial approach a few weeks previously, when we’d first found the calf and its drowned mother, our noisy walking on the rocky river bed had probably disturbed the crocs and sent them into the depths.

Unfortunately, there were no witnesses to whatever happened on that far off Pombadzi River day, and we can only surmise.

Another thought I had on the day the game scouts and I disturbed the crocs, was what it the water level had been up to the level of the downstream side of the pool? And you didn’t know two very big crocs were lying in the depths. It would’ve been easy to dive in, and on an extremely hot day if the water had been slightly cleaner, the pool might have been inviting for a quick cooling plunge. The mental image of the possible outcome isn’t a very pleasant one.

Above: The indomitable Shangaan game scout Sgt Hlupo standing at left, and at right Dofas.

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