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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. Senior Ranger John Osborne sits with his feet protruding over the edge. On this patrol we never saw the two crocs, and had no idea they were there.

During the course of 1968 we did a lengthy foot patrol along the Pombadzi River. A tributary flowing 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 had found the remains of an elephant calf and the indications were it had 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 defence 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 night.

However, it was only after we had 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 underwater, 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 dark pea green and looked unfriendly. It was obvious the elephant cow had slipped on the burnished stone pool edging and lost her footing while drinking. The water surface was about two foot below the rim of the pool, and the sides 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 social, and when under stress, 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 before weakening and drowning. Their eventual departure too, was probably over a protracted period, with a lot of lingering while bellowing, squealing, and trumpeting.

Because we had decided to try and recover the tusks, the game scouts found a stout long mopane pole. However, when they tried to pull the skull towards the edge of the pool, it tilted to one side and the air bubble escaped, sending it down into the murky depths in a stream of bubbles, where it was soon lost to sight.

A few weeks later myself and a few game scouts once more patrolled the Pombadzi. A river course favoured by lion, and where a particular 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 if the water level had been up to the level of the downstream side of the pool? And you didn’t know two huge crocs were lying in the depths. It would have been tempting to strip off and dive in, and particularly so on an extremely hot day if the water had been slightly cleaner. The mental image of the possible outcome certainly 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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