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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

The Legend of Dhlulamithi

Above: S C Barnard aka Bvekenya of the Ivory Trail, seen telling his story to writer T V Bulpin Photo Graham Young (The Conservationists and the Killers. Published by T V Bulpin and Books of Africa (Pty) Ltd 1982.

In 1968, the year author TV Bulpin’s book The Ivory Trail was released, I was a 17-year old cadet game ranger stationed at Chipinda Pools in Rhodesia’s Gonarezhou. The 'Gona' as it is referred to with affection by those who hold it dear, is a vast landmass across which much of the legendary tale covers. Bulpin’s story concerns ivory poacher Stephanus Rutgert Barnard’s life of adventure, and his ongoing quest to kill an elephant called Dhlulamithi (pronounced zhoo-la-meetee), meaning taller than the trees.

In the book Bulpin romanticises the life of South African, Barnard, who from mid-1910 until late 1929 plied his nefarious ivory-poaching trade across much of what would later be proclaimed the Gonarezhou National Park. Barnard was no respecter of International boundaries and led the law enforcement officials of Mozambique, South Africa, and Rhodesia on a run around. He wasn’t past moving border beacons either, to suit himself during his poaching escapades.

The book, an excellent read, piqued my interest and particularly so because I was ‘living’ the canvas across which much of the story took place. Back then there was an old Shangaan poacher turned gardener at our Chipinda Pools field station. His name was Ndali and when he was still a youngster he had been a goatherd to Barnard. It was Ndali who first informed me Dhlulamithi was a name probably given to a big elephant bull by Europeans. He had no recollection of Barnard having hunted a specific elephant called Dhlulamithi. In support of old Ndali’s view, another author and retired District Commissioner, Allan Wright, in his Valley of the Ironwoods points out the word isn’t even Shangaan, but Zulu.

Had Bulpin, using author’s license, perhaps created the name Dhlulamithi in order to make the book a better read? Let us look briefly at Barnard’s story, because there is another intriguing question. It being whether Barnard would in fact have passed up the opportunity to shoot a big ivory carrying bull?

Above: The tusks said to belong to the legendary elephant Dhlulamithi photographed in Lourenco Marques (Maputo) Photo L C Warland (The Conservationists and the Killers)

During his first poaching foray, and carrying a .303 rifle, Barnard entered Mozambique from his South African base at Crooks’ Corner, where the boundaries of the three countries converge. When he reached Massangena on the Rio Save (pronounced Sar-ve), the Portuguese issued him a hunting permit allowing him limited antelope species for the pot. He then moved north towards the Save and Lundi River junction inside Rhodesia. One night while sleeping inside a boma under the stars, he was attacked by about twenty Shangaan tribesmen, and after a hand to hand joust with his attackers, fled into the night clad in his underpants.

Undaunted by the prospect of a 240km walk back to Makhuleke at Crooks’ Corner, he set off, and while following the Rhodesian/Mozambique border, eventually met a group of Shangaan mine labourers walking home. They gave him a goat haunch for sustenance, an old spear, and a canvas haversack. They also gave him his Shangaan nickname, Bvekenya, after noticing his pronounced swagger due to the hot sand burning his bare feet. En-route he resorted to immersing himself in mud at game wallows and then allowing the mud to dry on his skin. It provided an effective barrier against a multitude of insect bites, including the red-hot needle like sting of the tsetse fly. Bvekenya also walked at night time as much as possible to avoid the discomfort due to heat and insects.

When he eventually reached the store at Makhuleke, he used his wagon as collateral and borrowed £45.00 from the store owner, Thompson, who also provided him with some old clothes. Returning to Johannesburg, he once more kitted himself out and purchased a 9.5x57mm Mannlicher-Schoenauer with 500 rounds. And then with a string of pack donkeys he returned to his previous haunts. Not being of a forgiving nature, over a protracted period, he allegedly found, and then thrashed the key players amongst the Shangaan tribesmen who had originally robbed him.

Bvekenya’s first elephant kill was a messy one. After wounding the animal, he tracked it for hours, until he was able to kill it with his sixth bullet, all of which had been badly placed. In time he learnt to place his shot correctly, allowing for an economic one-shot kill with minimal suffering to the elephant. The return by way of ivory weight off his first elephant was a tusk of 51lbs and a broken one of 49lbs. In those days ivory fetched 8s. 6d. a pound, and Barnard was well pleased with a yield of £42 10s. He transported his heavy ivory using his pack donkeys, and if the tusks were too big, they were loaded onto a donkey drawn sledge made out of mopane poles.

There was no wastage from elephant poached by Bvekenya, and once he had taken his choice cuts, the local tribe’s people soon got rid of the carcass. His system of keeping them in much needed protein was one of the reasons they protected him from the authorities. He also avoided the need to return to Makhuleke with the ivory each time he killed an elephant, by simply caching the ivory underground at an easily recognisable place.

His second elephant, a crop raiding rogue which had killed a few Shangaan, nearly killed Bvekenya but he managed to put it down and the ivory went 75lbs a side, giving him a return of £63 15s. During his early wanderings Bvekenya met a female nganga (tribal diviner) who predicted he would kill 300 elephants. He reached this total quite easily during his nearly 20 years of poaching. However, during the period which Bvekenya poached ivory in the Gonarezhou, and its neighbouring areas, his obsession grew with one particular elephant, the one which author Bulpin writes of as Dhlulamithi.

Bvekenya first came across this particular elephant bull in an area where there was “a shallow, muddy little lake, about six hundred yards by five hundred yards in extent …” Bulpin describes the area as being about thirty miles south-west of the Great Save River, and thirty miles east of the Rhodesian (Zimbabwe) border. Geographically and given the location of the Save River and of the Zimbabwe border, this doesn’t make sense. My belief is that Bulpin meant the Tomboharta Pan area. A pristine wilderness lying between the confluence of the Save and Runde Rivers, it’s always been known for attracting large numbers of elephant at certain times of the year. And particularly so when the marula fruit is ripe.

Above: A section of Tomboharta pan near the Save & Runde River confluence, photographed by the writer in 1967, while kayaking the Save River, with 3 school colleagues, from Birchenough Bridge to the Mozambique coast. We didn’t quite make it to the coast by kayak.

At this place, Bvekenya witnessed about 300 elephant and when he first saw the magnificent tusker, his trusted tracker Njalabane reputedly whispered, “It is Dhlulamithi, the one who is taller than the trees”. His tusks seemed so long they touched the ground when he walked, and Bvekenya determined to possess those tusks. His first attempt, however, at killing Dhlulamithi shortly after first laying eyes on him, ended in failure. In his haste, and after disturbing the elephant, he shot a younger bull running between himself and the huge tusker.

Thereafter, Bvekenya tirelessly sought the elusive Dhlulamithi until in November 1929, when he again attempted to kill him, he ended up looking along his rifle barrel at the elephant, before apparently lowering his rifle and saying, “Let him live”. Or did he? Most Gonarezhou Shangaan tribesmen who had known Barnard, and even if only by repute decades later, were united in their belief Bvekenya would never have passed up the opportunity to shoot a big tusker. He was after all a hardened commercial ivory poacher.

In 1932, a mere three years after Bvekenya had retired to his farm Vlakplaas in the Western Transvaal, two enormous tusks reputedly having belonged to the legendary Dhlulamithi, were sent to R Balmer, an ivory trader in Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) in Mozambique. He exported them to London for auction by S Figgis & Co. Ltd. The tusks weighed 73kg (160lbs) and 73 ½ kg (162lbs). It was never stated who supplied them. Could it have been Bvekenya himself?

In August 1967, thirty-eight years later, a South African Defence Force general, Victor Verster, shot a bull elephant on the north bank of the Lundi (now Runde) River, in the shadow of the Chilojo Cliffs. The left tusk went 62kg (137lbs) and the right tusk 48kg (107lbs). In those days the Runde River north bank of the yet to be gazetted Gonarezhou National Park was a Controlled Hunting Area reserved for VIPs helping sanctions bound Rhodesia thwart the trade embargo. They were rather controversially allowed ‘free VIP' hunting. The elephant in question was already a known and his movements were being monitored, albeit loosely. The late Warden Tim Braybrooke spotted him inside the Controlled Hunting Area, and notified Ranger Richard Harland, who was guiding General Verster. It didn’t take long before this Dhlulamithi was dead.

Above: Warden Tim Braybrooke (deceased) poses with the elephant bull shot by SADF General Verster in August 1967. The elephant was carrying tusks of 62kg (137lbs) and 48kg (107lbs).

Initially upon the news getting out, there was a bit of a furore, but at no time had field staff been given a restriction on ivory weight for VIP hunters, or that this exceptional elephant was to be left unharmed. In an Afrikaans book he edited, Neem uit die verlede V. Pienaar claimed this elephant was Bvekenya’s Dhlulamithi. However, if we look at Verster’s bull having been shot nearly 40 years after Bvekenya last saw his bull, it is highly unlikely. Bull elephant carrying that sort of ivory are normally in the last five or so years of their lives (expectancy +-60years).

Above: My 1968 patrol camp situated on the Runde River north bank, about 300m upstream of where SADF General Victor Verster shot the bull elephant in August 1967.

Not until the late 1970s would another exceptional ivory carrying elephant become known in the Gonarezhou, and this time round, the imposing bull had been named Kabakwe by Warden Rob Francis, of Mabalauta Field HQ, and his Shangaan game scouts. Kabakwe favoured dwelling on the slopes of the Nyamatongwe massif, a huge plateau which dominates the Gonarezhou. On the surrounding slopes there are dense musimbiti (ironwood) thickets, much favoured as places of refuge by the old tuskers. Kabakwe spent his latter years on Nyamatongwe and in the vicinity of nearby Benji Spring.

Because of the importance of this majestic bull, Rhodesia’s National Parks department darted him, stamped his ivory, and fitted him with a radio collar. Warden and pilot Mike Fynn used to get airborne on a regular basis from the Mabalauta Field HQ, and in the department Piper Super Cub, monitor Kabakwe’s moves. In time he came to know the old elephant bull as if he were a personal friend.

Above: Warden Mike Fynn standing at right near Kabakwe’s tusks when they were stamping them and fitting a radio collar. Despite these measures, Kabakwe sadly fell to a poacher’s bullet.

Shortly after the birth of Zimbabwe, American wildlife artist Michael Schreck sought permission to paint Kabakwe in order to offer the finished painting as a fundraiser, for a worthy conservation cause, through Safari Club International. Mike Fynn met the artist and PH Jannie Meyer at Benji Spring airstrip, almost in the shadow of Nyamatongwe. The plan was for Fynn to locate Kabakwe from the air and then return to Benji Spring airstrip, and with Meyer, walk the artist in to photograph and sketch Kabakwe.

Mike recalls how he hadn’t even been in the air for long before he knew with certainty Kabakwe had fallen to a poacher’s bullet. It was with a deep sense of foreboding he once more landed at Benji Spring. He had however located another bull with tusks of about 45kg (100lb) aside, and they walked Schreck in to photograph and sketch it.

Although no one was ever prosecuted or convicted for having killed Kabakwe, careful investigation work by conservation officials identified the alleged poacher, known to a number of us. He is a professional person, who was in cahoots with an allegedly corrupt Zimbabwean Parks officer at Chipinda Pools. The tusks were later advertised for sale in a South African national newspaper, before disappearing off the radar.

Above: Warden and Pilot Mike Fynn knew with certainty shortly after take off that Kabakwe had fallen to a poacher's bullet. Mike and the writer went through high school together, before both seeing service with the then Rhodesian department of National Parks & Wildlife Management. After the advent of Zimbabwe independence in April 1980 we both entered the safari industry.

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