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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

When things go wrong

A few days ago, a friend in Zimbabwe sent me a short report about a Zimbabwean tribesman in the Mlibizi area on Lake Kariba's western basin. The report which was obviously written by one of the locals described how a man from Chief Saba's village, Mr. Windas Muleya, had been caught by a crocodile. However, that wasn't all there was to the story because before Mr. Muleya ended up in the jaws of a crocodile, he had been fleeing from a 'wounded' elephant. Nothing, however, was said about how the elephant had been wounded.

Above: Mr. Windas Muleya after being attacked by the crocodile.

While trying to avoid the enraged elephant the luckless Mr. Muleya decided to swim out into Lake Kariba, and when doing this he was caught by the crocodile. In the report’s written English, the crocodile incident is described as Muleya having been court by a crockdale. Muleya was lucky because he had friends nearby who heard his anguished cries for help. Rushing to his assistance (we must assume the elephant had obviously departed the scene by that stage), a Richard Choruma, and Jonas entered the water and wading about 10m from the bank to where Muleya was fighting for his life, they attacked the croc. Fortunately, it released its victim. Choruma and Jonas then dragged Muleya out of the water.

Whoever wrote the report also thanked the National Parks department for helping to transport the victim, although it doesn’t say where to, so we must assume it was either to Binga, further east, or to Hwange hospital, to the west. There were two photographs with the report and looking at them, it appears Mr Muleya was badly bitten by the crocodile. So much so, I doubt his left foot will be saved. And particularly so due to the most basic of medical care available in Zimbabwe’s outlying and remote areas. Add to that, being transported in a vehicle along dusty roads in the Zambezi Escarpment heat. Not to mention the hordes of flies which means Mr Muleya will be lucky if infection doesn’t set in and worsen his situation. I sincerely hope he survives because nobody deserves to be chased by an elephant, and then in trying to escape get caught by a crocodile, all in the space of about 15-20 minutes.

Above: Mr Muleya will be lucky if they manage to save his left foot.

Throughout my career, initially as a Rhodesian game ranger, and then as a soldier, and finally as a PH, it’s never ceased to amaze me how Africans in general are able to suffer horrific injury and pain in such stoical fashion. In late 1970, while I was doing my National Service, an old African (coincidently also in the Mlibizi area) walked up to our platoon-strength military base entrance, and asked for a lift to Hwange Colliery Hospital. When asked why, he turned around and showed us the back of his head. It was bare skull; the flesh having sloughed off almost entirely. He then explained how weeks prior, while he was sleeping, a puffadder had bitten him on the back of his head. Because of the remoteness of where he lived, he’d tried using tribal bush medicine, to no avail. We took him to the hospital and dropped him off at the Outpatients, and although we never saw him again, I’m sure he survived.

I could go on with stories of injured and maimed Africans and how they have this built-in ability to seemingly just accept their lot without complaint. In contrast, I’ve seen a lot of Caucasians yodelling and screaming after suffering a minor injury. A few days back while climbing off our boat I twisted my already wonky left knee badly, and the jarring pain certainly caused me to yelp. So, without listing further incidents of Africans accepting injury I’ll relate below, a story of a game scout who was gored by a buffalo in Zimbabwe’s remote Gonarezhou National Park back in 1987.

Above: A map showing the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.

'The game scout was in a bad way, he had a horn through the side of his stomach, a horn through the top of his right shoulder, and the entire back of his thigh muscle had been ripped off right up to his buttocks… it looked bloody ugly.' PH Craig Robinson in conversation with the writer about game scout Hungwe’s goring by a buffalo in the Gonarezhou National Park.

Monday, 9 March 1987, dawned like any other summer day in Zimbabwe’s remote Gonarezhou National Park. This vast landmass with its prolific herds of big game lies in the country’s south-eastern corner. It has as one boundary, the international border with Mozambique. To the east and west, lie vast tribal areas. Poaching is not an uncommon problem, and for this reason the park employs a fairly big team of game scouts to carry out anti-poaching patrols, and to police the park on a daily basis. Mabalauta field HQ is situated on the western boundary, and way to the east is the Chipinda Pools field HQ. Both stations have a warden in charge, however, due to distance and sheer remoteness they are only in radio contact with each other.

Patrols are normally carried out on foot, or with the aid of bicycles. Game scouts are also deployed by vehicle, to then commence patrolling back to HQ on foot using a pre-determined route which may take up to a week. The 'Gona' as it is often referred to by those who hold the area dear, can experience extremely high daytime temperatures and high humidity during the rainy season. Patrol work certainly isn't without its dangers. Not only from armed poachers, but also from the dangerous game which inhabits the area. Gonarezhou elephant are known for their truculence. The National Park name loosely translates from one of the Shona sub-clan dialects, to mean ‘A place for elephants.'

Above: As young Zimbabwean PH circa 1987, Craig Robinson with a buffalo typical of those found in the safari areas abutting the Gonarezhou. This was not the buffalo which attacked game scout Hungwe (Photo credit Craig Robinson).

On this particular day, at first light, a four-man game scout patrol departed Mabalauta on foot, their bicycles loaded with basic patrol needs for a possible 5 to 7 days. Mealie meal – their staple – and perhaps coffee, salt, sugar, and some sun-dried meat cut into thin strips. Due to the logistical support problems associated with patrols, they were seldom for longer than 7 days. Each man also carried a sleeping bag, and possibly a small canvas ground sheet. In addition, they carried NATO G3 7,62mm combat rifles. Their task aside from monitoring game was to find and apprehend poachers.

Game scout Hungwe who was one of the patrol was not new to the job and enjoyed his work. As per normal the scouts try to cover as much ground as they can before the heat of the day sets in. After arriving in their patrol area, they then seek a suitable patrol base site, and set up a fly-camp. From there, they ‘cross-grain’ patrol in different directions each day, ensuring too, they check the environs of all water holes for poachers' snare lines. While on the move and although not heavily laden, they sometimes have to dismount from their bicycles and push them through the heavy sand. This quite often results in a patrol being strung out as they alternate between pedalling and pushing.

On this occasion game scout Hungwe began to drop behind, as his three companions steadily increased the distance between them. This may not have worried him unduly as he still had them visual, and he already knew where their pre-arranged campsite was to be located. Entering an avenue of thick mopane woodland and scrub, he pedalled on. Masticated branches, scattered bread-loaf size mounds of dung, foamy drying urine patches, and fallen trees littered the roadway. Evidence of an elephant herd having passed by during the previous night. On the odd occasion too, Hungwe would no doubt have noticed buffalo spoor, together with that of many other species. Given the density of the scrub, visibility on either side of the track was down to mere metres.

Above: Game Scout Hungwe would also no doubt have noticed buffalo spoor (Photo credit Kevin Thomas).

Reaching a patch of particularly heavy sand, game scout Hungwe alighted from his bicycle and proceeded to push it. Finally, and once more having got clear of the sandy belt, he decided to rest before continuing on his way. With his companions still visual to his front, he leant his bike against a tree and sauntered off the track to urinate. Having returned to his bike and lifted it free of the tree trunk it stood against, he was about to mount when he noticed a drab shadow-like, black mass in the brush about thirty paces off to his right. Crouching slightly, and taking a closer look, he soon realised it was a solitary buffalo bull.

Zimbabwe’s Shangaan tribesmen who spend their lives living in close proximity to dangerous game often tend to become blasé. Perhaps this was the case with game scout Hungwe, because he decided to notify his companions about what he had just observed. His mode of notification when he realised his companions had obviously cycled right past the motionless buffalo, was by way of loud shouts. He commenced shouting after them while standing holding his bicycle, and then he looked back towards the buffalo. It was too late, and with rising panic he suddenly realised his day was about to rapidly go pear-shaped, because the enraged buffalo had already reached him.

Bellowing and grunting loudly, 1800 lbs of enraged musculature, horns, and plate-sized hooves flattened the hapless game scout and his puny bicycle. Within milliseconds man and bicycle had become separated, the buffalo choosing to stay with the man. Game scout Hungwe writhed and fought, his mind in turmoil as a heavy horn jabbed into his shoulder, the sheer pain of it nearly causing him to pass out. With his one arm now useless, he managed to wriggle away from the enraged animal, and finding his feet dodged around a bush. His escape was brief, because the buffalo ploughed straight through the bush, once more pinning him to the ground. This time a horn tip penetrated the luckless Hungwe’s stomach, while the buffalo continued to hook and roll him along the ground, the flailing horns wreaking havoc with his one thigh muscle, ripping it from the bone. Due to the sheer pounding his body had been subjected to, Hungwe then mercifully passed out.

By this time, his colleagues had arrived at the scene and were standing a little way off in a frightened huddle. Trying to assess what best to do. They then hastily arrived at a joint decision to collectively open fire with their G3s. In the interim, game scout Hungwe had regained consciousness, and had enough presence of mind to know that despite his acute pain and sorry state, his colleagues’ bullets, slamming into the buffalo and into the ground around where he lay, could kill him just as easily as the buffalo could.

Deciding to play ‘possum’ he lay dead still, as by this time too, the buffalo had absorbed a number of 7,62mm military ball rounds, and leaving its victim, ran a short distance before collapsing and, with one long drawn-out bellow, dying. The three game scouts who came to their erstwhile colleague Hungwe’s rescue, had each expended a full twenty round magazine into the buffalo, totalling sixty rounds in all! Not one round hit Hungwe.

Above: Old, arthritic, and worm infested buffalo dagha bulls are extremely unpredictable and should always be treated with the utmost respect (Photo credit Dr Charles Hunter).

Leaving the pain wracked and barely conscious Hungwe where he lay, the trio then high tailed it to a nearby safari camp and sought the assistance of Professional Hunter Craig Robinson, who happened to be in camp. A radio call was made to Harare, requesting a casualty evacuation, however, by the time Robinson got to the scene, a National Parks department truck had already transported the horrifically injured game scout back to Mabalauta field HQ. PH Robinson was still at Mabalauta when the dead buffalo was brought in. He taped the horns and they measured 42˝ with 17˝ bosses. In a later conversation with me he recalled the buffalo had a huge body mass, estimated to be about 1800 lbs. The buffalo also had a stomach wound, caused not by a bullet, but by another buffalo. Obviously, the result of a fight. Of the sixty rounds fired, only twenty-six had actually hit the buffalo, which doesn’t say much for the standard of the game scouts’ shooting.

Game scout Hungwe came into contact with the sulking buffalo at 09h00. He was finally airlifted from Mabalauta at 16h30, a seven and a half-hour time lapse, during which period he had only received the most rudimentary first aid. His bloodied, battered, and broken body was covered in sand, leaves, and twigs, yet he made a full recovery and was back on duty six months later. The black man in Africa’s ability to suffer and survive the most horrific injuries is quite astounding, a fact that has over the centuries been well documented in books and journals.

Above The snare this buffalo was carrying embedded just above its one front hoof caused it to chase safari camp staff, and National Parks game scouts in Zimbabwe's Chirisa Safari Area during 1995. The writer got one of his safari clients to shoot it.

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