Wildlife Stories

Read trip reports, stories and experiences from the field.
  1. This story is age-restricted, and involves a human death and the killing of a rogue elephant. Reading it is at your own discretion.

    I would like to dedicate this story to John (@johnr), as his efforts in education continues. Hope you enjoy it.

    The Great Ghost Hunt

    Africa can sometimes be so powerful that even the great Sun glistens like a weak little star. She can deceive and mislead you so many times that you will end up believing in ghosts and dark spirits. Her ways are strict and she will do anything to hide her treasures from the non-deserving. Your life is but worth a blink in her eyes filled with warmth and cold at the same time. You can never know, never tell what will happen on her soils of death and beauty. And there - where her magic works the strongest, lies a place hidden from mankind. Be warned my friend, for if you believe that your spirit can not be broken, and that you can tame her, then do not tempt her. For she will break you and your body will return to her veins . . .

    Hit hard by the notorious “Tick-bite Fever,” I wearily answer the phone. It is 22:00 and a sudden shock turns my illusions into reality. On the other end of the phone, the Chief Warden of the Kavango Parks informs me of a terrible accident in my area. My sick-leave ends abruptly -

    My eyes glide over the green Omatako Omuramba (dry river bed). This is God’s paradise, I think to myself. There she lies in her fullest coat of glory, Bushmanland. It is January 2002, and the seasonal rains have brought drops of hope and life to her soils. So proud I feel to call her “mine.” She is mine, just as much as I am hers.

    Located to the North-East of Namibia, Bushmanland borders Botswana and lies in the migratory route system from the Okavango delta – the place where life started. This is the land of the African Elephant – their Holy grounds.

    After a very early night and cold fever tearing at my body, I finally manage to get some sleep. With first light, I report to my office only to find it abandoned. My epaulets were the only reminder that a Nature Conservation office existed in Tsumkwe. On my table was a report with a bright red reminder attached to it, marked “Urgent.” The words I read did not really shock me as much as I would have thought they would. For I have seen it before during previous problem animal control operations.

    A 40-year old San of the Juohansi tribe was killed by an elephant 1 kilometer outside her village, !Auru, in Eastern Bushmanland. Her name was /Nkoro/. She and three young girls had gone to look for veld food (a vital part of the Ju’hoansi’s tradition and existence) when their path crossed with three elephant bulls browsing on the succulent green leaves of the Camel-thorn tree. The young girls fled and the older woman decided to “hide” herself in a thicket of small trees. Only there, caught between trees and thorn bushes, did she realize a fourth bull had been waiting upon her – to take her to the never-ending sunset of her ancestors’ new-found land in the sky. She was killed instantly, the mighty elephant broke her neck as she was literally thrown from where she had crouched behind a tree. The angry bull then proceeded to rip her corpse apart.

    Her frail body was collected by Nature Conservation officers and the case was reported to the Police.

    The culprit’s tracks were destroyed by rain and by the time I caught up with my men, the man-killer had been hunted for 10 days already, without a trace of his whereabouts. Confidently armed with the expertise and loyalty of my faithful Bushmen trackers and my ever-loyal, Lucinda (.458 caliber elephant gun), we searched and searched until it felt like we had covered the whole 9,000 square kilometers of Bushmanland. I would have given up, if it were not for the expression on the faces of the family that had suffered the great and dear loss of a loved one. My men were tired. They had been in the bush for many days with limited food - and even less confidence.

    Exactly 14 days after the woman had been killed, my team caught sight of 3 elephant bulls. We did not give notice, until Dawid (the undisputed best tracker in Bushmanland) suddenly froze and pointed to a dark shadow amidst a patch of trees nearby. He did not say a word. His ghost-like face yelled out in a thunderous voice. “It’s him . . . the Devil!” I do not recall if I was afraid, or if instinct had taken over. When I turned to my men, they had already formed a firing-line, side by side. Our order from Head-office was clear . . . Destroy! And the whole time that we had been hunting, we were specifically looking for this bachelor group of four bulls.

    The bull in the shadows did not move; he did not even flap his ears in the 45 degrees Celsius heat. Elephants rely on an extensive and complex vein system running through their ears to cool their blood in warm conditions.

    The mammoth beast stared through each of us. The awesome strength of his authority crept slowly over our skin and was indelibly embedded into our young souls. Dawid pointed out the abscess on the place that once harbored his right tusk. Suddenly a strong gush of wind came from behind him, towards us. The smell of rotten meat was burning into our spirits, for then we realized that we were faced with an elephant bull living in extreme pain. His great discomfort soon became ours. I spoke with a dry mouth, “We will not run. We will do what is expected of us.”

    Slowly, with a fixed gaze, we assembled into place. This silent ballet was mechanical in it’s uniformity, yet graceful as the agile dance of my Rangers once again conformed to another unique stage.

    The extreme weight of the .458 rifles’ tips required a minimum of 30 meters distance between us and our target for maximum penetration and knock-down power. Just before opening fire, I briefly glanced upwards and saw Weaver birds constructing a new nest. I did not hear them, and it is impossible for them to work silently. I could feel my heart jumping wildly in my chest as if it wanted to be let loose on the vast pan to our right. Our position was a mere 1.2 kilometers from the village where the woman had been killed.

    “We stop here,” Dawid said. His voice was soft and trembling. We were 40 meters from him. Then it happened; everything within the blink of an eye. He charged! I can still recall how the trees disappeared under his massive body, crumbling and snapping like so many toothpicks.

    From our crouched positions we rose to face him standing. Believe me, this is where courage is tested. One mistake, one shot wrongly placed . . . and you will meet your fate. The kick into my right shoulder sounded Lucinda’s mighty call. The guns next to me exploded with lunging snakes of fire. Reload. Another kick into my shoulder. My ears were stunned and I could hear nothing.

    About 20 meters from us, the bull lowered his head and plummeted into the trees. A wave of sand came curling towards us as the big bull fell. For nearly 5 minutes, we could only stare at him and allow the previous moments to register in our minds as reality. Little red circles on his head showed us the light of victory. That was not so bad, I thought to myself.

    We climbed on top of him, feeling quite proud of our conquest. Our other hunting party caught up with us and we joined in the homage of paying our last respects to this great creature. And as the law of the land stipulates, we placed a branch of green leaves in his mouth, resembling his last meal before joining the elephant kingdom in my dreams. The sun was setting quickly and we decided to return the next day to get the ivory. With festive spirits we returned to Tsumkwe.

    That night, I felt a strange cloud moving over my mind. I had not given a final shot, I had forgotten to shoot him one more time, even as I was very sure that his life had ended. And I knew that this final shot was always given – regardless of our certainty.

    The next morning I woke with a smile and a headache. A few beers too many. Tsumkwe had greeted me with laughing people, their faces lit up by the thought of the “man-killer” meeting his match. I started gathering my men for the final duty, removing the white gold from the elephant. I drove to the first location where all my trackers lived and left the vehicle idling. My senior Scout walked up to me and said, “Sir, there are problems. We are scared”. “Scared of what?” I asked.

    “The Elephant sir, the devil! He lives!”

    I started laughing, but quickly stopped as the gravity of his expression yielded no room for humor.

    “Did you not stand on his body yesterday?”
    “He lives sir! Jhonny . . . Jhonny was told so by the spirit.”

    I was stunned. The Bushmen were strict believers in the strength and reality of the spirit world. Their traditional healing lives thrive off of the power of the spirits and the world that we cannot see.

    “The spirit came to Jhonny last night in the form of a man. He spoke to Jhonny in a bad way – He is angry!”

    “What did the spirit say?”

    “The spirit does not understand why we shot the elephant. He has children and grand-children to care for. He must teach them the ways of the land - where the water lies and where the best trees are to eat. The spirit asked why the white man is hunting him. You see sir . . . the spirit that came to Jhonny last night, was the elephant that we shot yesterday . . . the evil spirit. He also told Jhonny that he will hide his tracks. He will trick us and deceive us with his wisdom of the land. And he will hunt us now . . “
    “Who will go with me?” I asked.
    “We are all scared sir. But I will go with you.”

    Out of my four trackers, only two joined me. And out of my other hunting parties, only four out of the ten men did not believe in this evil spirit.

    “He is the Devil, sir. We are hunting the Devil” Dawid said, as we drove out of Tsumkwe on our way to where we had made our kill.

    I re-lived the shooting a few times on our way. I was sure of my shots. How can he live? Impossible!

    About 10 kilometers before the site of the shooting, villagers stopped me. It was clear they sought some sort of assistance as they spoke in familiar, high pitched voices. My translator later explained to me that another elephant bull was chasing people around their village. As was required of us, we drove to this village and followed the tracks of this reported ill-tempered bull. About 15:00 that afternoon, we were fast on his trail. We fired a couple of warning shots over his head and he fled North, away from the village. The sun was throwing balls of fire at us. The heat was unbearable - and it was time to collect the ivory from the fallen elephant.

    I remained seated in the vehicle, allowing the adrenaline to circulate. Perusing the area briefly with hopeful anticipation of sighting the carcass, my men pointed to the ground. My heart sank into a bottomless pit. Dawid remained seated next to me. “We are hunting the Devil, sir! - And he will be hunting us . . . “

    The Elephant was gone. The place where we had left his body just a day before, was empty. Vanished from this site, he had walked away after being “killed.” How could this be possible?

    I walked over to where I knew his body had crushed a few trees as he fell. My men could only look at me, as if they were expecting some sort of logical explanation from the white man who is unfamiliar with their spirit world. - I had nothing to offer.

    “The Spirit - Jhonny was right.” Dawid walked with me for a while. “This blood, it comes from the lungs.” Dawid pointed to the trail of blood filled with little bubbles. It gave me hope. But still I could only think of the humiliation of wounding an animal. In my culture it is considered to be a sign of weakness to wound an animal with the intent to kill.

    “We will have to find him.” After I had spoken, my men looked up at me.
    “Sir, we will not find him. And we do not want to die!”

    Jhonny’s words hung in the air and were carried by the wind . . . “ . . .Will cover my tracks, -- Will deceive and hunt you . . .”

    The sun was setting. Dawid studied the tracks and quickly pointed out that his hind right foot-print was not in line with the other tracks. It appeared that the elephant may have been injured when he was younger. Dawid also showed me the many Hyena tracks following the wounded elephant.

    “They were following him before we had wounded him. He was on his way to the burial grounds, to die, sir. We will find him – soon.”

    Back in Tsumkwe, we packed our gear and food rations for at least a week. And in the darkness of the night, I prayed to God to keep us all safe. I was afraid. One of my Rangers later came to my home - and in pensive silence, cleaned Lucinda.

    By sunrise we were already on his tracks. Two trackers in front of me and three men behind me. We did not speak. The trackers’ eyes were glued to the ground. They walked fast -hard. My eyes and those of the men behind me were scanning the horizon for any sign or movement.

    “We will find him dead. His lungs will soon be filled with blood.”

    The voice behind me broke the silence of the morning. The cool air was soon smothered by heat waves pushing into every corner of the bush. We walked and walked, and then we walked some more. Concentration levels were falling rapidly and it was if we were in some sort of trance. My eyes fell from the horizon and I could only watch the tracker’s feet in front of me. The oppressive heat combined with pure mental exhaustion yielded to this pace to keep the beat of my heart. My shoulder started hurting and I moved Lucinda to the other for a while, then back again.

    By midday, we had already walked 25 kilometers. We did not carry water as the weight would only drive us further into the hot soil and hinder our advancement. There was not a cloud to be seen. There would be no relief from this sweltering heat.

    We rested for a while under a big Lead-wood tree. My eyes were burning from the sweat that gently rolled from underneath my hat. Not a word was spoken as we rested. The heat waves danced on the horizon, luring us into slumber. The wind avoided us, making the heat worse. “We go now.” Dawid was so strong.

    My feet ached. And oh, how I wished I had taken another sip of water before we started walking that morning. But although I could sense that my men shared this pain, my rank required me to lead without hesitation.

    By sunset we stopped on the main road leading from Bushmanland into Hereroland. We were close to the border - too close. The elephant was heading straight for Botswana. If he crossed the border, we would not be allowed to follow him. One of my Rangers arrived with a vehicle, as they were told to patrol all the roads throughout the day. We quickly consumed the hot water he had with him. As we drove to our base-camp, the wind cooled the blood pumping through our veins. We had walked 45 kilometers by the end of that day.

    By sunrise the next morning, we were on his tracks again. The morning started with a cloud-bank hiding the sun. Around 10:00 a.m. the heat came again, but this time the humidity also loomed; the most unbearable combination for walking in the Kalahari.

    “The Devil” suddenly changed his route and turned away from the Botswana border, heading north. And from the open plains, he led us into thick bush. This slowed us down considerably, and we would now take extra care not to “walk” into him. Our line of sight never exceeded 10 meters. In the thicket the wind is rare and its cool hand escaped us again. It felt as if we were walking aimlessly through a dark and dismal dream.

    By midday we took our first break. Again we all crowded under the closest shade, hiding from the sun like scared animals. By 16:00, we had stopped to rest 5 more times. We were all very tired, exhausted. By 19:00 with the absolute last light of the day, we headed for the closest two-track road. A Ranger picked us up and we drove back to our camp under a rain shower. It had come from nowhere, but we welcomed it. That night at camp, I changed our strategy.

    “Tomorrow we take the pick-up truck on his tracks. It will save time. We are still on his first day’s tracks. Tomorrow we need to run.” My men were pleased and soon we were all snoring away.

    Again, with first day’s light we were on his tracks where we had left them the previous day. The rain had covered them substantially but Dawid could still see things which I could not. The vehicle we were using had 2 extra spare tires. This was a requirement when we would “bundu-bash.” Bundu-bashing is driving off-road, where there are no vehicle tracks. Subsequently, it would also mean many punctures to our tires as we would be driving over many thorns and rocks. Soon this new strategy was working perfectly.

    Two trackers would run in front of the truck while the other men would rest on the back of the vehicle. Once the running trackers tired, they would change with the rested men. During the first 4 hours, we had covered nearly 30 kilometers.

    Suddenly the runners in front of the vehicle stopped. They pointed to a solid slab of bed-rock covering a massive area. The elephant had walked onto this rock formation, hiding his tracks even from the keenest eyes of my trackers. This behavior is extremely uncharacteristic for elephants. Any type of rock formation is typically avoided at all costs as rocks give elephants a false sense of security. The sensation is such that their balance may be broken and they could fall. This “Devil” however, carried no fear on this quest. He boldly advanced despite the imminent uncertainty of the terrain.

    “He is hiding his tracks sir.”

    The Bushmen trackers laughed as they started the long walk around the rock formation to see where he had emerged into the sand once again. The clever maneuvering of this giant robbed us of at least three hours of precious time.

    Just as it finally seemed we were making up for this lost time, he outwitted us once again by walking straight into very, very thick bush – Thorn-bush. From running, we changed to walking with weapons. The bush was dense and we did not want to take any chances. But the obstacles that we were to encounter persisted, as a sudden hissing sound made me stop the vehicle. It was a familiar sound, one which we hated dearly. My men shocked me as they told me all 4 tires were punctured. For a vehicle to have all four tires rupture at the same time is extremely rare, but then the events of the last few days had acclimated us to the “paranormal.”

    “We are hunting the Devil, sir.” And I had begun to tire of this reaffirmation despite the strangeness of these circumstances. It was no use to put on the two spare tires, so we decided to walk to the closest road, abandoning the vehicle in the middle of nowhere. We arrived at camp by 20:00, tired and shell-shocked from the events of the day. It was clear that we were not dealing with a normal elephant. This one was different.

    The next day we rested while our Anti-Poaching Unit returned to our vehicle in the bush. They repaired the vehicle and returned to camp by midday. By that time we had prepared our big truck – (a 5 ton truck) to go out onto the tracks again. The truck's tires were much stronger and we were confident that we would find our elephant soon. After we had reached the spot where we had left our first vehicle, we were amazed to find the “Devil” leading us onto the tracks of a 60 head strong breeding herd of elephants. We had lost his tracks yet again.

    It is highly unlikely for the breeding herds to be in Bushmanland in January . They normally arrive during the winter months when they migrate from the Okavango Delta in search of food. They were a full 6 months early for Bushmanland and it now seemed as if we had truly been defeated. There was no way we could find his tracks again. This herd of elephant comrades had successfully concealed him from further pursuit.

    By sunset we had made our camp and were sitting around the fire with broken souls. I could not believe this was happening. The rains came again that night, hiding the “Devil” from us even more. There was only one thing left to do, and that was to investigate each of the game watering holes the next day. The elephant we had shot would be hurting; his wounds would be burning like the sun. And he would spray his wounds with cool water, in an attempt to relieve his pain.

    I was woken by the excited tone of the voices talking around me.

    “Look! Do you see the vultures? Maybe it’s him!”

    My eyes soon adjusted to the bright light of the sun rising. And I was greeted by one of the most spectacular sights I had ever seen. The dark shadows of vultures drifting on the morning breeze caused an explosion in my heart. An explosion of hope. Something was dead, and the vultures were moving in to feed.

    We had made our camp the previous evening only 200 meters from where we could now see 20 vultures circling in the air. We would walk in. I followed my lead tracker, second in row. After only a few hundred meters, the tracker stopped abruptly in front of me. My finger instinctively moved onto Lucinda’s trigger, ready to open fire. Though my eyes perceived no threat, I clearly sensed imminent danger. Our trackers do not break their pace without just cause.

    He quickly pointed to a nearby tree, and there, once again – I could not believe what my eyes were looking upon. The notorious Black Mamba! After being bitten by this highly poisonous snake, an adult person would have an average of 5 minutes to 5 hours before dying. The neuron-toxic poison attacks the muscles and her victim eventually succumbs to a heart attack - and certain death. But the Black Mamba I was looking at, was no ordinary Mamba. This was the Mother of all Mambas.

    My men and I were keenly aware of the fact that this was the Mambas’ egg-lying time - when they are most aggressive. Females would protect their nests and their eggs with their lives! Every red flag of caution was raised in my mind and would guide my next movement. It is said that Mambas can “stand” or raise their bodies up to two thirds of their body length. And there she stood, in front of our very eyes. I watched in awe as she raised her body – without any support from branches or trees – far over my head. Gently she slid onto a small tree’s canopy and disappeared. Her raised body was far over 2 meters tall, with the rest of her body still curled up on the ground. I have seen many snakes as I’ve traveled these grounds, but this was the largest I had ever encountered. We knew without discussion, not to disturb her.

    Respect and intimidation chartered our change in course. We soon came upon the carcass of a Blue Wildebeest that was killed by Cape Wild Dogs. Our hopes sank again, and we returned to our vehicle talking about this monster Black Mamba that we had encountered. Again I was reminded that we could not go on hunting this Devil, that he will be hunting us soon. I was further fueled by this warning.

    We had no hope left. Only fear and confusion. Still, our passion to succeed prevailed. But how - by the laws of natural right, could this be possible?

    By midday we had visited all the game watering holes in that area – and we did not find one sign of our elephant. At the last watering hole, we rested for a while. This watering hole was the closest to Botswana, and there was an old cut-line running west towards Tsumkwe. These cut-lines were created as fire-roads to stop veld fires burning too deeply into our beloved Bushmanland. We all agreed to follow it back to Tsumkwe. There was nothing more that we could do. We had no hope left – nothing.

    Soon we were “lost” on this cut-line as it had not been cleared for many years. Thick bush hid the road and we were forced to aimlessly advance in a general direction towards Tsumkwe. The sun was burning and our bodies ached. We no longer could even smell the stench of the sweat on our bodies. Most of my men, including myself, were sleeping on the back of the truck, when the vehicle suddenly stopped. I was handed a set of binoculars and asked to look at an elephant standing about 300 meters from us. As I wearily adhered to this suggestion, my dry mouth suddenly felt even drier. There he was- The one-tusked bastard! He was well armed with badges of courage; little red circles and streaks of red painted onto his face like a true warrior. It felt as if he was looking right through my soul. Time stopped. I could feel his pain and his immense power. This was no Devil! He was no bastard. This was the King and the protector of his land. It was at this very moment, that the elephants’ plight was crystal clear in my mind – and in my heart. The humans are wrong. We are too many, and we steal land from the elephants like it was a child eating candy. We are the Devils!

    My men suddenly looked up, “Let’s take him!” They were standing next to me within seconds. Like a mechanical dragon, all the weapons were loaded with their metal parts rubbing and sliding over each other. The truck drove closer on my order, until we were 30 meters from him. He was standing in a small pool of water – spraying water over his wounds. It appeared, just for a second - as if he was glad to see us; that we had finally arrived to take his great pain away. Or perhaps it was an internal defense mechanism within me, attempting to justify what was to transpire within moments.

    Again, the well rehearsed ballet unfolded. Our steps and aim accurate, Lucinda’s kick into my shoulder was welcome and familiar now. The thunder of her exploding bullet rolled over Africa. His body shook as the bullet ripped deep into his flesh. Still, he proudly stood his ground. He did not want to die! Again, Lucinda thundered, and this time the old bull slowly leaned sideways and fell to the ground. Unbelievably, he rose again, as if he was greeting this world, one last time. Then his body folded, back to the earth from whence he came - lifeless.

    My men slowly surrounded the slain giant. Some of them started cutting off his feet, as a guarantee that he would not get up and walk away again.
    “We do not want to hunt him anymore sir,” they said as they loaded his feet onto the truck. A strange combination of sadness and conquest struggled within me.

    When we took his ivory, we saw that the first shot of the initial encounter had hit just millimeters below the brain, commonly referred to as a “Baffled Brain Shot". This was the reason he had gone down on the first day we met with this great King. We greeted him on his way to his ancestors – again, with respect - as the law of the land stipulates. But this time - we did not smile . . .

    We loaded his carcass and transported it to the village where the woman was killed. Namibia’s Government currently has no compensation system, so the people only receive the meat of the slain problem animal. But nobody in this village would eat from “The Devil.”

    Various rumors have circulated throughout the villages justifying the “Devil’s” actions. It has been said that this elephant was the spirit of an old witch doctor that had lived in Bushmanland. It is said that he was married to the woman that was killed by the elephant, and it was he that had returned from the spirit world in the form of an elephant to collect his beloved wife, and take her with him to the other world.

    Even now during these days of peace, I think of him. He was no ordinary elephant. He will remain in my eyes, and as a reminder in my soul - the King of all elephants. He did not want to die. He did not want to be found. And his fate was only met with the unfair opposition of the supposed technological advancements our modern world has provided for man’s utilization. Mother Earth and the laws of nature were walking with him every step of the way. Somewhere, he is at one with her.

    One day soon, we too would meet him in the other world – but not yet.
    And still I wonder . . . how will He greet us?

    - Forever I will bow to the elephant’s trumpet and his resounding cry for life.
    Replied 3 years ago, modified 3 years ago
  2. Wow! many thanks! :) another awesome story! :) Replied 3 years ago
  3. What a captivating story! Saddening, yet exciting at the same time. Once again you bring us deep and tense insights into what the human-animal conflict looks like on the ground, and the many dilemmas associated with it. Thank you so much for the extensive writing that went into it. Replied 3 years ago

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