It was early in December of 1996 that my wife Susan and I had the task of closing down our game camp at the confluence of the Zambezi and Chongwe Rivers in the scenically magnificent Lower Zambezi Valley.
The rains were about to commence and would make the only access road in and out of the Zambezi Valley impassable but fortunately for us the rains were late, as usual. Christiaan, my youngest son, who normally manages our camp, had been offered employment at a French ski resort. Since the rains were imminent, Chris had left to report to the ski offices only two weeks before.
At 24 years of age, who could not be but excited at the prospect of spending five months on the ski slopes, particularly having just spent nine months in the wild and remote Zambian bush, mostly on his own.
The night before our departure from the valley, we phoned Chris in London to say goodbye. His last words to us were, “Dad, please tell Big Boy that I say hello.”
At Chongwe camp we have a resident herd of bull elephants led by a magnificent bull who carried a set of ivory tusks that weighed more than fifty kilograms each. He was called, simply, Big Boy. His “askari” consisted of nine young bulls that were extremely protective of him. It was fascinating to watch Big Boy lean his large head against the trunk of a one meter diameter winter thorn tree and shake it like it were a twig until all the apple pods would fall down around him. All of the young bulls would wait patiently at a distance until Big Boy ate his fill. Then they would move in for the leftovers. Big Boy’s manners were impeccable; he would only eat his share and always leave more than enough for his young askari who would move in only after he walked away.
Our permanent compound in the camp was built under several of the big acacia trees that shaded our tents. When the wind blew, it always showered pods. The camp is built along the Chongwe River and the sheer bank provided a safe wall for us while the rear perimeter is fenced by a short reed and bamboo divider. Any animal could walk through the fence, but none ever has, and elephants especially, seem to understand it is an exclusive area and they respect your privacy. The camp workers would do a daily clean up of the pods in the area and place them in small heaps outside the fenced area.
Big Boy soon learned that these were easy pickings and he was the first elephant on the scene for the morning snack. Chris used to walk up to within a couple of feet of Big Boy and have a chat. They were only separated by the frail, short fence. The conversation was almost always the same. “Hello Big Boy, how are you today and where have you been? Are you hungry today?” and other small talk. Big Boy would listen, cock his head to one side, and reply with deep guttural sounds that elephants make during their conversations.
The day before our departure from camp, Big Boy stayed close to our tent the entire morning. Susan commented on his behaviour and said he probably missed Chris. I was busy with breaking down the camp, but I did notice that Big Boy was restless. Later in the afternoon, he came up to our little fence again. I thought that he was hungry for pods, so I had some of the staff rake up a bunch and dump them over the fence. But Big Boy did not touch them. I could see that he was troubled about something, so I walked over to him to have chat. He looked at me with those big, long eyelashes and his look said, “I understand.” Why is it that elephant have this natural affinity towards humans when it is the humans themselves and only the humans who can and will hurt elephant? I looked around the area and noticed that there were only seven of the young bulls that followed Big Boy, not the usual nine. It worried me that poachers could have moved into the area, which normally happens when all camps close down for the rains and poachers are left with the valley to themselves.
Big Boy was obviously unhappy, something had unnerved him, and he had a bewildered look in his eyes, which was possibly an appeal for help. More than ever I was convince d that he probably lost two young bulls of his askari to ivory poachers. I stared up into his eyes and tried to ask him to stay close to camp, that while we were away he would be protected. I firmly believe there are times when you can communicate your thoughts to animals. He tilted his massive head once again and gave me that strange, special look from his eyes that said, “I understand.”
Later that same night we had a going away dinner at the nearby Royal Zambezi Lodge with our charming hosts and game guides, Mike and Brett. Great company and good food and wine made for a very late night. My wife and I enjoyed the bumpy ride through the bush back to our camp. Shortly after we arrived, the first big tropical rain swept through camp. It had been a long, dry season and you could hear the flora and fauna gurgling in great delight at so much needed moisture. The crescendo of thundering tropical rain, the bell frogs and cricket choir, the cries of hippo, hyena and lion plus consistent dripping inside the tent kept us awake most of the night. We got up early and after a few hours of preparation we were ready to leave camp for the long drive back to South Africa.
While I was attending to last minute details, I heard a gunshot in the distance, it echoed through the valley, shattering the silence. It was December 16th, 8:20 am. A total of twelve gunshots were fired over the next three minutes. My blood chilled; the prospect of poachers running after a wounded animal continually firing G3 heavy ammunition into the animal meant it could only be an elephant. At the time, we had twenty elephant feeding around our camp. It was most upsetting to see the naked terror and sheer panic as they scattered in all directions. I saw one huge, familiar backside disappear over the hill towards the scout camp. “Thank God,” I thought, “Big Boy is safe.”
My portable radio gave a prolonged buzz. Mike the guide had heard the shots upriver and he asked how close they were to our camp. I told him that I thought they came from about one mile up the Chongwe River. He said that we should meet at the scout camp and provide transportation to the wildlife scouts who did not have a vehicle. Within minutes of each other, Mike, Brett, and I arrived. Unfortunately, there were only two scouts available.
Knowing that we had to move fast, Mike grabbed three AK-47s and handed one to me and one to Brett, we then mustered the two available scouts, loaded ourselves into the Land Rover and headed out.
We drove up the Chongwe Valley, crossed the river to the east side, parked, and decided to walk up the Muchinga Hills in the direction of the pristine Chongwe Waterfalls. It had stopped raining, but the ground was still very soft and the going underfoot was heavy. After beating through the bush for a mile uphill, we found elephant tracks. The spoor proved that there were several elephant and they were on the run. We backtracked the spoor several hundred feet until the tracks divided in two. The two scouts headed in one direction and Mike, Brett, and I headed in the other. After tracking for another mile or so, we saw signs of chaotic elephant movement. At this stage, I was full of dread. There are times when you sense that there is something wrong. There was no smell, no sound, no movement, just stillness in the air that disturbed us all. We squatted down on our haunches and peered through the bush for any sign of poachers or elephants.
While looking around to the right, at an angle slightly behind us, we spotted a dead elephant about a hundred and fifty feet away. It was covered with freshly cut branches full of greenery. It was a miracle that we saw it because it was very well camouflaged with only a small section of ivory visible to us. We were exceedingly lucky to have found it. We waited for the two game scouts to return and then resolved to hide in the bush to try and surprise the poachers if they decided to come back. Two steamy hours later, nothing had happened and we were beginning to melt in the heat. We decided to send Brett and one of the scouts for more help and equipment so that we could at least salvage the tusks. MikeI and the remaining scout would continue hiding in case the sounds of our friends departure would lure in the poachers. Unfortunately we had no such luck.
An hour later, Brett returned with his father, a few laborers and a collection of machetes and axes to remove the tusks. Brett’s father had also brought a welcomed bottle of iced orange juice. As hungry and thirsty as we all were, it was decided best to remove the tusks, so that if the poachers did return, their efforts would be lost.
We walked up to the elephant and began removing the branches that the poachers had used to hide the carcass. As the top tusk was revealed I felt a cold chill, we quickly removed more braches and my heart sank, it was Big Boy. His trunk had already been hacked off in the process of trying to remove the tusks. I must admit that I became quite incapable of speech; I turned to say something to Brett, but not a word came out. Mike on the other hand, had the opposite experience, he began cursing and raving at finding this most loved elephant killed and mutilated by poachers. Our shock was compounded when a barrage of gunfire exploded from at least four different locations on the other side of the clearing from us.
We jumped behind the huge carcass of Big Boy and crowded against the wall of his belly. We could hear the rounds of the AK-47s thudding into the bush around us. We could also hear and feel the rounds that smacked into the back of Big Boy. A couple of the poachers began to work themselves around the side of Big Boy for a better shot at us. We were thankful for Big Boy’s massive legs, which protected us from either side. Brett’s father had hit the deck behind a small bush about ten feet behind us. The bush had been trimmed down in a very short time to grass height, his back looked like it was covered by green confetti with all of the twigs and leaves that had been shot down. The poachers were shooting to kill and we were out gunned, out maneuvered and out surprised, so we decided to get out of there. Mike got on the radio and called the main scout camp to send reinforcements down river by boat.
Eventually we managed enough covering fire to allow us to make a break for it and run down the hill. Mike, Brett and I were the last to leave and be probably set a new Olympic record for the hundred-yard dash. When you see a small tree ten feet in front of you disintegrate from bullets fired behind you, it is amazing how fast you can run.
We made it back to the lodge unscathed. There were tears in more than a few eyes, including the staff, when everyone heard that Big Boy was dead. I felt the need to be alone and went for a walk up the north bank of the Zambezi. I didn’t know that Susan followed me. She came up behind me and put her arms around me and said how sorry she was. At that stage, I was too choked up to reply and we just stood there on the banks of the river, overlooking the Zambezi with our arms wrapped tightly around each other, saying nothing. There is something extremely sad about an animal whose trust in humans has been betrayed by humans themselves. Especially when the betrayal comes in the form of death. And death because of greed alone. I felt then the heavy grief in me being slowly replaced by anger. And anger too would give way to unsuppressed hatred and a growing determination to avenge Big Boy.
Within the hour, a boat arrived with the reinforcements from Mulilo Nsolo. We now had nine fully armed scouts and plenty of additional ammunition. The unit leader suggested, and we agreed, that we should go the long way around and approach the poachers from the back of the hills instead of the front as we had on the first attempt. We started off. It was a long, tough hike uphill with soft, wet ground and thick bush all in the heat of the afternoon. Fortunately, there was lots of rain about and good cloud cover so we were able to keep going. After about an hour and a half of slogging away, we were close to the kill site and the scouts began a “leopard crawl.” Mike and I continued walking. The scouts were impressed that two ageing men would remain uprights so near the enemy. But the unknown truth was that Mike and I were so fatigued that if we were to get down and crawl on our stomachs, we would not be able to stand again without assistance!
Walking was hard enough and it was only my desire to do something that spurred me on. We knew that we were close and we began walking at a faster pace. Suddenly all hell broke loose. We had walked into an ambush for the second time that day! Mike and I hit the ground as the frightening crescendo of AK fire opened up on us again. The nine scouts took cover about twenty meters in back of us and began to open fire. Mike and I were caught in a crossfire and the only cover was in front of us in the direction of the poachers.
We both began “leopard crawling,” making rapid advance on the enemy approximately one hundred meters away. Again at least two or three hundred rounds of ammunition were fired. The poachers, sensing that they were outnumbered, ran for the rugged mountains on our flank. The poachers were routed and in every sense, had taken to the hills. We considered and were willing to follow up but the unit leader quite rightly suggested that the poachers tactics reflected some sort of military experience and they might stage another ambush. We had been extremely lucky on two occasions already and didn’t want to push our luck, so we decided to turn back and finish the removal of the tusks.
The sun was setting rapidly and more rain was approaching. The thought of having to walk out in the dark with the poachers still in the area, made everybody work with great haste. For the first time, I plucked up the courage to walk around and face Big Boy. I stared into his eyes and tried to apologize for what my fellow man had done. “I am so sorry Big Boy”, I thought, “I just don’t understand.”
I was terribly shocked at the look of sheer terror that was still locked into his eyes. You could tell that his huge back legs had collapsed under him with one of the final death shots and his bowels emptied at the same time, leaving his rump lying in a great heap of his own excrement. I saw then that it was a miserable and humiliating death that he had suffered. Only yesterday this most magnificent and dignified of beasts was in the prime of his life. He was the “Lord of the Valley”, the Great One, the King of all he surveyed. Now, here he lay, dead, minus tusks and trunk. “WHY?” I kept asking myself. “Somebody please tell me why. Dear God, you tell me why!”
It was time for me to leave, as I began walking back towards the Chongwe River, the sun began to fade and it began to rain again. Appreciated the rain for at last I could cry unashamedly as rain pelted my face and washed away the tears.
My farewell words to my departed friend were: “Big Boy, Chris says goodbye.”
Words by Boet Liebenburg