Fool on the Hill

Written By: The Lowdown - Jun• 29•13

FOTHMy Jack Russell Milo looked up at me with his “Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into” face on as I scanned the scene to reappraise it. We were both sitting on top of a dead elephant; a leathery grey kopje of cold flesh starting to stink and bloat and effervesce a pink froth from numerous bullet holes. She lay in a trampled clearing of kasense grass in the middle of my titled plot, a few hundred metres from the entrance gate to the National Park. The elephant’s calf lay nearby, similarly deceased and riddled with bullet holes. One of the Park Rangers stood a few feet away with his arms folded and a loud “Tsk!” hanging like a cartoon text  bubble above his head, which he was moving from side to side in cold resignation as he looked at me. Surrounding us were about three hundred members of the local community, men and women and a few kids and pretty much all of them carrying an axe, panga or knife. I gripped the handle of an open 20 litre jerry-can of diesel with one hand and a scrappy piece of A4 paper with the other. Nobody looked very chuffed to see me and the atmosphere was far from cordial.


It seemed that in our small community, and in addition to the ever present Roger the Hunchback, there was always at least one “Rocal Mad Man” as our staff described those rare individuals who existed, because of genetics or personal trauma, as human flotsam in our midst. Somehow surviving on scraps from the village and gatherings from the bush, there would always be one unfortunate soul who would be seen wandering, often far from habitation in the game management area, barely clad in rags and usually starkly raving. Break down near any rural African settlement and pretty soon the local lunatic will find you. In our area the State did not care for them, the community did not take them in and to my shame, neither did I. How they survived as long as they did was always a mystery to me in a place that abounds with dangerous creatures at every turn. But survive they did and often for years, despite bathing in waters infested with crocodiles, wandering at night the same tracks as lion, leopard and hyaena and sleeping under bushes protected only by the oblivion of their madness. And when, after what seemed an implausibly long time in such a perilous environment, the odds caught up with them and they joined the food chain, as if by magic and within a week, a new “Rocal Mad Man” would appear with his own unique outfit, accessories and foibles as if The Village Idiot Gazette had a widely scrutinised Situations Vacant column.


For two seasons unusually, a woman who everyone called Jane, had held this resident position on the fringes of the community. Disturbingly I had heard that in addition to being neglected by all of us, she was actively abused by some at Friday night beer drinking sessions and encouraged for the amusement of the crowd, to submit to the attentions of Roger the Hunchback and learn how he earned his first name. Thus when Jane wandered one dawn into the midst of a breeding herd of elephant with a new born calf and met her end in a red-misted, trampling and goring and trumpeting of maternal fury that woke me in my bed a kilometre away, I was surprised at how vehemently the community complained to ZAWA for compensation for the life of their dearly beloved sister, plucked untimely from their nurturing embrace. ZAWA capitulated eagerly and by the time I returned at midday from an airport run with guests, they had found on my property the nearest group of elephants. They identifying as the culprit a female with calf, sporting a “bloodied” (actually bark stained) tusk, and shot her several times and poorly with an AK47, the unsuitable but most widely used elephant killing tool in Africa. They ran out of bullets before she was properly dead and left her maimed, returning to the office for a spot of lunch and more ammunition. The calf suffered terrible anxiety and raged and screamed and mourned at her side as she took her time to bleed out, but before too many hours the scouts returned and … hey-ho … put an end to that as well. News like the gunshots, spread at the speed of sound and I arrived on the scene as the first carnival crowds of meat seekers were drawn unerringly as the vultures circling above, to the blood spattered, rusty ferrous smelling circle in the grassland.


Milo and I had taken our stand on the carcass and I had promised to upend the diesel and spoil the meat if any butchery took place on my property. As an Honorary Wildlife Police Officer I knew that while morally questionable ZAWA’s actions were legal. However, the letter from the Warden I held in my hand had arrived that morning and clearly stated that in an attempt to curb the rampant bushmeat trade in the villages, any person found in possession of game meat without an accompanying permit would be guilty of an offence and liable to 5 years imprisonment.


“How?” I asked the Ranger “Are you going to enforce this if you allow all these people to walk out of here with baskets full of elephant meat on the very day the warning has been issued?” I further objected to the armed trespass on private property of the amassed throng and the negative impact on the tourist trade of a line of gore spattered, offal carrying folks traipsing down the road in full view of the cavalcade of safari vehicles heading towards the gate for their afternoon drive. The crowd’s mood was growing uglier by the minute, but surprisingly the Ranger agreed to my suggestion that a dozen of the mourners remain to chop up the elephants and the rest of the crowd disburse to an agreed point in the village to which ZAWA would transport the meat for distribution. As soon as this was announced all but the chosen few hightailed it back to the suburbs and a Land Cruiser pick-up was dispatched from ZAWA HQ whilst the dismantling of the three tonne corpse and her hundred and fifty kilo offspring began. I returned to camp to make sure all was in order for the afternoon activities and two hours later cut back off the road and through the tall grass to the bloodied arena. I walked the last 20 metres and broke through into the clearing. A lone hooded vulture walked around the trampled grass in a disconsolate and unsuccessful search for any scrap of meat, but all that remained was a stain and an area of soil the colour and consistency of black pudding. In only two loads with the Cruiser all sign of the largest land mammal on Earth had disappeared. I was mightily impressed. The vulture was not.


I garnered further ire from the community on several other occasions. Once when at the request of ZAWA a very lucky shot with my 30.06 freed an elephant from the leadwood log she was dragging by a cable snare. That earned me a broken rear window and some fender dents from sticks and flying bricks hurled by the meat-hungry mob assembled. When a hippo trashed our frame and liner swimming pool at camp it had to be destroyed and the crowd who had materialised with the sunrise reduced it to hamburger in under an hour. Another time, after some hours with a front end loader, we managed to get an elephant calf out of a clay pit near a village and disappoint several hundred hungry people, who baying like hounds, failed to cut it down in its flight, exhausted though it was. A bushbuck I watched wander naively into a village one day was converted by a group of women and children from incautious to ingredients in under seven minutes


I guess that having seen the effect that bushmeat has on hungry (and even relatively affluent and well fed) people, how it seems to overtake and possess them, I wonder if in the ten years or so since these incidents took place, whether enough education has been wrought, enough non-consumptive tourism dollars have improved the standard of living in the communities around the game parks, enough conservation rhetoric absorbed, and enough bellies filled through alternative eco-friendly farming practices to diminish the consuming lust for nyama.  Because if not then the devolution of natural resource control held by some to be on the new ZAWA Board’s heartfelt agenda may be a decade or two premature.


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