Elephant Encounters of a Different Kind
by Kevin Thomas

In 1968 when I was a 17-year old cadet game ranger in Rhodesia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management, I witnessed for the first time how closely knit an elephant family unit are. At the time, and mere months out of school, I was still under tutelage when it came to elephant hunting, and was in the company of senior ranger John Osborne from Chipinda Pools in the Gonarezhou, which had yet to be gazetted a National Park. He’d instructed me to shoot an elephant cow whilst we were inside the tsetse fly corridor in the Guluene area, the exercise was part of my training. So with him monitoring my approach and with the wind in my favour, I made my way with a game scout to the edge of the herd. It was an ideal situation and from about 25m I selected the largest cow, and quickly side-brained her with my issue 375 H&H. Pleased with her immediate collapse, I expected to see the remainder of the herd flee. It never happened – trumpeting and bellowing they closed in on the matriarch’s lifeless form and tried to lift her onto her feet. There were about seven elephant, with a young bull some distance away in the background.

On game scout Hlupo’s advice we moved away quickly and quietly. In order to observe my performance, John Osborne had ensconced himself on top of a large tree-covered termite mound, about 80m from the noisy cowherd, where I eventually climbed up and joined him. We then witnessed about 30 minutes of elephant confusion which soon led to frustrated rage – bunched as they were around the dead matriarch – it would have been easy to kill the entire group, which at the time was normal policy inside the tsetse corridor.

As we sat watching, the angry cowherd attempted to lift the bulky corpse and when that never worked one or two of them began to viciously stab her with their short sharp tusks. Another used her forelegs to try and clamber up onto the dead cow. There was a huge amount of angst and the young bull also joined the group. Eventually a few of their number began to systematically flatten the scrub mopane within a 15m radius of the deceased matriarch. It was as if they were trying to flush the cause of the mayhem, and given the truculence of the Gonarezhou elephant of that era, had the wind shifted in their favour, there is every possibility we would have been attacked. All of what I observed on that day taught me an important lesson – never become blasé when hunting elephant cows.

Interestingly there were no big cows in the herd and they all looked remarkably ‘runty’. With us on the termite mound was an old Shangaan called Ndali; he was in his late sixties and worked for the Osborne’s as a gardener. When still a 14-year old umfaan Ndali had been a goatherd for the notorious ivory poacher John ‘Bvekenya’ Barnard, written up and romanticised in T.V. Bulpin’s book The Ivory Trail (Books of Africa 1967). Although Ndali readily acknowledged Bvekenya’s elephant hunting prowess, he wasn’t very complimentary about him as a person. However, the wily old Shangaan knew his elephant, and whilst taking a pull of homemade snuff, ventured that the Gonarezhou’s slight elephant were indeed more aggressive than larger elephant, maybe the equivalent of the Napoleon Syndrome in humans i.e. because I’m short I need be more aggressive. With the wind remaining in our favour the disgruntled herd eventually moved north, lingering occasionally and grumbling.

Elephant are sage animals and have a unique matriarchal social order comprising herds, bond groups, and clans of related females. Upon reaching sexual maturity (12 to 13 + years) bulls separate from the cowherds, and form their own groups or periodically wander alone. Whilst still in adolescence bulls often associate with their peers, although bachelor groups normally include a wide age range. Bulls too, develop unique relationships whilst they grow up, much of it based on a pecking order system, whereby they learn each others relative strengths and standing within their community, it is all about dominance and through this, a type of ‘brotherhood’ is formed.
Taking a quantum leap from my ‘Gona’ experiences of the late sixties to 1993, I witnessed another rather unique side to elephant behaviour. As has been well documented elephant seem to be aware of death, often if a herd comes across the skeletal remains of one of their number, they will quietly linger at the site, reverentially smelling the bones with outstretched trunks, as if in recognition of and mourning for the deceased. Picking up and carrying away the odd sun bleached bone, is also an accepted and documented part of their behaviour.

Getting back to the ‘93 season, I had a client wanting a lion so on the off chance that we’d be able to intercept one of those big black-maned cats out of Hwange National Park, I booked the hunt in Tsholotsho, a CAMPFIRE (Communal Area Management Program for Indigenous Resources) area adjacent to the national parks south western boundary. Tsholotsho is primarily an elephant concession – a good one – the big bulls exit Hwange National Park by merely stepping over the 4’ 6” cable stranded boundary fence, at times bending the steel fence poles, they then head inland to plunder tribal crops. Inside the communal lands (tribal area), they are categorised Problem Animals and over the past decades some exceptional ivory has been taken in this concession.

We were lucky, because on the day we entered the area, a bull elephant had just been shot by a European client, it was his last day in camp and his PH kindly allowed us the use of the hind legs for lion bait. Prior to our arrival, I’d been worried that we might have been forced into buying tribal donkeys to use as bait, so the elephant was a bonus.

Lion that wander out of the park into the Tsholotsho communal lands are normally nomadic vagrants, big cats, many of them buffalo killing specialists, who follow in the wake of the herd and prey on trailing, aged, arthritic, and injured buffalo. Occasionally they take a break from predating on buffalo, and exit the park to hunt on easier prey, by way of tribal livestock. It had been my hope that we’d be able to draw one of these lion onto bait, and so we began to carefully select bait sites to hang the elephant meat. The furthest site was some way north east along the boundary fence and en route there we were disappointed to observe a huge herd of buffalo feeding just inside the park – it was not what we wanted – lion bait on the hoof.

Finding a track and dry riverbed crossing, we moved south away from the boundary and sought a suitable bait tree, on which we hung one elephant upper hind leg with the skin still on. We hung it above hyena reach but not too high, and then covered it with leafy branches to keep the vultures off, then departed for camp.
Next morning was our third in camp, and towards midday we arrived at the furthest bait, to find that it had already been visited, although not by Panthera leo – and judging by the spoor a mature, large, bull elephant had stopped by. He’d not only visited, he’d removed all of the camouflage meant to keep the vultures off the bait, then broken the heavy duty wire securing the hind leg, before carrying the leg about 20m from the tree, and dumping it. His spoor told us he’d spent some time lingering near the haunch belonging to his deceased brethren before departing. We then back tracked him to the park boundary, and found he’d merely exited, located the bait, done what he felt he had to do, and then returned to the safety of the park.

Having re-hung the leg and replaced the camouflage, we returned to camp, arriving early evening. For the next three days, we experienced the same scenario – all the camouflage ripped off and scattered, and the by then rank smelling elephant hindquarter pulled down and carried away before being dumped. Perhaps the old bull had stood guard over the remains of his fallen comrade, because we never found any sign of hyena or jackal having visited the putrid hindquarter. Maybe he only returned to the sanctuary of the park once day had dawned; only he knows.

My tentative blind site had been about 50m from the bait and each time the intruder removed it he’d discard it about 30m in front of where I’d intended building the ground blind. Although old elephant bulls are normally gentlemen, there is a strong possibility that had he found us sat in a blind, he may have taken exception to our presence, I’m grateful we never had to find out.