Ingudula the Tuskless One
by Kevin Thomas
October in Zimbabwe is often called suicide month, and for good reason – energy sapping heat. It most certainly isn’t the best month to go hunting, but circumstances often dictate otherwise. My client, Chris Soyza, from Westley Richards couldn’t get away at any other time during 2009, and was keen to shoot a non-export tuskless elephant cow in a short duration 5-day deal. Tuskless elephant cows afford an exciting hunt, as by nature they’re normally truculent, and it takes little for them to display aggression toward any interlopers. It is also a form of management hunt because the tuskless gene is not wanted in elephant herds by most southern African government wildlife agencies.
Not long before Chris’s arrival I’d been guiding another client on a 7-day buffalo hunt in the same area – Gokwe North, with our rustic camp, best described as a ‘fly-camp’, near the Ume and Kausige River confluence. The mid-September heat on that hunt too, had whacked us but we lucked out with a buffalo on the fourth day and a fine Chobe Bushbuck the following day.
Although a Zimbabwean citizen, I currently reside in South Africa so any hunting I do in Zimbabwe means a tiring 3-day truck trip north from our Eastern Cape home, my impatient persona not helped any by the cesspit that is the Beit Bridge border post between Zimbabwe and South Africa. The South African side functions and is clean, but not free of lines of patiently waiting humanity – almost all of whom are Zimbabweans returning home from quick shopping forays into South Africa. Even amongst their numbers on the South African side lurk the Zimbabwean ‘touts’, surreptitiously and somewhat arrogantly trolling for clients who want help with the paperwork needed to enter Zimbabwe.
These human vultures and the corrupt Zimbabwean customs officials, who they are in cahoots with, may one day find themselves where they should be – in a court of law. Who knows? Perhaps in the future Africa will finally commence going forwards in a mature way, instead of forever retrogressing.
Chris, who flew into South Africa and then travelled by vehicle with me, never brought a rifle out with him, although as a collector and registered dealer, he owns in the region of sixty – Britain has an arms embargo against Zimbabwe and due to a technicality, this includes sporting guns. Anyone from the UK bringing a gun into Zimbabwe could well face the wrath of the law upon their return home. Not worth the risk when you own expensive guns. Instead, he chose to use my .375 H&H and for the elephant cow I opted for him to use South African PMP Super 286grn factory loaded monolithic solids. For my part, whilst guiding Chris, I would be carrying my .458 Lott and prior to departure had handloaded a bunch of 475grn PMP Super monolithic solids, using 83grns of S321 (a South African produced fast burning ball propellant) and CCI 250 Large Rifle Magnum primers. My .458 Lott brass is Hornady factory and was unused.
Our passage through the Beit Bridge border was not exactly hassle free or cheap, and aside from all of the other government ‘tariffs’ an over zealous customs officer also ‘fined’ me R500.00 for driving a South African registered vehicle (my own), because I have Zimbabwe residency stamped in my passport. Interestingly he never gave me a receipt of any sort, and instructed that once in Zimbabwe Chris would have to drive my vehicle! To this end, a new TIP (Temporary Import Permit) for the vehicle had to be filled out in Chris’s name. Roll on Africa. Zimbabwe’s majority may be suffering from severe poverty, but there is none of that amongst the Beit Bridge border officials, just fat cats with satin shiny skin. Despite the instruction, I drove out of the customs yard and stayed behind the steering wheel for all of the driving done during the safari duration.
Driving north from the bridge we soon hit the first of the three ‘Toll Gates’ we’d pass through en route the safari area, a plastic chair in the middle of the road, shaded by an umbrella and manned by a smiling Zimbabwe Revenue Services official and a few AK-47 toting cops. All were courteous and the fee to proceed was US$1.00 or SAR8.00. Having paid, we proceeded to West Nicholson and stopped at Dudley Rogers Tshabezi Safaris office. Dudley has had the hunting rights to the Gokwe North and Gokwe South tribal hunting areas, part of the celebrated Zimbabwe CAMPFIRE (Communal Area Management Program for Indigenous Resources) for close on twenty years. Like my safari of a few weeks prior, I’d booked Chris’s non-export tuskless elephant cow through Tshabezi Safaris.
Not wasting time, we loaded the rations for our safari plus huge blocks of ice in a large cold box then drove on to Bulawayo arriving mid-afternoon. After overnighting at one of Bulawayo’s many B&Bs I collected a contract tracker known to me and we pressed on to Gokwe North. Our trip was slightly marred by a puncture just south of Shangani but we soon had the wheel changed and went on our way. From Bulawayo to Gokwe is a 500km drive and at this time of year about 99% of it through burnt countryside – the haze created by heat and smoke hangs heavy. Sadly much of the scorched countryside between Bulawayo and Kwekwe was once productive commercial ranchland – now no more – unless selling firewood at the roadside is now classified as commercial ranching.
From the administrative growth point that is Gokwe, as we drove further north, we began to drop down into the escarpment hills that spread out towards Lake Kariba, the area has a high human population and tribal livestock wander freely across the pot holed road. Despite the general poverty in rural Zimbabwe, the tribal folk of Gokwe North live on fertile soil and grow cotton, sugar cane, tomatoes and other vegetables, much of their produce being sold alongside the road. Three tribal groupings meet in this region – Ndebele, Shona and further north, the Batonka – with their village hamlets varied in layout, design and neatness. Ndebele huts were a dead give away with their general cleanliness and pastel coloured murals painted on the walls.
Ultimately and with the haze hanging heavy in the windless late afternoon air, we left the villages behind and finally east of the Chirisa Safari Area’s Masikiri Escarpment, drove into the rugged ridges of the Madzivazvido region of the Gokwe North council hunting area. Tshabezi Safaris main camp has no mod-cons and can best be described as rustic yet comfortable. After being met by the jovial camp crew and unloading, we still had enough light for Chris to test fire my .375 H&H and check the zero. His shooting at paper from 50m was spot on, so we retired to the dining hut for a few sundowners and to talk elephant hunting.
Tshabezi Safaris still had one unsold trophy elephant bull on quota for the 2009 season, and after discussions with Dudley on our way through West Nicholson, it was decided that if we saw a bull carrying ivory in the region of 45lbs per side, Chris would upgrade his safari and shoot it. These were the issues that occupied our thoughts and conversation on that first evening in camp.
Chris is Malaysian and is our middle son Keith’s immediate superior at Westley Richards. Keith has been in the UK for 17 years now and is a riflemaker employed as workshop foreman at Westley Richards. He’d once told me in conversation that Chris Soyza is a chef of note, and particularly so when it comes to far Eastern cuisine. Both myself and the Tshabezi camp cook Chuma, were about to find out just how well Chris can cook. Earlier in the day a buffalo cow had been shot for a council function, and Chuma knowing my liking for buffalo tail, buffalo tongue and the inside tenderloin, had ensured they were removed and placed in the camp freezer for use during our safari.
Chris wasted no time in visiting the kitchen and despite the limited ingredients he had at his disposal, he soon had a superb buffalo tenderloin curry on the go. Whilst preparing it, he was also instructing the camp cook on various aspects of simply prepared but tasty Malaysian cooking. This was to be the pattern for the rest of the safari and it was a welcome change for me to eat such a variety of superbly flavoured food, produced with so few ingredients and probably the first safari that I’ve come away from having gained weight! On a previous safari to Burkina Faso Chris had been delegated camp cook and such were his culinary skills, he’d paid his observer rates by producing 5-star food!
Prior to our arrival, I’d already decided that I’d prefer to hunt out of Kausige Camp on the Ume River floodplain, little more than a ‘fly-camp’ on stilts, it is situated 20km away from the main Tshabezi camp but is out of sight of tribal villages, cattle bells, braying donkeys, barking dogs, beating drums and all else that goes into the make-up of a rural Zimbabwean tribal community. Having briefed the camp staff of my intent, we got an early night and at first light the next morning ate a quick breakfast then departed for Kausige with the trackers and council game scout Adam, leaving the rest of the camp staff to follow with the camping gear and rations.
Initially we drove north along the black top in the direction of Siabuwa, just to check on elephant movement but after about 15km and finding none, we turned back and shortly before the camp turn-off turned east along a sandy track. It was here that Chris became a little perturbed, he hadn’t expected to see so much pedestrian traffic, and there were groups of tribal people all over, mainly women collecting thatching grass. Much of the area too, had been burnt although since my previous visit swaths of green grass were breaking out along the vlei (drainage) lines. As we passed each group of grass cutters, the trackers bade me stop and then instructed them to vacate the area until after our hunt. There was no animosity during these exchanges and it was all accepted in good faith with a fair amount of banter and laughter.
Eventually we stopped seeing people and began to see regular sign of elephant cow herds crossing the sandy tracks – none of the spoor however was fresh, and had all been made during the previous day and early evening. Moving on with the constant stop, check spoor, then drive on modus operandi that is elephant hunting, by late morning we found ourselves near Kausige camp, so pulled in to wait out the fierce and unrelenting midday October heat. Head tracker Getas also instructed the resident Tshabezi anti-poaching team of game scouts to move out after their lunch and check for elephant sign, both bull and cow.
During our siesta the trackers took their homemade fishing poles and walking upstream to some pools in the Ume River bed, caught a lot of small tilapia and some catfish. They gave us some of the smaller tilapia which Chris later converted to tasty fireside snacks.
At 15:45hrs we drove south along the old pre-independent Zimbabwe veterinary fence, now just a series of rusty iron poles. The entire area had been burnt and there was no sign of life of any kind, just a blackened scorched ground surface, and in the leafless mopane trees that stood forlorn, the monotonous call of a yellow-billed hornbill could occasionally be heard – kotokotokototokotokotoko. None of what we were seeing was very promising. At one tiny spring we spooked a sub-adult warthog wallowing and he took off like a rocket.
By last light we were back in camp and sitting round the fire eating deep-fried tilapia snacks and washing them down with ice-cold beer. The returning game scouts also reported no sign of elephant within the hunting block on the eastern side of the Ume River. Dinner that night was buffalo tongue superbly cooked by Chris using what he describes as one of his many “quick” camp recipes. The meal would have done any restaurant proud and we retired to our chalets replete, to yet another hot and humid night. Towards midnight a leopard started to vocalize on the opposite side of the river to camp, his grunting and sawing going on until shortly before first light, the only other sound was the ongoing alarm bark of a Chobe bushbuck and in the far distance a grumbling hyena, no doubt famished.
Saturday morning of 17 October saw us drive out of camp at first light; much of the surrounding bush still lay in darkness. Driving slowly, we used the vehicle headlamps to illuminate elephant spoor and much of what we found had been made during the previous night. With full daylight, we slowly moved west away from the Ume River valley and up into the higher escarpment where the miombo was rapidly coming into new leaf. The indications were that the elephant movement was towards this abundant food source and as we progressed so too, did we find more stripped bark, chewed branches, and scattered leaves, slowly wilting in the gathering daylight heat.
Suddenly the trackers tapped the roof and after alighting from the vehicle we found the spoor of two bulls but their tracks were well defined, with no wear at the heel or elsewhere on the pad, and neither was of very big circumference. Following for a short way we found dung, the content indicated healthy digestive tracts and good teeth, all of it was well masticated and there was nothing to indicate old-age in either of the bulls. We left it and moved on.
Throughout the morning we found spoor from the previous night – but it was from early evening, now at least 10 hours old. One cow herd had a bull with them, his heel imprints in the soft sand showed a lot of wear and the underneath of the pads were fairly rugged, and it looked promising but it too was not viable to follow due to the time lapse.
Pushing on we began to traverse vlei lines and springs, places with names like: Bikirenyemba, Saveremakwande & Nyambgwe. Scenically they were attractive places with verdant grass and abundant crystal clear water, but they lacked one ingredient – wildlife or any sign of it. They were silent places, devoid of any indication that game enjoyed the abundance of food and water that was available. Currently, poaching in Zimbabwe is an extremely serious issue, much of it poverty driven and if something drastic isn’t done to curb it, the safari industry in some areas faces a severe crisis with regards its future.
Private safari operators working in the CAMPFIRE areas are doing all that they can to try and get on top of the problem by way of employing anti-poaching teams etc however that is not enough. The poachers are dwelling in the very communities that border the hunting areas, the same communities that are meant to benefit from them, but unless some form of energetic education and motivation to stop the poachers carrying out their nefarious activities can be implemented before it is too late, I fear the dedicated anti-poaching teams are fighting a losing battle. The community itself needs to become involved in policing its own sustainable wildlife resources, but that is not happening. I mentioned to one tracker that I doubted if his 5-year old kid would ever grow up to see live game in the area and he concurred – sad indeed. A form of fatalistic lethargy seems to have taken hold in much of rural Zimbabwe.
At all of the springs there was old sign of elephant having passed by, watered, lingered briefly, and then moved on. A buffalo herd too, had visited the one spring during the early hours of the morning, but of other game there was no sign. As we departed the last spring, we caught a fleeting glimpse of a kudu bull accelerating away through the brush, he was magnificent and my call went a definite 59 to 60”. Elephant spoor indicated far larger groups than the normal 8 to 11 in a cow herd, and the tracks all led into the jesse (pronounced jess).
Botanically these jesse thickets of varying acreage are made up of about four different Combretum (bush willow) species with a mix of other trees thrown in. During the rainy season and due to leaf cover, visibility is down to a metre or so. In October visibility is fairly good but the ground is carpeted with dry leaf matter which makes walking noisy, no matter how quiet you try to be – a bit like walking on a bed of corn flakes. Elephant rest quietly during the midday heat and getting close to them across the dry leaf cover is challenging, so I prefer to hunt them in the dry jesse when they too, are on the move and feeding. The noise created by their feeding and moving drowns out the hunters approach.
In the late afternoon we decided to walk through a jesse thicket towards a spring where hopefully we’d either intercept a herd on the move, or find them at the spring, and then if there was a shooter in the herd, follow them away from the spring before carrying out any gunning exercise. After cross-graining the jesse on foot, we duly reached the spring without finding any fresh sign of elephant, but when taking a different route back to the road where we’d left the vehicle, we intercepted fresh tracks that crossed the road and re-entered another patch of jesse. Resident tracker Getas informed me that he felt the herd was heading to another spring that we’d visited earlier in the day.
With daylight fading, we quickly drove part of the way and then leaving the rig walked to the spring, but there was no sign of any elephant. As soon as darkness started to fall we made our way back to the truck only to observe Vusa Lunga the young Batonka ‘vehicle minder’ sitting atop the trackers’ seat and gesticulating excitedly towards the darkening woodland. There not 80m from my truck was a bull elephant – he stood motionless and broadside on – listening to us. He then turned and with raised head tried to make us out, his tusks were only about 20lb a side so we left him, and when I started the truck he disappeared into the gloom. Beyond him the cow herd no doubt lurked, but they were silent and in no rush to reach the spring.
Dinner that night was what I’d call chicken a la Malaysian and once more expertly prepared by Chris, there was also a superb side dish of stir-fried vegetables and not being shy I pigged out! After some sundry chit-chat by the campfire and a few pegs of good Zimbabwean Mainstay cane spirits and Mazoe Orange, we both retired to another humid night devoid of any breeze, until a slight stirring cooled things down in the early hours of the next morning, Sunday 18 October. Breakfast was French toast washed down with steaming mugs of tea.
Leaving camp as daylight unfolded across the Ume River valley, we headed towards the main Tshabezi Camp and not far into the miombo covered ridges began to find elephant spoor. During the previous evening, Chris and I had decided that if we found no indications of a good bull in the vicinity, we’d stay with the original 5-day non-export tuskless elephant cow deal. Chris was after all due back in South Africa mid-November to hunt an elephant bull in the Limpopo Province where some good ivory has been taken during the course of the 2009 season.
Closer to the main Tshabezi camp than Kausige fly-camp we suddenly came across spoor of a herd spread out line abreast and moving south, they had crossed the road, with a few cows and calves bunching tightly when crossing. Scouting around we soon found dung, more by smell than sight, the acrid odour strong on the breeze. It was warm to the touch and still mucous covered. Chewed branches were still damp with traces of saliva on them. It looked and felt good – a viable follow up was in the offing.
Tusklessness in elephant is a naturally occurring phenomenon although in some countries in both Africa and Asia, the percentage of tuskless elephant has been linked to ivory poaching pressure. Although I’ve never seen or heard of a naturally tuskless bull, the odd one is at times incorrectly thought to be tuskless, until it is then found to have broken its tusks at the lip. Tuskless cows on the other hand are fairly common and I believe normally make up from 2% to 20% of a breeding herd. In South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park, I think the incidence of tuskless females is about 98%.
As a young game ranger back in 1968 I served some of my cadetship in Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park where the elephant in those days were notoriously aggressive, particularly so tuskless cows. The first few elephant I ever shot whilst I was still under tutelage were all tuskless cows. Richard Harland slew a lot of them in the Tsetse corridors during his service there from 1966 into ’68 and relates many of his experiences in his excellent book, Ndlovu (Ivory Imprints ISBN 0-7974-3011-3). In their various languages, Zimbabwe’s tribal Africans have names for tuskless cow elephant, the Batonka call them chikubule or magumpu, the Shona call them nzuma or mbumule whilst to the Ndebele they are called ingudula. Although I’ve tried, I’ve never been able to get a literal translation of any of the meanings of the African names for tuskless cow elephant.
Readying ourselves for a possible lengthy tracking exercise, we ensured my daypack was full of water bottles. Keeping oneself hydrated in the October heat is vitally important. I gave Chucks my tracker one of my ash bags and kept the other in my left hand shirt pocket. Wind direction is absolutely critical when hunting dangerous game and my preferred method of monitoring wind is by using an ash bag – made from fine weave muslin, these bags have a drawstring and were used by certain South African tobacco manufacturers to market pipe tobacco. Filled with wood ash from the campfire they make the ideal wind monitor, a slight shake releasing a cloud of fine ash. Even though most competent trackers carry their own, I also always carry my own and use it constantly.
Vusa Lunga the fine young Batonka wannabe tracker would remain with the vehicle to mind it. In this day and age this has to be done or one could return to find the vehicle broken into, or at worst, stolen. Chris and I then checked that our magazines were fully charged, and each of us ran a shell into the chamber, we also checked safety catches. Although my .375 H&H has detachable scope mounts and a ‘ghost ring’ aperture sight, Chris preferred to shoot with the scope but wisely turned it down to 1.5 power. On our belts we each carried a cartridge holder with additional rounds. Our follow-up then commenced with Getas and Chucks on the spoor, then myself followed by Chris, and to his rear, Adam, the council game scout carrying his old issue .303. The wind was favourable and blowing fairly strongly into our faces.
As we went deeper into the miombo woodland sign of elephant feeding became more and more apparent, it was also very clear to us that we were following a fairly large group of cows. Their trail took us steadily south but then surprisingly after about 2km, and thinking we still had some way to go, we heard ahead of us the unmistakable sound of a branch breaking. The noise had come from some distance to our front, but it soon had us fully alert as we quickened our pace on the fresh tracks. Ahead of us we couldn’t see anything and the greenery made for an effective screen, but nevertheless our eyes and ears were straining to see or hear our quarry.
Whilst focused on what was to our front, it came as a complete surprise to hear elephant off to our immediate left, and not far away, a different herd altogether to the ones we were following. Both trackers stood grinning and shaking their heads, before I instructed them to cautiously move in the direction of the newly heard elephant sounds still emanating from our left. As we got closer we began to smell the strong elephant odour on the wind which was still blowing in our favour, although it had slackened somewhat. Suddenly an elephant trumpeted loudly and we froze, then relaxed, tracker Getas whispered that elephant always trumpet when they know one of their number is going to die!
Continuing towards the feeding noises of the elephant, it didn’t take long before we had some of their number visual, large grey beasts moving steadily forwards in a mass of musculature and power. Due to the greenery all we could see was the top of their heads and backs, nothing else. Although feeding, there was no lingering, it was all steady progression and we initially had to lengthen our stride to stay with them. However, once we’d got closer to the lead elements, we stopped, and quickly glassing them I observed a few tuskless cows, there was also a huge bull, huge in size, but with thin ivory lacking both length and circumference at the lip. His presence was probably due to a cow in oestrus.
My first impression was of the abnormally high number of elephant in the group, there were in the region of about thirty. Was it merely a temporary gathering of different family units due to the new leaf cover, or was it stress related due to poaching or other external pressures? I had no ready answer and was pondering this thought, when a tuskless cow’s head and upper shoulders suddenly appeared in an opening in the greenery. She was broadside on and feeding and a quick look through the brush around her immediate environs showed no signs of a dependent calf.
Grabbing the shooting sticks from Getas I moved forward a few paces and opening them, quietly beckoned Chris to get ready. He wasted no time and in seconds was on the sticks and looking at the sight picture through the scope.
Standing alongside him I indicated he take a side-brain shot at the well presented cow, then quickly brought my .458 Lott into my shoulder and waited for Chris’s shot. It wasn’t long in coming and at the loud report of the .375 H&H the cow immediately exhibited the tell tale behaviour of a well-placed brain shot. She threw her trunk and head up high, whilst at the same time her hind legs collapsed and as if pole-axed, she disappeared from view. There was no need for any follow-up shot from me.
In the immediate aftermath of the shot, the herd spun as one and tightly bunched, fled south, but whilst we were congratulating Chris on a well-placed shot, game scout Adam suddenly started to retreat with Chuck not far behind him, their eyes wide. It was then that we heard a rapidly approaching noise and then saw the cause – a wall of elephant were headed back towards us at high speed. They weren’t charging us but had turned through 180º and were merely trying to flee, not having been able to place where Chris’s single shot had come from. This kind of situation can become dangerous if the hunters lose control and the “dickey bird syndrome” takes over.
Human beings are incapable of outrunning an elephant, and it would be folly to try and outrun a herd. If panic takes hold and the hunters all run blindly in the direction the elephant are fleeing, individuals will get injured or worse. If one tracker loses his composure and takes off, and unless the PH can keep a firm grip, it rapidly becomes infectious and the whole hunting crew run away.
Chris and I had discussed this very scenario whilst sitting round the campfire, and because he is an experienced hunter I’d requested that if we faced a situation where we’d have to shout down any individual elephant to divert it, or a group, if the shout down didn’t help, I wanted him to use my .375 H&H to put a shot over the elephant(s) head(s) to turn them/it. If that failed, I’d be forced to take the last drastic action and have to kill an elephant with my .458 Lott.
So in the few seconds we had left to let the rapidly advancing phalanx of elephant know where we were, at the top of my voice and in the vernacular I admonished the tracker and game scout for starting to run, and then Chris and I both shouted at the elephant herd whilst he also put a shot over their heads. It worked and at about 25m they spun to their right and in a cloud of dust disappeared.
Chris had taken his shot from a little in excess of 30m and I was quite happy for him to shoot from that distance – the .375 H&H like the .416 Rigby and the .404 Jeffery is a flat-shooting calibre. We were not culling elephant cows and only wanted to kill a single tuskless individual, Chris is an extremely competent shot and with a herd that size coupled to the brush they were in, the distance gave us plenty of manoeuvrability had things gone pear-shaped. Elephant have a highly developed social structure and even the removal of a single cow is stressful, and disruptive to the remainder, thus I like to try and do it as clinically as possible.
When we got to the fallen cow, she was lying on her right side and there was still slight movement of her head and it wasn’t just a dying elephant’s brain tremor, so Chris gave her a coup de grâce although I was also keen to try and recover the first bullet if it hadn’t exited the head. Strangely enough once the recovery crew had arrived and we were cutting up the elephant, we couldn’t find a bullet entry hole. Later at the skinning shed however, the skinner found the bullet and it showed slight erosion, no doubt from contact with a vertebra because the bullet had entered near the ear hole, then seemingly passed through the rear edge of the temporal lobe before connecting with the spinal chord, and carrying on had finally come to rest against the left side of the skull.
Once the recovery team had removed the cut up elephant cow, we drove back to Kausige fly-camp and en-route observed that after the shooting of the elephant, no fewer that eight cow herds had exited the block that we’d been in, and fled north.