The Legend of Dhlulamithi by Kevin Thomas In 1968, the year that TV Bulpin’s book The Ivory Trail was released, I was a 17-year old cadet game ranger stationed at Chipinda Pools in Rhodesia’s Gonarezhou, a vast area covered by much of the story. Bulpin’s story concerns ivory poacher Stephanus Rutgert Barnard’s life of adventure, and his ongoing quest to kill an elephant called Dhlulamithi (pronounced zhoo-la-meetee), meaning taller than the trees. In the book Bulpin romanticises the life of South African, Barnard, who from mid-1910 until late 1929 plied his nefarious trade across much of what would later be proclaimed the Gonarezhou National Park. Barnard was no respecter of International boundaries and led the law enforcement officials of Mozambique, South Africa and Rhodesia on a run around. He wasn’t past moving border beacons either, to suit himself during his poaching escapades. The book, an excellent read, piqued my interest and particularly so because I was ‘living’ the canvas across which much of the story took place. There was an old gardener at our Chipinda Pools field station, his name was Ndali and as a youngster he’d been a goatherd to Barnard – it was Ndali who first informed me that Dhlulamithi was a name probably given to a big elephant bull by whites. He had no recollection of Barnard having hunted a specific elephant called Dhlulamithi – in fact Allan Wright in his Valley of the Ironwoods points out that the word isn’t even Shangaan, but Zulu. Had Bulpin, using author’s license, perhaps created the name Dhlulamithi in order to make the book a better read? Let’s look briefly at Barnard’s story, because there is another intriguing question, it being whether Barnard would in fact have passed up the opportunity to shoot a big ivory carrying bull? During his first poaching foray and carrying a .303 rifle, Barnard entered Mozambique from his South African base at Crooks’ Corner, where the boundaries of the three countries converge. At Massangena on the Rio Save, the Portuguese issued him a hunting permit allowing him limited antelope species for the pot. He then moved north towards the Save and Lundi River junction inside Rhodesia. One night while sleeping inside a boma under the stars, he was attacked by about twenty Shangaan tribesmen and after a hand to hand joust with his attackers, fled into the night clad in his underpants. Undaunted by the prospect of a 240km walk back to Makhuleke at Crooks’ Corner, he set off and while following the Rhodesian/Mozambique border, eventually met a group of Shangaan mine labourers walking home. They gave him a goat haunch for sustenance, an old spear, and a canvas haversack – they also gave him his Shangaan nickname, Bvekenya – after his pronounced swagger due to the hot sand burning his bare feet. En-route he resorted to immersing himself in mud at game wallows, allowing the mud to dry on his skin. It provided an effective barrier against a multitude of insect bites, including the red hot needle like sting of the tsetse fly. Bvekenya also walked at night time as much as possible, to avoid the discomfort due to heat and insects. When he eventually reached the store at Makhuleke, he used his wagon as collateral and borrowed £45.00 from the store owner, Thompson, who also provided him with some old clothes. Returning to Johannesburg, he once more kitted himself out and purchased a 9.5 x 57mm Mannlicher-Schoenauer with 500 rounds. Then with pack donkeys he returned to his previous haunts and not being of a forgiving nature, over a protracted period, found, and thrashed the key players amongst those who’d originally robbed him. Bvekenya’s first elephant kill was a messy one; after wounding the animal, he tracked it for hours, until he was able to kill it with his sixth bullet, all of which had been badly placed. In time he learnt to place his shot correctly, allowing for an economic one-shot kill with minimal suffering to the elephant. The return by way of ivory weight off his first elephant was a tusk of 51lbs and a broken one of 49lbs. In those days ivory fetched 8s. 6d. a pound, and Barnard was well pleased with a yield of £42 10s. He transported his heavy ivory using pack donkeys, and if the tusks were too big, they were loaded onto a donkey drawn sledge made out of mopane poles. There was no wastage from elephant poached by Bvekenya, and once he’d taken his choice cuts, the local tribe’s people soon got rid of the carcass. His system of keeping them in much needed protein was one of the reasons they protected him from the authorities. He also avoided the need to return to Makhuleke with the ivory each time he killed an elephant, by simply caching the ivory underground at an easily recognisable place. His second elephant which had killed a few Shangaan, nearly killed Bvekenya but he managed to put it down and the ivory went 75lbs a side, giving him a return of Pound 63 15s. During his early wanderings Bvekenya met a female nganga (diviner/witch) who predicted he’d kill 300 elephant; he reached that total quite easily during his nearly 20 years of poaching. During the period that Bvekenya poached ivory in the Gonarezhou and its neighbouring areas his obsession grew with one particular elephant, the one which author TV Bulpin writes of as Dhlulamithi. Bvekenya first came across this particular elephant bull in an area where there was “a shallow, muddy little lake, about six hundred yards by five hundred yards in extent …” Bulpin describes the area as being about thirty miles south-west of the Great Save River, and thirty miles east of the Rhodesian (Zimbabwe) border. Geographically and given the location of the Save River and of the Zimbabwe border, this doesn’t make sense. My belief is that Bulpin meant the Tomboharta Pan area, a pristine wilderness lying between the confluence of the Save and Runde Rivers, it has always been known for attracting large numbers of elephant at certain times of the year. At this place, Bvekenya witnessed about 300 elephant and when he first saw the magnificent tusker, his trusted tracker Njalabane reputedly whispered, “It is Dhlulamithi, the one who is taller than the trees”. His tusks seemed so long that they touched the ground when he walked, and Bvekenya determined to possess those tusks. His first attempt, however, at killing Dhlulamithi shortly after first laying eyes on him, ended in failure, in his haste and after disturbing the elephant, he shot a younger bull running between himself and the huge tusker. Thereafter, Bvekenya tirelessly sought the elusive Dhlulamithi until in November 1929, when he again attempted to kill him, he ended up looking along his rifle barrel at the elephant, before apparently lowering his rifle and saying, “Let him live”. Or did he? Most Gonarezhou Shangaan, who had known Barnard, even if only by repute, were united in their belief that Bvekenya would never have passed up the opportunity to shoot a big tusker – he was a hardened commercial ivory poacher. In 1932, a mere three years after Bvekenya had retired to his farm Vlakplaas in the Western Transvaal, two enormous tusks reputedly having belonged to the legendary Dhlulamithi, were sent to R Balmer, an ivory trader in Lourenco Marques (Maputo), who exported them to London for auction by S Figgis & Co. Ltd. The tusks weighed 73kg (160lbs) and 73 and a half kg (162lbs). It was never stated who supplied them; could it have been Bvekenya himself? In August 1967, thirty-eight years later, a South African Defence Force general, Victor Verster, shot a bull elephant on the north bank of the Runde River, in the shadow of the Chilojo Cliffs. The left tusk went 62kg (137lbs) and the right tusk 48kg (107lbs). In those days the Runde River north bank was a Controlled Hunting Area reserved for VIPs helping sanctions bound Rhodesia, they were allowed “free” hunting. The elephant in question was already a ‘known’ and his movements were being monitored, albeit loosely. Warden Tim Braybrooke spotted him inside the Controlled Hunting Area, and notified Ranger Richard Harland, who was guiding General Verster – it didn’t take long before this Dhlulamithi was dead. Initially upon the news getting out, there was a bit of a furore, but at no time had the field staff been given a restriction on ivory weight for VIP hunters, or that this exceptional elephant was to be left unharmed. In a book he edited, Neem uit die verlede U.de V. Pienaar claimed that this was Bvekenya’s Dhlulamithi, however if we look at Verster’s bull having been shot nearly 40 years after Bvekenya last saw his bull, it is highly unlikely. Bull elephant carrying that sort of ivory are normally in the last five or so years of their lives (expectancy +-60years). Not until the late 1970s would another exceptional ivory carrying elephant become known in the Gonarezhou, and this time round, the imposing bull was named Kabakwe by Warden Rob Francis and his Shangaan game scouts. Kabakwe favoured dwelling on the slopes of the Nyamatongwe massif, a huge plateau which dominates the Gonarezhou, on the surrounding slopes there are dense musimbiti (ironwood) thickets, much favoured as places of refuge by the old tuskers. Kabakwe spent his latter years on Nyamatongwe and in the vicinity of nearby Benji Spring. Because of the importance of this majestic bull, Rhodesia’s National Parks department darted him, stamped his ivory, and fitted him with a radio collar. Warden and pilot Mike Fynn used to get airborne on a regular basis from the Mabalauta Field HQ, and in the department Piper Super Cub, monitor Kabakwe’s moves. In time he came to know the old elephant as if a personal friend. Shortly after the birth of Zimbabwe, an American wildlife artist Michael Schreck sought permission to paint Kabakwe in order to offer the finished painting as a fundraiser, for a worthy conservation cause, through Safari Club International. Mike Fynn met the artist and PH Jannie Meyer at Benji Spring airstrip, almost in the shadow of Nyamatongwe, the plan being that Fynn would locate Kabakwe from the air and then return to Benji Spring airstrip and with Meyer, walk the artist in to photograph and sketch Kabakwe. Mike recalls how he hadn’t even been in the air for long before he knew with certainty that Kabakwe had fallen to a poacher’s bullet, and it was with a deep sense of foreboding that he once more landed at Benji Spring. He had however located another bull with tusks of about 45kg (100lb) aside, and they walked Schreck in to photograph and sketch it. Although no one was ever prosecuted or convicted for having killed Kabakwe, careful investigation work by conservation officials identified the alleged poacher, a professional person, in cahoots with an allegedly corrupt Zimbabwean Parks officer at Chipinda Pools. The tusks were later advertised for sale in a South African national newspaper, before disappearing off the radar. Kevin is also a published author, with his second book Tracking the Memory due out soon, this following on the success of his first book Shadows in an African Twilight. As an accomplished outdoor writer too, his articles appear regularly in South Africa's Magnum magazine and have appeared in other international hunting publications. He enjoys all forms of hunting and inland water fishing. Kevin Thomas Safaris and their qualified, experienced PHs are committed to ensuring excellence of service with their goal being to achieve your goal.