Chapter 17: Elephants.
As he ducked under it, Moses held back the long outstretched spikey finger of a ‘wait-a-bit’ thorn bushes branch. He looked back at me until he saw that I had noticed it, and in turn had reached forward and held it, preventing it from flicking it thorns in my face as he moved on.
I had been back for a day from the training sessions to the scout teams in the south of the park. I had just told Moses that I would be leaving him again, this time for a short trip south to Johannesburg.
“Who are you meeting in Joburg?” Moses queried.
“The head of the trust providing the funding for our advanced scout training.” I answered.
Here Moses had led us off the tracks of the road into the sporadic shrubbery which forms the transition between the open grassy terrain of the dambo and the full canopy of the woodland surrounding its arc.
Like a dog coursing for a scent, he was undulating the general direction of our progress in and out of, and between the vegetative features of the bushland. He was using some unfathomable algorithm, to me that is, which obviously he felt would offer the best possibility of detecting any tracks of someone attempting to hide theirs.
“Why do you need to speak to this guy?
“Governments never budget enough for conservation,” I said. “However there are those, like Jean the head of our trust, who care, and try to make up the short fall. The trust tries to privately fill the gaps. To raise the money we have to take out the old tin-can, and shake it under the noses of rich folks. Thus part of my duties can be described as schmoozing.
I hate it, and I am not good at it. But this time Jean wants me to help give a dog and pony show to our biggest donor.
The thing that bugs me about this particular guy, is that he is a banker running a corporation which funds major developments all over the world. In my opinion, the donation is just a way of buying absolution from their guilt in sinning against nature.
At the end of the day conservation is all about habitat.”
We were walking single file through the bush, because here the woodland was more compact due to patches of deeper and more nutritious soils. Sometimes the vegetation gradient between the thicker and sparser growth could be as stark as that between the woodland and the grassland further out.
As we walked, I was doing most of the talking.
“When our banker Ulrich funds housing development, the building of a corporate fulfillment center, or more highways, all that stuff replaces habitat. All the life that existed at those sites for thousands of years will be gone. Gone for decades, or millennia. Instead will be lifeless concrete and asphalt.
I was speaking to Moses as he walked in front of me. He strode forward constantly scanning the ground and brush for sign, looking for those little anomalies which indicated something, or some ones passing that way.
I continued. “Almost everyone believes the bullshit that humans are not part of nature. That we can piss on it, cut it up, and down, dice it and cover it and grind it away.
Sadly, billions of good intelligent folks, not just the stupid and simple, believe that all of this world is given only to humans.
I bet this German banker guy, Ulrich, is one of them.
The reality is that we are the most murderous, destructive creature to have ever lived on planet earth.”
Moses checked and stooped to peer carefully at a cluster of dead leaves laying scattered across a small sandy patch. I waited until we started walking again.
“If you come to think of it,” I surmised, “It is precisely our murderousness towards everything, and especially each other, that has made us so intelligently destructive. Our ancestors have always killed each other in their squabbles. As you and I know from Angola, staying alive when another bunch is out to kill you, and killing them instead, takes skillful cooperative intelligence. That has been as true in Angola a decade ago, as it was back a hundred thousand year in the Olduvai Gorge.
As we both know, we are more likely to kill the others if you work as a group, which takes co-ordination and cooperation. Remember how we had to be better than them to be successful. We had to be smart to plan, adjust and communicate when things changed or went wrong. We both know that as leaders we had to be especially smart.
I would bet, back in the good old cave days that after a scrap, they didn’t hand out cheap medals. No way, back then they made it worthwhile going out and beating-up on the neighbors. You got a share of the spoils. Of course it was the smartest ones, the leaders, who got more of the spoils. I would also bet that the spoils would include slaves. I also bet that most of the slave babies inherited the genes of the smart winners. They certainly didn’t inherit genes from the dead losers.
If you repeat that scenario enough times over thousands of years, you get a primate with four characteristics, it can communicate, coordinate, it is clever, and it is murderous. Basically, old buddy,you get you and I.”
Moses didn’t stop his scanning the ground around us, but I heard his chuckle.
“But even you and I are not really smart enough. We are not as smart as Ulrich. I bet you and I don’t get as ‘lucky’ as he does.”
If Moses had looked back, he would’ve seen me made two quotation marks with my fingers in the air to emphasize my meaning of ‘lucky.
“I have met him only once. He is one of those brutally efficient and smart Germans. They say he is cut-throat in business. Which, I imagine, is how he satisfies his murderous instincts.
Although I have only met him once, it was enough, even though I did not deal with him directly, I didn’t like him.”
“So why don’t you call your boss and tell him that you have important stuff to sort out, and you can’t make it.”
I sighed, (if you can do so when walking fast and sweating), “Anyway, Jean, is a good guy, but he is a bit of an ass kisser when it comes to pandering to the likes of Ulrich. He has to play the game to get the money and to give the donors what they are paying for, which is a bribe to make them look good and green in their marketing efforts. So he needs the help. Getting the money is important.”
“I need to be there to keep Jean focused on what we need here. Because I bet Ulrich will start speaking conservation babble. He will start asking questions with buzzwords like sustainability, Carbon footprint, carbon credits, clean water… blah, blah blah…
He won’t understand about snares, and poisons, and catching bad sangomas who are frightening scouts from doing their duty. Or making charges stick, so that poachers don’t get to be part of a game of legal monopoly where they don’t even have to pay 200 dollars to get out of jail.
But enough of Ulrich.
Moses and I were walking back along the dirt track that led in from the main road. We had executed an extended circle north up along the western edge of the Shalamakanga dambo. From there, we had headed down south west close to the main road, and now we were moving back southeast towards the Lodge.
As we walked, we continued to talk. Or at least I was, because even though he was listening, Moses eyes never seemed to leave the ground, always searching for sign and tracks.
That morning precious had taken me aside when I came in to scrounge an early morning cup of coffee. She had heard a stranger talking to someone last night she said. It was near the staff quarters.
She could not make out who the staff member was.
“Kings maybe?” I asked.
When she went out to check, they had gone.
Hence Moses and I executing our big circle seeking any tracks.
While I had been away for the previous week, Moses had been doing solo searches up and down the river. His seeking had also extended along many of the viewing tracks for a few kilometers out from the Lodge. He had picked up strange tracks a number of times, including those made by the old man’s boots.
But, each time they disappeared where a bicycle had been stashed. The bicycle tracks in turn had always led to the main road. There, after a while they had also disappeared. If this was due to being obliterated by traffic, or if it was deliberate, Moses could not tell.
But there was no obvious indication of a pattern, just that there was inexplicable movement of strangers in the area.
Our search route had a lot to do with what Dimas had reported in the wake of the elephant poaching incident.
From tits carcass, Dimas’s team had tracked the poachers towards the northeast, until they met the river. From there they couldn’t follow, because there, after the rains the river had risen. It was too deep and dangerous to wade across.
Dimas had lost the tracks at that point.
According to him, there were three poachers. Probably the shooter, and two aids to carry the tusks.
Later, another patrol on the north bank of the river had again picked up the tracks, between ALans camp and the lodge.
How the poachers crossed the river was unclear.
From there the tracks headed northwest until they intersected the main road. Thus Dimas thought that they met a vehicle, which suggested they came from up north, either the copper belt, or cross the border in Katanga.
All of that information, and the bits and pieces from the tracks that Moses had gleaned, indicated that the area between the Lodge and hunting camp important. Either that, or it was convenient, to both those doing the poaching and the old man. However it was still not clear if those two were connected.
By now it was getting late.
The terrain had gently risen to the high point in the Woodland which marks the midway between the two adjacent arms of the dambos. These run back towards, and join the river, one below and one above the Lodge.
The vegetation had become thicker, with clusters of broadleaf shrubs tucking around the shady areas of the big trees like sycophants. One of the biggest copses we passed had a lucky bean tree at its center. I called to Moses to slow for a moment as I searched for a few of its lucky beans. “Maybe we need some of these I had called after his slowly retreating figure.
The strange candelabra shape of a big euphorbia was beyond it, and I moved fast to catch up before he got to it.
But with still 30 yards separating us, suddenly there was a crackling, snapping sound and out of nowhere too young bull elephants came crashing through the small gap between two of the vegetative island clumps to one side of the big Euphorbia.
I had faced elephants before, and I knew the worst thing to do was to follow instincts and run away. I froze and watched what Moses would do. I didn’t want to shout and make a noise, in case I exacerbated the young elephants aggression.
A human could not out run and elephant. There was nowhere to run and hide. Because the elephant sense of smell is so acute, they would be able to scent us out if we hhid in the tangle of a thicket. There was no time to climb a tree, and even if we could the pair would be upon us before we had even scrambled a few meters up any trunk. The dexterity of an elephants trunk would pick us out of the branches like a monkey picks a berry from a Marula tree.
I could hear the elevated painting of my own breath, and I watched as Moses stood very still facing the trumpeting charge of the leading elephant.
Behind it the second young bull veered off to one side where it hung back slightly. Obviously it was not as aggressive.
The first bull pulled up short only 20 meters in front of Moses.
It was unsure of the strange behavior of these primates who sent they hated.
Its now blustery body language broadcast its indecisiveness, fight or flee.
With redirected aggression, it trumpeted with raise trunk , flapped its ears, and kicked up dust with its feet. But it did not advance.
Facing it squarely without moving, Moses spread his arms wide, and then gave a little upward flick of his spread hands. He showed the elephant where he was, and that he was not going away.
The movement wasn’t too startling, the elephant reacted with a jerk of its head, nor was it too aggressive.
Most importantly, it definitely was not submissive. It was enough to rattle the confidence of the young bull, who had never encountered such strange behavior.
In its haste to get away, with fear now pushing it, the elephant almost bumped into its partner as it wheeled around. Together they crashed away into the undergrowth.
The stomp and swishing sound of their feet rushing through the gras, augmented by the occasional snapping crack as they barged over shrubs and trampled through dense undergrowth, gradually faded.
It’d been a while since I had felt that heady adrenaline rush, and its weak- kneed aftermath effect.
Moses and I looked at each other.
I nodded at him, “I’m glad to see that your nerve is as steady as always!”
As he shrugged and smiled back at me, from a long way away, and yet distinctly audible over the fading sounds of the elephants departure, came the cackle of an old man’s laughter.
We looked at each other, both with raised eyebrows.
“There shouldn’t be anybody out here.” I said, “And even if there was, what is so funny that it would make one laugh in such a way?”
I think we know where to start looking for tracks. Let’s see if we can find something before dark.”
“If we don’t, I think that this is a good place for you to start looking tomorrow, when I head south to appeal to Ulrich’s generous side,”