19 – Poachers:
The rusted frame of the Park Land Cruiser creaked gingerly along a rough game viewing road. The road led loosely upstream north east towards the Lukamga Swamps,. In doing so it sometimes pinched between a hillock leaning down to dip its flank into the river, or at other times it respectfully swayed back inland to hedge around the damp open muddy spread of a dambo.
The six scouts of the team had never seen anything like it, this method of rapidly scouting for the sign of tracks.
It was a technique he had learned from the bushman trackers serving in the army on the Angola border. Sitting on the scratched and dented engine hood whith his feet on the winch drum at the front, Moses could pick up sign even with the vehicle traveling at speed.
If the poaches had come from the north, as most of them did, they would have crossed the river somewhere. If so they would also have crossed the road to get deeper into the park from where the sound of the shot had come. The other likely possibility was that they had walked a long distance from the tribal areas to the east. In both cases their endeavors would be multi day affairs, entailing a temporary night base. Moses new that any such base would be within reasonable distance of the river for its drinking water.
With only an hour of sunlight left, if they were to get a jump on things this was their best bet of finding a start point. It was a trade-off, a quiet foot patrol would give greater stealth to catch any poachers unaware, but it would be slow and take time. Considering that the Land Cruiser had a good muffler and could barely be heard further away than a few hundred meters when running at low revs, Moses felt that it was worth the risk.
He had indicated to the driver to stop a number of times to check out various footprints. A few of them were clearly not human made upon examination. Three sets were, but they were old, with the imprints only surviving the recent rains by being protected by tufts of lodge grass bending over the road strips.
“When was the last time you had a patrol here? Moses asked Musekela..
“About two weeks ago.” “Came the reply
“I can see your tracks in the sand.” Moses pointed at the set, and Musekela nodded.
It was when the vehicle was almost at the edge of the national Park, where it bordered with the Mushingashi private reserve that Moses quickly raised his arm motioning to the driver to stop.
Musekela and his team were astonished. They were good but not as good as this. Off to the side was a small flattened patch of grass, with a faint crumpled patch between the strips and another on the other side.
Moses pointed to the grassy indents. “Someone has jumped from one side of the road to its center and then to the other edge.”
He dropped off the hood and began to carefully scout around. Musekel opened the cab door.
“Wait! Stay on the vehicle,” he ordered. “I want to look for other sign before we all trample it out.”
Like a pointing dog Moses edged back and forth as he picked up the ‘scent’.
“There are four of them,” he said. “You can see from the way the grass has risen back up that they are about two days old. Probably made when they entered the park.”
“OK, everyone can get off the vehicle and we can begin tracking, he said.
By now it was only half an hour to sunset.
“I suggest you track these people until dark, then you can come back here and sleep next to the vehicle. Without your sleeping stuff you will move faster. You can head out before Dawn to pick up the tracks where you left off.”
Moses looked at Musekela questioningly.
“If it’s okay with you I am going to continue along the road here to see if I can pick up anything else. Then we can meet back here after nightfall.”
Moses didn’t explain his hunch that the tracks would head back towards the river where the poachers would potentially have a rudimentary base.
Musekela gave orders to his team. They shoulder their weapons and set off.
At a fast almost jogging pace Moses headed on up the road.
It was where the road cut through a reach of thicker bush line proliferating on the higher ground where it eased back to touch the river, that Moses found what he was seeking.
Four sets of fresh tracks crossed the road. Very fresh tracks with the grass they had trampled rising back up even as he watched. He was lucky, it was a grass stem flicking up which caught his attention as the dusk sucked away the last of the daylight.
Following the track in the dark would not be possible, but Moses knew that fresh tracks heading towards the river meant that a temporary base could be close. It was now a matter of very careful movement and patients which would let him check out his gut feeling.
Any temporary base should logically be between where these tracks cross the road and the river. Their direction should point generally to where a potential base’s location.
It was good fortune that the vehicle was three kilometers away, so the poachers would not yet realized that someone was on their heels.
From here on Moses would be using his ears rather than his eyes to hone in on his target. Being unaware of their discovery the poachers wouldn’t be as careful. With patience, at some stage Moses would hear voices. Maybe even laughter.
Like a cat stalking a mouse Moses carefully and silently began to move forward, stopping every few meters to listen.
A hyena yodel its call not too far away, and there was the yeimmer of a jackal. Probably the scent of meat hanging on drying strings in the trees had caught the attention of the carnivores.
Meter by slow stealthy meter Moses placed careful footstep in front of careful footstep. With slow smooth motion, avoiding any jerky movement he crept forward. There is nothing that draws attention as easily as a jerk of movement, even in the dark, or the snap of a twig beneath a misplaced step.
If there was a group of men close by Moses was counting on them being unaware that they were being stalked. The group wouldn’t be overly cautious. They would talk softly amongst themselves, maybe even give a laugh, a cough. Or maybe there would be the sound of breaking branches if they had made a fire in a shallow pit to hide its flames, to cook some food. If so there would be the shimmer of its flames reflected on the leaves of any tree overlooking the camp, and the smell of its smoke.
In the darkness it would be a patient’s game, and Moses had plenty of it.
It took two hours for him to gradually move towards the river through the half kilometer of long grass, bushes and around the large tree trunks of this section.
His senses were at their peak. He was now only a few hundred yards from the river. If the poachers had made a camp it had to be very close at this stage. Maybe he was wrong and ther was no camp after all. A twig cracked off to his left. He froze. An animal maybe? He stood barely breathing for some minutes before resuming his careful progress.
He began to be concerned that they had detected his approach and were waiting. If so he may not sense anything until he was right in amongst them. What would they do if they caught him?
The thought was swept aside by the faintest sound of another twig snapping. This time ahead of him.
All his senses now focus on one point ahead, faintly visible in the glimmer from a rising
monn, something had moved.
A flash stabbed through the darkness, and a thunderous roar ripped apart the quietness.
He jerked back in shock as the echoes of the sound rumbled back from the distant hillocks. It took a few seconds for him to realize what it was. Oly a large powder shot from a muzzleloader could produce that sort of flash and roar. It was the throaty bang of the homemade choice of a village poacher, too poor to purchase a modern rifle, or an AK-47 on the lawless black market in the Congo.
A flurry of sound and movement rustled about in front of him,.
His instinct was to flee. But he held himself, his training and experience had taught him that running away from trouble was a bad thing.
Watching it unfold, he realized that the commotion was heading along the upstream bank of the river. Voices were calling to each other. A flashlight was produced. In its light three men bent over something.
With the adrenaline subsiding in his limbs Moses raised his binoculars to watch. The men began to drag an animal. Each held one of its feet to lift it off the ground.
It was a hyena.
As carefully as his approach Moses cautiously withdrew, moving faster and faster the further he was away and less likely they would notice any sound he made.
Once back on the game viewing tracks he half ran half jogged back to the scout team vehicle.
Reaching it he could see that the scouts were already laying with their blankets preparing for sleep.
They roused when he softly called out to them.
“Yes, we heard the shot.” Musekela said.
“It was very strange.” Moses explained. “They were very quiet and if they had not shot a hyena I would have stumbled right into their camp.”
Moses was unfurling his own blankets and was sucking on the hole he had punched in a tin of condensed milk. “I think that there quietness was intended to get the hyena as close as possible before they shot.”
“But why shoot a hyena?” Moses asked rhetorically, “these are strange poachers.”
He unfurled his blankets.
“I have a lot of experience with catching people off guard from my time in the military.” he
“If it was me in charge of an operation to catch these poachers I would go in just before dawn when they are still drowsy and half asleep and least expecting any interference.”
Moses did not want to get Musekela’s back up, that his authority was being challenged.
“What do you think if our watch wakes us at 4AM?”
“It will take us about an hour to get there so if we leave here at 430 we should be there and in position by 530, and ready to rush them.”
Moses need not have been too concerned, Musekela was happy to follow his advice and set the watch to wake everyone at 4am
It was dark. Each of the men held a cup of hot sweet tea in his hands.
It was clear to Moses that Musekela was not going to give a pre-operation briefing. Why should he? He had never engaged in combat operations. For him policing was simply chasing after a few poachers whenever he stumbled upon them.
Even this predawn operation was foreign to him.
Moses was again worried about treading on Musekela’s toes.
“Do you mind if I give a briefing?” Moses asked him.
Looking into the tin cup he held as he swilled it Musekela said, “Go right ahead.”
Facing the group Moses began.
“We should try to catch this group when they are still sleepy.
There are four of them and seven of us. I will lead the way in single file because I know were they are.
We will try to get to within a hundred meters of their camp. At that stage we should spread out in line abreast and pair up.
When I give the signal we rush them as fast as we can. We should be on them in seconds.
If they detect us before then and start to run we must rush from wherever we are.
We will work on a buddy-buddy system. Each pair will have one man focusing on getting handcuffs on their target and the other man holding him and getting his hands behind his back.
The first pair should grab the closes man and so on.
You all know how to give a choke hold if things get rough.
I will be the only one alone to tackle a suspect.
Once you have hand-cuffs on push him down onto his back, and go and help anyone else who is still struggling. It is hard to stand up if your hands are tied behind your back. Cuffed suspects will not be a problem. If they do manage to get up push them down again.
There’s no need for violence unless they try to shoot at us. But from what I saw yesterday they are armed with muzzleloaders. I don’t think they will have time to load once we are running at them.
There were none.
An hour later, as the dawn started to lighten the skies, Moses left the grassy edge of the dambo with the scouts following single file. He entered the thicker obscuring bush were the poachers base was located.
They had walked silently and easily so far.
By keeping to the open grass Moses had taken the group to within a few hundred meters of their target. But with the dawn approaching, getting any closer out in the open grass, would risk discovery.
Ducking into the thicker bush, Moses slowed their progression, signaling to everyone to be careful where they steps so as not to snap a twig. He need not have worried, the bush craft of the scouts was superb,. They moved forward soundlessly.
It was not long before Moses pointed ahead and gave the thumbs down signal, that there was ‘enemy’ ahead. The scouts quietly spread out. With a motion of both hands forward Moses signaled for everybody to begin to charge,.
Suddenly the bush was filled with the thump of running men as they brushed through grass and crashed through brush.
It was a complete surprise. The first startled shout of warning came from a poacher when the scouts were almost upon them.
Two of the poachers threw off their blankets and were attempting to stand up as they were tackled. The rest did not even make it that far,.
It was over in less than a few minutes.
As the tension left the scouts and they hooted with shouts of success and congratulations, in the background Moses detected the occasional sound of a breaking branch.
Standing still amidst the flurry of activity Moses listened carefully. Someone was running away.
The sporadic sounds faded towards the river.
Around him the scouts began to exclaim in disbelief. Hanging from the trees were the skins of hyenas, jackals and the skin of a cerval cat. There was also the skin of a python. In another tree a wire loop had the paws of these animals strung on it. A separate loop even had two vultures heads, another the animal tails.
It was not the usual poacher’s camp.
The exuberance of the scouts slowly dissipated.
Moses paid no attention. He grabbed his machete and began to run in the direction of the disappearing sounds through the underbrush.
The path of the escape he was not difficult to find. There had obviously been a fifth poacher, ho unusually, had slept away from the others.
His escape led down to the river’s edge, where his tracks disappeared. They were boot prints with a unique crosshatch patent at their center.
As he stood looking down at the rivers water, from a long way away Moses heard a cackle of laughter.