20 – The Book of Gideon (elephants)

20 – Elephants

Ducking under it, Moses held the long thorny branch of a ‘wait-a-bit’ thorn bush until I caught up to him. He moved on as I caught it to stop it flicking in my face.

Back from my training sessions to the scout teams in the south of the park, I had told Moses that I would be leaving again, this time for a short trip south to South Africa.

“Who are you meeting down there?” he queried.

“The head of the trust providing the funding for our advanced scout training.”

Moses led us off the tracks of the road into the sporadic shrubbery which forms the transition between the grassy terrain and the full canopy of the woodland surrounding the broad arc of a big open dambo.

With some unfathomable algorithm he wove our progress in and out of the vegetative features of  the bushland. Obviously he felt it would give the best chance of detecting any tracks of someone hiding theirs.

“Why do you need to speak to this guy? He asked.

“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 goes a long way to privately fill the gaps. We need to take out the old ‘tin-can’, and like beggars shake it under the noses of rich folks. Thus part of my duties sometimes involve 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 because here the woodland was abundantly dense due to patches of deeper and more nutritious soils.

As we walked, I was doing the talking.

“When our banker Ulrich funds housing developments, or a corporate fulfillment center, or more highways, ll that stuff replaces habitat. All the life that existed at those sites for thousands of years will be gone, replaced by lifeless concrete.

As he strode forward constantly scanning the ground and brush for sign, searching for those little anomalies  which indicated something, I continued.

“Ulrich is one of those who believes that humans are above nature, that we can piss on it, cut it up, dice it and cover it and grind it away. Sadly, billions of good intelligent folks, not just the stupid, believe that all of this world is given only to humans by a God.

In reality we are the most murderous, destructive creature to have ever lived on planet earth.”

Moses stooped to peer carefully at a cluster of dead leaves laying scattered across a small sandy patch. I waited until we started walking again.

“It is precisely our murderousness, especially with each other, that has made us so intelligently destructive. Our ancestors always killed each other in their squabbles. As you and I know from Angola, staying alive when you go out to attack and kill another bunch takes skillful cooperative intelligence, especially if they are able to kill you instead. That has been as true in Angola a decade ago, as it was back a hundred thousand years in the Olduvai Gorge. 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. As leaders we needed 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, instead you got a share of the spoils. Back in those ancient days the only valuable thing they possessed were there woman. The spoils of ancient wars were the women. Of course it was the smartest ones, the leaders, who got the greater share. I bet that most of the babies from these women 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 hundreds of thousands of years, you get a primate with four characteristics, clever, coordinated, communicative, and murderous. Basically, old buddy,you get you and I.”

Moses didn’t stop his scanning the ground, but I heard his chuckle.

“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.”

If Moses had looked back, he would’ve seen me making two quotation marks with my fingers in the air to  emphasize the meaning of ‘lucky.

“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. At the time he was not yet the head of the donor corporation. Now he is, so I will soon find out more.”

Moses briefly looked back. “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 loudly even though I was walking fast and sweating. “Anyway, Jean our local coordinator, 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. I bet Ulrich will start speaking conservation babble. He will ask 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 ngangas 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 musical chairs.

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 north eastern dambo. From there, we 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.

Earlier 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 it was.

“Kings maybe?” I asked.

“Maybe.”

 When she went out to check, they had gone.

Hence Moses and I executing our big circle seeking tracks.

“Do you think the old crocodile guy is playing games with us?” I asked Moses.

“Of course he is.” Moses kept on scanning the ground as he replied to me. “He is playing mental guerrilla tactics with us for some reason. Now you see him now you don’t. He is trying to mess with our minds.”

“His tactics seem to be successful with the Lodge staff,” I said. “Morse tells me that the finds of the poachers camp has somehow leaked back to the staff at the Lodge. Everybody knows that it was witchcraft Muti that was being gathered.”

“Some big Muti was being prepared. But why, and for whom is it intended?”

“It has some of them on edge.”

After the successful raid on the poachers and while I was away 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 many kilometers out from the Lodge. He had picked up strange tracks a number of times, including those made by the cross-hatch pattern boots.

But, each time they disappeared where a bicycle had been stashed. The bicycle tracks in turn had led to the main road. There, after a while they had disappeared. If this was due to being obliterated by traffic, or if it was deliberate, Moses could not tell.

There was no obvious indication of a pattern, only an inexplicable movement of strangers in the area. If the tracks were from one, two or even three groups of poachers was unclear. Maybe even the group that had shot the elephant.

From the preponderance of tracks Moses said they suggested that the area between the Lodge and up riverhunting camp was important. Either that, or it was convenient, to both those doing the poaching and the croc man. But 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 was even 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 beans. “Maybe we need some of these I said after his slowly retreating figure.

The strange candelabra shape of a big euphorbia was beyond it, and I walked fast to catch up. . But with thirty meters separating us, suddenly there was a crackling, snapping sound. Out of nowhere too young bull elephants crashed through a gap between two vegetative islands.

I had faced elephants before. I knew the worst thing to do was to follow instincts and run away. I froze and watched Moses who was between the elephants and myself. I didn’t want to shout and make a noise, in case I exacerbated the elephant’s aggression.

A human cannot out run an elephant. There was nowhere to hide. The elephant sense of smell is so acute, they would be able to scent us out if we hid in the tangle of a thicket. There wasn’t time to climb a tree,. Even if we could the pair would be upon us before we had scrambled a few meters up any trunk. With the dexterity of its trunk an elephant could pick us out of the branches like a monkey picks a berry.

Moses, with his arms spread wide, stood motionless facing the trumpeting charge of the leading elephant. Behind it the second young bull veered off to one side, where it hung back. It wasn’t as aggressive.

The first bull pulled up short, only meters from Moses.

It was unsure of the strange behavior of these primates who sent they hated.

Its blustery body language broadcast its indecisiveness, fight or flee.

In the moments of stillness I could hear my panted breath and the beat of my heart.

With redirected aggression and raise trunk the elephant shrieked an angry trumpet, flapped its ears, and kicked up dust with its feet. But it did not advance.

Facing it squarely without moving, Moses gave a little upward flick of his spread arms. He showed the elephant where he was, and that he was not going away. The movement wasn’t startling, but the elephant reacted with a jerk of its head. Moses’ wave indicated that he 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 grass, augmented by the occasional snapping crack as they barged over shrubs and trampled through the 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 ever!”

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 laugh.

Moses and I looked at each other, both with raised eyebrows.

“He laughed that way after the poacher camp raid.” Moses said, “He thinks that he is clever. But he will make a mistake, and we will get him.”