In recent days Hugh Paxton’s Blog has been proud to publish three chapters in an unpublished book written by Dries Alberts, former warden of Khaudum National Park one of Namibia’s most remote wilderness areas.
1. “The Many Faces of Satan” – an account of Kalahari Bushman belief and the very strange hunt for a killer elephant (posessed?) by an angry spirit.
2. “Walking with the Dead” – an account of tracking a lost man in the bush. A race against time, thirst, and finally hyeanas and the oncoming storm
3. “Man’s Loyal Serpent” – the discovery of a rotting female elephant with her recently starved bull calf beside her precipitates a man hunt by the Anti Poaching Unit that ends in more blood.
If you’ve not read them, please do. There’s Wilbur Smith and then there’s Dries Alberts. Wilbur’s great and has made the most dreary airport waits and shite Air Sudan flights a positive joy, but Dries has actually done and seen all that he writes about.
As stated earlier, all three chapters are posted on this Blog. All events occurred and are (for the most part and where relevant) recorded in park logbooks. It should be noted that Dries is no white beard re-writing history filtered by decades of forgetfulness or reinvention over a brandy. He’s young, highly active, and a lot of the events he writes about occurred just before or after I came to know him.
Hugh Paxton’s Blog wants to get the book published, but so far publishers hve been unresponsive. I don’t think they ‘get it’. A not unusual phenomenon when it comes to publishers. So for the time being, Hugh Paxton’s blog readers are in a rather special position. You’re reading stuff most people have never seen.
BLOG ED NOTE: Enough preamble! Let’s get going!
START: AFRICA’S LOST CHILDREN
The three of us stood in the office, ready to embark upon our next assignment. It would not be an ordinary day today. Though it is what we are trained to do, the business of darting man-eating lions will cause even the bravest man to stand at full attention and listen with anticipation at the events which lead us to this task.
Accompanying me were a biologist, and a translator/tracker. We left Katima Mulilo in our Land Cruiser Station Wagon and headed straight to the site of the kill. Another vehicle from the Namibian Police followed us on our 150 kilometer track. They joined us to collect the remains of the body.
We reached the village, near Fort Doppies around lunchtime, 13:00. There was an eerie silence hanging in the air. Typically there would be fires burning, chickens wandering aimlessly about and dogs meandering from one hut to another. Today there was nothing. Not one visible sign of life.
The symmetry in the placement of the six huts within this village seemed quite religious. They were arranged in the shape of the half moon. The opening end of the half moon was facing where the sun rises and overlooked the Kangola flood plain. Over the flood plain the terrain was very dense with much vegetation – Delta. It seemed that one could see forever from this vantage point.
As we climbed out of the Land Cruiser I instructed the translator to call for the people in their native tongue. Suddenly the women started crying from within their huts. The sounds these women made was not that of ordinary sadness. The calls were that of sheer devastation and – fear. It became painfully obvious that this was not a normal problem animal situation. This one was scary. And when they cried out to us, asking if we could see the lions, we realized they believed the lions were still very nearby.
Approaching the first hut we saw some blood. The translator continued to call for the people to come out of their huts. This was a moment of drama I could only compare to the aftermath of war and the emptiness that is left for the survivors of her victims. Children and women alike, all crying out.
We found a shoe and picked it up. It still harbored the foot of this man who had succumbed to the fate of this hungry lion pride. Based on the freshness of the blood, we ordered the villagers to remain within their huts.
A period of time passed which seemed like an eternity due its stark sadness. One villager that had been trying to calm the people confirmed our report. One man had been killed.
Only 50 meters from the village we found part of the cranium, rib bones and part of the pelvic girdle. The bones were all very clean, as if they had been exposed for a long time. Now we realized that these were real man-eaters and that their hunger was ravenous.
The Police collected the remains and left for Katima Mulilo. We told the Police that we would deliver the lions to them for them to extract the remains of the man that had been consumed.
As the Police were pulling away, the villagers yelled out for them to stop. They were afraid of being left to the mercy of the lions who were inevitably still in the area. The lions had been at the village only one hour prior to this time. It was mid-day and quite unusual for the lions to have remained in the area for so long. Their fear was contagious. We knew they were near.
By around 16:00 hours we convinced the villagers to emerge from their huts. They proceeded to tell us the tragic details of this man’s demise.
Two young men were sent from the village to buy bread, food and other general supplies at a neighboring village just 2 kilometers away. Due to the likely dangers that prevail after dark, they were to have returned before sunset. The night brings death in Africa. Anything you cannot see coming is deadly, even to the most alert and clear-minded man. And in addition to the ever-present dangers of the night, these two men quite unfortunately were intoxicated. Vision blurred and motor skills hindered, it was nearly midnight when these two men clumsily foraged through the bush. The villagers were still awake around the fires, awaiting their return.
Suddenly they heard lions roaring – in very close proximity. The night air was cold and sound travels farther due to the coolness. This early warning was perhaps their only saving grace that night. The lion roars were that of a hunting call. It was easy for these villagers to determine the uniqueness of their mighty roars. And when the sounds of the older lions became audible, they recognized this call. They would instruct the young ones in the way of the kill.
The villagers then heard the two men calling for them.
“Where are you?” cried the villagers.
“We are on our way!” the two men frantically responded.
Since this was indeed a hunting call, all the villagers were quickly getting into their huts.
The first man narrowly escaped the hungry jowls of the pride. They were just behind him as he slammed shut the door of his hut. The lions plummeted head-first into the door as this man collapsed from exhaustion and fear in the safety of his home where his family had been anxiously waiting.
Now the lions focused only on the second villager they had been chasing. He was ever so close to safety when he tripped over a fire log and fell to the ground. For some reason he ran past his hut, past the open door that his family held for him. Some believe he may have sacrificed himself for fear that the lions would have followed him into the hut where his family would also have surely perished.
His wife and children could hear his bones crushing, his breathing stopping, the air being pushed out of his lungs and a very distinct smothering noise. Finally, the sound of blood rushing through his throat gave the family a sickening sense of relief. – Now at least, the pain was over.
After hearing this horrific account, we too were afraid for the villagers. We called in the Anti-Poaching Unit. Twelve men came and stayed at the village that night, with the order to shoot to destroy any lions nearing the village.
From Nature Conservation’s side, we were going in to kill. These were undoubtedly man-eaters, given the fact that they remained in the area of their first kill. These lions knew there was more meat to hunt here.
By sunset we had already located the pride. We were armed with the dart gun, the high powered hunting rifle and an automatic assault rifle. We considered getting the APU to come take out the whole pride with automatic assault rifles, but lions are much tougher than one would anticipate and we couldn’t risk only wounding a lion. A wounded lion has the strength of 50 lions, and taking them all on would be far too dangerous.
We decided that we would have our best chance at night, hunting these man-eaters, relying purely on our equipment and previous experience in problem animal control. But you begin to doubt your experience in a situation such as this. Each of us knew that this confrontation would surely be like none other. Hunting man-eaters at night; it seemed as if we were handing them the advantage card . . .
We checked the pride and found two large females, one young male and three sub-adults lying ever so peacefully, tails swaying in contentment and heads held high exhibiting all of the grandeur and confidence that the lion is known for. When these great creatures look at you, they look through you. Their eyes are like the sun. You cannot hide from the power that radiates from within them. It’s like capturing Africa’s soul and having it thrown right back at you. Their eyes burn through yours.
Perhaps it was because we knew they were man-eaters, but this pride was different. It was as if they were infinite. They clearly had a psychological grip on us. What they had shown us was the pride and glory of their victory.
There was no time to lose. Everything kicked into order. We did what we had been trained to do. The APU was charged with protecting the villagers. We would destroy the animals. Both teams were necessary as we feared the APU may only wound the lions.
We shot a Kudu cow just before sunset. We cut it open so the stomach was hanging out. We drug it behind our vehicle, leaving the trail of a fresh kill to entice the lions. We pulled the Kudu away from the village as our main objective was to keep the pride from the people. We then chained the Kudu to a tree and filled the entire carcass with sleeping pills. The lions then would eat from the carcass, ingesting the sleeping pills. They become sleepy; not aggressive and are far less threatening.
We waited close the Kwando River. We chose our spot carefully. We were looking up, in a defensive mode. We could easily see where we had chained up the Kudu. Everything must be in order. The maximum range for the dart is 15 meters. We would put a red filter on the spotlight as the animals cannot see red light. The light was necessary for the telescopic sights on the dart gun.
Now the sun was setting and we had a small braai. No one was spoke. We were all deep in concentration, still very caught up in the psychological grip the lions held over us. We could only focus on one thing; we were hunting man-eaters. It was like tunnel vision. They were staying – and they wanted more. One mistake would be fatal.
It was the middle of the year, Winter was starting. Grass was tall and the river was rising because the floods from Angola come late, after our rainy season. Buffalo and many other herds migrate from the Okavango Delta. Our rivers flood in the beginning of winter, which is not normal. It rains in Angola the same time it rains in Namibia, and when the floods from Angola reach us, it is Winter. The lush, green and subtle grass draws the game –
the final brush in a perfect painting; the lions follow the game . . .
This night you could not hear the sounds of the river. The silence was deafening. The wind was blowing but we could not feel anything. By 22:00 hours, the quarter moon was rising. The old people would say that when the quarter moon rises it is “pouring out good luck.”
We started playing the mating call on the speakers, followed by the feasting sound. After five minutes the man-eaters were responding to this “trap” – answering the artificial call.
Looking through binoculars we saw them eating the carcass and we could now hear them devouring the Kudu as well. We allowed about 45 minutes to pass as they ingested the sleeping pills, giving ample time for the drugs to take effect.
We had planned everything perfectly. The route we had set to apprehend the pride was heading into the wind. The wind would blow from the pride towards us, rather than allowing the wind to carry the smell of man to the lions. One of us drove, one held the red-filtered spot-light and I was darting.
The next few moments unfolded like so many times before. We went for the big females first as they proved to be the biggest threat. Over-dosing was not a concern as our objective was to destroy them.
As I aimed for my first shot, one female looked up towards me. It was a picture perfect moment. The blood that framed her face and nose was warmly highlighted by those deep, golden, yellow eyes. As she raised her head the dart hit her in the center of her chest cavity. She made a small sound, then continued eating. The other female was shot in the thigh. One sub-adult dropped. The dart must have hit bone on the remaining sub-adult as the sound of impact was louder than penetrating flesh, and he was obviously in great distress. These two sub-adults ran off into the bush. The two darted females were already sleeping at this point.
The escape of the sub-adult male was frightening because of the dense grass. Filter light does not help in these situations. – They could have been anywhere. The big threat was the females, and we had eliminated them. Our best chance of eluding the others was to retreat, especially since the younger ones would return for the already fallen females.
We returned to camp about a half an hour later, then returned to the site. We saw the two lions walking about 30 meters from the females.
The biologist instructed us to take off the filter. We would attempt to blind them with the spotlight. When we took off the filter we changed to a high-powered hunting rifle with lead points. When the points hit a solid mass, the explosion sends lead riveting throughout that area of the body.
He pointed his .30-06 caliber rifle at the sub-adult as he got out of the car. Fear was the air that we breathed . . .
The young male looked up into the full spot-light. The shot rang out and the lion dropped. It felt like winning the world cup – lifting the trophy. When the young sub-adult is alone, he is at his most vulnerable state. And with the sub-adult out of the way, we felt as if we had tamed Africa, but it is impossible to tame Africa.
The biologist didn’t want to take any chances. He was making another cartridge ready to fire, but it wouldn’t load. He then saw that the cartridge had exploded within the barrel. This rifle was now out of commission. He urgently called for me to give him the assault rifle, but the problem with this weapon was the full metal jacket cartridge. It doesn’t have nearly the impact as the hunting rifle, but the purpose was just to ensure that the lion had been killed.
As the biologist was looking inside the car, he cocked the rifle in the air. As he was looking up he saw the lion that he was sure he had killed getting up once again. He proceeded to shoot him at least 10 more times, all in the heart and lung area, some shots in the spinal cord. This lion would not relinquish. He started to move out of the spotlight’s reach. As he ran off, the biologist managed to get one shot into his thigh which knocked him into a seated position. He looked around at us and we knew this was the beginning of our demise. The full-meal jacket was not powerful enough to kill him.
That moment will remain embedded in my mind in slow motion. Everything, time stopped. This young male, man-killer was looking straight into the spotlight. We knew that he was all but blinded, and still it was if he was shooting right back at us, manipulating us with his awesome strength, perseverance and power. Africa’s first born – “The carrier of her thrown,” some will call her.
Perhaps nature intended it this way, but during this brief interlude, man and beast shared the same fear. The lion continued in his quest for life despite his many wounds. The grass was waving, but we could not feel the wind. We saw no stars, only the stark, cold blackness of the African night. Tender thoughts of my mother came quickly to the forefront of my mind, but briefly. If was a most powerful moment. Life’s essence, pouring in from all sides. – The desire to live had been defined.
The lion ascended into a crouching position and lunged toward us, his chest filled with bullets and blood spurting violently from his wounds. His ears were fixed, flattened against his head – another indication of the full charge we were about to encounter. Using every last bit of survival tactics he had learned in his young life, he charged into the brightness of the blinding light. The lion does not know defeat. He will never surrender. Maybe that is what I admire the most. They never give up. They cannot give up, or death is certain. His existence will not be known, if the fearless lion forfeits the thrown . . .
With each stride the lion takes, another bullet exists the chamber. A melodic rhythm unfolded as the opposing players in this fight for life seemed to follow the other’s lead. The biologist was looking up at this point, no longer aiming at the lion. There was an overwhelming feeling that perhaps he would soon be greeting his ancestors. And it seemed only righteous in paying homage to this champion, to look death in the eye, rather than down the barrel of the gun . . .
It’s the way you leave this earth that counts. There may be nothing more glorious than being taken by a lion the African Bush. Your ancestors will greet you as a hero. And once you run away from danger, this badge of courage can never be reinstated.
So there lies honor in death. There lies great honor in death. For at that moment it was between the biologist and the lion. From the perspective of Nature Conservation it seemed the lion was running straight at the biologist. It was almost like watching a court case. Africa is the judge and she decides at this moment. Guilty or not guilty. By this time, the lion is ten meters away. I reached for my pistol. For the first time in my life – it felt as if I was greeting an old friend. I cocked it.
In the meantime the biologist is still shooting almost aimlessly. The lion finally dropped in front of him as the grains of sand kicked up at the biologists’ feet. The jury had deliberated. The young male is killed at last. This fighter – and he was a fighter. A mighty, grand beast –regal to his last breath.
Over twenty shots from the assault rifle were emptied into him before he finally dropped, in addition to the shot that exploded within the barrel of the biologist’s gun.
The sub-adult got away. Under the most optimum circumstances, he would have a 15% chance of survival on his own. We had destroyed his family. He was alone- and he was young; a deadly combination for any of God’s great creatures on these most sacred grounds. He would die. If not taken by hyaenas, he would surely die of starvation. The lion’s strength is derived from the pride; like a mechanical beast – one gear turns the other.
The only job left is to destroy the darted lions. I would use my 9 millimeter pistol. I walked over to where they slept, pushed the barrel into the ear lobe of the first female – and fired. Due to the size of these females, I fired three shots at each lion. Only two shots each for the sub-adults. As I walked over to the last big female, I was thinking to myself what a peaceful way to die this would be; a good way to die. I was about five steps from her when she lifted her head; her ears twitched. This was another indicator that the tranquilizer drugs were beginning to wear off. Those huge, yellow eyes – like the sun, and I drank this fear.
You get lost in their eyes. Their sheer power and strength caused me to think that maybe now I will die. And for a split second – there was comfort in knowing that perhaps I may be with my loved ones who have gone before me. Alive or dead – you will think of your loved ones in crucial moments such at these.
She looked up, and instinctively I shot her. It was different though, because she was looking at me. And her eyes delivered this message –
“Why do you seek to destroy me? I am the keeper of this land. You are the intruder.”
And the message was as clear, as if she had spoken to me in my native tongue. She said to me, “Can’t you see that I am the ruler of the land? I am on top. This land is mine, not yours. I am still to give birth to many young. I have to teach them the ways of the land. I want to smell the rain and walk under the moon.”
Then life was taken from her, robbed from her – ended.
And the struggle for her to make it to this point in life, in this harsh, unpredictable environment – all came to an end in front of my very eyes like the final curtain drawing in a Shakespearean play. The years of sacrifice by her pride, all the secrets she held within her, died.
“And you, you are taking it from me and my now unknown off-spring.”
This millisecond in life. The lion was still on top of the world. That female was the queen. There could not have been anything more powerful or beautiful than she. It was one of those moments that you only get once in a lifetime, as life was taken from her. This great, great creature; Africa’s first born, the lion is. She will never give up.
Our hunt was concluded. And as the Namibian Government’s policy stipulates, the skins of the hunted lions were presented to the father of the man that was killed. And on that day, a clear sunny June day, it was as if he too accepted Africa’s judgment. As he stroked the lion’s skin the old man said –
“I chose this life.”
As we drove away from the village, we turned back to see the old man looking around, perhaps for one last glimpse of what he had lost. We saw this old man looking out over the flood plains. He eventually kneeled down. Maybe he was saying a prayer. Africa is so pure. So straight-forward. You can’t take chances. But sacrifices – we all make sacrifices. The dear loss of this man actually may have caused him to respect Africa more – as it should. I knew I had indeed gained a greater respect for her . . .
Just as this wise old man had lost a son, Africa had also lost her sons and daughters.
It was a lose, lose situation. My heart was bleeding for this old man, and for the fallen lion pride. But it makes you strong. You’ll never know where this strength comes from. You don’t know it exists. And I know that the day will come when we will meet again in the land were only peace exists. – And within that magical moment, we will admire our combined strength.
As I think back on that day, I long for the simpler life. The simple, clear, uncorrupted way of life. Let Africa be the judge. She will rule with a wise hand as she’s always done. She is the sayor of the law.
I pray for the lion’s roar never to end.
For its power and strength never to fade.
In Africa, oh – how so wholesome made . . .