F&S Classics: The Elephants of Chirisa
One of the greatest—and most haunting—adventure stories from this history of the magazine
THE TRACKS are the size of small washtubs, and we have been following six hours since the chill of dawn. Now sweat trickles, the canteen is out of water, and the September sun beats down like a blowtorch.
It is dry season in the Chirisa Safari Area in Zimbabwe, and little puffs of dust float up from each step of professional hunter Chris Hallamore ahead of me.
I do not like the looks of that dust. Sometimes it floats back as it should, but then it drifts to right or left. Eddying air currents have fatally altered the course of a lot of elephant stalks.
The three bulls have moved fast and steadily, from the sandy river climbing into rugged highlands, then into a brushy plateau of chest-high yellow grass crisscrossed by steep canyons and gullies. Elephants seem to know wind plays tricks in canyons.
Somehow they knew we were behind them.
At one narrow place in the trail where a rock ledge overhangs a drop of maybe 100 feet, a freshly uprooted tree lies across the ledge like a barrier. Not a leaf has been eaten. I have seen trees shoved across roads, clearly on purpose, since no others in the area were felled, and I have seen the wreck of a hunting car in Botswana that trip when the young bull stepped out of ambush and rammed a tusk through the cab, overturning it, and then crushed it as he fell from hunter Dougie Wright’s brain shot…
Chris Hallamore is tapping his sock filled with fireplace ashes. One bit of dust blows one way, the next another. “They seem to know where the wind eddies like this; they can’t see well but they can pinpoint us if they can get the slightest smell. We’ll have to go very slowly from here. Watch me; if I suddenly drop to the ground, you do the same.”
Like the heat haze shimmering over the long grass, my mind keeps shifting and wavering…
ON FOUR SAFARIS I have tracked elephants, including that time in Kenya crawling into the huge heard on the Athi River with David Lunan so close that, with heart in throat, I noticed toenails on the “tree” beside me in the thick grass just before cows and calves stampeded all around us. Maybe I took more risk than those with the rifles because I had the movie camera for the TV film. By the time my partner Harvey Houck shot the big bull with the long, curving ivory, the young bull with him charged me instead of the guns because he heard the camera…
All those miles, and blisters, and chances, but never with the rifle in my hands. Now I have a heavy Ruger .458 with its 510-grain solids and its razor-sharp Leupold scope set on 2½ power so I can count every wrinkle in a bull elephant’s truck…and I am having misgivings because this trip I have learned a lot more about elephants. No more fear or awe of them—there was always that—but now mystery and new respect for an intelligence I cannot fully comprehend.
At the Chirisa Wildlife Research Station and its vast surrounding safari area, new things are being learned about elephants. Forty-seven of them are bing radio-tracked day and night as biologists ands scientists study their movements, their habits, why some learn to become crop raiders or dangerous elephants while others do not.
We had visited the research station, seen the 12-foot neoprene collars used to attach the brightly colored radio transmitters behind the heads of dart-drugged elephants. Each unit sends out a different beep, and with directional receiving towers, the location of each animal can be pinpointed with a few yards. Scientists from around the world come here to study the elephants, with much of the program expense financed by the U.S.-based Mzuri Foundation, a hunters’ group. The area is literally overrun by elephants crowded out of others areas by an increasing native population.
Yet relatively few elephant permits are issued for safari hunting in an area as vast as some states and so overpopulated with elephants that rangers have been methodically culling entire family groups. They may take another 1,000 before destruction of habitat is brought under control.
Why not let the safari hunters do that culling? The bull license in my pocket cost $3,200; enough to pay for an anti-poaching patrol. Elephants killed by the wardens and patrols are worth much less, and the men doing that job do not relish it. The animals are located and harassed by aircraft into ambushes; fully automatic FN assault rifles cut loose on cows, calves, the whole heard. Meat striped from their bones brings $9 a gunnysack to natives. Ivory and hides sold to traders bring far less than safari income generated for management. Why not safaris for full-time culling?
“Because,” says bright, highly dedicated director of the research station Tony Conway, “we have learned the hard way that the elephants can communicate. One reason we use trained culling crews is that we must kill entire family groups. If even one is permitted to escape, word is immediately out among the other elephants and after that it becomes much more difficult, and dangerous, for scientists to approach them for observations or for our crews to cull them. We cannot take those chances with human lives; there are just too many elephants here and too many natives on the surrounding tribal lands.”
We went to an “elephant graveyard,” big as a small city dump, where stripped carcasses of literally hundreds of elephants lie bleaching in the sun. Out of the rubble poked the small, round feet of calves alongside those of big bulls.
“I know how you feel,” said Tony Conway softly as we stood there. “It is a terrible thing, if you like elephants as I do. I’ve lived around them, worked with them, most of my adult life. The more I understand them the more difficult it is to kill them, but it must be done if they are to survive here.”
He showed me a huge map dotted with different-colored pins. “These are surrounding tribal lands,” he explained. “Natives are attempting to grow crops. Here we are, in the heart of the wild area left. These pins represent poachers’ camps we have apprehended, these are some we haven’t gotten to yet. Poaching is mostly with wire snares.
“Here is the leg bone of an elephant; see how the snare cut completely through it and the bone calcified around it. This elephant must have lived in constant pain, and she was a very dangerous one that had to be destroyed. Once an elephant is hurt by a snare, or wounded by some primitive native muzzleloader, the odds are much higher for that one to be a dangerous elephant.
“In this area every safari hunting party is required to have one of our game scouts along, armed with an assault rifle. It is added protection for the hunters. We realize the value of safari hunting—it provides the funds we must have to deal with the poachers and to manage and study the elephants.
“I visited your country recently,” Conway added, “and I couldn’t believe some of the so-called documentaries on your American television, nor the attitude of some people toward hunting here. They do not seem to realize that safari hunting is the most realistic, practical hope for the survival of many African species in countries where no other monetary support for game management exists. We have more game, of all indigenous species, here in Chirisa now than existed forty years ago, and this is designated as a safari area. By contrast, look at Kenya where the government stopped safari hunting and the elephant was almost decimated from the land by poachers. You must write some of this when you return. Or send some of your television people here. We can show them the real world of the African elephant in the wild.”
WHEN WE WERE RIDING back to camp, three hours over rough country, I asked veteran professional hunter Sten Cedergren, who spent years guiding safaris in Kenya before moving to Zimbabwe, if he accepted Conway’s views.
“About Kenya elephants and poachers, yes,” he said. “About elephant communicating, yes. I have watched them, whole herds on different sides of a high ridge, out of sight of each other, suddenly begin moving at the same time to meet at the same place. As if they knew what the others were thinking.”
“They do it by telepathy,” says professional hunter Gary Baldwin, a native of Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe, “they have developed sense over the centuries man cannot fully understand. Yet they do some things that are so stupid for their survival. Look out there.”
We were passing what appeared to be the path of a tornado; large trees were uprooted, others stripped of limbs or broken halfway to the ground. Yet most of the bark and leaves remained. Elephants that shoved over those trees too only a few bites and then shoved over others. If they are so intelligent, can they not see they are destroying their future food? A tree requires years to grow but one elephant can shove down a small forest in a day.
One of the most important things being studied at the Chirisa Research Station is which bands of elephants move around most, create the most crop or habitat destruction. Perhaps by concentrating upon those bands for culling, there could eventually be a resident population able to live within its own habitat…
My mind reverts instantly to reality. Something has moved.
“Shhh,” says Chris Hallamore, on his knees testing the wind. “He’s right there. Young bull. Don’t look at him. We’ll have to go completely around. The wind is changing. I think they somehow knew it would. They’re waiting for us right there, and they have the wind. Hurry! We have to cross that canyon and come up on the other side.”
We follow doggedly, thirsty and tired, my wife Sandy’s normally olive complexion is pale, and Kasare, our native Green Beret game scout who has become a trusted friend, is carrying her cameras over one shoulder, the assault rifle over the other.
Suddenly he leaves the trail, circles wide, and motions to Chris.
The elephants have moved, silently as ghosts, and somehow Kasare has anticipated that and crossed their new track. We could have been walking right into them. Again we circle, and in the heat my mind wanders…
IT HAD BEEN THE COLD, windy dawn before, scouting for fresh tracks, when we met a ragged apparition of a man in the road, frantically waving us down. At first, we thought he was a native; his European features were smutted by campfire ash, his clothing singed, eyes blank with cold-numbed terror.
His name was, and is, Gabriel Stoltz, and he has every reason to be terrified of elephants. I had already heard his life story from the hunters and park rangers. His father had been a ranger and elephant-control officer at Wankie National Park. One night when Gabriel was fourteen, news came that a tourist vehicle had been found inside the park overturned and crushed, its occupants dead. His father, Wilhelm Stoltz, left at first light with his elephant gun and two trackers. That night young Gabriel saw his father’s body rolled into a blanket because there was not enough left to carry. The two native trackers were dead, but their bodies were unmolested. From the huge tracks and other indications, a great head had crushed Wilhelm Stoltz into the ground, over and over.
Three years later, the body of Gabriel’s uncle (for whom he had been named) was found cut almost in half, gored by an elephant.
Now, still a young man, he was showing us the remains of his fire where he had lain in the sand trying to keep warm after his vehicle broke down, and the huge elephant tracks around it. He said they had come screaming and trumpeting and pounding the ground and he had climbed a tree where he’d shivered through the rest of the night. The fire had died but the elephants had stayed for hours.
Could it be true that elephants never forget? That they can communicate past happenings in faraway places? Could they somehow have known that this was the son of Wilhelm Stoltz, the man some older Wankie elephants hated and killed?
Ridiculous. Wankie is many miles away. But then, why did elephants so uncharacteristically come to a fire, pounding and trumpeting? Rhinos come to fires, the natives say, but not elephants. And why had they kept Gabriel Stoltz up that tree, in terror, until they heard our vehicle approaching?
We had been unable to track them then; they were headed for the boundary of tribal lands not far away, and the trackers said they were traveling too fast. If an elephant walks fast, a man must run.
This morning we had picked up the tracks crossing the same road, returning, and they were apparently the same three bulls, one much larger than the others. …
“Don’t move!” commands guide Chris Hallamore. “Slowly sit down below the grass.”
From the corner of my eye I have already seen the giant gray mound move; incredible how something so mammoth can be so invisible until it moves—an elephant is so big it looks like the landscape.
Hallamore in one smooth movement is up a tree, climbing hand over hand to the top, then dropping lightly to the ground. He can be an incredible athlete when he is close to game and the hunting instinct lights his eyes.
“The other two are ahead,” he whispers. “Can’t make out which is the big one; they’re facing away into the wind. We’ll circle; stay bent over, watch every step, no camera clicks, no sneezes. We’ll act as if we are just passing by the other way. They can’t see well, but they can make out movement.”
We crouch, crawl, stop to rest, and Chris opens the bolt of his battered .375, checking the chambered round. I do the same.
We sit with rifles across knees, inching forward on hands and butts to keep heads higher in the grass. We can see the vague, gray blobs. Finally, when they loom like gray mountains over us, we must slowly stand to judge the ivory. It is impossible to realize how big they really are until you are looking up at them, 11 feet tall at the shoulder, maybe 11,000 pounds. I can feel the sheer exhilaration of closeness to wild and dangerous creatures, but also other feelings entirely different from those I’ve had with less perilous game.
Cape buffaloes have been excitement and danger, cunning and willing to ambush and kill you until their last death bellow. But there has been no remorse for them.
The big cats have seemed so aloof, impersonal, uncaring for me or anything else, killing machines that play with victims and sometimes begin eating while the prey is still alive.
But this is different.
It is one thing to see the bones of a thousand elephants bleaching in the sun, to know the old crop-raiding bull would soon be dead anyway. It is something else entirely to realize you are about to be personally responsible for the end of a creature from another time, about your own age, with a degree of intelligence and loyalty to others of his clan that man cannot completely comprehend.
“Hold halfway between the ear and his eye,” Hallamore is whispering, “Be absolutely sure. The instant you shoot, that young bull on the right probably will charge. I’m watching him; you must watch only the big bull. If you miss the brain, he’ll get up; put another one instantly into the heart. Are you ready? I’m going to move to the right, so he will turn his head and give you a better angle and then we can see that other tusk better.”
He takes two steps and suddenly the bull’s trunk snakes up into the air like a huge rubbery antenna, scanning the sky, then pointing straight at us.
The trigger squeezes and the sound and jolt are distant, as if someone else has done this and time freezes into slow motion frames as the bull slowly, ponderously sits down backwards, then rolls over. The ground jars and dust rises.
All hell breaks loose; both small bulls are coming, the one on the right fast with ears against his head, trunk coiled.
Kasare, our scout, knows instantly he means business. The FN chatters in ear-splitting bursts, inches over the bull’s head, and Chris has the .375 pointing upward at the huge, bulging forehead.
At 10 yards the young bull skids to a stop, trunk lashing and swinging, ears now flared forward in confused bluff. The bull on the left comes up beside him, growling like a huge dog.
Kasare cuts loose again over their heads, and perhaps it is a sound they remembered. They shuffle off, tails upraised and switching in anger, back to the dead bull. Defiantly they stand beside him like sentinels, refusing to let us come closer. Flies buzz, and the long grass rustles in the wind. Nobody speaks.
And then, as if by some signal, the two young bulls turn and melt into the brush.
I do not think I will ever kill another elephant.
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