July 1982: Horn of the Elephant

07/08/2015 16:07

Written by Brian Jackman

Excerpt taken from Savannah Diaries 

The Super Cub bucks viciously in the hot African sky. To the east, from my place in the co-pilot’s seat, I can see the immense horizons of Mozambique. To the south lies South Africa’s Kruger National Park. But our concentration is centred on the ground beneath, where our shadow flits over the autumn-coloured treetops of Gonarezhou, the wildest national park in Zimbabwe. Somewhere down there, hidden among the baobabs and mopane glades, is an elephant called Kabakwe, and my mission is to find him.

Gonarezhou – ‘Horn of the Elephant’ – is a fitting name for the home of Zimbabwe’s most famous tusker.

In a country of big elephants, the park has always been renowned for its giant bulls, and the veteran Kabakwe is the king of them all. Although he must have roamed the lowveld for at least half a century his existence was not confirmed until 1979, when stories of an old bull with colossal tusks began to circulate among the local Shangaan tribesmen. It was they who called him Kabakwe: ‘the Big One’. That same year he was seen and photographed for the first time, and almost overnight he became a legend, a kind of living national monument. But it was not just his bulk that distinguished him. Even in Gonarezhou there are bigger bulls than Kabakwe. What sets him apart are his tusks: six-foot scimitars of dull yellow ivory, thick as telegraph poles and perfectly matched. Weighing perhaps 120 pounds a side, they must be two of the heaviest teeth on earth, worth at least £20,000 to the ivory traders of Hong Kong.

Gonarezhou elephants have the longest tusks and the shortest tempers.

says Dennis Van Eyssen, the park’s senior ranger, sitting next to me in the pilot’s seat, and it comes as no surprise in a part of Africa with a long history of poaching. In more recent times guerrilla warfare and the never-ending trade in illegal ivory have done little to soothe the extreme edginess of Gonarezhou’s 6,000 elephants. Many were blown up by land mines during Zimbabwe’s war of independence, and others, including Kabakwe, have lost the tips of their trunks, agonisingly severed by poachers’ snares.

Only the week before my arrival a gang armed with semi-automatic weapons had moved in from Mozambique and gunned down 14 elephants.

This is why Kabakwe has to wear a radio collar, so that the park rangers can keep track of him. Now, however, as we swoop low over the treetops, there are no signals to guide us. The batteries in his collar have been run down for weeks and nothing has been seen of Kabakwe – until Van Eyssen spotted him from the air on a routine patrol.

Below us, vultures come boiling up from a dead kudu caught in a poacher’s snare, and we slide away to avoid them. Then, as we resume our course, Van Eyssen jabs a finger at the ground to our right. “Kabakwe,” he shouts above the engine’s roar. And there he is, together with two askaris, or young guard bulls, instantly recognisable by his massive tusks. He flaps his huge ears as we pass overhead, then all three animals turn and run headlong into the scrub.

Back at the park HQ we set out again, this time by Land Rover, jolting down the park’s dusty game trails to the spot where we saw him disappear. From here on it has to be on foot, following close behind Van Eyssen as he searches for Kabakwe’s spoor. In one hand he carries a heavy calibre rifle; in the other a small cloth bag filled with wood ash. He shakes the bag and a puff of ash drifts away on the air.

“Good,” he whispers, “I hope the wind stays in our favour because I would rather shoot you than have to kill Kabakwe.”

With Van Eyssen’s words echoing in my head we find him half a mile away, feeding peacefully with his companions. Again Van Eyssen shakes the bag. The wind is still carrying our scent away from the elephants, so we creep closer.

Only 30 yards away now. Surely he can see us? He is standing broadside on, idly plucking leaves from the scrub mopane whose leaves fold like butterflies and turn to face the sun, reducing transpiration.

Then slowly, so slowly, he turns to face us, foursquare and formidable.

His two young companions are unhappy, raising their trunks to sniff the breeze as if they can sense trouble; but Kabakwe himself is still oblivious to our presence, and I am aware of a sudden dryness in my throat as I try to hold my camera steady.

Afterwards, driving back through the deepening light of late afternoon with the Chilojo Cliffs glowing red across the golden woodlands, the image of Kabakwe still burns in my mind. The wise-seeming eyes set in the great wrinkled head; the shrunken temples that spoke his age; the ragged ears swinging to keep him cool; and above all those monstrous tusks. “Man,” sighs Van Eyssen, “I’ve seen some tuskers in my time; but after Kabakwe the rest are just warthogs.”

Want to read more? Check out Brian Jackman's Savannah Diaries here: 

 Cover of Savannah Diaries by Brian Jackman

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