Kununzu was our new guard. Lula had gone on to another assignment, and since there were almost no bazungu (white foreigners) left, I suppose the park authorities figured Kunuzu would do. Kunuzu reminded me of Barney Fife in some ways, not the least of which being that he kept the one bullet they let him have in the same pocket Barney Fife kept his one bullet in. If anything really serious happened, Kunuzu was probably not going to be very helpful, but he seemed like a nice enough guy.
The routine of collecting data continued, Joan with her bones, Biker with his flaming stumps, and me with my animal tracks and trails. Zorba and his crew built a still that worked pretty well. We did make two visits to other parts of the country, and those trips were themselves great adventures I’ll have to tell you about some other time. But mostly things were pretty quiet in camp.
Until that fateful night.
No one had gone off to bed yet, but it was after dinner and well after night fall, which happens on the equator (and we were close enough to the equator to see it) at very close to 6:00 PM no matter the season. Since it was a national holiday … “Army Day” (in Zaire, each branch of the armed services had a holiday which was a mandatory day off for everyone) we had opened a couple of extra beers and the produce of the still was being sampled as well.
The night in Africa is rarely quiet. There are always animals making noises. During the night most of the noises are insects, with the occasional territorial roaring of the lions in the distance and the fluttering of the bat’s wing up close, and many sounds in between. And this sound was suddenly punctuated by gunfire. Four or five shots from the top of the hill up by the road, about 3 klicks away.
“Poachers,” said Kununzu as he sat bolt upright. A pause. “But,” as he returned to his more relaxed position holding his glass of home made kadingi (fire water), “… nothing we can do about that.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t have a vehicle. Too far to walk.”
Three more shots. The poachers were working right in the middle of the kob herd.
Kob are a kind of antelope that performs a “lek” as part of its mating system. A lek is a traditional display ground for males. The males of a “lekking” species stand around on the lek looking pretty, and females come by one or two at a time and mate with one or two of the males in the middle of the lek. The other males are just waiting their chance to make their way, over the course of a couple or few years, to the lek’s center where they can have a chance of breeding. Along the way, most of the males are eaten by lions, one or two at a time.
I refer to the kob lek as the lion automat.
This kob lek included a hundred or so males, always standing in the same place except for the individual here or there who had followed the females and young down to the river to drink or who had wandered off to graze here and there. The lek started less than a kilometer from our camp and continued out another two and a half kilometers. With the lek located here, as it probably has been for hundreds of years, the lions were also located here. Essentially, the territory of each pride of lions in this valley was centered on a lek.
Two more shots, and I stood up.
“Kunuzu. Get your rifle. And your bullet. I’ve got a vehicle,” I said, with a palpable sense of frustration, and marched over to the Mavai Sahavi, our only working Land Rover at the time.
Zorba then jumped to his feet “You’ll both be killed. Those are Army. They’re drunk and their shooting kob.”
By this time Kununzu was on his way to the truck and I was in the drivers seat, and Biker was popping another beer, swearing about the freekin poachers, and Joan was strapping her giant knife onto her belt and heading that way too. So Zorba got in the truck with the rest of us and we headed out.
Five slightly drunk people and one bullet. We were going to take care of this.
As I drove up the hill, I thought of Lula. I thought “What would Lula do.” And then I knew.
I made a hard left turn and drove about 500 meters, ignoring everyone asking me why I was going the wrong way. Then we stopped, and I took out my compass and said “OK, everyone listen, and when you hear a gunshot, point to it.”
And on cue, there were two more gunshots. Three or four people pointed, and I took a bearing . Then I drove back the other way and we did the same thing. As we did so, I explained, “We don’t know exactly where they are. And when we head right for them, they’ll hear us coming. We have to make our approach as quickly and aggressively as possible once we do it. No driving past them and wandering around like the slightly drunk fools we actually are.” Two more shots, and another bearing. “They’ll hear us driving around down here and not getting any closer and figure we’re doing something else with the truck, like moving firewood or charging up batteries or something.”
So back and forth we drove, each time getting about 200 meters closer, and each time getting a much better bearing as to where they were. I was so familiar with this landscape, having mapped in every termite mound and tree, that by this time I could actually picture the spot they were working. They were using a large patch of razor grass, also knowns as elephant grass, for cover. The kob would not be in this grass … it was not edible for them, but they were located all around it. These male kob would not run very far. The soldiers could shoot one kob out of once side of the grass, then work their way, probably in a vehicle, to the other side of the patch, shoot a kob, then go to another spot, like working their way around a clock, and in the long run get may be two dozen animals.
After about four or five passes, I was ready. “OK, we’re going in,” I shouted as I turned the truck directly at where I thought the poachers would be. I did not gun the engine. I kept it at steady revs, but just fast enough to accelerate the vehicle continuously. This way no one listening would hear anything different than they had been hearing for the previous half hour, until we were too close to do anything about it.
And as we crested the hill just past he north-south road connecting the Rwenzori to Ishango, I could see three men, two standing and one inside a small green pickup. I had aimed perfectly.
As we came bearing down on these soldiers, I hit the high beams, revved up the truck and leaned on the horn. “Good thing I was trained to drive in Boston,” I thought to myself. And then I came skidding to a halt on the dew-covered elephant grass right between the truck and the two standing soldiers.
I hopped out of the truck and walked quickly to the man holding the rifle with which they were shooting the kob. I could see in the back of the green pickup about a dozen kob corpses, piled rather high. I put my hand out by way of greeting towards the shooter. In this region, and as far as I know almost everywhere, in Africa, handshakes are standard greetings.
Yes, yes, you westerners think you know all about handshakes, but you don’t. In Africa, a handshake is as standard as breathing, or making simple eye contact. An executioner might shake the hand of his intended victim (I know of one case where this happened). A husband and wife shake hands when they first see each other in the morning. A soldier will shake the hand of the woman he is about to rape. Babies shake hands with their mother just before they nurse (well, maybe not). Everybody always shakes hands all the time. So, when I put out my hand and said “Peace be with you, good to see you” in the language used here by the military, Lingala, the shooter shifted the carbine from his right hand to his left hand and took my hand with his to shake.
At that point, I gripped his wrist instead of his hand and said “Drop the gun, you are under arrest for poaching in a national park,” and over my shoulder “Kununzu, arrest the other two.”
“Who are you?” the other standing soldier, who was an officer, said. “You can’t arrest us!”
“Oh yes, I can,” I replied. “We are authorized to assist the park guards in making arrests of poachers. You will be numbers seven, eight and nine.” All true. “We are going for a record.”
The man who’s wrist I was holding never stopped struggling, And even though his skin was a dark as skin can be, and the night was as dark as a night can be, and we were not standing directly in any light, I could see him deeply blushing. He had been taken by a muzungu using the old “Peace be with you” handshake trick. And suddenly his struggling started to increase in intensity.
Just then the officer shouted to the man in the little green truck, which was not far away with the engine running. And the truck drove over to next to the officer.
Just then the shooter broke free from my grip, and the two soldiers headed for the truck. The officer got in the passenger seat and the shooter jumped on the back, on top of the kob, and pointed his carbine just over our heads.
“Avi!” the officer shouted, and the driver, who by now I could see was a civilian (and the truck was not army issue) took off at high speed, down the road, and headed for Ishango.
Thinking we had pushed our luck a little far (or perhaps we were just sobering up) we went back to camp rather than in pursuit. We got on the shortwave radio immediately and reported that a green pickup with a certain license plate, a pile of dead kob in the back, and three men were heading for Ishango. The next morning we radioed in again and learned that the poachers had been arrested. The big chief of the park assured us that justice would be done and thanked us for our service.
But of course, things would turn out to be a little different than we expected. And much more interesting. And dangerous.
But before we get to that, let’s have one last lion story….