Luck sometimes plays a role in the survival of a game ranger. A centimetre or two to either side can often mean the difference between coming away unscathed, being seriously injured and even meeting your death.
This is a subject Martin Engelbrecht, regional trails ranger of the Kruger National Park, can talk about for hours, for he narrowly escaped death on more than one occasion. This was exactly what happened one day, a few years ago, in the Umfolozi Nature Reserve when a white rhino cow physically objected to his choice of words in addressing her calf. At that time Martin was still a member of the Natal Parks Board.
The deciding factor that made this man in uniform perform a jump or two that would make any Olympic athlete green with envy, must have been her intimidating body mass of around 1 600kg, supporting a very sharp front horn of at least 150cm!
“On that fateful day I was on a foot patrol along a game path that lead to a waterhole where I knew lots of birds were to be seen,” says Martin.
“It was an area thick with bushy hakea vegetation, where the visibility was down to only a few metres. In surroundings like this, things usually happen quickly and unexpectedly. This day was no exception to the rule, for suddenly, there it was! Trouble in the form of a white rhino calf about six months of age, standing in front of me in the game path – barely two metres away!
“I froze for a moment. Then, angry because it had given me such a fright, I gave it a tongue-lashing it would not easily forget. In my best French I told the little rascal that it would be for its own good if it simply made itself scarce. The youngster probably understood what I meant to say, for in the wink of an eye it disappeared into the bush.
“Then the trouble started. Unlike black rhino calves, the calf of a white rhino usually walks in front of its mother. That was why the cow was out of sight when her youngster confronted me.
“The cow probably overheard my conversation with her little rascal and objected furiously to my choice of words, for in a flash, she was charging straight at me! The big head with the scimitar-like front horn was held low, near the ground, and the terrific speed and agility of the huge animal surprised me.
“In a split second I had to decide whether to kill or not. Taking the age of the calf into account I decided to spare the cow’s life. At the same time I knew that the chances were very slim that it would swerve away after a warning shot, the way a black rhino would. A stone or a piece of wood is usually more effective against a charging white rhino, on condition, of course, that the missile hits its target!
“With adrenaline rushing through my body, I stood my ground, awaiting the cow like a Spanish matador. At the last moment I jumped to one side, in what can be described as the most glorious jump of my life. Within a few metres, the cow turned around like a ballerina and I was again surprised by the agility of these huge animals.
“When she charged for a second time, I finally realised how determined the snorting rhino was to kill me. I was running out of options at an alarming rate. At the last moment I again jumped to one side as best I could. For a second time she missed her target!
“This must have frustrated her to the utmost, for the enraged cow made an even quicker turn before charging straight at her evasive quarry for the third time in a row. I had to react quicker than ever, for the cow changed into overdrive in her effort to destroy me. This compelled me to devote my full concentration on her. There was no time to look around.
“By the time my brain screamed: ‘Jump’, I was already airborne! Flying through the air I made contact with a shrub, the branches of which were stout enough to shoot me back to the position from whence I came.
“Like a gymnast, I turned in the air and landed on my chest, instantly jerking my head to the side to determine where the rhino was. From ground level, the charging colossus seemed as huge as a mountain. And it was almost on top of me!”
Martin instinctively threw his arms over his head and steeled himself for the impact of the terrible anterior horn that would have gored him as if he were a piece of paper! Then Providence stepped in. As the rhino went over him, the horn brushed over his back and, miracle of miracles, not one of the big feet trod on him as the rhino crossed his prostrate body!
The cow had clearly had her revenge and did not turn back. It disappeared into the bush, leaving a very dishevelled game ranger behind!
A few moments later a dust-covered Martin slowly turned around on his back and lifted his shaken body into a sitting position. He was still busy searching for injuries when he became aware of moisture running down his back. Blood! Many thoughts rushed through his mind as he carefully removed his rucksack. Then he uttered a sigh of relief, for there was the source of the moisture – a broken waterbottle, probably smashed by a toe on one of the rhino’s huge feet as it went over him!
It took his shaking hands quite a while to find his pipe. More than half of the matches in his matchbox slipped through his trembling fingers before he succeeded in lighting the pipe. However, by the time he got it started, all went almost too well for words for, from a distance, the smoke he produced must have closely resembled a veld fire in the making!
The nerve-racking experience senior game ranger, Sam Fourie, had with a huge elephant cow in the Kruger National Park a few years ago, removed all doubt in his mind about the presence of a boundless maternal love in elephants.
These generally peaceful animals can become terribly dangerous if the safety of their offspring is put in jeopardy. It is, therefore, wise to avoid, as far as possible, coming close to a breeding herd of elephant, the behaviour of which can at times be totally unpredictable.
“What happened to me that lovely autumn day, will stay with me forever,” Sam said.
“If I had a choice, however, I would prefer to erase the whole story from my mind.
“On that day we were culling a herd of elephant in the far northern part of the Kruger Park. A marksman with a dart gun was anaesthetising the elephants one by one from a circling helicopter.
“The ground crews then moved in and culled the unconscious adults. Their carcasses were loaded onto huge, specially adapted trucks before they were moved to the abattoir near Skukuza. The young ones, in the meantime, were shoved into crates and transported to the holding pens at Skukuza, where they were housed until they were sold or exchanged for other species of wildlife.
“The noise created by man and machine and the continuous trumpeting of the young elephants made it impossible for the people on the ground to know what was going on in the bush around them, and it was my task to keep guard and assure the safety of the personnel on the scene.
“It was late afternoon and the last trucks, loaded with elephant carcasses, had left the scene. There were only two crates with young elephants left to be loaded. One or two of the youngsters refused to stop their trumpeting, whereupon I took my .458 rifle and ascended a huge termite mound to get a better view of the surroundings. I can remember the beautiful sight very well of a marvellous sunset that awaited me from that viewpoint. Had it not been for the mercy of the Creator who, only minutes later, snatched me from the brink of death, it could easily have been the last sunset of my life.
“I suddenly saw a herd of elephant at a distance of about five hundred metres, moving parallel to where we were. I was still scanning the group when a movement closer to us caught my eye. It was a huge elephant that had probably broken away from the herd. It was charging straight at us. The elephant had already covered about half the distance by then and I could only catch a glimpse of a shoulder or a part of its backside now and then, as it made its way through the mopani trees.
“I shouted to the workers at the crates, telling them that an elephant was approaching us at full speed. This was a huge elephant cow and her body language told me that she was not just trying to scare us off. She was on a suicide mission, which was surely aimed at rescuing the trumpeting calves!
“I jumped down from the mound and started running towards the workers, while simultaneously cocking my rifle. It became clear that the cow would move into the gap between the workers and myself if she kept approaching us at the same angle. That would have placed the workers right in my line of fire if I were compelled to shoot.
“The action was fast and furious and the situation was turning into a nightmare. The cow was very close to us as she stormed through an open spot in the mopani bushes. I was running in her direction, waving my arms and shouting at the top of my voice. I had to draw her attention away from the workers. However, she was so determined to reach the calves that she completely ignored me. Still shouting at the top of my voice, I took a short cut around a cluster of bushes and suddenly, in a clearing, the elephant and I were face to face as we charged at each other.”
The cow immediately took notice of Sam and, still at full speed, pressed her ears close against her head while making a ninety-degree turn in his direction. At that stage the elephant was a mere twenty metres away and they were approaching each other at breakneck speed! A fraction of a second later, the distance was reduced to ten metres! Sam remembered lifting the gun to his shoulder while trying to come to a halt at the same time. It was too late, for by then the cow was almost on top of him! To aim was out of the question. He steeled himself instinctively for the inevitable collision with the mountainous body.
“Suddenly, it was as if things started happening in slow motion,” Sam said.
“Without aiming, I pulled the trigger as soon as the butt of the rifle touched my shoulder. The colossus ploughed into the dust barely three metres away from me. The next moment I was surprised to find myself in the dust next to elephant, as if I had been knocked down by a heavy blow to the head.
“Before I could move a finger, the cow was on her feet again – luckily quite disorientated as she stood next to me. I had no time to get to my feet and I delivered the mortal shot from where I was sitting on the ground!
“During the chaos, there was some shouting going on behind me. Badly shaken, I struggled to my feet and turned around, only to find that there was not a soul in sight! The workers had already fled into the bushes to summon help from a nearby group. They were convinced that the elephant had killed me!
“It took me a while to recover, and when I did, I tried to determine how I had landed on the ground. I retraced my steps and soon found the answer. Before pulling the trigger, I had not, as usual, leaned forward to absorb the recoil. Instead, while suddenly coming to a standstill, I had leaned backwards and, to make matters worse, did not have my hind foot on the ground the moment I fired. Without the support of another leg, the recoil of the heavy calibre rifle simply threw me off balance and caused me to hit the dirt!
“After a while I shakily clambered back onto the same termite mound. I was just in time to admire the last rays of that beautiful sunset! In my heart, there was an indescribable gratitude towards the Creator who, through a miracle, had given me another chance to enjoy the beauty of His creation.
“I looked at the cow and realised anew that there will always be a special place in my heart for elephants. The suicidal way in which this brave cow completely ignored the smell and noise of man and his machines to try and save the lives of calves that were actually strangers to her, renewed my respect for them. At the same time I realised how little we know about the deeper feelings of these mysterious pachyderms, whose psychology, to this day, largely remains a sealed book to us.
“Although we only know a little of the deepest emotions of elephants, there can be no doubt about the presence of a boundless maternal love in an elephant cow – a love so strong it overrides her fear of death.
“There is, therefore, no doubt in my mind that there is much more to an elephant than the sum of its large body parts!”
As sad as it may seem, it was one of his beloved elephants, that tragically claimed Sam’s life a few years later.
The work of a game ranger is certainly among the most sought-after of all careers. To work with nature on a daily basis is a privilege beyond comparison.
As enriching as this might be, however, it is also one of the most dangerous. Rangers face threats of various kinds every day: nature itself, animals and sometimes even man.
Ranger Million Cossa of Punda Maria in the Kruger National Park has firsthand experience of this. One day during the 1960s he came face to face with death in a skirmish with a gang of poachers in the Pretoriuskop area.
“We received information that a group of poachers had set up camp on a flat-topped granite koppie near Nyarhini in the Pretoriuskop area,” says Million.
“After discussing the matter with our colleagues, another ranger, Elias, and I camouflaged ourselves by covering our uniforms with long grass. We then started an uphill stalk on the enemy late in the afternoon.
“Everything went well in our ascent of the koppie until the poachers suddenly became aware of our presence. Without warning they suddenly fired a shot at my colleague who at that stage was out of my sight.
“Another shot rang out and I heard the bullet whistle past my head. I retreated into a ditch and then ran to a colleague of mine who was manning a nearby outpost. We summoned the assistance of senior ranger Koos Smit who, accompanied by other rangers, joined us soon after dark.
“We encircled the koppie under the cover of darkness and cautiously moved uphill. When we were fairly close to our destination, Koos fired a shot at the overhanging cliff under which we knew the poachers to be hiding. We then stormed the place. One of the poachers dived for his rifle and was fatally wounded when a ranger opened fire. That scared the wits out of his three companions and they surrendered without any further resistance.
“The group was well organized. They even had four donkeys with them to carry the meat out of the park. They rode on the donkeys’ backs and when they reached the fence, they cut the wires without dismounting. Thus no human tracks were left behind. When the tracks were spotted by rangers investigating the damage to the fence, they were easily fooled into believing them to be zebra tracks.
“When the tension and excitement had subsided, we suddenly realized that Elias was not with us. A search was immediately launched and after a while the light of a torch fell on his hat which was hanging from the branch of a tree.
“Moments later we were paralysed with shock when we found Elias lying on the ground with a bullet wound in his head. It appeared that he had been killed instantly.
“Judging from the hole in the hat and the blood on it, we concluded that it must have been torn from the poor man’s head and flung into the tree with the impact of the poacher’s bullet.
“Humbled we realized for the umpteenth time – life is a gift, and should not be taken for granted.”
Through the years the antics of juvenile elephants in the Kruger National Park provided great pleasure to both the trails rangers and their guests, the hikers. These people were most fortunate to witness many a unique and comical situation that represents an important part in the lives of these mischievous little rascals.
To be able to enjoy their antics to the full, one first of all needs to be close enough to a breeding herd of elephants. To the ignorant this may not be a problem but be aware for by trying to achieve this, one can easily land you in a life-threatening situation. However, the privilege to be in the midst of an experienced trails ranger like Sam Fourie is to reduce the risk to almost none. With Sam in the lead one can safely stalk to within forty metres or less from such a herd. From there one can make some unique observations of elephant behaviour as well as receiving a bonus of an unexpected adrenaline surge!
That is exactly what happened on the Wolhuter Trail in the southern part of the Kruger Park some years ago, when Sam and a group of hikers became aware of a breeding herd of elephants some eighty metres from where the group were.
“The people in our group were a pleasant bunch, and I decided to provide them with a special experience they would not easily forget. The risks were much higher than usual and were they a less agreeable group, I would not have dreamed of putting myself in such a stressful situation,” Sam said.
“To get close to those elephants without them becoming aware of us, would be very difficult because of the lack of cover in the form of trees and shrubs to keep us out of the sight of the pachyderms. About forty metres away from them was a small outcrop with a few boulders. The grass in that vicinity was also longer than elsewhere and luckily the wind was blowing in the right direction.
“I explained to the group that to stalk the elephants can become a risky operation but that we nevertheless had an even chance to succeed. Absolute silence and discipline will however be a prerequisite for success as well as survival.
“The hikers could not wait to start stalking the elephants and soon we slowly approached the outcrop in single file giving the herd a wide berth. Every now and then I brought them to a halt to check on the direction of the wind. By the time we reached the boulders, we were no more than forty metres from the elephants. When each one in the group has made himself comfortable on the rocks, we could silently watch the herd as they munched away at the leaves and grass in their surroundings.
“It was clear that the elephants were completely relaxed. A half-grown calf of about one and a half metres high and a small juvenile which would have reached one metre in height if it was standing on the tip of its tiny toes were slowly moving away from the herd. Big Brother was trying to feed while a frustrated Juvenile was hopping and skipping around him, probably trying to persuade him to join in the play! Something in little Juvenile’s attitude indicated to me that he was a little rascal full of mischief.
“Unaware of our presence, however, the two of them moved closer and closer to us until they were only about eight metres away. I changed my position and moved to the front of the boulders so that I could be between our group and the elephants just in case something unforeseen happened when they become aware of our presence. I half expected them to trigger the alert that will activate the herd into some offensive action, should the little ones start to panic.
“Juvenile must have noticed the movement when I changed my position, for he confidently walked up the slope and with his little head swaying from side to side, came straight at me. Inexperienced as he was, he probably thought that I was another elephant and that I would perhaps be a much better playmate than his unsympathetic friend!
“I climbed down and squatted in front of the boulder without even cocking my rifle. Somewhere in the jungle of huge grey bodies was his mother feeding without any idea that her naughty little baby was making new friends!
“Another few steps and Juvenile was so close to me that I could have touched him had I put a hand out in his direction! I looked straight into the playful little eyes behind the long eyelashes and I was sure I could see the corners of his mouth turning into a naughty little smile!
“It was then that I asked him in a muffled voice: ‘Hey! What are you doing..?’”
“The expression on the little face instantly turned into one of utmost bewilderment and disbelief. With a yell he swung around to get away from this terrible menace which a few seconds earlier, was supposed to be a friend!
“What happened next was a scream! It seemed as if Juvenile’s front legs were running away from their counterparts at the back. The little hind legs, which were stretched backwards, dragged furrows through grass and soil, while those at the front pumped like mad to get their little master as quick and as far away as possible from this unexpected menace!
“About ten metres down the slope his trailing hind legs suddenly got into action again and while four stubby little legs were doing their best to synchronise, he gave chase to Big Brother who was already charging back to the herd as fast as he could!
“I was worried about the possible reaction of the herd for the cry of a baby in distress is more than enough to make them launch an all out attack on the perpetrator. To our relief they stormed away into the bush, trumpeting at full blast, soon after Juvenile had joined them.
“Old Elias, my assistant, teacher and a master of bush lore, repeatedly went back to the scene. Looking at the furrows, he shook his head in disbelief and started laughing anew.
“That was a very comical situation which I believe was not witnessed by anyone before. To this day I often fail to control my laughter when I think of the antics of the happy-go-lucky Juvenile and I still wondered whether he will be just as friendly when he roams the African bush, perhaps to become one of Africa’s giant tuskers.”
During the day lions are relatively afraid of people and will usually retreat rather than attack.
At night, with darkness on their side, however, these animals undergo a total change of behaviour. Then the respect which they have for man in the daylight, gives way to a fearlessness which makes one’s blood run cold.
So says senior ranger Ted Whitfield, when one talks to him about the behaviour of lions in the Kruger National Park. And he should know, because he has found himself face-to-face with lions on various occasions.
Then it has been only his experience and composure which has kept him out of the claws of the big cats. Because it is not for nothing that Ted has the reputation of being a man without nerves.
One of these experiences still makes him break out in gooseflesh!
“While I was the ranger at Satara in the central part of the Kruger National Park, my colleague Tom Yssel of Nwanetsi let me know one afternoon that his dog had tick-bite fever,” tells Ted.
“I immediately left with the antidote for this disease on my bush motorbike, without my rifle, and made my way to the sick dog, where we eventually managed to determine the right dosage, after a long struggle, and injected the dog.
“It was already dusk when I left Tom’s place, so that I had to switch on the lights of the motorbike before I was halfway to Satara. A kilometre or some from this rest camp I suddenly spotted two lions beside the road in the weak light of the motorbike.
“I recognised one of them immediately. It was a bedevilled male which had often given my rangers trouble.
“In the daylight I would have risked riding past them, but because I knew about the change in a lion’s behaviour at night, I stopped. I was twenty paces from them and kept the light of the motorbike on them, while I devised a plan to get safely past them.”
Then the bedevilled male suddenly bore down n Ted! The game ranger shouted loudly at the lion while he revved the motorbike engine, in the hope that it would frighten off the big male. The animal drew to a halt in front of the bike, roaring, upon which Ted addressed a few harsh words to the lion – words which unfortunately cannot be repeated.
“It was clear that the male had no intention of letting me get away. After I had survived another charge, a tourist who was late returning to the rest camp, came upon the scene.
“I could hear by the sound of his car’s engine that he intended racing past, and so I indicated that he should stop – which he did very neatly between me and the lion!
“That was when I shouted at the flabbergasted man to drive as though the devil were after him, as the lion was making its way to the other side of the car. With the car as a buffer between me and the lion, I opened the throttle for all I was worth. When the lion realised what was going on, I was already safely beyond its reach!
“When I arrived home, I was still shaking. I was so angry that I felt like taking my rifle and killing the lion!
“The very next day I had a contraption installed on my motorbike in which I could transport my rifle …”
While Ted was a game ranger in the Timbavati Nature Reserve, he had an experience with lions which was the cause of him being plagued by nightmares for a long time afterwards, and in which indecision almost cost him his life.
“I was walking past one of the dams in this nature reserve one day during a patrol, when a growl from a clump of guarrie bushes on the bank of the dam suddenly made me stop in my tracks.
“The following moment a lioness charged at me, drawing to a halt some ten paces in front of me! Then another lioness charged at me, stopping without warning a pace or so closer to me than the other one had. They took turns in approaching me slowly, until they were about five paces from me.
“My rifle was against my shoulder the whole time, but I couldn’t decide whether to shoot or not, with the result that the lions were later so close to me that I could no longer risk shooting without one of them getting hold of me!
“I started retreating very slowly. The lions fortunately remained where they were, growling all the time. When I got near the pick-up truck, I quickly spun around and jumped into the cab of the vehicle!
“It was only later that evening that I truly realised how close I had been to death. I resolved never again to allow indecision to place me in such a perilous situation …”
One could justly ask what it is about an elephant that makes it such an extraordinary animal. The logical answer is: actually everything. Its strength is legendary, its anatomy is a never-failing topic and its trunk is an anatomical and functional miracle.
The trunk, containing hundreds of muscles and ligaments, is a hand that can do almost everything; it brings the elephant’s food to its mouth; it is his weapon of attack; also his garden-hose and vacuum cleaner, his nose, his power tool when he wants to bring down a huge tree as well as his fingers when he wants to pick up a match from the ground!
The elephant’s teeth with its unique way of shedding are just as remarkable, while its tusks had turned many an ordinary elephant into a legend like the members of the Magnificent Seven group of elephants and many other superb ivory carriers of the Kruger National Park; elephants whose ivory pillars, in some cases, rested on the ground while they stood dreaming somewhere in the bush like elephants often do. A perfect example of this is Mafunyane (the angry one) the giant with the perfect symmetrical tusks who had a large hole at the top of his skull through which he could breathe.
The elephant’s senses are another source of great interest. Its excellent sense of smell and acute hearing, aided by two gigantic ears, compensates to a great extent for its poor eyesight. These ears pressed flat against the elephant’s head, signals an imminent attack that has only one aim namely to destroy its target.
There are only a few sounds, if any, that is as intimidating as the deafening trumpeting of an elephant. It is an absolutely nerve-racking experience to be in the audience at that moment. The renowned Professor Fritz Eloff says it still gives him the shudders when he recalls those terrible noises that dominated the Mafunyane-episode in which his life had been at stake as well as the attack in the Hoanib River in the Kaokoland when an elephant wanted to pass him and Clive Walker into eternity.
“I first saw the magnificent elephant bull in 1974 while it was standing in the shade of the Ana Tree,” says Professor Eloff.
“The sight of it was so intimidating that it took me quite a few moments to regain my composure. I turned around and hasted back to the camp using my tracks to show me the way. I invited my colleagues to accompany me back to where I first had found the tracks of the monster. There we first measured the enormous tracks of the bull’s hind foot. The length of the oval-shaped spoor stretched the tape to a massive 82 cm while its width registered 58 cm! “
Four years later this same bull was killed by Hans Oosterveen, a hunter from Holland. This elephant had a shoulder height of 4, 42 meter which was the largest elephant in the world at that time.