The plain was strewn with dead zebras. Last night's thunderstorm had flooded the flatlands hoof-deep, and lightning did the rest. More than two dozen carcasses dotted the grasslands. Already, only an hour after dawn, the vultures were at work. Black-backed jackals stood their ground defiantly as the Toyota safari wagon rolled to a halt.
"The rifle of God," Bill Winter said. "Silaha ya mungu. The government can keep us from hunting all right, but it can't deny God His sport."
Winter and I were traveling through Kenya, assessing the state of the game animals. Winter, who is 46, had been a professional hunter until last May when President Jomo Kenyatta outlawed his calling in an attempt to help preserve Kenya's wildlife. Ten months later, to curtail the widespread slaughter of game by poachers, Kenyatta had had to prohibit the sale of wildlife trophies and curios.
Ahead of us, at the edge of the plain, Naibor Keju soared up from the border of the Lorogi Forest, a stately curve of granite that glowed in the early light. Naibor Keju means "White Legs" in Samburu, but there was nothing remotely white or leggy about it. The most obvious landmark in the region, Naibor Keju is prominent in Samburu mythology. Nearby stands a more famous landmark, a smaller outcropping known as the Rope of God. Ages ago, the Samburu say, this was a giant umbilical cord connected to Heaven. Down it poured milk and blood—food for the people—from God's herds. One day a man whose cattle had been killed by lions climbed up and asked God for some cows to replenish his stock. God refused, and in a rage the man severed the rope with his short sword. That was the Fall from Grace, Samburu-style.
May 28, 1978
A great gusher of milk and blood poured down, inundating the countryside, and the umbilicus drew back up into the sky. Indeed, the whole sky rose higher than it had ever been before. From now on, men would have to fend for themselves. But the man who had cut the Rope of God was forbidden to keep cattle. Henceforth, God decreed, the only creatures he could herd would be bees. That, according to the legend, was how the bee-hunting Wandorobo bands split off from the cattle-herding Samburu.
Despite heavy poaching, the wildlife of southern Kenya was still in excellent condition, except for rhinoceroses and elephants, whose horns and tusks are valuable enough in the outside world to warrant the risk of arrest. Having seen this, we had come to Naibor Keju in the hope of gauging the situation to the north. Northern Kenya has traditionally been the scene of raiding and poaching by its neighbor Somalia. Bands of Somalis, known as shifta, cross the border with impunity, often armed with Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles and plastic land mines. They raid villages, ambush trucks and slaughter game. Somalia claims that all of northern Kenya, clear down to Mount Kenya itself, is its property. As a result, the Kenyan government has opened new roads into the north, mainly to expedite troop movements in the event of war, and caravans of its own troops course the countryside every day. African soldiers are notorious for slaughtering wildlife whenever they can. And they have the weapons at hand. Between shifta and soldiery, the game takes a heavy pounding.
I had hunted the country around Naibor Keju with Winter in 1974, and at that time it was thick with gazelles, buffalo, eland, impala, game birds and lions. In our three-day stay this time out we saw plenty of gazelles but very little else, except for the zebra herd, which seemed to be stronger than it had been four years earlier. Heavy rain kept us from penetrating deep into the surrounding Lorogi Forest, so we had no chance to check for signs of rhino or elephant. But clearly the region had taken a "dreadful clouting," as Winter would say in his English locution. It seemed that the Rope of God had been cut again in a new, more insidious, manner.
Not far from the scene of the electrocuted zebras we came upon the carcass of a freshly killed impala doe. She had been partly skinned, and a spear, a blanket and a walking stick lay beside her. Lambat, our Dorobo tracker, found blood and hair along a track down which she had been dragged. An entry wound gaped in the doe's neck. Nearby, a group of young Samburu were herding goats, and when we began to gut the animal one of them—a boy of no more than 12—came running up. Soldiers had shot the impala, the boy said, and because they had left it to rot, he had decided to salvage the meat. Yet on opening the body cavity we could find no bullet, not even a fragment of one. The doe was heavily pregnant.
"She was probably lying up in some cover, in labor, and the lad spotted her," Winter said. "Short work with the spear. Well, Bwana. we've caught ourselves a poacher—but what do we do next? Turn him over to the police in Maralal? If we let him go, this boy will be a hero tonight in his manyatta for bringing home the bacon. If we turn him in, he'll spend months in the toils of the law, and that isn't a pretty prospect anywhere on this continent."
The boy went off to his goats, loaded with fresh meat. Behind him he left the almost born mimba. The fetus was sleek and darkly marked, gleaming with amniotic fluid, and its perfectly formed hooves felt soft as jelly.
"I hope we did the right thing," Winter said as we drove away. "This kind of poaching is never going to be eradicated. The people are hungry for meat, for protein of any kind. They see game as competition for their cattle. And with the human population of Kenya growing at about 3.5% a year, the competition is going to get sharper and sharper. In the old days the tribes were nomadic, so they took their killing of the game with them whenever they moved. Now the government is encouraging permanent farms, subsistence farms. No farmer wants bushbuck invading his plot of maize. He sets wire snares along the game trails. Keeps crop loss down and puts meat in the pot. When lions kill his cattle, he puts a spoonful of Coopertox—cattle dip—into the carcass and the lions are finished. Poisoned. In the old days the warriors went out after the lion with spears, but that's all in the past. Tin roofs, babies, wire snares and cattle dip—that's the wave of the future. That's what will ultimately finish the wildlife."
Later in the day we found the skeleton of a buffalo, its horn tips cut off to make the ubiquitous Kenyan snuffboxes called karanges. Stopping at various villages along the way, we heard the same story from everyone. Nyama mingi—plenty of game. Lions had been taking the cattle. There were elephants and rhinos in the deep forest. Baboons had been into the corn last night. Would we shoot them?
"But the hunting is finished," Winter explained time and again. "It is over. The government has taken away our guns."
"But I am a good skinner. Could you not hire me for this safari?"
Driving back to camp that night we spotted glowing eyes in the light of the head lamps—a leopard high on Naibor Keju. I hoped it was the same leopard that had kept me awake every night with its coughing four years ago, as it prowled in search of baboons. The stars were out in fuller force than we had seen so far. Beyond the reach of the campfire the air was Rocky Mountain crisp. I recall hearing that this was the very country in which Arthur Neumann, the turn-of-the-century elephant hunter, made his name. I was told he was the first white man to live here permanently. And that only 70-odd years ago. The Samburu have a name for him, Nyama Yangu—My Meat—because whenever they came begging he turned them away with that phrase. An old man named Lesombolo, who came to camp in hopes of selling us a spear ("This is my heart!" he exclaimed in his sales pitch. "I'll take $8 for it"), said he once worked for Nyama Yangu. He said that Nyama Yangu carved his initials and those of his safari boys on a tree trunk below the waterfall across from camp. But that was long ago.
Dropping off to sleep, I remembered being told that Nyama Yangu had never sold the ivory of the elephants he had killed. He told friends he had cached it somewhere in the Samburu country. Maybe there, near the waterfall, where the old man had told us we might find his initials? The Treasure of Nyama Yangu.... That's what Africa does to you.
The leopard coughed up on the rock face far above my tent. That was reality—at least there was one leopard left.
The Shaba Game Reserve, north of Isiolo in the Northern Frontier District, is a small park by Kenya's standards—only 100 square miles in area—yet it is quintessentially East Africa. Flat-topped acacias stud the rolling, high-grass game plain. The country looks deceptively easy to travel but is in fact a lava bed that will turn an ankle in an instant of unwariness. The park's northern boundary is the Ewaso Ngiro River, cascading down from the heights of Mount Kenya to die, finally, in the Lorian Swamp south of Wajir. When we arrived the river was in spate, thanks to the ongoing rains. It ran red between its sandstone banks, carrying with it tons of topsoil.
On the way in we spotted birds working over a carcass and, on approaching, found it to be that of a young lion. He had not yet developed a mane, and the condition of his hide—hair slipping at the touch of a boot—showed he had been poisoned.
"Probably a cattle killer," Winter said, "or maybe the son of one. At any rate, the Coopertox has finished him for good and all. The trouble with this indiscriminate use of poison is that it kills everything that comes to feed on the carcass of a dead cow. Jackals, hyenas, vultures, marabous, not to mention the lion that quite innocently did the job in the first place."
Our camp had been pitched beside a limestone spring. Blacksmith plovers circled anxiously as we settled in. Buffalo weavers, the males with dusty red bills and white-flashed dark wings, nested in the acacias that provided our shade. Nearby were a group of stone cairns, lava black in the afternoon light. They probably date back to the earliest arrival of the Boran tribe in these parts. We pondered on the life-styles of the dead men lying under those rocks.
Shaba is Joy Adamson country, established largely through funding provided by her from the profits of her popular book Born Free, films and money raised by the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal. The park was opened last May, and we were only the ninth party to register at the Garba Tula gate. The Adamson camp lay across the lava plain from ours, and Mrs. Adamson was in residence and in the process of releasing back into the wild a leopard she had raised from a cub. One afternoon we set out to call on her.
A tall, lean woman of 68, her sun-bleached hair cropped close, she received us graciously despite the pressure of her work. "Penny, my leopard, is 18 months old and weighs 120 pounds," she said as we drank warm beer in her compound. "She's a proper scoundrel. All claws and teeth, as you can see." She indicated the healing scars on her arms. "I've learned to clear out whenever she begins chewing at her hind feet. That's the sign that she's about to chew my front ones."
Mrs. Adamson spoke with a heavy Austrian accent, quite a surprise to those who saw the film version of Born Free, in which perky Virginia McKenna. an Englishwoman, portrayed her.
"I spend about eight hours a day tracking Penny down with a direction finder," Mrs. Adamson said. "She's wearing a radio transmitter in her collar. You've seen Shaba—it's tough walking. But a short time ago Bob Aguya, the game warden at Samburu Park just west of us, gave me a lion cub. Now I have both Penny and the cub to deal with. Would you like to see him?"
We went into the wire-fenced cage and the lion cub looked up at us. Then he scooted to a grassy corner and flattened to invisibility. "I call him Kula, the Swahili for 'eat,' " Mrs. Adamson said. "He's a darling, but I don't know what to do with him. By the time I'm finished with my work on Penny, I have none left for him. Some nights I've sat up with him for hours, just chatting. Baby lions need a lot of attention. But I haven't the time. Would you like another glass of beer?"
The talk swung to the poaching problem, and she agreed that the government's closing of the curio shops was the most important step thus far. "But the real salvation of East Africa's wildlife won't come until foreign demand for animal products ceases," she added. "Leopard-skin coats, ivory gewgaws and the Chinese belief in the medicinal properties of rhino horn. Education of the public to the plight of the game is all-important. That's what my Elsa clubs all around the world are about. If we can save just one lion or leopard or giraffe or zebra, we'll have done something."
A brilliant red sunset illuminated the mountainous horizon. A herd of oryx, more than 50 strong, galloped across the track ahead of us, their long horns spiking the oncoming night. Ayan, Winter's second tracker, a husky, one-eyed Turkana, watched them go wistfully. "Picture safaris make my blood bad," he gruffed in that deep, raspy voice all Turkanas affect. "Hunting is better for me. I love to watch animals and to kill them and then eat them." And Joy Adamson prays for "education." I wondered if Ayan would care for an Elsa club membership.
That night, as we lay reading in our tents, I suddenly heard a loud rumbling directly outside the canvas. Lion? Not likely. It sounded more like a cement mixer going berserk. Then I caught the strong barnyard odor—elephants! Eating 300 pounds of greenery a day, their stomachs are always churning. Peering out the side flap I saw the starlit sky suddenly go black. Not 10 feet away an elephant trumpeted. Any moment now they might blunder into the tents. If so, we would soon be squashed as flat as hammered tin cans.
Winter leaped out of his tent with a flashlight, swinging the beam wildly at the herd. It stampeded—an earth-quaking roar, punctuated by squeals and high trumpeting. I ran out to watch them go. On the hillside opposite us was a wall of dust punctuated by the gray, sinuous trunks snaking high as the herd fled.
"There were at least 60 or 80 of them," Winter yelled. "Crikey, that was a close one."
Back in the tent, I gingerly removed six needle-sharp thorns from the soles of my bare feet. In the excitement, I hadn't even felt them penetrate. Somehow it was difficult to regain interest in the Tolstoy short story I had been reading.
Our final safari camp was at Meru National Park, beyond the Nyambeni Range east of Isiolo. The lads had pitched the tents at the edge of a wooded stream, far off the main roads of the park. Vervet and colobus monkeys festooned the trees, watching owlishly as Masamba, our worthy mpishi, whipped up another three-star supper. Meru, with its weird, two-trunked doum palms and strange red outcroppings—decomposed lava boulders covered with red sandy soil—is excellent country for elephant-watching and, until recently, for rhinos as well. On the road in we met with Denis Zaphiro, an old hunting buddy of both Winter and Ernest Hemingway, and stopped to hear his appraisal of the elephant and rhino situation at Meru. Zaphiro, a lean, gray-haired Englishman, appeared particularly scholarly when he put on his glasses to read the park map. Plenty of elephants, he told us, but only one with decent ivory. Rhinos, too, but they were up in the red hills, off the good roads, and with all the rain we'd been having it was very difficult to get to them.
"Those three white rhinos that were pranged up here last fall were killed by a group that included a game scout," Zaphiro told us. "A Somali who'd recently been transferred to Meru from down south. I had a personal stake in those kifaru—I helped in procuring them from Natal." Zaphiro and his clients, an American couple from Ohio, were heading up to the Matthews Range in the north-central part of the country for a three-week horse and camel safari. We wished them all a hearty kwaheri.
"Quite a lad, old Denis," said Winter later. "He house-sat for us while I was in England last year having my wounded foot filleted after my client accidentally plugged it with a .375. The rotter ate up all my good chutney and my costly English marmalade, not to mention drinking a whole case of Scotch whisky. Still, we all love him, and after all he's but a growing boy."
Next day we paid a call on Kenya's surviving white rhinos, which had been imported from Natal and are so docile tourists can pet them. There were three of them, a nearly full-grown male, a juvenile cow and an infant male. A zebra-striped bus unloaded a group of chattering Germans, who proceeded to surround the three rhinos, petting their mud-caked hides, stroking the heavy frontal horn of the big male and posing for fake matador shots—windbreakers sweeping in clumsy verónicas as the camera shutters buzzed.
Once again we were awed by the enormous fecundity of the wildlife. Everywhere we drove in the vastness of the park we saw young—from baby weaverbirds and red-billed quelea to 10-foot-tall infant giraffes. Climbing into the redclay hills, the Toyota's deeply lugged tires slip-sliding as if in grease, we came upon a herd of elephants. Two young bulls were fighting, their trunks entwined, small tusks poking at one another's shoulders, slamming their bodies together with the sound of toppling trees. "We'd best not get too close," Winter said. "They could turn on us." Just then, from behind a tangle of low trees, a big bull with one tusk emerged and spread his ears. Winter gunned the motor and we slowly slid away. Then, as we rounded a curve, Lambat called from the open rear hatch of the truck.
"Twende, twende! Let's go! He's coming!"
"Oh, sugar!" Bill gritted, speeding up once again. But Lambat was laughing: he'd fooled us.
"You'll do that once too often, my fine young man," Winter told him. "And then an elephant will really be coming, and I won't believe you, and we're all kufa."
On our final day we drove down to the Tana River. Buffalo herds browsed the high grass; two male giraffes battled on a ridge, slamming their heads like sledgehammers into one another in search of a knockdown punch; blue-legged Somali ostriches wobbled flat out across the prairie, their gray puffballs of young scooting to keep up. In a hippo pool a family of the rotund, ill-tempered river horses blew and yawned, then watched us with their rotary ears twitching before sinking silently back into the slimy green depths.
The Tana was in spate. A mountain of roaring, red-brown water crashed down Adamsons' Falls (Meru is the country where Elsa was found and later released). A big crocodile basked in the sun on the bank across the way. We sat on the slotted rocks beside the falls—vertical jointing, black and brown, ocher and beige, as the chocolate river poured past.
"Wouldn't it be something to see a drowned elephant come tumbling down through these falls?" Winter said. "It happens, you know. Giraffes, too. A hell of a sight. I know. I was washed down a falls like these some years ago up in the Mukogodo country, where Lambat comes from. A place called The Crocodile's Jaws. Took a swim and got caught in the rip. Over I went. How I lived through it I still can't figure, but all I picked up were a few nasty scratches. Ah yes, I was a ndume in those days, Bwana, a real bull. Now I'm finished, like old Nyngao. Old. Getting fat from lying around in hospitals having my bones plucked out. Mguu mbaya—a bad leg, thanks to that .375. But I wouldn't change a day of it. Not a minute. It was a good life while it lasted out here, with the hunting and the tough oldtimers and the country even tougher. Think of all the good men who loved this country, black and white alike. Old Nyama Yangu. Karamoja Bell. Richard Meinertzhagen. Robert Foran. Your own Hemingway and Ruark. Now they're all gone, they're finished, na kwisha kufa like old Nyngao."
A yellow and blue agama lizard crept out on a rock to bask in the heavy-hitting sun; as if in some strange counterbalance, the crocodile across the way slid into the roiling water, out of sight.
"But maybe the hunting will come back," Winter went on. "The government seems serious about preserving the herds. The World Bank loaned them $3 million to beef up their anti-poaching patrols, and no one in the government today seems deeply into the trophy or ivory trade, not with their coffee shambas paying off the way they are. Surely they can see that it wasn't the sport hunting that was decimating the herds. Yes, I think that the attitude is definitely changing for the better. No country has dedicated as much of its land and income, proportionately, to wildlife as Kenya. It's important to keep that in mind. Your country doesn't. Britain doesn't. On balance, Kenya has done a remarkable job in keeping its wildlife alive—when you consider the strong pressures on an underdeveloped nation to gratify its people. And certainly we've seen that the game can come back in a hurry, given some protection and a decent amount of rainfall.
"Yes, maybe the hunting will come back," Winter continued. "At least the bird shooting and plains game. Buffalo seem strong enough to take a little pressure, and certainly there are plenty of lions. The thing about sport hunting is that everyone benefits from it: the government in license fees; the professional hunters in a steady living; the tribes whose lands you hunt get their fair share of the client's money for every animal killed; marauding animals are eliminated at no government expense; and the client himself has the adventure of a lifetime. Hunters in the field report poachers, and the Game Department can certainly use all the help it can get. Yes, logically it would be good to reopen the hunting, perhaps with seasons on certain species and with a total ban on the killing of rhino, small, ivoried elephants and the spotted cats. Let's hope so, anyway."
I uttered a heartfelt "Amen" to that.
Leaving Meru, with the tents struck for the last time and the lorry following, we spotted a solitary bull elephant browsing under a scarred, bulbous baobab tree. It is my fantasy that baobab trees, which elephants love to gouge mercilessly with their tusks, are the reincarnations of dead poachers, doomed to stand forever under the hot African sun, getting punched and ripped by their erstwhile victims. This elephant had good ivory—60 or 70 pounds to the tusk, Winter estimated. But he had a bad hind leg—a mguu mbaya just like Winter's, maybe from a .375 bullet as well. He flapped and wagged his trunk at us but could not flee, much less attack.
We left him under his baobab tree, a fitting omen for the "reentry blues" I would be feeling soon, back in the world of towns and shops and jetliners and people.