Stumpy and Patches were two elephants that used to hang around camp on an almost full-time basis. It was as though they knew they were safer from poachers there.
Both were large bulls in their prime. Patches got his name from pale discolourations on his skin. He was unusually tall for the area, with a perfect set of evenly matched tusks. Stumpy was named for his stocky build and short thick tusks.
Patches was a menace. He would insist on staying close to man, yet would charge anyone at the slightest scent or sound of someone passing nearby.
Had these charges been mild, mock charges, it wouldn’t have been too much of a problem. Instead though, he would fly into a screaming and trumpeting rage every time and charge like a runaway train. Scouts and workers became adept at sprinting for the cover of buildings and on a couple of occasions were forced to jump into the crocodile-infested Zambezi. Fortunately no one was trampled, gored, or eaten by crocodiles.
Stumpy, on the other hand, was a much more laid-back chap. He enjoyed his food just like any other elephant and more. We spent large amounts of time trying to keep him out of the vegetable garden. In the end, the only thing that worked was posting a game scout on permanent duty to fire a shot in the air if he came to close. If the game scout went away for a minute, then Stumpy would be in the vegetables in seconds. Unfortunately, he knocked down the kitchen trying to get at marula fruits that had fallen through the windows, but that was just clumsiness not malicious at all.
Patches and Stumpy were best friends. They were nearly always together. It did make it easier to notice when they were around because between them they made quite a racket breaking branches and knocking over trees … and kitchens of course.
Stumpy was wonderful. I used to sit whenever I had a chance just watching him and talking in a low, soft voice. Eventually, I could walk right by him or stop and watch him for a while.
One day he approached me, waggled his head, and then stretched it down and forwards towards me with his trunk wrapped over his tusk. I was dumbstruck. Elephants do this to other elephants to invite them to play. He wanted to play!
I couldn’t exactly go and wrestle with him, so I made some noise and threw some dust in a mock display and he happily joined in. Thereafter, when I saw him, he would waggle his head in invitation and kick or throw dust or sticks at me and I would do the same.
The most amazing thing happened when I had a bad case of malaria (we used to get it regularly in those days) and was asleep on a mat in the shade of a large tree in the middle of the camp. It was an ideal spot, as the breeze off the river and the shade of the enormous tree combined to bring the oven-like temperature down a notch at least.
No one had noticed Stumpy had wandered in to feed on the same tree. When they did, it was too late. Unbeknown to me, he was feeding whilst standing over me. He had literally walked carefully over me and then stood happily reaching up to pluck leaves while I snored away under his belly.
There was a bit of a panic. No one could do anything as they were afraid to scare him in case he stood on me. So, they waited, and eventually he finished his sampling, put his trunk down, sniffed my face all over, and then stepped his back feet over me and wandered off. I was still none the wiser.
My relationship with Patches was a whole different story.
We did not get on at all. He would wait outside my hut and charge as soon as I came to the door. There was nothing friendly or fun about it.These were extremely aggressive and close to full charges.
We had some really close calls. He almost squashed a Singaporean visitor who decided not to wait for the obligatory escort and decided to stroll from his hut to the dining area. Patches missed him by inches. Fortunately, this fellow turned into a really good sprinter on really short notice and made it into a building just in time. There were many close calls with the workers, and there were more and more calls to have him put down.
Eventually Patches almost got me.
I was at a different camp a couple of kilometers downstream collecting supplies. I walked out of the warehouse, and didn’t notice Patches standing quietly nearby. Once I did, it was too late.
He had been next to the building and then walked in between the building and me before charging. I couldn’t run back into the building and it was too far to the river. I was stuck, and he was coming at me like a giant cannon ball.
Something clicked in my head, and I let him have it. I screamed the most foul abusive stream of the most vile and filthy language at him and told him exactly what I thought of him. At the same time, I walked toward him.
I have stood down many, many mock charges from elephants and have learned in detail the art of interacting with them. However, this was different, it was what anyone would only describe as a full charge. His ears were back, his head was down, his trunk was curled, and I was unarmed.
I usually always had a side arm foremergencies and when out in the bush always carried a rifle. However, right now, I had nothing. I actually had no choice really, so I just had to call his bluff and otherwise hope I would go quickly.
He stopped about 10 meters away from me just as the last, most disgusting insult came out of my mouth. Then he raised his head, shook it, spraying me with snot and then walked away slowly at an angle keeping one eye on me.
I walked back to the warehouse. My friend and colleague Rolf Niemeijer was standing there with a bunch of workers.
“Young,” he said, “you are completely and utterly insane,” and then turned and walked away. Right then, I found it difficult to argue with that. At least there was method in my madness, I suppose. Anyway, it worked.
Not too long after, I returned from time off to be told by Lew Games, my boss, that I needed to shoot an elephant.
“What’s the story?” I asked.
“A bull has a cable-snare round his leg. Probably meant for kudu, but it went bad. ZAWA called in a vet but it took three days for them to get him here. It was already too far gone then, now the poor bugger is on his last legs and in agony.The vet just confirmed he needs to be put down asap. ZAWA asked if you could do it.”
I didn’t have much time to think about which bull it might be and never considered for a moment that it might be an Stumpy or Patches. There were hundreds of elephants around, and it was unlikely to be those chaps, as they were always close to camp, not areas where the poachers tended to place snares.
I set of with a couple of scouts from ZAWA (Zambia Wildlife Authority) and a colleague named Peter Caborn, who had asked if he could tag along.
It was no great hunting expedition. The poor old fellow was only a kilometer from the camp. When elephants injure a foot they can’t go anywhere and quickly starve as they cannot get the variety of nutrients they need in such a confined area.
His foot was swollen literally to the shape of a football. He was emaciated and clearly on his last legs, poison coursing through him. It was Stumpy.
Patches was standing quietly nearby.
I put all thoughts and emotions out of my mind. The kindest thing I could do for him was to take away his pain as quickly as possible.
I shot Stumpy through the brain.
Patches continued to stick around, but although he continued to be aggressive to everybody else, he never charged me again. I would often see him from a distance standing at the spot where I shot Stumpy. Elephants do visit the remains of dead elephants. They are also believed to be self-aware like we are.
I never went back to that place until recently, so about 17 years later. It felt like it was yesterday and I can still remember clear as day those bulls.
I didn’t ask anyone if there was an elephant with whitish patches on his body and a really bad attitude. I didn’t want to know if something bad had happened to him. I like to imagine that Patches is still charging around causing havoc and from time to time visits the remains of his old friend Stumpy.
I really hope this brings some attention to the problem of Elephant and Rhino Poaching in Africa and the poaching of endangered species worldwide. Right now, it is a battle that is being lost. Here are some links to credible organizations if anyone is interested in helping:
More questions on wild animals: