Flights of Tom Claytor:

The Journals of a Bush Pilot
Travelling Though Africa


    Tom Claytor is currently flying a C180 solo around the world.

23 Apr 1996 - Marula Puku Camp, North Luangwa, Zambia

"What do you do with the poachers after you capture them," I ask. "We offer them a job," she says. I am now in one of the most remote parks in Africa - the North Luangwa - and there has been a war here. Not very many people are invited to come to this place. "We have been hurt too many times," I am told. "People tend to sensationalize what we are doing; all they want to see is anti-poaching, and they don't want to understand the whole thing." 

I am greeted by a very warm smile. "Did you hear that," he says. "You must have flown right over Survivor; I heard him trumpet four times as you came in." I look around to see what a Survivor looks like, but there is only a grass airstrip and bush. Nearby, there is a plane similar to mine with a small wheel in the back and complicated radio tracking antennas suspended beneath both wings. I suspect that one of the reasons that I have been allowed to come here is because this man and I share a passion for the same type of airplane.

We rattle slowly down a dirt track and into a world that seems very far away. This is home for Mark and Delia Owens. They are Americans, and they have lived here for ten years. On the radio, Isaac Daka is confirming that he has captured two poachers along the Lufishi River, but that the five carriers have gotten away. On his way back from Mpika in the helicopter, Mark flew over Group Charlie along the escarpment to alert them of the contact by radio. "They can now set up an ambush for the carriers," he tells me. We pull into camp and a pretty woman with a delicate southern accent welcomes us to Marula Puku.

"Delia and I first met in protozoology class at the University of Georgia," Mark chuckles. We are sitting along the bank of the Lubonga River looking up at the stars. "We wanted to find a place that was really remote and untouched." Across the river, we can hear the lions calling from the darkness. "When we first came hear, we would never hear a lion roar, nor an elephant trumpet," says Delia. "It was as if the whole wilderness was hurt and numb. Now, you hear sounds that you never heard before." Behind us in camp, an elephant is feeding off the fruit from the Marula trees; it is Survivor again. There are also several buffalo lurking in the darkness. Perhaps, this is why it is taking so long for dinner to arrive. Delia disappears with a flashlight to find out where dinner is and to guide a procession back from the cooking fire to the dinner table.

In 1986, when Mark and Delia arrived here, poachers had killed 100,000 elephants in the Luangwa Valley in the previous ten years. "You would hear shots in the morning and in the evening. If you flew over the park, it was like looking down on a table of white marbles scattered everywhere. They were elephant skulls," I am told. Some poaching groups had as many as 15 guns and 140 people. Mark and Delia located the game scouts responsible for the park; there were seven of them to cover an area the size of the state of Delaware. They had four guns and one round of ammunition. They were receiving no salary, no food, and their supervisor hadn't visited them in two years; they were poaching themselves. Mark started by flying patrols to look for smoke from meat drying fires. If he saw poachers in the park, he would dive down and fly low across the sand bars to scare them. It worked for a while. When the poachers became used to the airplane, he started to shoot noise-making firecrackers at them from the air. "We felt guilty," Mark says, "because here we are scientists, and we were fighting this war and not doing enough science. We just had to put science on hold for a while, while we did some conservation work." 

The following morning, Alex Haynes and I take off in the airplane with all the radio antennas. Alex is the fixed wing pilot, construction foreman and 'jack of all trades' for the North Luangwa Conservation Project. We are on our way to locate and count elephants. The antennas on the wings pick up the signal transmitted by radio collars on specific elephants. By switching between the two antennas and listening to the different intensities of the signal, we are able to home in on the various herds. "This is group number 32," Alex tells me. There are elephants shuffling amidst the trees along a winding river bank below. "One Matriarch with Ivory and with an Infant is collared per Unit," Alex continues. We drop in low, and he starts to count aloud as the elephants race past the window. "Does that look right to you?" he asks. There are different categories - from adult, to sub-adult, to juvenile, to infant - but at the rate and angle and speed that we are going, I am not even sure which group we are counting. I smile back fully, in response to his question, and Alex starts clicking switches to the frequency of the next group.

On the ground, Mark has let me borrow his portable air compressor. I carry 35 pounds of tools around with me, but a compressor would be a bit much. Alex holds the propeller while I measure the air leakage in each of the cylinders. "My mechanic friend in Maine says that I can go as low as 40, as long as it's not past the valves," I tell Alex. Alex is impressed by all this, because he loves flying and is one of those people who can't get enough of it. Mark then shows up and tells us that when he was in the Kalahari, one of his cylinders went down as low as 27. We're both impressed by that, although I am not sure why. Mark has spent a lot of time in Africa. He tells us about the time when he was given permission to fly over the Kafue National Park, but that he had to avoid the secret prohibited military area. "Where is the military area?" Mark asked. "That is classified," the Air Force Colonel replied. "But we have been given permission to fly in the area, where would you like us not to go?" he asked again. "If you fly into the prohibited area, you will be shot down," the Colonel said. "But I don't know where it is, what should I do?" Mark pleaded. The Colonel replied very coolly, "Ah, but your navigation better be good.

Some of the stories are unbelievable. In early 1992, after the new government had taken power, a small Cessna 206 airplane was flying back to Lusaka from Zimbabwe at around 8 p.m. "They SAMed him," Mark says. "They hit it with a missile." The next day it was announced that the National Parks plane and all four passengers were missing. No one said anything. They shot down their own plane. Some days later, the newspaper printed that the plane had gone missing due to mechanical problems. There was also a time when Mark was accosted by an Army soldier while he was walking into the Post Office. "Where is your passport?" the soldier demanded. "Where is your Visa?" Mark did not have it with him and was becoming a little worn out by all this military paranoia, so he pulled out his Visa Card and presented it to the soldier. The soldier studied the colorful silver bird on the front, handed it back, and said, "You may pass."

It is now late in the night. Alex and I climb out of bed and drive up to the airstrip. Mark is already preparing the helicopter. The game scouts are in their green uniforms. We drive down the runway and illuminate a runway of powdered milk cans full of diesel fuel. This is a different type of operation. There is no moon. Mark begins to brief the two scouts about the mission. This is a sweep of the south section of the park. With the night vision goggles, it is possible to see a poacher's fire from 15 miles. There are no lights on the helicopter. All of the inside lights are also off. The operation is conducted in complete darkness. By the time the poachers can hear the helicopter, it will be three minutes away from them and descending rapidly over their camp. Mark watches his radar altimeter, and Alex calls out the terrain below that he can see. The helicopter is invisible from the ground. If they locate the camp, they will circle it. The scouts will shoot noise-making cracker shells from a shotgun at the camp to frighten the poachers into fleeing.  Mark looks for a nearby landing site to deploy the scouts. The helicopter then directs them to the camp where they set up an ambush and wait. The night is a cold and fearful place for a poacher. There are lions, and they have left all of their valuable kit behind. When they return to camp, they are arrested. There is always a surge of poaching after the rains, but there are now 92 scouts to patrol the park, and the chances of getting caught are much higher.

In 1989, Mark flew 2.5 hours in the plane on one night and counted 53 poacher's fires. In the past three night's operations with the helicopter, they have seen one fire. As the lines of burning diesel dash past us, the whining sound climbs us through the sky. It is like that first experience as a child in the deep waters of a pool. There is no bottom, and when you reach suddenly for the edge, there strikes panic, because you are now too far. So you draw in air and swim. Here in the darkness, looking out of a bubble that I cannot see, I have no sense of whether I am 5 or 5,000 feet above the ground. It is a sudden and surprising realization, because one of my most important senses has been taken away, and the feeling of security from a known altitude is gone. With night vision goggles, this world of shivering black becomes circles of green (I have a pair that I bought from a mercenary in Mozambique - they are Russian). Now I can see a horizon, and clouds. Then carefully, I can see the ground. We are following a river. It is dark, but it is there. It is almost like learning how to see again. In the distance, one of fires from the runway bursts like a car's headlight onto the screen, and we return to the airstrip.

Alex and I land at the Mano Scout camp. Group Charlie's ambush has been successful. They have captured one of the carriers, and Isaac Daka has arrived with his prisoners. Like village elders, we sit beneath a thatch roof suspended by wooden poles. One of the scouts is boiling crushed corn meal over a smoldering fire in the center. Two of the prisoners are handcuffed to each other and the third is handcuffed alone. They are seated on pieces of firewood along the edge of the suspended roof. Eight or Nine men in green uniforms collect around them, and the interrogation begins.

They have killed two warthogs. The carrier, Webster, used to be the stationmaster at the Tazara railway station in Mpika. "I have lost my job," he says. "Why did you do this?" they ask. "I had no money and I was starving," he replies. It is hard to not become a little sympathetic to such a story. Perhaps, these are not the highly organized, deadly poachers, but as Mark reminds me, there are too many people to permit subsistence poaching. There is a legal system in place for people to hunt. They can go to the warden, buy a license and then shoot an animal. "The Tazara connection is interesting," Alex tells me, "because the Chinese built that railway in 1972, and apparently that is how all of the ivory was smuggled out of here on its way to Asia."

The prisoners are led to the prison cell where they will be held until they can be taken to see the Magistrate in Mpika. "Last year," Alex tells me, "we arrested 60 guys. 2 were acquitted and 9 went to jail; the rest were suspended. The normal charges are for possession of an unregistered firearm or for possession of government trophies." Modesto Simfukwe brings out a collection of unregistered firearms and displays them like a bouquet of flowers. These are home-made muzzle-loaders of welded metal pipe and rough cut timber. The small primer caps are filled with sulfur from match heads and stuck into wax along the inside of the trigger guard to keep them dry. The gunpowder is made by Mixing diesel and fertilizer. They are classic in their rough and simple design. One of them has been given a name - "Buleti" - which has been etched into the barrel. Alex tells me how he has seen four guys with their right eyes missing since he has been here. "These guns blow up a lot," he says.

Mark explains that they have used the carrot and the stick approach here. They have increased the perceived cost of poaching and at the same time increased the benefits of not poaching. Now this interests me. Most of the anti-poaching operations that I have been a part of in Africa are usually only taking away, but this seems to be putting something back to fill the void. When the Owens arrived, The game surveys that they did of the North Luangwa park revealed that the northern third and the southern third of the park had been sterilized by poaching. If nothing had been done, then in a few more years, there would have been nothing left for anyone to poach anyway. The Owens had to "stop the bleeding," as Mark calls it, by strict law enforcement, but then they set to task to try to create new industry for the villages to survive on without being dependent on poaching. Delia wasn't kidding when she said, "if we catch a poacher, we offer him a job." However, this only comes after his prison term is finished. They have started with a system of loans to villages. The money is loaned to start up and produce something that is needed locally and for which there is already a market. Some villages have from 20 to 30 fish ponds, some are experimenting with apiaries and sources of protein like soybeans and ground nuts, some are growing sunflower seeds that are then processed in a press to produce a valuable cooking oil which can be sold. "Before, the women in Shishala used to walk 40 miles to buy expensive cooking oil that wasn't even that good for them," Delia says. The very interesting fact for me is that of the 2,000 families have been helped so far, over 70% of the interest-free loans have been paid back. "That must be better than the World Bank," Delia says. "It is really working beautifully." These target villages are the most notorious poaching villages. The repayment can be in cash or in-kind materials, but if there is no pay back, then there is less money for the village next year, so the people in the village create the pressure for repayment. There is one man in Mpika who took out a loan to start a carpentry shop. Now, he has ten people working for him. Some of these villages didn't even have money before, they just bartered and traded poached bush meat for the oil and supplies that they needed.

In addition to the economic opportunities offered the villages near the Park, Delia explains that they also receive assistance through NLCP's Conservation Education and Rural Health Programs. Children who have never seen a color picture have been provided with books and school supplies. Teachers have conservation curriculum and games. Rural Health has trained 48 Traditional Birth Attendants who have introduced much needed family planning, hygiene, early childhood development and AIDS prevention programs in their home village.

Chief Mukungule is officially the oldest living chief in Zambia. He has been a chief since 1920, and he is so old that his eyes have turned blue. When he wrote a letter to Mark and Delia to thank them because he had seen a family of elephant near his village, they could hardly believe it. "For the first four years that we were here, not one good thing happened. We felt alone and vulnerable. The scouts wouldn't help; the local police were loaning arms and ammunition; the military was poaching; the magistrates were turning people loose and taking bribes; the customs was involved; the ministers were involved; the previous president's family was involved. There were even rumors that poachers wanted to shoot us, so we put stone walls around our tents," I am told. The Owens vision for this park is that it should become a self-sustaining entity. "Tourism may not be perfect," they say, "but it is better than poaching." The trick seems to be in keeping the money earned from the park within the park. The Owens' proposal suggests that 75% of funds received from tour operators and tourists would do directly to the national park and not to central government. These funds can then circulate into the local community, and in effect, the animals are earning money for the people.

What I can see is a changing consciousness in the minds of the people over time. The Europeans call the wildlife "game," and the Africans call it "nyama" - which is the Bantu word for meat. One sees it as sport, and the other sees it as survival. I imagine that if I were living here, and I was hungry, that I would want to have some fresh meat. If everyone else was making money from ivory, then I would probably want to as well, especially if there was no one telling me that it was bad to do so. "The ivory ban has helped a lot," Mark says. "Ivory used to sell on the black market in Mpika for $140 a pound. Eight months after the ivory ban, it was $8 a pound. Today, ivory in Mpika is selling for $1.40 a pound. Out here in the bush, the ivory ban is working; it is making our projects more competitive and giving us a chance to use a resource in a renewable way.

A lot of the commercial poachers are tracked through informers. "The poacher Tom Kapianga sold his brother for 50,000 Kwacha," Alex tells me. "That is about $50. It is not too difficult to buy information." But there is one name that I keep hearing over and over from Mark, Delia and Alex - the name is Kangwa Machisa. "I am the infamous, notorious Kangwa Muchisa king poacher," he says. He has killed a thousand elephants and hundreds of rhinos on his own; he has shot at Mark, I am told, and was sentenced to five years of hard labor. He was released after two and a half years. Now, the project is giving him loans for his farm, and he is giving information to help catch poachers. "We'll never trust him though;" I am told, "he is ruthless." There are all sorts of stories about Kangwa. Three years ago, He put together an assassination team to kill Mark. He had stolen a 'bren' gun, bought two AK-47s in Lusaka, and had organized eight other poachers with AKs to help kill Mark. "This guy has been a poacher for 35 years; he is hard and fearless," Mark tells me. He was captured in Mpika before he could carry out his assassination.

He first went to jail around the time of Independence when he blew up the Mpika post office. He was pardoned, and then met a Senegalese ivory dealer. That was his money pipeline; within a year, he had a Mazda pickup truck. He has bloodshot, beady, evil eyes that look right through you, and he is not fun when he is drunk - the meanness in him comes out. "He is an excellent investigator though," Alex tells me. "People have heard of him. If he brings back information that helps us, we give him from $50 to $100. If we get nothing, he gets nothing." He sounds like another wild character of Africa to me.

Alex hands me some papers one morning at the breakfast table. They are the translation by Kangwa Muchisa of his time in Katanga Province, 1959. "I don't think he is shitting me either," Alex says. He is writing about one of the men who had with him the dried private parts of a woman. There was another who had 'juju' so the bullet could not hit him. This was the time when the white mercenaries recruited him; their names were William Bellvet and Jimmy Masielaxy. He was flown in by DC-3. This was the Belgian Congo. As I read this, I start to see a man who is not like the others. He is not one I would trust. He has been through something which has left a scar on his soul. I continue reading his words, "....This is trouble. I began seeing with my eyes in the raintime of the month of March 1960. At this time in the country of Katanga was at war. April 1960, we saw U.N. bringing in weapons in town to prevent the war. At this time, that was when whites ran madly into Northern Rhodesia. From some were grabbed badly off their properties, others were grabbed vehicles, whilst another just went naked. Other were killed since this things were done by the mercenaries. As such, all those whites who were escaping out of the country found us hiding in ambush. As such, we grabbed what they had or simply killed them. Vehicles were searched badly and there we grabbed diamonds and other various precious stones. Money and other valuables were taken and there were no jokes at all. Only screams by those who were attacked...."

I put the paper down and look across at Alex. "After that, he took the diamonds, got on a plane to East Africa and married a Muslim," Alex says. "Six months later, he had no wife and no money; he came back. He used to sign all his ivory, so when it went through Burundi, they knew it was him," I am told. One day, Kangwa came to Alex and said, "I want to build up my farm. I want to raise goats. I want to tell my story." He still has the armband around his upper arm. "It gets tight," Alex says, "to give him a warning if he is walking into an ambush or near a lion.

"The wilderness, it is our home," Mark says. "Most people have created an artificial world that we now regard as the real world; it is a technological buffer against nature. It is more comfortable, but we are now out of touch with our roots and who we are." When Mark and Delia first came to Africa, they wanted to study large carnivores in a wilderness setting - not some 'game park' with too many scientists. They arrived in the Kalahari, and for seven years, they were the only two people in an area the size of Ireland. "The Kalahari is an extreme environment," Mark says. "Food is scarce. For the Brown Hyena to survive in such an environment, it had to set up a system of communal living. The animals would forage individually to cover large areas, but would bring back food to the communal den to feed their relatives. The extended family allows the animals to survive. The family is the basic unit of survival, and our families are coming unstrung."

Mark raises an interesting point in my mind. I wonder which world is the real world - the bush or the cities. The two seem so different and opposing to each other. One can give you strength; one can get you lost. When Mark and Delia arrived in the Kalahari, they had a truck, a typewriter, some chairs and a table. In the heat, they lay listless, like the lions. "We were close to everything. We felt the heat just like the lions," Delia says. "It was a simple life, and we lived simply." I ask how long it takes for technology to follow one into the wilderness. "Well, look at us now," Delia says, "we have solar panels, trucks, helicopter, plane, computers; we use the technology to help us preserve the wilderness, but it seems strange doesn't it."

I bring out my computer and bring up digital images on a screen of Deception Pan in the Central Kalahari. Mark and Delia's eyes fly open. "That is our camp," they say. "Look, that is the tree near where we had our tent, and there is where we put in the airstrip." The stories flow like water, and the memories return. This was their home for seven years. We are looking at a computer screen in the middle of the North Luangwa wilderness. I have found a peace with this couple that I did not expect. They have trusted me and let me come here to see their world, but they have also shared with me the dangers of living a life like this. "Our greatest price that we have paid is the community and friends that we have not built at home," they say. "It is difficult, when we go back to the USA, to communicate with people sometimes - especially the ones who can't decide what color scarf to wear to dinner. We have learned to be resourceful out here. In America, advertising conditions people; they become consumer robots, and they lose their resourcefulness. If you have been to the edge, you are changed by it, and so much of conversation becomes trite."

Cheers is a tuskless male elephant that is often seen near camp. According to Mark and Delia's research, 38% of the elephants in the North Luangwa are tuskless. They just don't grow tusks. In other parks like Amboseli in Kenya, only 2% of the elephants are tuskless, and these are only females. Poachers have shot all the largest tusked elephants and left those with no tusks. In a natural disaster, it is the fittest that survive, but in an unnatural disaster - like poaching - the fittest die. The prime breeding age of elephants is from 25 to 40 years of age, but in North Luangwa, only 14% of the population is older that 15 years. In 1990, there were only 1,300 elephants left in North Luangwa. Today, there are 1,500, but the rate of increase has leveled off. The poachers killed off a lot of the collective wisdom of the herds, and there seems to be a high level of infant mortality because of this.

Mark tells me that all of Survivor's group of elephants was shot just over there; that is why he is called Survivor. "We are such an arrogant species," Mark says. "Whenever there are too many elephants, our immediate response is 'let's cull them.' I think I know what they would have to say about us. 'look at those humans - almost 6 billion of them - let's cull them.' Our dream is to conserve a wilderness. This is one of the last places on earth that can show us we're doing it all wrong. We are either big enough to walk with the elephant and the lion through the universe or we're not. And if we're not, we're headed for oblivion." There are hyenas creeping along the river bank, and lions calling off in the distance. Africa seems to come alive at night. Survivor is munching on marula fruits just behind me.

Tom Claytor

Continue with Part 6 of Tom in Africa. Click Here.

Note from the Editor.  A link to Tom's latest reports can be found in the eBush Communications Page.

Use the attitude indicator as your guide back to Inside Africa.

Top of this story.

 

 

Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
Virtual Horizons, 1996.