The Unspeakable in Full Pursuit of the Uneatable by Peter Flack
October. Suicide month in Tanzania. Especially this year. No rain to speak of last year. No rain at all this year. The big Kigosi River, which joins the Gombe, which joins the Moyowasi, which joins the Malagarasi, which flows into Lake Tanzania, is dry and confined to a series of stagnant, muddy, mosquito swarming puddles.
The heat is close. Like lying under a blanket on a tropical summer beach. White puffballs of tightly spaced cumulus nimbus march in regular ranks across the pale blue, worn denim sky. They trap the reflected heat of the sun. It's a cauldron on the ground. "Double, double toil and trouble, fires burn and cauldrons bubble" as Shakespeare wrote in MacBeth. Even so, nature cleaves to its immemorial cycle, heat or no heat, rain or no rain, and brave, bright green grass shoots prod their spiky heads above ground.
Our vehicle moves out of the patchy shade and the sun takes aim at us off a dead rest. A tsetse fly finds its way into the small space between the end of my olive green, cotton shirt sleeve and the beginning of my thin, dark brown, leather glove, a relic from my days as an officer in the South Africa Defence Force. The fly drills its proboscis down a hair follicle and strikes the nerve ending at the bottom. A red hot burning sensation makes me involuntarily slam my wrist onto the almost equally hot, black, metal bull bar in front of me and I squash the blood filled fly and cauterize the minute stab wound at the same time.
"Bastard" I say and Abdul and Shabani, our trackers, give shy, sly smiles. They know that no one escapes the ndorobo, no matter what he wears or sprays.
So, why was I here? Why had I flown all the way from Kilwa, south east of the Selous Game Reserve (where I had successfully hunted Roosevelt sable and East African greater kudu), for four hours, bumping through the air in an ancient Cessna 310 piloted by, if anything, an even more ancient, stick thin, black man?
The main animal I have in mind for this week long, second leg of my 24 day safari in this massive 500 000 hectare concession, is a side-striped jackal, to complete a collection of all the jackal species (black-backed and common or golden being the other two) as well as civet and honeybadger.
Although all jackals are essentially nocturnal, they can often be found in the early morning and late afternoon and I was going to hunt them only from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset - legal hunting hours. While I do not want to try and appear "holier than thou" or "a Clever Dick", I have felt for sometime that the standard response of some game ranchers and livestock farmers to jackals was possibly misguided. That there might be a better way of controlling their numbers other than bringing in dog packs, which often seemed to indiscriminately kill all small animals along with the jackals. That there might be better ways than poisoning, trapping and shooting at night, particularly as I began to understand the relationship between jackals and caracals whose ranges often overlap. The two species effectively controlled one another - the caracals killing the jackals and the jackals killing the caracal kittens.
I wanted to see for myself whether it was possible to hunt these animals by conventional means and how difficult this would be. Maybe, just maybe, there was a compromise where game ranchers and farmers could offer these animals to hunters and recoup some of the losses caused by them and, if so, instead of the apparently irrational "kill-on-sight-by-any-and-all-means" policy that seems to prevail at present, whether a case could be made to conserve these small predators.
This was my second safari in Tanzania with Mauro Daolio's Macumba Safaris. This time, however, I was to hunt with Schalk Tait, an ex-paratrooper, degreed lawyer and 11 year veteran of the Tanzanian professional hunting scene. I suspected that Schalk was given the unenviable task of being my guide as Mauro was not going to let it be known that he had crawled around the bush for 24 days with a bald, 57 year old replica of a roll-on-deodorant, looking for small, smelly, unromantic animals like side striped jackal, striped hyena (as opposed to the brown or spotted varieties), civet and honey badger. Too much like English fox hunting, "The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable," as Oscar Wilde wrote in his book, A Woman of No Consequence.
And yet the animal fascinated me and, like all small things - the South African Tiny Ten, for example - I suspected they were going to be much more difficult to hunt than the bigger, more conventional and sought after game.
The side-striped jackal is the poor relation of the jackal family. It is smaller, drabber and shorter eared than other jackals. Its Swahili name is Mbweha which, like so many African names, comes from one of the sounds it makes - a short, sharp bark. MacDonald and Sillero-Zubiri, in the Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids, write that, "The side-striped jackal is well adapted anatomically and behaviourally for opportunism. Endemic to west, central and southern Africa (excluding the southern most parts), side-striped jackals occupy a range of habitats, from game areas through farmland to towns within the broad-leaved savannah zones. The species is generally common and apparently occurs in its highest density in areas surrounding human settlement."
Side-striped jackals are omnivores like us and their diet largely depends on what is available locally. Kingdon, in his well known field guide, says that, "Invertebrates and small vertebrates (including fish, stranded or in shallows, and gazelle fawns) are taken, as well as fallen fruits, unripe maize, carrion and organic rubbish."
The previous year - I plan most of my safaris two years in advance - I had asked Mauro and Schalk to both keep an eye out for jackals and I was encouraged by my talks with Schalk. He knew of the territories of seven.
But fickle fate had not done with me on this safari and, in the grey of early dawn, from a tall termite mound in the tree line of a vast mbuga which reminded me so much of the Bangweulu Swamps - how he did it I still do not know - Schalk spotted, not a side-striped jackal, but a honey badger slowly sniffing and snuffling about on the open plains between two whale backs of black turf. Before this, I had only ever seen six of these pugnacious members of the weasel family in the day time and had wanted to shoot one for ages.
Honey badgers have much better PR than jackals. In the western, liberal, Walt Disney world in which we live, they are not described as sly, skulking thieves unless the person happens to be a beekeeper that is, but as brave, plucky and courageous. They are certainly ferocious and Mills and Hess, in The Complete Book of Southern African Mammals, refer to James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first warden of the Kruger National Park, who recorded "two incidents in which a honey badger reputedly attacked a wildebeest and a waterbuck by going for the scrotum; both animals are believed to have died from the resulting wounds".
Pound for pound, it has the largest brain of any carnivore which is contained in a particularly hard and heavy skull. It has well muscled shoulders and neck (the one I shot wore a size 20 collar) and has broad forepaws with huge claws. When it wants to, it can also make a loud rattling roar which, along with its "get-out-of-my-way" approach to life can be quite intimidating.
They are also omnivores and specialise in digging out insects, mice, spiders and scorpions with their powerful front claws. They also take on bigger creatures, like large, poisonous snakes and springhares but, interestingly enough, the extent to which they eat honey is not known. I knew most of this but what I did not know was that, "When pursued a honey badger may……resort to using chemical defences. I once watched four spotted hyenas chase a badger into a tree. The badger fell out of the tree, in among the group, and instantly there was a foul smell as, with teeth bared and rattling, it faced the hyenas. They jumped away and the badger disappeared into the night." Without wishing to sound crude, I imagine that if it was me that fell out of the tree in like circumstances, the resulting smell would not have been dissimilar.
Although not common anywhere, honey badgers are found throughout Africa except in the driest parts of the Sahara and Namib deserts, the rain forest of West Africa, the Nile Valley, South Africa's Free State and the Mediterranean coastline. Kingdon mentions that, "Areas in which the ratel is rare or absent are increasing. The reasons for this are not fully understood but may include susceptibility to cat and dog diseases. As modern apiculture displaces the more fatalistic and tolerant practices of traditional bee-keepers, the ratel is beginning to suffer serious persecution."
The bottom line, however, is that the honey badger is one tough, little critter and, if it weighed as much as a lion, I doubt that many would hunt it other than in a tank.
From our elevated position it took Schalk nerve sapping seconds to orientate me. "He's about 180 metres away. I know it's far but we can't go closer. As soon as we move from here he will see us and run. Have a go. See what you can do".
I rested my rifle on my day bag and found I was surprisingly steady. Even through the scope, however, the dark figure, outlined by the silver grey path of fur on its back, seemed impossibly far. Suddenly, the busy badger stopped sideways on, lifted his front half off the ground and peered myopically ahead. From my position it looked for all the world like a large, black mole snake.
The shot flowed from my .375, loaded with 284 grain PMP solids and sighted an inch high at 100 metres. As I recovered from the recoil, exclamations and excited chatter broke out in Swahili from behind me. " Come on let's go and see what you have killed", Schalk said in his broad Afrikaans accent.
He was a monster. 42 inches from nose to tail and twice the size of any I had seen before. The bullet had bisected his thick neck two inches from the oblique crevices which served for ears on each side of his big, blunt muzzled head and three inches to the left of where I had aimed. What a lucky shot!
The jackal was, if anything, more special. We stalked a lone male on our first evening but, while we used an anthill to conceal our approach, our wily foe used our absence to disappear. Later that afternoon, our game scout, Francis Mturi, asked me to shoot an emaciated, female topi with a broken left foreleg. As we later discovered, she had been shot some time ago through the shin and also the elbow. The next morning we used the insides as bait. After dragging it around, we jammed the smelly mess in the upturned spikes of a small palm sprouting from the edge of an anthill overlooking an immense plain which Schalk said was home to at least two, territorial side-striped jackals.
Late that afternoon, after passing tranquil herds of topi, Lichtenstein hartebeest and common sable, we drove the Land Cruiser into the tree line so we could just see out over the top of an irregular grass and shrub fringed termite mound and carefully quartered the plains in front with our binoculars. A muttered comment from Abdul drew our attention to two, long, ears emerging from a clump of golden grass to our right - a young serval. Time dragged. My 10x25 Leitz binoculars started to suck the eyeballs from my head. "I see two ears" said Schalk, doing his impression of a martial eagle yet again. Eventually, far to our left front, in a shallow, grass lined channel leading from an ant heap, I too found the tips of two black trimmed ears. We'd found them!
We stalked carefully and quietly from ant heap to ant heap until we ran out of cover. "138 metres" Schalk read out the distance on his Bushnell range finder. Lying prone, with the bipod on my .375 extended, sticks and sharp mounds of dried clay dug into me on top of the last ant heap. I was uncomfortable but steady and it was the only position which offered a clear shot. We waited. Another pair of ears emerged. We waited some more. All told there were four side-striped jackals in the ditch. "That's the biggest one, said Schalk as one sat down facing directly towards us and started awkwardly scratching its right ear vigorously with its hind leg. The jackal then turned to the right and slumped down all but hidden by the grass. As it lifted its head, I fired. Miss! Three jackals ran behind the anthill to their right and the big one ran out onto the open plain.
We followed. The jackal was perplexed and puzzled, looking this way and that. We had no time to lose. He would soon figure out where the others had gone and run to join them. A hurried scurry behind the last, thin, grey, obelisk shaped ant heap sticking out into the plain. A difficult 149 metre sitting shot was all I had. I took it. The jackal streaked away, fell, ran and fell again.
I stood up slowly feeling each one of my 57 years as I watched the younger men in our hunting team run helter skelter across the open mbuga towards the jackal, hurried on by my encouraging shouts of "Don't let him get away!" Our game scout, Francis, as usual, fixed a bayonet to the barrel of his ancient AK-47. Abdul brandished the shooting sticks above his head. Schalk and Shabani had only their bare hands but they were leading the charge. They were not going to let the jackal get away.
I felt. What did I feel? A liquorice allsorts of at least eight emotions fluttered through my system - concern, worry, hope, fear, joy, excitement, sadness, relief, a sense of accomplishment.
The sun broke through the lowering cloud cover on the western horizon and, for a few moments, bathed us in a golden glow as we took pictures of one another with the understated yet elegant jackal on the rich, black turf tussocks of the mbuga, already well carpeted in close cropped, green panicum. I had made a wretched shot and pulled the bullet at least four inches to the right where it had bisected the little beast through the loins. But the heavy .375 bullet had, fortunately, killed the wily jackal in seconds.
As from 2010, the 118 year old Rowland Wards Records of Big Game, the 28 th edition of which is due out later this year will, for the first time, create a category for jackals. Initially, there will be no minimum specified for the skull size (by which the animal will be rated) until a sufficient body of data has been collected. Hopefully, entry in The Book will also help persuade others to hunt this crafty, little predator and, as we all know, hunting is the best defence that the jackal can have against being obliterated.
Oh, and as for the civet? Well, I guess Diana thought that one piece of good luck was enough and I will have to try again on another hunt.
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