The battered old mini bus rolls quietly into Siakobvu, grinding to a halt in front of Peter's Store.
The five weary occupants stumble out. They look nervously around them as they wander into the little shop. They order cokes and then settle down on the front step to wash away the dust that has burned their throats for an eternity on the road.
An old man, seemingly dozing under a nearby tree watches them carefully. He nods to the young boy next to him who wanders over to the strangers. Everyone knows they are not from here. They are not Tongas either, although one looks as though he might be.
Siakobvu, tiny little hamlet though it may be, is the headquarters of the Nyaminyami rural council and the gateway to the Omay communal area and the Matusadona National Park. No one can drive through to either the Omay wildlife area or the park without going through Siakobvu. After passing through Siakobvu, the road winds its way down the rocky escarpment. It then splits into with one road continuing to Bumi Hills and the other to Chalala. The Chalala arm is in very bad condition so most vehicles pass through Bumi and then head West along a connecting road to Chalala.
The old man slowly climbs to his feet, helping himself as best he can with the old broken spear he uses as a walking stick. He begins a steady and direct plod past the bus. A tension flashes through the strangers. They go quiet and watch him with narrowed eyes. They visibly relax when they see he is clearly infirm and obviously not checking them and their vehicle out. They don't know the old man though, he only needs one glance. He glances into the back of the vehicle and notices that there is no luggage.
The boy slouches next to the strangers. He is a mujiba. Mujibas have been used throughout Central and Southern Africa in all the various wars as information gatherers and signalers. He is proud of his job and pays attention to everything he hears. The strangers are not talking though.
That's not a problem for the boy, he sees one of the group is a woman and starts talking to her. She chats back to him and soon the store keeper joins in the discussion. The woman says they are going to Chalala down on the lake shore to buy dried kapenta fish to take to Harare to sell.
The boy tells them how lucky they are. The Bumi Hills road has just been graded for the first time in years!
"Yes, I know", she answers. This is strange, how would an outsider who knows no-one here know that.
He meets the old man outside a nearby hut. He tells the "madala" that there is one who claims to be an off-duty policeman, that they claim to be going to Chalala to buy fish and that somehow they seem to know a lot about what is happening in the area, including that the road has just been graded.
The old man carefully removes an old cell phone from his pocket and dials a number.
The phone rings loudly next to me. I am a bit annoyed by the sound. After so many years in the bush without anything except radios I am still easily irritated by the intrusive sound and struggling to get used to the idea. I am also in the middle of a discussion about the remains of a poached elephant I am looking at in a discussion with some of the men I am training, so do not appreciate the interruption. I nod to the conservation manager and wait as he takes the call.
He speaks in fast ChiTonga so I can only just get the gist of it. From what I hear and from the growing tension in the WM's voice it can only be poachers. He finishes and turns to me.
"A black mini-bus just arrived in Siakobvu with some dirty-looking strangers", he says, "they say they are going to Chalala to buy fish to sell in Harare. They don't seem right. They say they are driving to Chalala but why at this time? They have no luggage with them but they claim to know nobody here, so why would they bring nothing with them".
We decide to run to Bumi rather than wait for a vehicle to come and collect us. Rogers, the conservation manager, calls on the phone as we go. He has a radio but the phone is preferable as we don't want anyone to hear what is going on. There are eyes and ears everywhere. He calls the local head of the National Parks and Wildlife Authority and the rural council head office. It is agreed that a combined operation can take. In addition to our team of 4 trackers there is myself and one Parks ranger. There are no more Parks rangers available as they are tied up elsewhere but there are a couple of council scouts based at Mola that we can pick up.
I change clothes and grab my kit. We hold a council of war to plan our strategy.
We know that a vehicle will take three hours to reach Chalala. We need to establish whether the group actually goes there and if not then where they have been dropped off? If they are dropped off somewhere other than Chalala then we know that they are poachers. They will usually access the wildlife areas via one route and leave by another to avoid being vulnerable to being ambushed on their return. They also spread disinformation just in case an informer is watching them
We decide to leave one small group, comprised of the Bumi GM, the wildlife manager and a couple of guides with a vehicle at the junction where the Siakobvu road splits. The other group, comprised of myself, the park ranger and four trackers will use a Bumi Hills game drive vehicle to avoid alerting anyone to the fact that an anti-poaching team is on the move, drive to Siakobvu and hopefully meet the suspected poachers on the way or determine where they have dropped off. If that is the case then we will pursue them on foot. On the way we will pick up a couple of scouts working for rural council wildlife management in Mola village. The Bumi GM and the Conservation Manager will try and make contact with the police, local safari operators and NGOs to see what support is available in the event of a firefight or prolonged pursuit requiring the assistance stop-groups, observation posts and police road-blocks.
We head off. It is already getting late. It is dark by the time we reach Mola. We now have to be very careful. I park just out of range of the light cast by the stores. There is a lot of loud music blaring from the three shops that are open and a number of men milling around or dancing with containers of opaque beer in their hands. The park ranger and the others sneak out into the dark. They will take a long roundabout route to the council scouts' quarters and then hopefully sneak up without being seen. There is a good chance that someone will be watching to see what the scouts are up to.
I wait patiently for the team to return. I cannot help but be a bit nervous. Only the park ranger and I are properly armed. The scouts are not yet armed as although they have all previously completed their training, I need to assess them and do some refresher training before the approval can be given for them to be armed. I am confident of the Parks ranger's training, experience and ability. It is immediately clear that we are on the same page, understanding each other and falling into sync immediately. I hope that the council scouts will be a postive addition to our team.
The team returns without the council scouts. "They are on their days off" the park ranger tells me, "they left yesterday and will be returning in two days. There are also none on patrol". This coincidence is not good. It is also close to full moon, the favourite time for ivory poachers to operate. If there are no council scouts patrolling or active in any way in the area then it is an ideal opportunity for poachers".
I don't like it. We have only two armed men and no real support team. We have been working on setting up a combined rapid response team for the area covering the park and the adjacent areas but it is still in the discussion phase. So, no support, only a small team of trained men of whom only two are armed. We also have no medical support. There are no helicopters in the area and no airstrips. If there is a firefight and someone is wounded it will take many hours to get him competent medical help.
We have no choice but to keep going and hope that we can arrest or deter them before any elephants get killed..
A call comes in. It is the conservation manager. The informer at Siakobvu has spotted the vehicle returning; with only two occupants and after only two hours instead of six. Now we have no doubts.
The vehicle could only have driven an hour down from Siakobvu. That would put the drop-off point just above the escarpment at around dusk. That would be a useful location to either move through the villages just after dark and then on into the Bumi Hills wildlife concession at first light or to access the Matusadona National Park.
A vehicle appears on the road ahead. We stop it. The driver was known to one of the scouts and quite happy to assist us. He had seen the black bus stopped at a point an hour up the road from where we now were. We thank him and I put my foot down hard on the accelerator. It would be better to find them before they moved into the bush.
We reach the point and jump out of the vehicle with torches to look for the tracks and learn who they are and where they went. It is all there. We see where the bus had stopped and turned around before heading back the way it had come. Four people were dropped off and then we find a fifth set of tracks joining them further on. They had met someone at this point. One of the group is a woman. Alarm bells go off in my head; I have been told by the conservation manager that there have been reports of a woman moving in and out of the area with money and organizing ivory poaching. Apparently she brings in a group and weapons and equipment are collected from people who hide them in return for money. The group then poaches, whilst she moves separately to another rendezvous point and then they move out via another route towards Binga far to the West.
The tracks continued down the road and so do we.. for several hours. We track using the headlights and torches and at a run. At one point we find the tracks had left the road. After a closer inspection we realize that it was when we were passing that location in the vehicle. They hid from us in a gully next to the road. We continue on our way, taking turns with the driving/resting and tracking.
We reach the first village from Siakobvu. Known as "the guest-house", it is a small collection of mud huts and goat-pens. I hop out and try to conceal my white skin in the darkness. One of the scouts, deliberately dressed in a simple pair of coveralls wanders over to one of the huts that is hosting a little evening discussion of elderly men. We wait patiently as he goes through the exhaustive but important ritual of greetings and polite small-talk before inquiring if his "friends" have arrived from Siakobvu. No-one has come it turns out although some of the dogs were barking a few hours earlier.
They obviously didn't show themselves but we do know that they came here. We carefully "360" around the village and pick up their tracks again leaving in a different direction. Instead of heading North they are now moving North-West. We notice that they have been careful to avoid being seen, walking a careful loop around the outskirts of the village. Unfortunately they are now using a path and the vehicle can't follow so we can't use the headlights to help track and the vehicle will have to take an alternative route.
We split up but try to keep in sight of each other as much as possible, in case there is an ambush or the group is close. Unlikely though as they are still hours ahead of us and the going is slow as we can't risk losing the spoor if they suddenly switch direction again to throw off pursuers. They could however stop to rest allowing us to catch up. We have to be vigilant.
After a route that carefully skirts villages but maintains its overall direction we meet up again and a lively discussion develops. Our quarry is now moving fast. Their stride-length has increased. The woman and one other are dropping back however. They may be tiring and struggling to keep up. The others may be speeding up because they have their destination in mind and it is now close. This is a dilemma that has been on our minds constantly. With only two armed men we will be at a big disadvantage once they pick up their weapons. On the other hand if we catch them before then we may not be able to hold them. On the other hand they may disperse into the villages before picking up the weapons and we risk losing them. The Parks ranger and I discuss it over. It is a difficult decision but in the end we both agree. We jump back into the vehicle and I gun it. We will try to catch them before they reach their destination.
We race down the road stopping from time to time to check for spoor. Each time we find it is still there and each time the woman and one other have fallen back behind the others. This is good, if we don't catch them before the head into the bush then we will focus on grabbing these two. They are tired and slow. We are not. This team can keep going without food or sleep way beyond most people's limits. They do it all day every day, and often all night.
Unexpectedly we round a bend between two small but sharp embankments and find a pair of panicked faces caught in the headlights.
As I slow the vehicle they look around desperately for an escape. It is dark around them, made much worse, in spite of the moonlight, by the headlights confusing and blinding their eyes. Two of the team jumps out and order them to lie down on the ground. We continue forward and not far down the road we find three men running toward a small group of huts. We shout at them to stop. They do what they are told.
They are searched. No one has brought anything with them. Except the woman. She has cash. Lots of it. They are questioned individually.
They maintain that they have come to buy fish to sell in Harare. The story is bizarre. They could easily travel to Kariba, on the other side of the lake from Harare, more cheaply, far quicker and much, much more comfortable than this way. None of us believe it and it appears they don't either, although they do stick to the pretense.
We check their soles and identify the man who had joined them on the escarpment. He is a local and extremely nervous. We don't let on that we know he was waiting for them and is their guide. We ask him where they are going to in the middle of the night. He tells us that they were going to spend the night at the group of huts just ahead. I'm stunned. We caught up with them just in time.
While the group are seated and guarded we approach the little homestead and call out the owner. He is fully dressed and again, very nervous. He claims that the group had arranged to come and stay with him as they are visiting friends. No surprise that there is another contradictory story. He agrees to allow the scouts to search. They do and nothing is found.
We cannot hold them under the National Parks and Wildlife Act nor any other laws as they have not broken any yet. However, if they can be individually interrogated properly then we are certain that someone will spill the beans and tell us where the weapons and equipment are hidden. As we are on rural council land and therefore are obliged to release them. We need the police. I make the call. There are no officers available. We let them go with a warning that they will be watched and followed. They advise us that they have changed their minds about the "fish" and will instead head back to Harare.
I wonder if I will next see these people through my rifle sights. Tough times are ahead. I am here to train the team and reorganize them to go after the armed ivory poachers that are increasingly swarming into the area, rather than the relatively harmless meat poachers who had been laying snares. I have a big job ahead of me. We need to expand the network of informers, retrain the scouts- especially in tactical tracking, build a plan for deployments based on information collated from the informers and the trackers in the field about access points, exit points, usual movements, terrain, and so on. We especially need a rapid response and support team with vehicles and boats.
It is a difficult job with scant resources. The men however, I have no doubts about. I am now sure will be our greatest asset.
To be continued…