Eye of the Elephant:

Mark Became a Bush Pilot for a Reason.
To Help Save the Africa Wildlife

    "If we don't do anything when elephants are killed, we might as well not be here. And the plane is our quick response tool."

The Eye of the Elephant        We tell Mulenga that the scouts refuse to patrol unless they have at least six rifles per squad; so we have collected the few serviceable guns scattered among the five scout camps and concentrated them at Mano. He gives us four more firearms belonging to Mpika scouts, who never patrol anyway. Mano will now have thirteen rifles. By joining forces with men from Nsansamina and Lufishi, they will have enough manpower and rifles to field two patrols, with one-armed scout left over to guard the main camp. After loading the rifles into the truck, we drive back to Mano.
      As we give the scouts their guns, we announce new rewards for every poacher convicted and for each firearm and round of ammunition taken in the national park. If a patrol captures even five poachers, each scout will earn an extra month's pay. The money offered by the new warden to build houses for the scouts has curiously disappeared. So we hire poachers from Chishala and Mukungule to do the job.
      "This is a very fine thing you have done for us, Mr. Owens. Ah, now you shall see us catch poachers!" exclaims Island Zulu as we shake hands with the scouts. Before we begin the three-hour drive back to Marula-Puku, Zulu leads me to his private sugarcane patch, where he cuts a very large stalk for us to chew during our journey. When we finally drive away from Mano, all the scouts and their children follow us to the river crossing. Standing on the far bank, they wave until we are lost among the hills and forests of the scarp. At last, now that we have equipped the scouts, improved their camp, given them guns and incentives, we feel we have a chance of taking the park back from the poachers.
      A ring of fire like a dragon's eye leaps from the dark woodland below my port wing tip. I pull the plane into a hard left bank and shove its nose into a dive. As we near the blaze I can make out about thirty individual fires. It looks as if a small army is bivouacked at the edge of the woodland. Poachers with a camp that size will have sixty or seventy unarmed bearers and two or three riflemen, each armed with military weapons Kalashnikov AK47s, LMG-56s, G-3s, and others. They could easily shoot down the plane.
      With me is Banda Chungwe, senior ranger at Mpika. We have been on an aerial reconnaissance of the park to plan roads and firebreaks. I have purposely delayed our return to the airstrip until the last few minutes of daylight, so that we can spot any meat drying fires the poachers may be lighting along the river. And seeing poachers in action may light a fire under Chungwe. Although he is in charge of overall field operations, this meek and mild-mannered man has never ordered the scouts on a patrol or done anything to inspire or discipline them. According to them, until today he has never even visited their camps or the national park. They need his leadership badly.
      I pull off the power and drop the plane's flaps, checking my altimeter and taking a compass bearing on the fires. Then I take Zulu Sierra down over a grassy swale below the canopy of the woodland. Flying ten feet above the ground, I track the trail of gray smoke from the dragon's eye. Just before the poachers' camp, I check back on the stick, nip up over the trees, and chop the power. The camp with its blazing fires is in front of us and a little to the right. I drop the starboard wing and ease on a bit of left rudder, side-slipping the Cessna for a better view of the camp below and so that any gunfire will, I hope, go wide of its mark.
      I can see several dozen men hunkered around the fires, and three large meat racks made of poles one at least ten feet long and four feet wide. On these giant grills, huge slabs of meat are being dried over beds of glowing coals. 'Nearby lies the butchered carcass of an elephant. Its dismembered feet, trunk, and tail have been pulled away from its body.

      "You sons of bitches!" I swear. The senior ranger says nothing. Less than two seconds later, the camp is behind us. In the shadow of the escarpment darkness is falling quickly after the brief dusk, and our grass airstrip is not equipped with lights. I turn the knob above my head and a dim red glow illuminates my flight and engine instruments. I am beginning to get the itch on the bottom of my feet that comes whenever I am pushing things a bit too far in the plane. I pour on the power and head up the Mwateshi to its confluence with the Lubonga, then follow it to the lights of Marula-Puku. If I do not look directly at the airstrip, I can barely make it out on the back of a ridge a mile northwest of camp. We have about two minutes of dusk left, just enough time to go straight in for a landing. I begin to relax a little.
      The strip of fading gray grows larger in the plane's windshield. At three hundred feet I switch on the landing light again. At first it blinds me, but finally some faint greenery begins to register in its beam. The crowns of the trees off the end of the runway look like broccoli heads, growing larger and larger.
      Two hundred feet, one hundred fifty, one hundred, fifty. As we soar over the end of the strip, I cut the power and bring the plane's nose up to flare for the landing. All at once, big green eyes reflect in the landing light. Just ahead, a herd of zebras is grazing in the middle of the runway. A puku scampers under the plane, inches from its main wheels.
      Ramming in the throttle, I haul back on the control wheel. The stall warning bawls as Zulu Sierra staggers into the air, just clearing the backs of the cantering zebras. Biting my lip, I force the plane away from the ground, banking around for another try at a landing. But in the minute it has taken to perform this maneuver, my view of the strip has been lost to the night.
      We are on a downwind leg to an invisible airstrip. I hold our heading for another two minutes, which at 8o mph should put us more than two and a half miles from the runway, then I make a descending turn for the final approach.
      I check my watch: the same time and speed should get us back to the field. I force my hands to relax on the controls and continue my descent from one thousand feet above the ground.
      Flying blind, I feel MY way down slowly and carefully, leaning forward, straining to see the ground with my landing light. My feet are jumpy on the rudder pedals. Five hundred feet per minute, down. Down.
      The "broccoli" trees flash below. I still cannot see the airfield. I ply the rudders back and forth, swinging the plane and its landing light side to side, trying to pick up the strip.
      Two parallel lines snake beneath us. Our track from the airstrip to camp! Lowering the nose, I hold the track in my light until the grassy surface of "Lubonga International" resolves out of the blackness. Pulling back on the throttle, I haul up on the flap lever. How sweet the rumble of the ground under my wheels!
      After parking the plane, we climb into the Mog and race down the steep slopes to camp. Delia throws together some black coffee and peanut butter sandwiches, and fifteen minutes later Chungwe and I are in the Mog and battering up the track for Mano. I'm going to need every drop of the coffee, for I've been driving and flying since dawn, bringing the senior ranger to our camp for our two-hour survey flight. But I'm eager. With their new equipment and the senior ranger second in command only to the warden sitting next to me, the scouts will have no excuse for not coming on this operation. It is one of the best opportunities we've had to send a strong message to the poaching community.
      At 10:30 P.m. we roll into Mano and stop before the new unit leader's squat house of burnt brick and metal sheeting. As soon as John Musangu emerges from the darkened interior of his n'saka, I tell him what we have seen and ask him to get his men ready to come with us. He pauses for a moment, drawing hard on a cigarette, then turns and shouts to the scouts in Chibemba. I wait for Chungwe to add something, but he leans against the Mog in silence. The scouts in the n'saka mill about, while others drift in from distant parts of the camp and begin yelling angrily at Musangu. Finally, he tells the senior ranger and me that they refuse to come unless our project pays them extra for each night they are on patrol. I ask the senior ranger to explain to them that patrols are part of their job, not an extra duty, and they are already being paid for them. Instead, he turns and walks around the truck.
      Grumbling, the men glare at me, refusing to move. Nelson Mumba declares that it is too late at night to go after poachers and walks back toward his hut. Neither the unit leader nor the senior ranger orders him to return. Even though as a project director and honorary ranger I have full authority over the scouts, I am reluctant to pull rank on Chungwe.
      I cannot understand the scouts' behavior. Maybe they are afraid. "Look, gentlemen," I say, "I've been tracking poachers from the air for a long time. By now the two or three riflemen will have split up, each taking maybe fifteen or twenty carriers with him to shoot more elephants. Most of the men you find at the carcasses will be unarmed; only one or two will have guns. I can land you no more than half a mile from them. And, hey, what about the reward? An extra month's pay for every five poachers you catch."
      Finally, an hour and a half after we arrived, and with deliberate delay, Island Zulu, Tapa, and some others collect their new packs and climb into the back of the Mog. Shortly after midnight, with the scouts and their leader in the truck, we begin the rough run back to our camp. At 2:3 0 A.M. We stop at the airstrip. The scouts pour out of the back of the Mog and into a large tent we have set up for them. I ask Musangu to have the men ready to go by four-thirty. He nods, then disappears under the flap of the tent. Driving on to camp, I slip into bed beside Delia to try to catch a couple of hours sleep.
      But I can only lie on my back staring into the dark. At dawn I will try to airlift fourteen men in five round trips from camp to Serendipity Strip near the poachers. In the two and a half years since I last landed there, floodwaters will have littered the runway with ridges of silt, deadwood, trees, and rocks.
      Delia and I argued about my making this run just a few hours earlier, when she was standing at the old wooden table in the kitchen boma, slicing bread for my sandwiches. When I told her I planned to airlift the scouts to Serendipity Strip, she stabbed her carving knife into the tabletop with a violent thonk.
      "Damn it, Mark! If you go head to head against these poachers, it's only a matter of time before they begin shooting at you at both of us! They could sabotage the plane, or ambush us in camp or anywhere along the track. We can't fight cutthroats like Chikilinti by ourselves!"
      "Look, I am not going to sit by while these bastards blow away every elephant in the valley!" I jabbed a stick into the campfire.
      "But landing at dawn on a gravel bar you haven't seen in two years? You'll kill yourself, and the scouts won't go after the poachers anyway. That's just not smart."
      "I'm not going to make a habit of this," I said. "But if we don't do anything when elephants are killed, we might as well not be here. And the plane is our only quick-response tool." The next slice of bread Delia cut was about as thick as my neck, and so ended the argument.
      I have barely fallen asleep when the alarm goes off. I roll over, choke the clock, and stare at its face. Four in the morning. I stumble into my clothes and out the door. As I pass the office, I grab my red "life bag" full of emergency food and survival gear, then hurry along the dark footpath toward the kitchen. Delia stands there bathed in a halo of yellow-orange firelight, cooking up whole-grain porridge, making sure that if I die this morning, at least I will be well fed. A few quick spoonfuls, a swig of stiff coffee, a hurried kiss and I am on my way to the airstrip.
      In the Mog I climb the steep side of the ridge below the airfield. Out my window to the east, the sky is sleeping in starlight, soon to be awakened by the dawn. And so are the game guards when I reach the airstrip.
      "Good morning, gentlemen," I shout into the tent. "Let's go. The poachers are already on the move." They struggle to their feet, rubbing their eyes, stretching and yawning.
      I circle Zulu Sierra, flashlight in hand, untying, unchocking, and checking her for flight. Pulling the hinge pins, I remove the door from the right side and all the seats but mine, so I can squeeze in as many scouts as possible.
      "I'll take the three smallest scouts, their rifles and kits on the first trip," I shout to Musangu. "Four more should be ready to go by the time I get back, about twenty minutes after we take off." I will keep the plane as light as I can for the first landing, until I have checked out Serendipity Strip. Still rubbing sleep from their eyes, three scouts shuffle to the plane, shirttails out, boots untied and gaping. I turn back to the plane to do my final checks.
      I pull the bolts on each of their rifles to check that they are unloaded, then board the three scouts, seating each on his pack and securing him to the floor with his seat belt.
      I climb in, crank up, and begin warming up Zulu Sierra's engine. While waiting for the first light of dawn, I give the scouts their last instructions. "Okay guys, we'll fly low along the river, so that we won't be seen. When I have all of your group there, I'll fly over your heads to show you the way to the poachers. Follow the plane. Get going fast, because they will head for the scarp at first light. While you are moving up, I'll try to pin them down by circling over their carnp."
      As soon as the stars in the eastern sky begin to pale with the dawn, I take off and turn onto a heading of one five zero.
      Seven minutes after takeoff we are slicing through puffs of mist hanging above the broad, shallow waters of the Mwaleshi River. The gravel crescent of Serendipity Strip lies just ahead. I pull off power and put down three notches of flap, going in low and slow, the grass heads clipping the main wheels as I look for anything that might trip us up on landing. The plane's controls feel mushy at such a low airspeed and I need plenty of throttle to keep from stalling into a premature touchdown.
      Gripping the control yoke hard with my left hand, I slowly bring back the throttle. Zulu Sierra begins to sink. The grassy, uneven ground, littered with sticks, rocks, and buffalo dung, flashes underneath the wheels. The stall warning blares. The end of the short gravel bar looms ahead. I can't find a good spot to touch down, so I ram the throttle to the panel and haul the plane back into the air.
      On my third pass over the area I finally see a clear way through the rubble on the ground. This time I bounce my wheels and the plane shudders. But they come free without any telltale grab that would indicate a soft surface. Once in Namibia I tried a similar trick, and when the wheels stuck in a soft pocket of sand the plane flipped on its nose, burying the prop and twisting it to a pretzel.
      The next time around I ease the plane onto the grass. As soon as the wheels are down, Zulu Sierra bucks like a mule, her wishbone undercarriage flexing. I stand on her brakes and we slide to a stop with less than a hundred feet to spare before the riverbank. The three scouts laugh nervously and immediately crowd through the open door of the plane. I grab the first by his shoulder. "Don't walk forward or the prop will chop you to pieces." He nods his head and they are out.
      Four trips later all the scouts are at Serendipity. Standing under a tree near the river, they wave cheerily as I fly over, heading for the spiral of vultures and the cloud of smoke that mark the poachers' camp little more than half a mile away. I come in low, dodging the big birds, and side-slipping the plane to avoid being shot. I cannot yet see the camp, but the sickly sweet odor of decaying meat the honey of death washes through the cockpit. And there it is, the rack -no, six racks, covered with thick slabs of brown meat- the fires, and the men, at least fifteen of them, naked to the waist, covered with gore.
      Flashing over the camp, I yank Zulu Sierra around and drop to the grass tops, bearing down on a gaggle of eight to ten poachers who are running away. I lower my left wing, pointing it at them, holding a steep turn just above their heads. They flatten themselves to the ground and stay put. Still circling, I climb out of rifle range and switch on the wing-tip strobe lights, signaling to the scouts that I am over the poachers. Far below, a spiral of vultures lands on the cache of meat, devouring it in a frenzy.
      For the next hour I orbit high and low over the poachers, waiting for the scouts to arrive. Finally, I have to break off and return to camp for fuel. After refueling, I write out messages describing the number and location of the poachers and stuff them in empty powdered-milk cans from the pantry. I add pebbles to each can for ballast and attach a long streamer of mutton cloth. Then I take off again and fly over the camps at Lufishi, Nsansamina, and Fulaza, dropping the tinned messages to the scouts there. The poachers will have to pass through or near those camps to get out of the park. It should be easy for the scouts to cut them off.
      By the time I land back at Marula-Puku I have been flying for almost six hours. Numb with exhaustion, I wince as I calculate that I have just burned up two hundred dollars worth of fuel. But it will be worth it if the scouts can capture twenty or thirty poachers.

Survivor       Others will think twice about shooting elephants in North Luangwa, and maybe some will accept the employment and protein alternatives that our project is offering them. For the first time I feel confident that we are about to make a serious dent in the poaching.
      We have no radio contact with the scouts and thus have no idea how the operation is going. Four days later Mwarnba and I are fixing a broken truck at the workshop. "Scouts," he says, pointing to a long line of men wending their way toward us along the river south of camp. I shake hands with each of the game guards as they arrive. With them are two old men and a twelve-year-old boy dressed in tattered rags, their heads hanging, handcuffs clamped to their wrists.
      John Musangu steps forward. "We have captured these three men.
      "This is all?" I ask. "These are only bearers. What about the riflemen?" I have already heard over the radio from the warden's office that the scouts from the other camps have managed to catch only a single bearer.
      "They escaped," Musangu declares. He goes on to say that there were fifteen men and a rifleman in this particular group. But except for these three, they all got away. The operation has been a bust except that the airplane and the vultures have denied the poachers their meat and ivory.
      Island Zulu, the gabby old scout, spreads his arms and begins soaring about, purring like an airplane as he mimes the airlift; then, hunching over, he stalks through make-believe grass, parts it, aims his rifle, and fires a shot. Turning in circles, he feigns a tackle of one of the three poachers, now sitting on the ground, scowling and rolling their eyes in disgust. Finally, a twinkle in his eye, he predicts, "With ndeke, now poaching finished after one year!
      I drive the arresting officers and their captives to the magistrate's court in Mpika. The boy is not charged. Days later the two men captured in the operation are each fined the equivalent of thirteen dollars and are set free.

     "Mark, I thought you were dead!..."
     "I am sorry, Boo. I just don't know what else to do. You know my flying is the only thing standing between the poachers and the elephants."
     "Yes, but I'm not sure this is worth dying for anymore... I want to stop poaching as much as you do, but you've crossed the line...

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   The Eye of the Elephant: An Epic Adventure in the African Wilderness 
   By Delia & Mark Owens

Note from the Editor.  These excerpts are presented in order to promote the sale of the book "The Eye of the Elephant." All text and images are copyrighted to the publisher. A link to the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation can be found in the eBush Communications Page. Once you read this book you will know that any contributions made to the Owens Foundation are going to a good cause.

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