The meaning of human tracks

It was close to noon and time for the midday break. A bush willow close by offered a generous pool of shade.  As I approached, I noticed a small chop mark on its trunk. The brown globules of gum that had seeped out of the wood were still soft on the inside. It was probably done a few days or a week ago.

There were no tracks around the base, but the chop mark was unmistakably human made. It was typical of someone wanting to mark a route or a position – perhaps to a snare or a beehive or a kill. But who on earth would be wandering around here? I called Elias, my guide and tracker over.

Elias spoke no English and understood almost no Fanagolo. I had sent John, who could interpret, and the two bearers, on a four-day mission to my vehicle to fetch some fresh supplies. Elias and I were alone.

He offered no explanation; seemed strangely reluctant to even pay close attention. But I was interested. It had to be a sign made by a lone hunter, far from any known village. What was he hunting, where was he from, what interesting bush information might he have?

I tried to make Elias understand that we should see if we could follow the sign. Elias was one of the best bush men I ever had as a companion. It would have been easy for him to follow, but he was strangely apathetic, even reluctant. I looked around and noticed another chop mark on a tree trunk some sixty paces away.

I pointed it out to Elias. He nodded but remained aloof. I could  notquite place his reaction. I started following the marks. They were small, but easy to spot, and I moved quite fast. Elias tagged along, looking miserable.

After about an hour, I found human prints, made by someone wearing sandals fashioned of old car tyres. A bit further, more prints along a well-worn path. Elias was now getting inexplicably uncooperative, lagging further and shaking his head every time I looked back at him.

Suddenly I caught a whiff of wood smoke, and the smell of frying meat. We were both ravenously hungry, having run out of supplies a day earlier. Could we perhaps scrounge something to eat off some semi-nomadic bush dwellers?

The path led to an ancient baobab tree that rose majestically above the surrounding vegetation. Around its base the vegetation had been cleared for about fifteen paces. To the side three men squatted around a lazily smoking fire. They were picking meat from a lattice made from saplings tied together with bark. They jumped up as they saw us. Their faces were ashen with fright. One hinted at running away but restrained himself.

We stood uncertainly staring at each other. I greeted them but their response was guarded. As they gradually got over their surprise, their attitude turned resentful. I looked around warily. The area around the tree was trodden to powder and untidily strewn with waste and camp equipment: Grass sleeping mats, some spread, some rolled up, a few earthen pots, items of clothing, animal skins, some spread out, some hanging, and lots of meat strips, drying on sapling frames. Leaning against a tree trunk stood a muzzle loading gun, and a homemade one, with a water pipe for a barrel – crude, but probably deadly at close quarters.

It suddenly became clear to me – it was a hunter’s camp.

Elias was decidedly nervous, but he started a conversation with them. I had an opportunity to look them over more closely. The “wanted to run” character was the youngest. He still seemed a bit homesick, but he was anxious to live down his nervous reaction. Those types are usually the most unpredictable, I thought briefly. Of the two others, one seemed like an affable, harmless sort when alone or in different company. The last one, very dark in complexion with heavy eyelids, was staring at me insolently. He set the hostile tone. He also showed a special interest in my rifle.

I now understood why Elias had been so reluctant to follow the spoor. We were in a very remote place, where there were no laws but the honour of men. Right then we were in the company of men who lived by a fickle code. They regarded my high-powered rifle as probably the greatest possible prize they could win in their entire lives – the means to a much easier hunting life and a source of great status. Both Elias’ and my life wasn’t worth much more than the risk of injury to them, I realized. They knew we would be completely untraceable if we should simply disappear here.

They were poachers, yes, but as always, there are many sides to a story. These men live by ancient laws and customs. They had lived off the land for untold generations. The laws now preventing them from hunting and snaring were alien to them. They were made by some unknown entity far away from their little bush village, in a place called Maputo. They probably did not understand its laws, did not agree with them and resented them and all things associated with them.

But even as I nodded at this pragmatic innocence, I knew that they trade in gory scenes of butchery. They are ruthless killers, and here, far beyond the reach of any law, ready to take advantage of whatever opportunity they could exploit.

From the signs around us it seemed as if the camp was being used by at least fifteen people. Some would be armed, most likely with an automatic weapon or two that had spilled out of the war.

I had to keep my pose. I fixed a cold stare on Heavy Eyelids and casually but deliberately swung my rifle from my shoulder. In his plain sight I slipped off the safety and cocked the bolt. With my eyes on him I backed off to the tree and the muzzle loader.

Elias was talking to them, and I noticed him gesturing vaguely to the west. By this time I had some distance between myself and the men, and my back against the baobab. I casually squatted on my haunches, rifle resting across my legs, my right hand around its wrist. I was heartened to see that my unyielding attitude had caused some uncertainty in them – especially in Heavy Eyelids, who had now averted his gaze

But I knew we were lucky to have found only the three at home. The situation could turn against us very quickly if some of their armed colleagues returned. When Elias looked back at me, I gestured with my head that we should leave, putting on an air of bored irritation. I wanted to exploit their temporary uncertainty to make a clean breakaway and leave them sufficiently unsure to not consider following us, even when their companions returned.

I walked away purposefully, heading west and keeping an eye on the three. Just before we disappeared into the trees, I looked back at them. They still stood as we had left them. I gave them a hard parting look, hoping to drive home our advantage. Mr Friendly made as if he was going to wave, but then he noticed that his companions were not, and he quickly sneaked his hand back to where it belonged.

They had the right attitude to follow us and to try take us out, but their type was usually cowardly – unlikely to take on something they were not convinced they had a good chance of overpowering without injury to themselves.  I was hoping that the three would paint such a ferocious picture of us to their companions that the idea of coming after us would not be considered.

When I thought we were out of their sight I quickened the pace, keeping west. After about thirty minutes, we got to a rocky area where it would be extremely difficult to follow our spoor. I skirted it, deliberately leaving prints. About a kilometre further, on some hard ground, I doubled back in a wide loop, coaxing Elias to leave as little sign as possible.

When we got back to the rocky area I stopped and explained to Elias in sign language that he should move back some distance to see if we were being followed. My concern was that one or more of the three might be tagging along quietly, trying to see where we would stop for the night. He understood immediately, and cleverly took a route some way off our path.

When he got back, shaking his head at my inquiring glance, I swung sharply south, seeking out hard ground and for some distance trying not to leave any prints. I was applying some classic anti-tracking measures. It felt somewhat silly taking all those precautions, but on the other hand, it could be an extremely unpleasant situation if the poachers paid us a visit. If they had a real master tracker, he might still be able to figure it out, especially if he knew something of anti-tracking, but we could now only hope for the best.

When we were united with our companions (and food!) again, I was able to fill in some more details about the hunters through John. Elias had immediately suspected the chop marks to have been left by such a group. They came from a village right on the edge of the Middle World, more than a hundred kilometres to the east, near the town of Tete, he was able to confirm in their short discussion.

It was an open secret that groups like theirs, anything from 5 to 30 in size, operated between the Middle World and the wilderness. They would penetrate deep enough into the wilderness to hunt with reasonable success. They would make a camp and work the area around them, hunting and snaring.

The hunters would use an assortment of weapons, from the time-honored snare wire to modern automatic weapons pilfered off the civil wars. Any living thing, from mongooses to elephants would be butchered.

The meat and skins would be dried, and as soon as enough had been accumulated, some of the party would take the booty back to their village. There they would guard it until their companions returned. Back in the wilderness the hunters would stay until their total haul was big enough, moving their camp whenever the area became depleted.

This was my first encounter with the phenomenon, and I was fascinated. Through later encounters on my wanderings and through research, I was able to fit more pieces of this puzzle.

Once back in their village, the hunters would process the harvest. The meat, already dry, would be broken into packages and sold in their own and surrounding villages. Some might even find its way to towns like Tete, through meat dealers that would travel from there.

The skins would be manually curried until they were soft. They would then be sold to merchants from towns like Tete, who might sell on to others, ever closer to the Modern World. There they ended up with roadside hawkers and even in shady curio shops. Some skins and animal parts would be bought by makers of ceremonial garments and artifacts, and targeted at traditional African leaders.

Ivory and products that had international medicinal value, like rhino horn and lion, leopard and crocodile parts would follow a different course – different types of hunters operating in small groups, and an ever more sophisticated and monied supply chain further to markets in the near and far East.

The villages in the Middle World that formed part of this system would benefit from the trade. The hunters and their cohorts would earn money from the trade, some of which they would spend in the village. This stimulated other economic activityh – small retailers, repair shops, telecommunication services, even skin curers and product preservers.

The people doing the hard work inside and close to the wilderness would earn pitifully little from it.  Not much cash would be generated in the village, except if it happened to fall on a supply chain for high value products like rhino horn or ivory. Whatever the case, it was often the only source of external revenue for the village, apart from funds sent back by family members working in the Modern World.

The villagers would therefore be part of a secret pact to protect and support the participants against the authorities (such as existed in deep rural Africa). This was part of what made it so hard to effectively shut down these supply chains.

Oh, for the riddles of the African Wilderness with its tentacles into the bedrooms of even the wealthiest denizens of the Modern World…

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