The poachers of the Luangwa Valley are at last really on the run. This is mainly because of our newly acquired helicopter, given to us by one of our generous supporters. We nicknamed it Chopper One. Now Mark takes off at night, the chopper loaded with highly trained quick response scouts; searching the valley for the poachers' campfires. Once he finds their camp, he puts the scouts down within half a mile of it, they rush in and capture the poachers. This enables us to stop the poachers BEFORE they kill, and so far only one elephant has been shot this year in North Luangwa.
The poachers, of course, are getting frustrated by our success, and we learned from informants that one of the poachers, Kangwa Muchisa, had stolen a Bren gun from the police for the purpose of shooting down the helicopter. Kangwa is one of the most infamous poachers in the valley, and boasts that he has shot over 1000 elephants. Mark helped the scouts organize sting operations and finally the scouts apprehended him and brought him to Mano Camp for questioning. Just before Mark was to fly Kangwa into Mpika for formal charging we received a radio message that a woman in one of our Community Service villages had died during childbirth. They were desperate for us to fly the infant to the Mpika clinic because no "wet nurse" was available. Mark landed at the remote village and the relatives handed him the tiny baby, wrapped in brightly colored chitenje cloth. When Mark turned to put the baby in the chopper, he realized that all of the scouts were holding rifles, so he handed the infant to the hand-cuffed poacher who carefully cradled the little girl in his arms for the rest of the flight. Once in Mpika one of our volunteers, Wanda Canon, took the child to the clinic. Kangwa Muchisa was sentenced to five years of hard labor, and the child is doing fine.
Meanwhile, I began a study of the recovery of the elephant population. Since there are very few roads in North Luangwa, I backpacked along the Mwaleshi River, aging elephants by measuring their foot prints. With me was Mpundu Katonga, an ex-poacher who now works for us. As you can imagine, he was excellent at tracking and aging elephants. We aged over 360 elephants and have learned a great deal about the population. For the first time in twenty years the North Luangwa elephant population has increased. It is only a very slight increase, but the recovery hopefully has begun. The females have had twice as many infants this year as the last two years combined.
Recently, Dr. Linda Spencer, a professor at the Georgia Baptist School of Nursing, a Colonel in the US Army Nurse Corps Reserve, and active in the World Health Organization, donated two weeks of her time to teach health care techniques to our Community Service villages. Using the chopper we flew her to the most remote villages where she taught oral rehydration methods and first aid to the women. These services convince the people that our project is here to help them as well as the animals, and discourages poaching.
We have added a full time botanist, Dr. Paul Smith, to our team. He is currently studying the effect of fire and elephant foraging on the vegetation, producing a vegetation map of the park, and studying the degraded woodlands. We even use the chopper to help Paul by airlifting him into remote areas so that he can do his transects.
Now and then the chopper has to be serviced, so recently Mark flew it all the way to Nairobi. I acted as navigator as we flew tree top level over four African countries. It was like watching a tapestry of old Africa unfold beneath our toes. In Malawi we climbed over 10,000 ft mountains that were terraced with tea plantations and neat villages squatting under banana trees. In Tanzania great nameless plains stretched for miles in all directions, dotted with giraffes, elephants, and zebra. At one point in Kenya clouds were touching the barren hilltops, so we had to land. We looked up to see a Maasai warrior, walking out of the mists. He was almost 7 feet tall, clad in red cloth, and complete with spears. He didn't know a word of English and had never seen a chopper before. Soon his wife and children, who were tiny and all in red, joined him. They circled the chopper pointing and chattering, I suppose the way we would if a UFO landed in our backyard. When we looked up small families of Maasai were walking over the hills from all directions toward us. Even with the language barrier we were able to obtain their assistance re-fueling the chopper using jerry cans of jet fuel we carried on board. When the clouds lifted, we hovered just above their heads and waved to them as we left them standing -- all in red -- on their hill side.
On our return, when we were over southern Tanzania it became obvious that we would not make camp before dark, and there are no sophisticated radio beacons in this part of Africa. Darkness crept in just as we approached the scarp mountains, which we had to cross before reaching camp. Mark climbed very high in the chopper to miss the peaks, and as far as we could see there were no lights or any other sign of man. The earth stood dark and moody, and we could only barely make out the shapes of the largest mountains. The stars were brilliant, and I felt like I was in one of those glass Christmas tree balls suspended beneath them. Can you imagine our feeling when we finally spotted the tiny light at our grass strip, guiding us safely home?
Not long ago I was under one of the marula trees in camp when the elephant, Cheers, walked up and shook it with his massive head. Fruits rained down all around me, then he fed on them with me only eight yards away! Survivor is also well. Thanks to your help, all the elephants have a better chance of surviving this season.
Cheers from the valley,