Shootout In The Selous
A bowhunter comes under heavy fire


Tink Nathan
Copyright 1998

Tink Nathan
Tink Nathan

I was bowhunting African bull elephant and cape buffalo in the Selous Nature Reserve, Southern Tanzania on November 25th, 1987, with professional hunter Francoise D' Elby of Paris. I needed a break from the long elephant marches, so I set up a platform for my video crew in a large tree alongside a well used game trail. I put up a portable tree stand, and we waited for a Litchenstein's hartebeest I had seen there twice. We were well concealed, but, strangely, no game came. I had a foreboding feeling that something was about to happen.

About 10 am I saw six black men walking down the road. They wore white shirts and black trousers, and two of them carried AK-47-Avtomat Kalashnikov automatic rifles with long reddish brown banana magazines, no slings, pressed tight against their long black pants legs. Two of them went to investigate an old leopard bait hanging high in a sausage tree.

It was the first time during the safari I did not have my scoped 7 mm Remington Magnum rifle and a load of 175 grain Nosler Partition cartridges with me. Francoise whispered, "Ivory poachers."

We watched to see if the poachers would see us, but thanks to my Rhodesian pattern camouflage, my skin camouflage, camo taped bows and video gear, they could not see us. The camouflage discipline I imposed on my party saved our lives.

Two of the poachers stayed at the sausage tree, wondering how the impala got tied up in the branches, and the other four outlaws walked down the road to our left and rear. Our camp was only 2 km away and if they had continued, they would have seen our tents. Our hunting camp was a field outpost for the elite Selous Anti-Poaching Unit and we had 26 armed game wardens in our sister camp.

When the poachers walked away, Francoise told N'Jayo, our 16 year old tracker, to climb down and run back to camp to get the patrol. He did with the speed of light. His camo t-shirt and dark shorts were but a mere blur as he sped to camp. Within minutes I could see six green clad troopers making their way to our tree.

Francoise had gotten down out of the tree after the poachers left. He was armed with a .460 Magnum built on a Mauser action with coarse iron sights for close-in elephant work. Once the Selous Anti-Poaching Patrol arrived, Francoise briefed the patrol and then they took off at a dog trot, rifles at high port arms. Two had AK-47's, one man carried a SKS semi-automatic assault rifle, one chap had a .458 Winchester bolt action, and two game guards carried .375 H & H Magnum Mausers, all confiscated from poachers.

The patrol ran to the road, picked up the tracks and followed the spoor of the poachers. Once they sighted the poachers, three of the guards circled around and set up an ambush in front of them. The poachers had actually walked down the dirt road to our right, away from camp.

Three guards stalked the poachers from the rear as they walked along the path to doom.

I was still in the tree, 35 to 40 feet high when heavy automatic weapons fire raked through the top of the tree where we lay. 7.62 mm slugs tore the place apart. Leaves, twigs, pieces of bark and wood chips flew for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only 20 seconds as we crouched down to present as small a profile as possible. One bullet missed my head by about 8 inches, the slug making a whirling buzz-like sound, perhaps tumbling from hitting a leaf in the tree. I was secured by a safety belt in my tree stand, facing the firefight. No where to run, no place to hide. Francoise, still below, got behind the tree during the fusillade of machine gun fire. It stopped for about 3 minutes, then there was a burst of 4 automatic rounds. Then silence.

Amazingly, none of us were hit, but we were badly shaken by the near death experience.

On the ground in front of the poaching party, the Selous Anti-Poaching Patrol had waited until the poachers were upon them. The commander shouted for the poachers to stop and drop their weapons. Foolishly , the poachers opened fire on the game scouts, lying prostrate in the grass with weapons cocked, locked and ready to rock. The poachers emptied the 40 round magazines of each AK-47, but the violent upwards recoil of the barrel when firing fully automatic prevented any of the rounds from finding the mark. The game scouts opened fire into the milling mob of renegades. The raiders reloaded and fired at the government patrol.

The group turned en mass and ran into the waiting sights of the three patrolmen behind them. Single well-aimed shots from the .375's and .458 Magnum bolt action rifles stopped and dropped the oncoming bandits, together with the vicious hail of fully automatic fire from the front of the ambush, raking them through the back. The green clad game scouts fired in short bursts until the raiding party were all down. Within 20 seconds it was over. The rifle fire we took was from the game warden's two AK-47's firing almost level with the ground , the bullets missing the poachers and sailing through our tree blind, only a thousand yards away and in a direct line of fire.

We were almost victims of friendly fire.

The trooper firing the SKS fired round after round after the others stopped firing, until he ran dry of ammo. I can still hear the bam, bam, bam , bam, even today echoing in my ears.

African Bush Justice

After the firefight, one poacher was captured, seriously wounded, and questioned. Turns out the wounded poacher told the patrol they never knew we were there. The entire poaching party was Tanzanian army soldiers and were given brand new rifles from the Tanzanian Military Armory by the mastermind of the poaching ring, a corrupt government official.

The poachers carried two AK firearms, and the other four were along to carry out the tusks. It was on old story, very familiar to the game wardens.

A burst of 4 rounds from a Kalashnikov finished the interview. Case closed. Thank you.

The elephant poachers' corpses were left in the veld for the hyenas to clean up, and the captured weapons were carried back to the game warden's camp to be recycled into the war against elephant poaching.

The Selous Anti-Poaching Patrol passed us as we were packing up our video gear. The men were tired after the long run and grim faced after the encounter, thankful that none of their patrol had been hurt.

The six dead elephant poachers would no longer prey on the cow elephants of the Selous. During the 30 days I bowhunted the Selous, I counted 98 elephant carcasses, some only skull and bones, other more recent with skins intact, covered with vulture stains. Even baby elephants were shot for a mere few inches of ivory.

Cow ivory is preferred by Far East ivory carvers since it is softer and easier to work than bull elephant ivory. In l987 there were 2800 ivory carvers in Hong Kong alone. Japan is the ultimate market for ivory products.

The safari company I had engaged confiscated my video tapes we made of the re-enactment of the event. They were afraid it would hurt tourism and get them in hot water with the government. I was forced to sign a letter that I would not mention the event in a video I was making on bowhunting elephant. I signed it under duress, and when I did not get my tape back, I produced the film anyway, telling clearly just what happens to ivory poachers in the Selous.

Several days later after the firefight, I took my third African elephant with my 105# Oneida hunting bow. I put a single arrow straight through its lungs and liver, a clean one arrow harvest. I had already taken two old Dagga boy cape buffs, each with a single arrow through the heart.

The video" Bowhunting Elephant and Cape Buffalo in East Africa" was released at the 1988 Annual Conference of the Outdoor Writers Assn of America at Marco Island, Florida, USA. The film won rave reviews, and 186 copies were given to outdoor writers.


Tink Nathan
Tink Nathan in Africa
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