By Allan Cilliers:
As I sat in a bowhunting blind, fond memories of my days as a conservationist came to mind, and I thought about the Ju/hoansii people and the mentorship my children were privileged to have gained from these remarkable people.
As a young Senior Ranger stationed in Kavango, I was tasked with multiple, very challenging responsibilities, such as the development of the Khaudum, Mahango and Mangetti Game Reserves, the management of the West Caprivi Game Reserve (known as Bwabwata National Park today), regional services, the implementation of the first Game Guard system in Namibia, and training game guards regarding human-wildlife conflict and Park management systems.
One Saturday afternoon, game guard Anton Kavera and I departed from Rundu for the Khaudum Game Reserve, travelling south along the Fountain Omaramba, a tributary of the Omataku Omaramba. We first went to attend to an elephant problem at a settlement called Ncaute. Upon our arrival, we were informed that elephant had just passed by the village three days ago, heading east towards the Khaudom Game reserve. Continuing our journey along a bad, sandy two-track road, at dark we eventually arrived at place called Karukuwisa, made camp, and cleaned the radiator.
Early the next morning we departed, and after three hours we eventually arrived at a remote village, Samagaigai, at least a two-day walk from any other civilization. Situated in a very picturesque area, the small village settled under huge false Mopani and camel thorn trees. We were greeted by barking dogs, and eventually by a few Ju/hoansi slowly appearing from their simple grass huts, wrapped in old blankets on this cold winter morning. Smoke from early morning fires lazily hung over the village, creating a ghostly atmoshpere. A tall figure approached me armed with a .303 Lee-Enfield rifle.
“Morning, Allan,” he said. ”You are just in time. We have lion problems. You are early, and I have not yet sent a message. How did you know about the lion problems?”
“Morning, Pinias” I replied. “I received a message from the medicine man and drove through the entire night to help you,” I joked. A respected Kavango traditional cattle farmer from that area, Pinias just smiled.
“It is like the old days,” he said, “when I farmed with a few cattle at Soncana in the Khaudum, and lion problems happened daily. I have fewer problems now. At least there is a 30 kilometer distance between the Khaudum and Smagaigai, and I have you to look after me. This is another story.”
Khaudum, I thought. What a gem—remote, untouched wilderness, and harsh terrain. Except for a few natural springs in the Khaudum omaramba in the north and one bore hole in the south, that supplied water for game, the remaining area was waterless. I was on my way to continue making roads to future waterhole sites, alaong with some Ju/hoansi scouts who were familiar with the area.
Making a road by hand all day and exhausted, we eventually reached the eastern boundary of the Khaudum, a fence demarcating the border between Namibia and Botswana. I noticed a ladder constructed over the fence, specifically there so the Ju/hoansi people could venture back and forth to visit families. With Tsissiba standing on the ladder, /Gou reminded me that we use to hunt these areas, on both side of the fence, when I was a young boy. At that time there were no barriers then. They are bad for wildlife, which cannot naturally move to the west anymore, especially when the rains come. He picked up his bow, put his mouth over the bowstring, tapped it with an arrow shaft, and started to play a tune. “I am singing to the animals,” he said. “Come back, you will be free, we will walk together towards the west when the rains come.” These people are the true wildlife managers, I thought.
“You have no children, Allan,” Tsissiba said. “One day when you do have children, we must teach them well about the bush and the Ju/hoansi way of life.”
“I would like that very much,” I said. “That would be an honor.”
In September 1985, my son Wayne was born at Otjivasandu, a remote ranger station in western Etosha National Park. He was the first white child to be born here, and his birth was celebrated with a traditional gift, a goat, from the Herero scouts and their families. He was adopted by all—my rangers and my scouts, who would look after him most days, teaching him about the wilds and respect for the environment. His pet a bat-eared fox was the only small friend he had and the two were inseparable, hunting insects together and often disappearing into the bush. My trackers were often called to look for them, only to find the two sleeping under a bush after a long morning’s hunt for insects. Wayne would always accompany us on patrols, game capture operations, and when feeding captured animals. His favorite was an orphaned black rhino calf which was successfully raised and released back into the wilds.
In 1992, I resigned from the Conservation Department to pursue a trophy hunting career. Because that required me to be away for long periods, Wayne went to boarding school at a very young age.
When bowhunting was legalized in Namibia in 1998, the first thought that came to my mind was the Ju/hoansi trackers that I worked with many years back. Desperately, I looked for a concession area, eventually finding one that became, in my opinion, the best bowhunting area in Namibia today—a large true wilderness far from civilization, with a high population of indigenous species. I adopted a very strict policy of no “put and take,” meaning no quick reintroduction of species either indigenous or exotic just for the purpose of trophy hunting, as is the norm of many game fenced properties today.
From the first trophy bow hunt we conducted, the Ju/hoansi trackers were part of my bowhunting team. Every school holiday Wayne would spend time with these trackers, as they taught him about the art of traditional bowhunting, tracking, stalking, animal behavior, and edible plants. Then /Gou said, “The time has come, Wayne.” He was only 13 years-old when the trackers took him on a traditional bowhunt.
The hunt started by looking for a beetle, Diamphidia nigroornata, that feeds on the leaves of the Commiphora africana shrub. Its cocoon’s Lies buried deep in the fine Kalahari sand surrounding the shrub. The pupae within the cocoon contains a lethal poison that causes paralysis and blindness once it enters the blood stream. The Ju/hoansi carefully smear it onto the shafts of the arrow and, for safety, not the arrowhead itself.
With that accomplished, /Gou, Tsissiba, /Xau, and Wayne disappeared into the dense Terminalia shrub looking for fresh animal tracks. After two hours, /Xau whispered, “Fresh gemsbok tracks!” Anxiously, all looked at the tracks, indicating to Wayne the behavior of the animals. /Xau pointed out, “There are three, and they are feeding. Look—they are not walking single file and indentations in the sand are not deep. They are moving slowly. We will track them,”/Gou went on. “Wayne, you walk behind me and make sure you step on my tracks to avoid stepping on a snake or sticks and leaves. Any noise will alert a wild animal once we are close.”
After following the track for some time, the three hunters suddenly sat down and indicated to Wayne to do the same. They pointed ahead, and there they were. The stealthy stalk started, taking Wayne to within 40 meters. Tsissiba said, “Wayne, you stay with me and allow /Gou and /Xau to make the final stalk.”
The two hunters removed most of their clothing and slowly but meticulously approached the gemsbok. “Look carefully.” said Tsissiba to Wayne. “See the gemsbok and look. Once in a while you will see the head of one of the hunters peeping over the grass to see where the gemsbok is, estimate shooting distance, and look for a shooting lane.”
Wayne looked on in amazement. Suddenly the head of one of the hunters appeared above the grass as the gemsbok fed, unaware of the danger. Then he heard the faint sound of a bowstring, and the gemsbok scattered in all directions. The crashing noise they made running through the bush soon faded in the distance as /Gou and /Xau stood up indicating the shot placement high in the neck. The poisoned arrow had hit its mark after a mere 15-meter shot.
The hunting party sat down to rest, waiting for the poison to work its way into the animal’s blood stream and take effect. /Xau decided it was time for a drink, but they had brought no water. Close by, he indicated a downy stem about 20 cm tall rising from the sandy Kalahari soils. “Dig down alongside the stem,” he told Wayne. “There is a bulb attached.” Soon Wayne removed the bulb, of a perennial herb Raphionacma burkei. /Xau planed the bulb with his spear blade, placed the shavings in his hand, and then squeezed the shavings, allowing the water to run into his mouth. “Try it Wayne,” he said. “It is bitter but not too much, and it will quench your thirst.”
“Wayne,” /Gou said as he stood up, “you take the track once I have identified the one that was shot.” Bending down, he retrieved his arrow shaft. “See the pattern of the sinew used to bind the shaft at the nock? It is mine, and the head and shaft that is covered with poison has penetrated the neck of the gemsbok. This is the shot animal’s track. Here, you take the track.” With the help of the hunters, Wayne began to spoor. Soon the tracking became easier as they explained to him what to do—look down, look up, see the tracks ahead. Eventually they indicated the shortening stride and zig-zag walking pattern as the gemsbok often stopped to rest, all evidence of a confused and weakening animal.
Two hours later /Xau said, “He is close. Be alert and look ahead. You must try to see him. Just then Wayne stopped, and they all simultaneously pointed at a light grey figure, head down and horns distinctly shinning in the midday son. “The gemsbok is weak and confused,” /Xau said. “Come, bring the spears.” /Gou in front slowly moved in and with one accurate throw the spear penetrated the lungs of the gemsbok. The killing was done. The arrowhead, attached to a carefully carved giraffe bone, was removed from the center neck area of the gemsbok, a very accurately placed shot.
Handing Wayne one of their traditional knives so he could participate, the skinning process began by removing the skin and then disemboweling the animal and cutting the meat into long strips. The heart and liver were removed, and a fire was lit using their traditional fire making sticks. Tsissiba then cut the liver and heart into pieces and carefully placed the meat onto the glowing open coals. “Wayne,” he said, “come and eat. It is your first true hunt, and this is Ju/hoansi tradition.” While they ate, /Xau explained to Wayne, “You see, the Ju/hoansi people hunt to eat, and we use everything from the animal—the meat, the skin for clothing, quivers, bags, and the horn to make curios. Nothing goes to waste. You must remember this, one day when you guide bowhunting clients like your father. Make sure they hunt wild animals in the most traditional and ethical way, make sure the clients eat the meat and make something of the skin and horns. Nothing must go to waste.” /Gou smiled and said, “Wayne, one very important part of the hunt is that you must show respect towards the animal. Teach your clients this one day.” That thought has stayed with Wayne ever since.
Taking as much meat as possible, they placed it in the leather bag made from the gemsbok skin. A tree branch was cut and hooked to the bag in the middle, allowing two hunters to carry the meat. Tsissiba then hung the remaining meat high up in the trees. “We will come and collect this meat in the morning,” he said. At dusk, the hunting party arrived in camp singing a hunting song and imitating the straight horns of the gemsbok with their outstretched arms.
The following day, Wayne together with the Ju/hoansi went back to the kill site to collect the remaining meat hanging from the trees and carry it back to camp. That same week, Wayne together with three Ju/hoansi hunters built a natural brush blind along a game path some 200 meters from a waterhole. “Take your bow.” said /Gou. “Let us go hunting.”
Wayne had an old Matheus Q2 compound bow with its draw weight reduced to 55 pounds. After the second day, while lying in ambush, an adult impala ram walked along the game trail passing 20 meters from the blind. “Get ready,” said /Gou. “I will stop the animal, then you shoot.”
When the impala was in range, /Gou made a faint grunt. The impala stopped and Wayne released the arrow, which penetrated the shoulder, the target known as the “vital V”. Within 40 meters from the hunters, the impala collapsed. With respect and a sense of sadness, Wayne approached the lifeless animal and knelt over it, caressing the beautiful red coat. “My first animal I have hunted with a bow and arrow,” he thought.
“Do not look so sad,” said /Gou. “The animal had a fair chance, and you hunted it in its natural surroundings. For all you know, a leopard could have lain in the exact same position as you did and caught the impala. Come, let us take it to camp. We can feed everyone, and Wayne, you must take the skin and horns.”
Years later in 2005, Wayne guided an old client of mine, Paul Brunner. Paul, an exceptional traditional bowhunter, shot a 62” Kudu with Wayne. Impressed, Paul gave Wayne a beautiful custom-built Schafer takedown recurve bow. Wayne adhered to Paul’s wise advice: practice frequently and you will become an exceptional traditional archer.
A few years later when I was doing bo hunting tests on leopard for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, on Sandveld Game Ranch, Wayne together with the Ju/hoansi hunters, again guided Paul on a successful leopard hunt, a very difficult and demanding hunt for any traditional bowhunter. We used a very successful, exiting, and unusual hunting technique, tracking a leopard, finding its own kill, and then setting up a brush blind.
Even though the lives of /Gou, Tsissiba, and /Xau have long gone, they made sure that their hunting traditions will live on by teaching the younger generation. Wayne’s two tracker/hunters, Bonnie and Andreas, are young hunters and apprentices of the older hunters who still practice the Ju/hoansi way of bowhunting today. Their hunting skills and knowledge, together with Waynes’s love for traditional archery and stalking indigenous game in its natural surroundings, is certainly the most ethical and challenging technique of bowhunting today.
It’s July 2018, and the early morning winter breeze burns the ears and numbs the hands while tracking three wildebeest bulls, crossing over the fresh tracks of a black rhino cow and calf, and moving carefully to avoid any confrontation with them. The hunters hear the clicking sound of eland bulls walking nearby and spot three gemsbok feeding ahead. They crawl forward, using the wind to keep the game from detecting the hunters. Two hours go by. “There,” points the Ju/hoansi tracker. “Wildebeest bulls. Get down low.” After crawling 25 meters on the cold Kalahari sand, the client releases the arrow.
“It’s the hunt of a lifetime,” Wayne said later. “You will never experience this anywhere else.” Ethics, he thought, as the Ju/hoansi expressed it—a strict code of morals practiced by these people, with honesty, respect, and obedience to the natural environment and its wildlife.