By Allan Cilliers:
My desire and passion to work with wildlife started as a young five-year-old boy, growing up in Mafeking. At the age of six my father taught me to hunt birds with his old BSA double 12-gauge shotgun. I spent many of my June winter holidays with my father and his friends on hunting trips for meat in Southern Botswana. Those days’ pot licenses/permits could be obtained.
During my high school years some vacations I would spend my holidays in the Okavango delta with my good friend Rocky Palmer, his father being the legendary hunter Lional Palmer who hunted with Safari South at the time. We often spent half our holidays helping Kenny Kay’s building Safari camps for Safari South.
After completing high school I was called up for compulsory military training, spending most of my time in the northern parts of Namibia, with Angola.
After completing my two-year stint with the military, I was fortunate to be offered a post in the wildlife department of Namibia. In 1978 my career started as a game ranger in Etosha National Park. Working through the ranks I was eventually promoted to Chief Warden of Etosha NP in 1987.
During my career in the game department I worked in various other postings in Namibia such as, Waterberg Plateau Park, the Kavango region, developing the Khaudum and Mahango GR, and West Caprivi (now known as Bwabwata NP).
I was fortunate to work in the game department, where I obtained invaluable experience from superiors some with up to 40 years experience and skilled Heikom and Ju’hoansi bushman trackers who had unlimited knowledge about the bush.
Very broadly my work entailed every imaginable task, from public relations, wildlife monitoring, mechanical/maintenance, game capture, problem animal control, anti poaching/law enforcement to administration. To accomplish all practical duties and responsibilities I spent at least 20 days out in my section per month, together with two trackers. Unforgettable memories and untold stories still remain with me today.
Many people fantasize about a rangers job believing it to be romantic and all you do is drive around all day observing wildlife, this is untrue, the work requires a lot of dedication, hard work and long lonely hours, especially in real wild African areas like Etosha and Caprivi, Kavango areas, where you will not see people for weeks on end.
During the early days in Etosha National Park to shoot an elephant breaking out of the Park and causing havoc amongst communities/farmers, was only allowed if there was a very good reason, either it was a real threat to human life, had killed someone or it had been wounded. We were trained in good horsemanship and most elephants were chased and herded back to the Park on horseback. Our horses were well-trained, obedient, accustomed to elephant and accepted the noise of gunfire when shooting from their back. Herding elephant back to the Park always resulted in success, but never without problems. Once elephant got tired then irritated they would turn and charge with meaning, you then became the transgressor and the one to be chassed. During one such charge my trackers horse stepped into a warthog hole and fell. Fortunately the tracker immediately crept into the warthog hole, to escape the elephant bull bearing down on him. I returned and got the attention of the elephant bull, which was standing over the hole trying to recover the unfortunate tracker with his trunk. Fortunately I managed to drive him away on my horse with gunshots. Horses were also used to conduct patrols in ones area, totaling up to 150 hours per month on horseback. Sadly today horses are not used in Etosha N P anymore and vehicles have become the favored mode of transport.
To shoot elephant we were only issued with 458 win mags and 93*62. I must stress that the 458 win is not my favored caliber today but at the time it really had a good reputation amongst conservation staff and fulfilled its role successfully. Because of elephant culling operations and shooting high number of problem elephant I was in a fortunate career position to gain a lot of practical training and experience. A lot of training was given on, marksmanship, gun safety, animal behaviour and most important, correct shot placement at different angles.
I was only 22 years of age when I experienced my first elephant charge, it was an adult cow in a breeding herd of 22 elephant that had been wounded by poachers or locals residing next to Etosha. The inconsistent wind direction at midday and little cover made our approach extremely difficult. The bunching up of the various family groups in the shade also made it difficult to identify the correct individual. After observing the elephant from a safe distance my Heikom trackers and I observed a large cow amongst a family group of seven limping and displaying an aggressive behaviour towards the other elephants. I then noticed a badly swollen front leg. Although the wind was constantly swirling in various directions, I decided to approach closer for a shot, before the whole herd bunched up together and start to move off. I managed to approach within 30 yards when the family group suddenly picked up my scent. Without any warning or hesitation the injured cow saw me moved towards me and charged. The frightening part was that the family group immediately joined in behind her. All in a split second all the training and experienced I had gained flashed through my mind. One mistake and I am dead. Trying to keep calm I lifted the 458 and placed the sights exactly between the eyes. The elephant had dropped her head and was at full charge. I fired and she immediately collapsed to the ground. Fortunately just to my right there was a medium sized mopane bush, which I managed to crawl to and used