SI Vault
The Game Goes On
Robert F. Jones
May 22, 1978
A field on the outskirts of Nanyuki: at one corner a garbage dump smolders behind a row of shops lining the highway; the sun pounds down through a stiff southwesterly breeze; and smoke flattens toward a hut not far away. The hut is built of old tin cans and branches, whose dead leaves flap in the acrid wind. Inside the hut, seated on cattle skulls, three men and a woman are drinking tea from chipped enamel mugs. A small fire sputters. Outside lies what looks like a bundle of sticks wrapped in a tattered, faded red blanket. But something stirs for a moment, black skin through the holes. It's not a bundle of sticks. It's old Nyngao the Hyena,-the Eater of Meat, and he is dying.
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May 22, 1978

The Game Goes On

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"Poor old sod," Bill commented. "Probably got clouted by a buffalo a while back. He's a real mzee—an old man. Maybe finished. Bloody nice mane, though. If we were hunting, we'd be doing him a favor to take him. Put him out of his misery and let the younger studs move into the gene pool."

The rest of the day produced much game but nothing as dramatic as the battle of the bulls at dawn. A vast armada of white storks darkened the sky; bands of plains game—impala, gazelles, topi, wildebeest—fed and bred; crook-necked, irregularly marked "Masai" giraffes, smaller than their reticulated, northern brothers, browsed the tops of riverine thorn trees; a spotted hyena trotted stiff-legged through the tall grass, a rare sighting during full daylight. Toward evening, with the sky darkening again to rain clouds, we spotted a lone female rhino in a valley outside the park. She carried a long, thin frontal horn and was moving fast.

"With a pembe like that she won't last long outside the park," said Bill, putting down his binoculars. "Do you realize that's the first live rhino we've seen on this safari? In the old days, 10 or 15 years ago, they would have been charging out from behind every bush. It's a bloody shame. A Kenya without kifaru will be like meat without pepper."

A lone bull elephant stood at the forest edge as we returned to camp. The tusks were small—35 pounds at most, Winter estimated—and he flapped his ears wide at our approach, a warning to keep clear. "He's feisty," said Winter. "If we'd been walking back into camp, it might have turned into a fast gallop." The comment triggered a story from Lambat.

"When I was young," he said from his 28 years of old age, "a friend of mine met just such an elephant. He had decided to go to a nearby village to get some beads for his girl friend. As a moran (a young warrior), you are not permitted to travel alone overnight, since you might be killed and the tribe thus weakened. Some of us went with him. When we were coming back with the beads, it got dark. We chose to spend the night on the trail, but he went on against our warnings. On the trail he came upon the elephant. It tossed him and knelt on him and broke his ribs and his legs. Then it went away. In the morning we found him, still alive. He asked us to look for the beads, but we couldn't find them. Just before he died, he told us to go to his girl friend and see if the elephant had brought the beads to her. But the elephant hadn't. We never found the beads."

All of this was said in a matter-of-fact voice, the story trailing off into a dying fall: Africa.

The next day we would see much more of the Mara—great sweeping herds of buffalo calving and mating and feeding on the rocky ridges; seas of tall grass spiked by the horns of thousands of antelope; young lions stalking a solitary topi, crawling belly-down through the grass with eyes fixed, intent on the kill; two splendid simbas mating beside the road, the male with a lush dark mane, his muscles in relief in a scarless, rain-cleansed hide as he crouched in rage, watching us, ready to spring into the open roof hatch of the Toyota; numberless birds—guinea fowl and yellow-necked spurfowl, tall Kori bustards, francolin and quail, honey guides and fiscal shrikes and marabous and eagles. As Winter had promised, the Mara was "stiff with game." But that was to be expected. As the showplace of Kenyan game reserves, it would certainly be the most carefully protected park in the country (despite the impala under the ranger's bed).

Our next stop, though, would give us a more accurate picture of the game: a reach of country to the north, where Winter and I had hunted four years earlier. If the game was still strong at Naibor Keju, where we would join up with Winter's camp crew and his big lorry, then we could begin to breathe more easily about the future of wildlife in Kenya. What we had seen thus far was certainly encouraging—except for the paucity of rhino and the lack of big ivory on the elephants. Even with the heavy poaching of the past nine months, buffalo, lion and plains game of all kinds seemed to be plentiful.

Lying in my bunk that night, with the rain thrumming on the canvas and the Coleman lantern hissing beside me, I thought back to my hunt at Naibor Keju. It would be good to see the old safari gang again—Joseph and Wamatitu serving elegant meals in the mess tent, while outside the jackals barked; old Wachira, the sprightly 70-year-old "apprentice firesmith" setting the night ablaze with whole, dry thorn trees as we sipped cocktails; N'deritu, the steady, shy Kikuyu driver and mechanic; and most of all old Isaac, the jolly Teriki with the cropped gray hair, who brought my tea in the morning and took away my shoes for a quick touch-up before breakfast. "Habari yako, Bwana?" Very good indeed, old friend.

I wouldn't miss the killing, now that the hunting was finished. That is something you do for meat, or when you are young and want to confront danger for its own sake. I'd killed my nightmare buffalo years ago. Oh, I'd miss the bird shooting sure enough—the sandgrouse pouring in over the hot springs, folding to the clap of the 12-gauge Browning over-and-under; the button quail whizzing out from the tall grass, quick above the shotgun's ventilated rib; the ungainly guineafowl moving overhead with deceptive speed, clacking with the metallic squawk so reminiscent of driven pheasant. In a way, bird shooting is an anti-art: the shotgun a negative paintbrush that strokes the bird from the sky. The corner of my mind, of my experience, that can appreciate such a bird shooting view could accept the end of it. Still, they taste so damned good....

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