POACHING: The costs in pain and suffering never end

Claire Howell and her father Andre de Kock.
Claire Howell and her father Andre de Kock.

(Editor’s note by Steve Comus:  Wild Africa, a hauntingly mysterious siren that lures humans from near and far into the bosom of Mother Nature, also is a place where increasingly atrocities go unchecked. Crime? Corruption? Probably yes. Stone grave markers stand as silent reminders that something terrible happened – something that never can be resolved, regardless how much time goes by, no matter how many murderers are captured. Lives of real people, the things of real value, have been taken away forever. And for what? Some pieces of ivory or a bit of horn. On Friday, February 18, Africa PH Andre de Kock was ambushed, gunned down and killed by poachers while guiding a client in Tanzania. Andre inadvertently happened upon armed poachers in the bush.

            This is Claire’s story. It is a story about the tremendous cost of poaching beyond the bounds of animal slaughter for profit. It is a story about unabated bloodshed of both wildlife and humans, all done to feed the voracious avarice that has spawned a growing global criminal enterprise. It is a story of life and death – about what happens afterward, as well as what does not happen. In this story, there are more questions than answers. Above all, it is a story of the emptiness within a grieving daughter that on this earth can never be filled.)

It has been nearly four years since my late father’s tragic death. The pain of losing a parent to any child is devastating, no matter what age you are.

I write this article because not only is the elephant poaching out of control in Tanzania, but also while everyone is trying to save the elephants, innocent people are being hurt.

I have so many questions that I feel are not answered. Everyone always says: “wrong place, wrong time.”

Many may have heard this story over and over again, but I want to tell my story. I want you to know the reality of this tragic death.

My father, Andre, became a Professional Hunter the year I was born: 1977. He hunted Zambia, where we lived with my mother, Susan (1958-2004) in the Luwangwa Valley. We stayed in a camp called Chibembe. I remember, as a child, memories of my father taking down the fruit of the sausage tree and drawing faces on them.

My dad continued to hunt Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania until the end. My dad was a very good man. He was kind, generous and, as everyone remembers, he loved to laugh. In 1983, my dad tried to give up hunting to stay at home to be a better father and be with me. He got a job as a mechanic, which he was very good at. I wouldn’t say he gave up, but being a professional hunter was in his blood and he returned to hunting not long after.  In 1995, my father joined Robin Hurt Safaris, a successful hunting company in Arusha. He had a long list of clients — of well-earned clients that he had accumulated since the beginning of his career. His clients and peers loved him alike. He knew how to be a good host as well as a well-respected Professional Hunter. Many clients became more than a name in the address book. They became good friends.

My dad never forgot Valentine’s Day. Monday, February 14, 2011, I received a text message wishing me a happy Valentine’s Day from the tar road where there was signal. “Hi, just got to the tar road so doing my sms. Happy Valentine’s Day, love you so much. Have a great day.” (This message is saved on my phone still today.)

He was on his way from Burko camp, a Masailand block, to Maswa Makao camp. He had an eight-hour or so drive ahead of him. This was the last time I would hear from him. The year 2011 was the first year for 18 years that hunting was allowed from January to March as a hunting season extension.

The Mongo Mawe river
The Mongo Mawe river

In late 2010 the government decided to open hunting for these extra three months. As this decision had been made so late, not many Professional Hunters had safaris and it was straight after the SCI show that my father returned home and headed out on safari.

On Friday morning, February 18, I walked to the Robin Hurt Safaris office, where my husband is the Managing Director. It was just before 9 a.m. Jonathan received a message from one of the former employees that there was a problem in Maswa. My heart immediately sank and I knew straight away something was not right.

We tried to call his satellite phone, which he always had on him and was a company policy. In Maswa Makao he also carried his cell phone, as it was within distance of the Makao area cell phone tower. No one answered. This was now serious. We were by then being told there had been a shooting. I do not think and I remember very clearly still to this day that no one could have paced the corridors that much in that one hour.

We were calling on the radio to the Maswa camp. We tried to call the anti-poaching team, as well. It’s easier now to tell the story after getting the facts as time goes on. But at the time, we did not know what we were to expect. The last thing we expected to hear was this.

Being wounded by a charging buffalo is something you would expect to hear about on a buffalo hunt. We needed to get ‘hold of a light aircraft to go and see what the situation was.

Nothing is easy in Africa. I walked home and tried to call his cell phone, as I was so sure, or was I just hoping in vain, that there was a problem with the telephone signal, that I would get ‘hold of him.

My dad had set out with one client — the other not feeling too well remained in camp. In the car were my dad driving, camera lady, two trackers, a driver and a game scout. The camera lady was in the front seat with my dad in the cab. The rest were on the back of the hunting pickup. Off they went as on any normal hunting day.

The driver, Erasto, told us it was around 8 o’clock in the morning. They were driving along the Mongo Mawe River, by the Dove Pools, which was what my dad always did: drive slowly, looking for buffalo tracks. They came to an opening (I went to where he was murdered to see for myself and I go back regularly. In 2013 I scattered his ashes with my family at the place where he died), it was quite open and on the other side was a grass patch about a metre high.

The discovery of the blue bag at the scene of the shooting.
The discovery of the blue bag at the scene of the shooting.

There was no sign of people hiding there, no noise to even make someone suspicious. As my dad was driving, Erasto told him to stop. Erasto had noticed a blue plastic bag.

The river was on the right-hand side of the pickup. As Erasto was about to jump off the pickup to pick up what he thought was litter, several AK47s opened fire.

A hail of blazing, piercing bullets showered the driver’s side of the car. To this day, I wonder if my dad even knew what was happening. I have asked Erasto many times that, in that one single minute under fire, if my dad knew what was happening.

In the spray of bullets, one tracker was shot in the leg. The game scout standing on the back had his uniform shredded in front of him, missing him. Everyone on the back jumped to the left to hide behind the body of the pickup for cover, fighting for their lives. The Tracker who had been hit crawled and hid in a nearby bush.

Erasto, a brave man, grabbed the camera lady who was completely in shock. The client, tracker and game scout started to run, running for their lives. Erasto tells me as I again ask, was he alive and tells me no, he was already dead.

Damage to the vehicle caused by the armor piercing ammunition.
Damage to the vehicle caused by the armor piercing ammunition.

The armour-piercing Chinese ammunition (to let you know Chinese piercing ammunition is issued to the government only) shot-up the driver’s door: one bullet hitting my father’s foot, one through his pelvis and another shot in the temple.

I think to myself: how can a bullet, when you are not aiming, be so accurate to hit some one in the correct area of the temple?

Erasto pulled the camera lady out of the front cab. My dad had fallen to the left and had fallen on her.

Erasto started leading everyone on the most terrifying two-hour run, except for the tracker, who remained hidden in the bushes. They were running, trying to get a signal on his cell, trying to get ‘hold of someone, at least to notify the Arusha office of the situation.

They heard gunfire in the background and had no idea if they were going in the right direction to camp or if the poachers were now after them — carrying people, urging them to run for their lives.

Some people may think this sounds like a movie. It’s not. It’s innocent people running for their lives. They got to camp safely but emotionally drained.

Jonathan at the same time this was happening got ‘hold of by phone an unnamed bordering hunting company and asked for assistance and to please get ‘hold of their anti-poaching team.

We still did not know where he was, who was alive — was anyone shot and what the circumstances were. We were told that they had started to look up and down the river.

Back at the Arusha office, Jonathan got ‘hold of Northern Air, who flew to the area with Derek Hurt, chairman of Robin Hurt Safaris, who had very kindly volunteered to go on the plane to search for him on the ground.

Derek landed and had been notified by the ground anti poaching team that the Land Cruiser had been found at the Dove Pool, with the engine still idling.

They had found the tracker in the bush and he needed medical help. In the front of the cab, lying with his head in the foot well, slumped, was my dad — not breathing and with no pulse.

When Derek arrived at the scene, a bag of ammunition was found in the blue plastic bag and several small tusks were found at the scene, along with a cell phone belonging to the poachers. This was good, we thought, they had left behind evidence. I can not thank Derek enough for going and doing what can only be described as an awful task and it must haunt him at times also.

When the world thinks of the elephants being poached, one immediately thinks of all the older elephants with large tusks being hunted down. The fact is that these elephants are being poached with tusks no more than two feet long. I was told it was easier for the poachers to carry and dispose of smaller ivory.

Also in the area there was another air charter who volunteered to take the clients back to Arusha. They needed to be evacuated and so did the tracker.

It was before one o’clock in the afternoon when my husband walked over to me to tell me.

Our eldest daughter Cheyenne (11 years old) needed to be collected from school. We had never sent anyone ever to collect her from school before. A family friend called Patrick went. I think Cheyenne knew something was not right when Patrick collected her that day.

Dakota, our second daughter, was turning three that March. She had just been cleared of kidney problems and my dad was so happy for her. He was so proud of his grandchildren.

Andre de Kock (l) and his grandchildren Cheyenne and Dakota.
Andre de Kock (l) and his grandchildren Cheyenne and Dakota.

I was told by a friend of ours, Josh, who had apprenticed under him, that he always would tell the clients about his grandchildren and how smart Cheyenne was. He was like any grandfather, very proud of them.

In the late afternoon my father did his final “safari” from the Maswa Makao airstrip to Arusha airport. A bus full of Robin Hurt Safaris employees was there to escort his body to the morgue. He touched the lives of everyone, no matter who. Derek came by the house and gave my husband my Fathers wedding ring that evening.

On Saturday, Erasto, a heroic man, drove that very car full of bullet holes back to Arusha. The car was taken to another hunting company so that we would not see the extent of how gruesome the event was.

I needed to see for my self, so Patrick took me to see the car. I still wonder today, how we were so lucky not to have lost more lives that day.

Poaching-De-Kock-plaqueOn Sunday morning, sitting in my husband’s office was a cardboard water box with some of his belongings, along with his backpack that he carried in the car. In the pack back were his satellite and cell phones. On the chair was one of his rifles. Upon opening the rifle soft case, I could see that the .458 had been damaged by the AK47s.

We have been told that these poachers were given the weapons and the ammunition by government workers and were told not to be caught.

Photographs were taken at the scene. Something that I wonder about is why the radio microphone was hanging outside the driver’s window. Was he on the radio, calling back to camp to see if the other client was feeling better and the poachers thought he was calling someone about them?

In June 2011, we flew for the first time to the area. I remember that in a weird way, I was so excited to go there. When I landed and the plane door opened, I remember my heart sank. I was 35 years old and I honestly expected my father to be there when the door opened to greet us.

We drove to the spot where he was found. Across the river, which was dry, was the opening I was telling you about. Apparently it’s where the animals come down to drink. We walked across. In that particular spot it is about five metres wide.

We walked to the where there was the grass and it was tall as I said. In there we found the soap, four months later that the poachers had been using to wash. No matter how much soap they use, it would never clean them.

I flew back cuddling Dakota next to me, full of tsetse bites over us. It was as hot as the day my day had died and had laid there ‘till he was found.

All I could think about was that he was alone, being bitten and in the terrible heat. I should have been with him. I know deep down that I couldn’t have been with him, but my heart bleeds, knowing that he died on his own without anyone there beside him.

This man survived as a teenager driving trucks on the hell run as it was known, he survived when I was three, being mauled by a leopard, divorce, his parents dying, being hijacked with a gun to his head and now minding his own business, he was murdered.

A year ago, I was driving down our dirt road to our house and there on the road was a blue plastic bag similar to that one they stopped for. I don’t like litter but there was no way I was getting out of my car to retrieve it. Of course no one was going to hurt me. But I drove on by.

Poaching does not just end with a dead carcass, decreasing numbers of animals. It also causes generations of a broken hearts.

Poachers crossing the Mongo Mawe river.
Poachers crossing the Mongo Mawe river.

Death is a very common occurrence these days and people lose loved ones every day. I am not saying I am special. Poachers will not stop at anything. The staff on that car who were doing their jobs were also traumatized that day.

Nine of the poachers were caught and sent to Singida to trial. Of the nine, seven were jailed for 30 years (two of whom have recently died in jail) and two were released, due to lack of evidence. Those two returned to Maswa last year and were shot in 2014 by Government Game Scouts as they were caught poaching ivory again.

My father was born a Zambian national, and in 2008 he renounced his Zambian citizenship and became a Tanzanian citizen of the country that he had come to love.

To this day, we have never had an apology or condolence letter from the Tanzanian government. My father lost his life that day for no reason.

Nearly four years went by with no news.

An incident such as this would have made most families leave the continent forever. As a family we all decided to stay in the place we call home. I just hope we don’t have to spill any of our blood for there to be change.

You cannot put a price on a person’s life, but that day my father’s life was the equivalent of USD $1,800 – the black market value of the small amount of ivory the poachers killed to protect.–Claire Howells

4 thoughts on “POACHING: The costs in pain and suffering never end”

  1. A very moving account, Claire, providing much valued information. From a friend and admirer of your father.

  2. My deepest condolences on your loss. Very well written and touching story. I was there when Hanno Van Rensburg’s parents were murdered, so I have first hand experience that things on your continent are in a horrible state – poachers and in general and it is very sad. Again, my condolences and best wishes to you and your family!

  3. I read your story with interest and found myself sad at the end for you and your family. I’m so sorry for your loss. It seems impossible to eradicate poachers when there is such a high demand for animal parts for cultures that refuse to come out of the dark ages. How will this ever end?

Leave a Reply to Cheryl Sonnichsen Cancel reply