Written by: Cindy Tilney, (Johann Louw interviewed by Mark Paxton)
Remember the story about so-called trophy hunter Johann Louw, who was trampled by a ‘desert-dwelling elephant bull’? The story, as circulated, resulted in a social media storm with Johann being on the receiving end of multiple threats and abuse. Now that the storm has subsided, Johann has decided to explain what really happened. Here is the true story as explained by Johann:
The elephant was a cow, not a bull, it was not a desert adapted elephant, nor did Johann fire the fatal shots and he was not the hunting concession holder. The cow was shot by a combination of fire from an MET officer (Ruacana office) and the owner of Track and Trails Safaris.
Johann, who stopped hunting four years ago to pursue photographic safaris, was asked by a former elderly client to lead a legal permitted hunt. The client had purchased this hunt from Tracks and Trails Safaris owned by Louw van Zyl in the Uukwaluudhi Conservancy, in the Omusati region (north-east of desert-dwelling elephant range).
In July 2014, the hunting team investigated reports of an elephant causing havoc in the area. Johann found the cause of the problem – MET established boreholes, called “sink-wells” (specially designed drinking wells suited to elephants), to encourage migration of Etosha elephants towards the north-western conservancies. This water had attracted people and over the years both elephants and villagers had settled here, Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) became inevitable. Diesel shortages resulted in only the boreholes close to villages being operational. “Elephants prefer fresh water, if they smell it but aren’t able to get to it, they will do whatever it takes to reach it,” says Johann.
Johann convinced the group to get diesel for the boreholes, restore fresh water supply further away from human settlement, lure the elephants away to reduce the HEC and avoid shooting the bull. They agreed and were in the process of doing this when another “problem” bull elephant was reported trampling fields, destroying fences and threatening people. HEC can lead to human injury or even death; elephants are often wounded and can die lingering deaths. Policy states when a problem animal is confirmed by MET as a nuisance it can be sold to a hunter for additional income. This increases benefits, as it offers both money and meat to a conservancy but unfortunately this can encourage misuse as a conservancy can get additional hunts while retaining their permit for a trophy.
They tracked the bull and found him with a family group. Johann saw he was in musth and a good breeding bull. He again convinced the group not to hunt, explaining that the bull would stop being a threat as family groups tend to avoid populated areas, naturally moving to where they feel safer and the bull was likely to follow any females in oestrus.
On the trek back to the car, they spotted more elephants and decided to take a closer look. “We were about 300 metres away from them when an elephant mock charged us from a copse of scrub mopane woodland about 30 metres away,” says Johann. “The wind was in our favour so we were not being quiet, perhaps the cow heard us talking. I shouted at her as we moved backwards, she stopped, ears out, trunk in air trumpeting while shaking her head. She mock charged again, I shouted, halting her while we inched backwards. This movement caused her to mock charge a third time to within six metres of us. There was a lot of dust, I shouted to the others NOT to shoot, screamed at her and fired a shot into the air, and she stopped in her tracks very close to us. I heard shots from behind me, Louw van Zyl assumed I had tried to shoot her to protect the elderly client, believing I’d missed, he fired, hitting her in the shoulder in an effort to save us. Expert opinion is that, in such close proximity and wounded, an elephant would feel there is no retreat and are likely to charge in earnest. She lowered her head, flattened her ears and came with a full charge, it happened so fast, my rifle jammed, and I pushed the elderly client down protectively, into the scrub, hoping the elephant would not see him. Later, he showed me the bruising on his neck and shoulder from my shoving him. My last clear memory is putting up my hand instinctively in a futile attempt to protect myself.
According to witnesses she knocked me with the lower part of her forehead and tossed me 15 metres into the air, she continued pushing me on her knees with her forehead, trying to gore me. She made loud guttural growling sounds from her stomach. Somehow I kept rolling myself over using everything I had until I was wedged up against a mopane tree trunk. There was no time to think or be afraid; I knew she wanted to kill me. I was told that the MET officer fired shots at her continually with his R1 rifle trying to protect me. Louw van Zyl also fired shots into her chest area and she fell and died in front of my eyes as I lay there. The MET Officer was shaking and unable to speak, but had bravely stood his ground, I am eternally grateful for their courage, without them the cow would have killed me, I am also saddened by her death and trauma she experienced”.
Johann is recovering physically from his injuries and grateful to be alive. In the aftermath, he and his family have been bombarded with insults, accusations and even death threats due to the inaccuracy with which this story was reported. Until now he hesitated telling his story to protect this abuse from spilling over to the people who saved him.
The death of the elephant cow was unintentional; a sad result of well intentioned efforts to save a good breeding bull that was about to hunted as a “problem” animal. To the best of his knowledge this bull is still alive and well in Omusati region north of Etosha.
This ignites a plethora of critical issues – glaringly the dangers of inaccurate reporting – but also contentiousness around hunting permits, how they are issued and managed. HEC caused, by encroachment of both people and elephants into previously waterless areas, competition for scarce resources, how sustainable utilisation is implemented in communal conservation and the fragile line that MET walks to mitigate these issues.
These complex questions have no easy answers, but what is certain is that the key lies in developing unbiased cooperative strategies across all fronts.