Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
The Tende Jesse, Gokwe
September 1970

By Ron Thomson

The late Rhodesian game warden, Paul Coetsee, was an enigmatic character. People’s opinions about him are as different as chalk and cheese. Nevertheless, I know of nobody who did not respect him. He was a great elephant hunter in his day, having developed his reputation during the Tsetse Fly Operations of the middle and late 1960s in the Zambezi valley of the former Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe).

Paul’s elephant and buffalo experience enabled him to adapt very quickly to black rhino capture work, which began in 1970. He had been selected by the directorate of the Department of National Parks & Wild Life Management to be trained by me to dart black rhinos with a powerful narcotic. He was an excellent choice. By then I had had seven pioneering years of capturing black rhinos during every dry season, and I taught him as much as I could during the month of June that year. In July he was operating successfully on his own. He could not have done that unless he had been an exceptional hunter.
Paul and I alternated the leadership of the black rhino capture exercise that year – one month on and one month off. This enabled us both to pay some attention to the running of our respective national park stations, and to be with our families.
In August of that year I captured and moved 23 rhinos – a record number for any one month, and that set the scene for what happened in September.
Paul was one of those men who just had to be ‘top dog’ in everything that he did. He was the arch competitor – an unfortunate quirk of his personality. And after August, he had a new yardstick against which to measure himself. He was determined to catch more than 23 rhinos in one month!
After catching the last four rhinos in the Umfurudzi and the last one on the Ruya – north of Salisbury (now Harare) – in early September, Paul travelled west to the Tende Jesse (thickets) of the Gokwe District.
Tende was located in the Copper Queen area of the one-time North-western Tsetse Fly Corridor – an area Paul knew well. He had been responsible for eliminating all the elephants and buffaloes from that area between 1964 and 1968, and the native tsetse department hunters (Magotshas) had removed everything else.

Now the Tende Jesse lay silent – without life – except for five black rhinos that had survived the days of the tsetse game-control slaughter. During the previous three years, with no herds of elephants and buffaloes to keep the thickets open, the jesse had grown thicker and thicker every year. The Tende Jesse in 1970 was, without doubt, the thickest and the most dangerous habitat in the whole country in which to dart black rhinos.
I had suggested to Paul that he might like to try darting these animals at night from platforms erected in trees overlooking their waterholes, but he rejected that idea. He told me, adamantly, that he was going to hunt the Tende rhinos “on their own terms” – knowing, of course, that I was very uncomfortable with that idea! I did not try to change his mind, however, because I knew that it would have been a useless gesture. Instead, I wished him good luck!
When he reached Tende, Paul was eager to get started. When the first rhino holding pen – made of rough mopani poles cut from the surrounding bush – was complete, he left game rangers Nevin Lees-May and Graham Hall in camp to oversee the construction of another three pens, while he, Kapesa (his Shona tracker), Senior Game Ranger Dave Scammel and a josak (waterbag) carrier, set off to catch their first Tende rhino in the nearby jesse.

Dave carried a .458 Magnum rifle as a back-up weapon – although everybody knew that having such a weapon ‘in reserve’ was a useless gesture. The actual darting was done ‘out of sight’ of everybody else in the hunting party. The darter went in after the rhino on his own.
They found the previous night’s spoor of a very big bull and Kapesa took up the tracks. They followed it for three hours into an extremely dense pocket of jesse. The rhino was restless. It was wandering about in an unnatural manner and seemed to be looking for a place to lie down. They thought that it might have picked up a whiff of their scent. By midday they were close behind it.
The temperature was soaring above 110 degrees F (43 degrees C). After midday the mercury continued to rise and the four hunters sweated it out. High humidity made the conditions doubly uncomfortable.
The mopani flies were a pest – flying about their faces, up their nostrils and into their ears and eyes. But there were no tsetse flies and there were no oxpeckers! That was a blessing!
The hunters were ultra cautious. Kapesa moved ahead slowly, picking his way through the sprawling jesse bushes and through the carpet of dry leaves underfoot. Paul followed in his wake. Both searched constantly for sign or sound of the rhino. Dave hung back a little, trying to keep Paul in sight, but not wanting to contribute to the thrashing noises up front caused by the party’s progress through the jesse.
Up ahead the rhino broke cover. They heard it pfusss … pfusss … pfussssing … loudly as it crashed off through the jesse. The brush, however, was much too thick for them to get even a glimpse of it.
Paul tested the wind with his little ash bag – filled with white wood ash from their last night’s campfire. The cloud of dust blew in the direction of the rhino. It had now definitely gotten their scent!
Damn! Damn! Damn!
Kapesa stuck to the tracks. The big bull crossed an open, scrubby area and entered another pocket of jesse. The tracks were now crisp and very fresh. Here they disturbed the rhino a second time. Once again it got their wind; and they heard it from a distance, puffing loudly as it ran away.
The tracks again crossed a patch of broken scrubby country and, for the first time, they saw the big bull as it ascended a steep slope, through short cover, some 500 yards ahead of them. The rhino then knew for sure it was being hunted.
An hour later they entered the biggest and the thickest pocket of all the Tende Jesse, and there the rhino went to ground. Paul was a good hunter. He had the hunter’s instinct in full measure. He had sensed the rhino’s mood and his experience told him that, in that jesse, he would find the rhino – and that it would be waiting for him.
Paul knew the score.
At the edge of the heavy thicket, he told Dave and Kapesa to wait for him. The time had come for him to go in alone. One man would make much less noise than four. He knew that, from then on, the contest was between him and the rhino. This was what Paul enjoyed the most – a one-on-one contest. Getting a dart into this rhino would now depend entirely upon the quality of Paul’s hunting prowess – and how Lady Luck tipped her hand.

Paul tested the wind again. It was fickle, moving this way and that inside the jesse. After watching the drift of the white dust, he worked out the general trend of the air flow, and he logged that information in the back of his mind. Nevertheless, from that moment on, the ash bag remained constantly in his right hand.
Paul looked at his watch. It was just after one o’clock. They had been tracking the rhino for six hours. Alone now, he followed its tracks through the carpet of freshly disturbed dry leaves on the ground. He progressed very slowly and as silently as he could, favouring his left-hand side because that was the most constant direction into which the wind was drifting.
There were no leaves on the jesse bushes. It was September – the height of the dry season. The leaves had long ago been shed and were all now lying, dry and brittle, on the ground.
Even without its green leaf cover, however, nothing in the thicket was distinct. The jesse stems were multitudinous and were a solid mask of grey, the exact colour of a rhino’s hide. They were so numerous, and so uniform in hue, they broke up the outlines of anything and everything beyond 10 paces distance. In some places visibility was even less. Looking for the rhino through the jesse, therefore, was like swimming in muddy water looking for a fish.
Somewhere ahead of him, to one side or the other, Paul knew the rhino was waiting. There wasn’t a sound from it. That fact alone spoke volumes. He could visualise it standing facing him, its ears still and focussed on the unavoidable sounds he was making. It was impossible to walk quietly over the dead leaves! Nevertheless, he moved steadily through the jesse … slowly … and as carefully as he could. His eyes and ears, all the time, were straining for sight or sound of his quarry.
Paul followed the path of disturbed leaves on the ground in front of him. That line of freshly dishevelled colour demarcated the route the rhino had taken. There were no footprints on the ground because no ground was visible. But he knew he was following the right sign. That fresh path of disorder in the ground litter was just as good a spoor as a line of footprints running across an open ploughed field.
Paul was not clearing the leaves from the ground for his every next footfall, as I had so often done at Sizemba. That strategy was only useful when you had a rhino visual, and sleeping, in the jesse ahead of you; for then you had all day to slowly work yourself into a dart-able position.
What Paul was doing was exactly right for his circumstances. I would have done the same. And all the while his senses told him that the rhino was somewhere in the jesse with him.
He also knew that he could be wrong! The rhino could have moved out of the jesse altogether and be hidden away in some other thicket far away. So, had he laboriously lifted the leaves from the ground to clear his next footfall, under those circumstances, he would have been wasting his time.
The situation Paul was in was very dangerous and very difficult. If the rhino was within 200 yards of him, it would hear his every footstep in the crisp, dry, leaf-litter underfoot; and it would, all the time, be fully aware of both his location and his progress. Under those conditions, the rhino would not move, not an inch. Unlike an elephant or a buffalo, or even a lion, which might grow impatient at such slow progress from the approaching hunter, and which might move an impatient foot in the dry leaves, or snap a twig, the rhino would remain immobile. It would not budge until it was ready to attack.
That rhino’s attack circle, over the years, had been extended to the horizon, and it had got more extensive the harder it was pushed. The varying sizes of its escape circle, therefore, were immaterial. Under these circumstances one thing was sure: this rhino, now, would not break cover until the very last moment.

Having great patience is what sets the black rhino apart from all other dangerous big-game animals. They have survived because, when the cards are down, contrary to popular belief, they never explode on a whim.
In retrospect, we now know that Paul’s nemesis had been standing still, listening to every sound he made, from the moment he entered the thicket alone. Every second it knew exactly where Paul was. It had picked up his scent several times earlier that day, so it knew what he was. Without moving a muscle, without making a sound, the rhino remained patiently motionless.
It waited! It was waiting for Paul to close the gap!
So, for the purpose of his hunt – “to dart the rhino on its own terms” – Paul was doing all the right things. In his mind and in his soul he was a fatalist. He fervently believed that if it was prescribed that this was the day on which he was to be killed or injured, by this rhino, it would happen no matter what steps he took to avoid it.
Many people have this strange mentality. I have a problem with it. I am equally ardent in my belief that it is foolhardy to tempt fate. But we are all different. We are who we are! In this regard Paul and I were different. Very different! He fervently believed in his philosophy and I did not!
The scene was now set for the most momentous event of the entire black rhino capture saga. Paul had tempted fate – and fate was preparing to oblige.
The rhino came at Paul out of the silent, static and amorphous grey mass of the jesse in a sudden explosion of anger and energy. Its head was down. Its front horn was sweeping the ground, and it had Paul firmly in its sights. It had discharged only one blast of angry air from its nostrils before it erupted, and then it went ballistic. It came out of nowhere from a distance of just 10 paces. Paul had not seen it standing there, motionless in the colourless jesse, listening, waiting, infuriated by having been pushed around all day long in its own domain. The instant it moved, however, its whole, massive and terrifying presence was revealed.
It began pfussss … pfussss … pfussssing… loudly and continuously, with every beat of its front hooves on the ground. It is a frightening sound that has put the fear of God into many an intrepid hunter’s heart over the ages.

In an instant, Paul understood there was no way he could get a dart into the rhino before it hit him. There was a heavy screen of jesse stems five feet away in front of his capture gun so, even if he had thought about doing so, he could not have hit this rhino in the forehead and stopped it – as I had done with a charging rhino bull on the Ruya in August. There was just too much obstructive cover all around. His only chance was to turn and run, and to take whatever evasive action he could.
Paul turned and ran, and as he ran he looked for a tree. There were none to climb! The jesse was so dense he found it difficult to run at all. In front of him there were thick and sprawling branches hanging over even the most open escape routes, and they impeded his progress and his speed.
The rhino ploughed right through it all.
Paul could feel the rhino’s front hooves pounding the earth behind him – and he could hear the stertorous pfussssing breaths closing in on him from behind. He dropped the capture gun and pushed through the brush frantically in his desperate bid to escape. I can just imagine the terror that must have swept through his soul during those last few moments of his flight.

The rhino came on at full speed. It rammed the tip of its front horn into the back of Paul’s right leg, 4 inches above the rear fold of his knee. The horn ran on for 18 inches, penetrating the muscle up his leg and into his buttock. The rhino flicked its head, catapulting Paul high into the air. The stricken game warden tumbled back to earth uncontrollably. He came down, belly first, right on top of the rhino’s head. The animal punched upwards at him again, thrusting its front horn into the same thigh a second time, savagely ramming a huge hole through the front muscles and exiting at the back.
Paul was again tossed into the air. And again he tumbled about like a discarded rag doll. When he dropped the second time, it was onto the rhino’s back. There he gripped the animal’s rotund body with both hands and clung on for dear life, his senses swamped by the subtle, musty, scent of the rhino’s heavy sweat.
The rhino, feeling Paul’s body on its back, shunted and bucked about on the same spot for several seconds. It huffed and it puffed, pfussssing loudly all the while, as it tried to dislodge its unwanted jockey. Paul hung on, desperate not to fall off.
The rhino, disorientated and bewildered, and surrounded by the heady scent of its victim’s blood, then made good its escape. It tore off at a gallop, ploughing straight through the jesse. In the process Paul was peeled from its back by the brush and still the rhino ran on.
This whole episode started and ended in a matter of seconds.

Paul hit the ground hard. He was stunned and confused. There was blood everywhere. It was all over the ground all about him. It was on the stems of the jesse high above him. And it was pumping from the torn muscles of his thigh in huge volumes.
He tried unsuccessfully to get to his feet and noticed the blood spurting from his wounds and pouring down his leg. It was then that he saw the lower edge of the gaping wound at the front of his thigh, partly concealed by the blood-soaked cloth of his short trousers. At that point he felt no pain – not immediately. His body was numb.
He grabbed at his thigh with both hands and he held on tightly in an attempt to close the biggest wound that he could see – the huge hole in the front of his leg. Little did he know that the wound at the back was twice as large.
Paul knew immediately that he had been gravely injured. He needed help and he needed it fast.
“KAPESA …” he called out loudly.
It was the first name that came into his mind. Throughout his hunting life Paul had been accompanied by his faithful Shona tracker, so his shouting for Kapesa was automatic and understandable. He did not even think of calling for Dave Scammel, who was much better equipped, mentally and practically, to provide him with the first aid that he now so desperately needed.

The second part of this gripping hunting story will be told in the next issue of AFRICA’S SPORTSMAN MAGAZINE.

Note from the editor’s desk:
Genuine free-range, fair-chase big-game hunting stories – like this one – are contained in the author’s seven-book big-game hunting memoir series. For more information on these books, visit the author’s website: or contact him direct at: ASM