A deadly safari ends in a cry for answers

Mother of Md. boy killed in Africa fights for peace of mind

September 17, 2000|By Rena Singer | Rena Singer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

XAKANAXA, Botswana - The last time Molly Bruce Jacobs saw her son alive, she tucked him into bed, gave him a kiss and reminded him not to leave his tent during the night.

It had been a full day, their second on safari in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve. With scrub-covered islands in 1,860 square miles of swamp, the park offers visitors some of the best game-viewing opportunities in southern Africa. It had drawn Jacobs and her son Mark Garrity Shea, known as Garrit, from Stevenson in Baltimore County, full of excitement and wonder.

Mother and son had spent the day with a guide exploring some of the shallow, murky lagoons. Jacobs and Garrit saw hippopotamuses, crocodiles, otters and exotic birds, such as the saddlebilled stork.

Even the campsite, a clearing under a towering jackalberry tree at the swamp's edge, was alive. Hyenas circled as Jacobs and her son ate dinner by a campfire. Their hired guide told them to expect visits by hippopotamuses.

The next day promised a drive with great opportunities for sighting lions and elephants.

But after 11 p.m. when Jacobs, 46, and her safari staff - one guide, a summer intern and three assistants - went to sleep, spotted hyenas invaded the campsite. Humpbacked creatures known in the West for their eerie "laugh," hyenas are associated here with witch doctors and all that is mysterious.

The powerfully built animals look like oversized dogs, some of them weighing more than 150 pounds. They thrive as the opportunists of the carnivore kingdom.

Usually, about half of their diet is scavenged leftovers, courtesy of lions, leopards and cheetahs. When they kill, their victims are often young, small prey.

This was the case that night, July 19.

It is unclear how the hyenas got into 11-year-old Garrit's canvas tent. But just after midnight the pack grabbed the 70-pound boy by his neck and head and dragged him from his bed into the dusty scrub nearby. His shrieks woke his mother in her tent eight yards away. Safari staff members awoke to her calls for help and the sounds of animals.

Wildlife guide Matthew Montague, a heavyset 29-year-old who had received his license as a guide a year before, had no gun because of Botswana's strict gun-control laws, so he jumped in his Land Rover, picked up another guide nearby for help and followed the sounds into the brush.

With headlights and moonlight to guide them, the pair came upon Garrit in the jaws of a hyena. They gunned the engine and tried to hit the hyena and force it to drop Garrit. The leader of the pack, a female with an identifying scar on her forehead, pulled Garrit farther away. They continued the pursuit until the hyena abandoned Garrit's remains about 100 yards from his tent.

The chase seemed interminable to Jacobs. But in real time, it was over in just a few minutes.

Garrit was already dead.

Too scared to guard Garrit's body alone, Montague called on his radio for reinforcements from nearby camps and lodges. Smelling the kill, nocturnal carnivores were descending on the campsite. For the animals, this was just another night's hunt. Hyenas crept closer to try to retrieve their kill. Lions roared from the darkness, announcing their approach.

About a dozen men armed with flashlights, oil lanterns and pocket knives guarded Garrit's remains until an evacuation helicopter arrived.

Such attacks are not unprecedented in the safari world. Tour operators here describe the incident as a cautionary tale of another foreigner who failed to appreciate the dangers inherent in a safari and fell victim to the animals he came to admire. News accounts in southern Africa portrayed Garrit as the archetype of the wildlife-ignorant Westerner. "An 11-year-old boy killed by a pack of hyenas in a Botswana game reserve believed them to be harmless creatures of one of his favorite cartoon films," said the Johannesburg Sunday Times.

Though Garrit and his mother had been on safari elsewhere in Africa and understood the dangers wild animals posed, it is clear that neither was aware that more tourists on safari are attacked and killed by animals in Botswana than any other country.

Garrit is one of at least four tourists killed on safari in Botswana this year. That is more than the number of tourists killed in animal attacks this year in South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe combined, though those countries have 10 times the number of tourists. Botswana's record is one side effect of the niche the country has made for itself in the safari trade.

Attracted to nature

By his parents' account, Garrit was a bright child who was particularly attached to the natural world.

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