A deadly safari ends in a cry for answers


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.

At the home of his father, Mark R. Shea of Lutherville, Garrit kept his collection of fossils, arrowheads and a prized sperm whale tooth. At his mother's home - his parents are divorced - Garrit cared for a menagerie diverse enough to pass for a pet store: two emus, 10 cats, three dogs, a lizard named Lucky and a pair of cockatiels he had received on his first birthday. His passion for animals also extended to more exotic varieties.

Last summer, Garrit, older brother Bradford and their mother spent three weeks on safari in Kenya and Zimbabwe. Garrit studied the animals with a naturalist's eye. He learned that hippos sometimes yawn to show off their large teeth and intimidate. He heard that hyenas' feces are white because the carnivores have such strong jaws that they crack open bones and consume the marrow.

Garrit and his mother chose a three-week trip specifically in Botswana because safaris here, unlike those in most other African countries, offer unobstructed access to wild animals. There are no fences to keep animals away from campsites and no guards to chase away the lions or hippopotamuses that wander into camp by night.

That proximity is Botswana's drawing card. It has made the country one of the most desirable and exclusive tourist destinations in Africa. About 160,000 visitors a year pay dearly for the opportunity to have only canvas and mosquito netting separating them from a pride of lions or herd of elephants.

"We've been selling our wildness," said John Matsheng, senior tourism officer in northwestern Botswana, where Garrit was killed. "We say we're still pristine. We have no fences."

Chauffeured in Land Rovers through the country's national parks, with wildlife guides offering interpretation at the wheel, tourists here are driven off the road. They follow jackal or lion paw prints through the bush. Any guide worth a tip tracks the animal down and takes his clients to within a few yards.

In lagoons populated by hippos and crocodiles, tourists travel in traditional dugout canoes.

Each day ends with a sumptuous fireside dinner. An inquisitive wild visitor, maybe a baboon or a hyena, usually stops by for a look.

It was an experience Garrit and his mother relished. They didn't come all the way to Africa to watch lion kills through their binoculars. They wanted to be so close they could smell it. The density of wildlife in Botswana and liberal national park rules allow that.

Intellectually, Jacobs understood that with wildness comes danger.

Last year, while on safari with Garrit and his older brother in Zimbabwe and Kenya, she heard about a sick lion that had attacked and killed a tourist just before their arrival. She was concerned but also confident that her guide, an armed and well-trained wildlife expert, would keep her out of harm's way. He did. And she had no reason to suspect that the Botswana adventure would be any different.

She was an experienced and knowledgeable traveler, having grown up in a family that regularly vacationed in Europe. During the 1970s she had lived in Hong Kong.

"Sure, there is a certain risk you take," said Jacobs, thinking back to the attack in July. "But when you pay a lot of money, you expect to have security, and you don't expect to be the first one up to hear your child screaming."

She was paying a lot of money, about $1,500 a day, for her safari in the Moremi Reserve. "This shouldn't have happened," Jacobs said after weeks of soul-searching about her son's death. "They're trying to make it seem like they took really good care of me. But if they did, this wouldn't have happened."

Capricorn Safaris, the company that organized Jacobs' safari, has about 200 clients a year. Adam Hedges, a native of Kenya who is the owner, had run it without incident for 16 years. He maintains that he and other safari companies run safe operations. Nevertheless, he said, "people do occasionally get killed by wild animals."

To Hedges and local residents, Jacobs' desire to assign blame for the actions of wild animals is completely alien.

Here, residents regard animal attacks as part of the natural order of things. "The hyena was just being a hyena," a lodge manager said. So many Botswanan children are killed by wild animals that some of the deaths are not reported to police.

This is a country where most people don't know how to swim. It is considered a foolhardy activity because lakes, rivers and swamps are often crawling with hippopotamuses, crocodiles or both. Hippos are vegetarians, but no other animal in Africa kills more humans each year.

The assumption that the animals are in charge may be a necessity in a country where cattle and antelope outnumber the 1.5 million people. Gaborone, the nation's capital and largest city, is akin to a sprawling village of 250,000 people. Anyone spending time here can easily feel dwarfed by the powerful animals, the vast deserts and the miles of inhospitable bush.

The Botswana expression "Animals have the right of way" doesn't just refer to the rules of the road, locals say.

"People have to accept the fact that they are in a danger zone," said Frederick "Nip" Lennon, a no-nonsense, khaki-clad camp manager in the Moremi Reserve. "You can't stand the heat, don't go in the kitchen."

Guides and wildlife experts offer a few educated guesses about why relatively large numbers of tourists are injured or killed by animals here.

One is that Botswana guides are unarmed because the country's gun-control laws prohibit guns in national parks except for the few guides who conduct safaris entirely on foot.

Another is that the government allows off-road driving, which places tourists exceptionally close to animals. And the campsites are unfenced, allowing animals to wander right up to tents while tourists are asleep or have their guard down. Tourists often travel in easily overturned dugout canoes.

South Africa, which draws many times as many tourists as Botswana, allows armed guides, requires special permission for off-road driving and has fences around each of its national park campsites. Zimbabwe and Kenya fall between South Africa's tight controls and Botswana's looser regulations.

Tourism is second only to diamonds as Botswana's source of foreign exchange. Here in the country's north, where "Nip" Lennon works and Garrit died, it provides 40 percent of the jobs. Asking residents what they think of more restrictive park rules or the fencing of campsites is akin to asking residents of a beach town what they think of selling the beach to developers.

If Botswana followed its neighbors' example, locals say, it could lose its competitive edge, sending tourists and their money elsewhere.

"In South Africa, sure they have big fences," said Lennon, sitting at the open-air bar of his $350-a-night lodge, where hippos, elephants and other animals are free to roam. "And maybe they are more aware of the dangers. But they've lost the whole safari atmosphere. In South Africa, you might as well be in a zoo. What's the point?

"Fences would be the death knell of Botswana."

Unspoiled setting

Only in a country as thinly populated as Botswana does a place such as Xakanaxa merit a dot on the map. It is nothing more than a landing strip, four safari camps and a clearing where boaters dock. In the August high season, when tents in the camps are full and all staff members are on duty, the population of Xakanaxa probably tops 200.

The way north to Xakanaxa begins in Maun, a quiet town of round mud huts that is the transportation hub of northwest Botswana.

The road is a sandy, one-lane track that forces even the most experienced 4-by-4 drivers to slow to less than 20 mph. In some sections, standing pools of water lap at the doors. In others, sand swallows the wheels like deep snow. Baboons, perched in trees along the road, watch drivers struggle.

Hardly anyone endures this trek. Most safari clients hop on a bush plane for a 30-minute, $150 round-trip flight from Maun. From the landing strip, it is a 15-minute drive, through a few deep puddles and sand traps, to camp.

When Garrit and his mother arrived at Xakanaxa, they found two tents waiting for them. Since their arrival in Botswana on July 4, they had shared tents and hotel rooms as they crisscrossed the country.

They had started their trip in Botswana with a five-night "cultural safari." For that part of their visit, the animals were not their focus. Instead, they shared a dirt-floored grass hut near a village of traditional Bushmen. The tribe lives a marginal existence by hunting with poison-tipped arrows and gathering gourds and nuts from the wilderness. Jacobs and her son accompanied this tribe on a one-day hunting expedition and attended a celebration in the village.

Next, they flew to a more luxurious camp in the Makgadikgadi Pans, a dry lake bed covered with a crust of salt. In the barren landscape, mother and son watched the annual zebra migration, in which thousands of the animals cross the desert to find water. During their two nights there, Garrit saw a rare brown hyena and some wildebeest, animals that from front to back look like part ox, part antelope and part horse.

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve was their next stop. During their three nights there, Garrit was thrilled with three sightings of usually elusive cheetahs.

Just before traveling to Xakanaxa, Jacobs and her son spent two nights in a room at the posh Chobe Game Lodge. Garrit and his mother saw elephants, lionesses and giraffes while at the lodge, overlooking a river and plains crowded with wildlife.

At Xakanaxa, they hoped for the same sort of closeness to animals.

They arrived about 2 in the afternoon. The safari operator, not knowing how old Garrit was, had set up two tents, each with a bed rather than a sleeping bag. The guide asked what they wanted to do about sleeping arrangements. Garrit proudly said he would sleep in his own tent.

After dinner, Jacobs tucked Garrit into bed. She read to him from "Cry of the Kalahari," a book about an American couple who spent years in Botswana studying hyenas. Then they talked about extending their trip another week. There was no rush to get home.

Before turning off the battery-powered light that illuminated Garrit's tent and leaving, Jacobs says, she reminded him that his tent had a toilet and shower in the back. So there was no need to go outside during the night, she told him. She says she kissed him, and then zipped his tent closed as she left.

She believes her son heeded her warning about staying inside. She says a hyena must have unzipped Garrit's tent with its snout, then attacked.

She might be right, locals say. A few hours before Garrit was attacked, the same hyena chased and almost bit the manager of a nearby safari lodge. That indicates that the animal had lost its natural fear of humans. Staff members at a lodge less than a mile away from Garrit's campsite say they believe area hyenas have learned to raid tents. Some staff members had taken to locking their tents shut long before the attack on Garrit.

In the weeks since Garrit's death, Jacobs has begun an investigation to combat what she calls "a conspiracy of silence." She has hired a flamboyant Botswana attorney in an effort to force greater police cooperation and to prepare for a possible lawsuit against Capricorn Safaris. Jacobs has revisited the scene of the incident three times searching for clues. She has spoken with wildlife experts in an attempt to understand typical hyena behavior and common safari safety procedures.

Jacobs wants to prove not only that the hyenas opened Garrit's tent, but also that safari operators in the area knew that the hyenas were a problem, didn't warn her and didn't take any action to ensure her safety.

Police, her safari operator and her wildlife guide maintain that there is a far simpler explanation for Garrit's death. Either Jacobs forgot to zip her son's tent closed or failed to close it properly, or the boy, eager for a close-up view of wildlife, opened it during the night.

No one will ever know for certain what happened that evening, despite a police investigation and Jacobs' research. That information passed with Garrit and the female hyena, which has since been shot by wildlife officials, as is the policy throughout southern Africa when animals attack humans.

Jacobs is not prepared to give up. "Everybody here wants me to leave and get on with my life," Jacobs said. "But there are a lot of unanswered questions."

At the end of the summer, after his return from Botswana, Garrit was to visit Vermont with his father. Summer always meant travels with dad. Last year it was Arizona. Before that, they toured Australia and New Mexico.

In the fall, Garrit was to attend St. Paul's School on Falls Road, having graduated from Fort Garrison Elementary School in Stevenson.

"He had enormous potential," said his father, 45, who owns a manufacturing company. "He was a terrific athlete with quick hands, a good hockey goalie, a good tennis player. He was very intelligent. He was intellectually curious."

On their ski trips, their rambles down the boardwalk at the shore and their hikes through the woods in search of fossils, father and son talked about the future.

"We talked about how there was a good chance he would live long enough to see the next century," Shea said. "I often thought he might get to see outer space."

"It was just too soon to tell what he would do."

Shea, who has remained in Maryland, has hired an attorney in Botswana to obtain the details of his son's death.

Jacobs, eight weeks after her son's death, is continuing her investigation. Carrying her son's ashes in a tin, she is traveling the Botswana bush, speaking with wildlife experts and demanding the unobtainable: proof that neither she nor Garrit bear responsibility for what happened, proof that it was caused by a sly hyena and an incompetent guide.

For a few days, Jacobs returned to the Bushmen's village where she and Garrit began their Botswana trip, hoping in vain for some peace of mind.

For the same reason, she briefly revisited the area in neighboring Zimbabwe that she, Garrit and Bradford had toured the previous year.

Jacobs has taken to consulting traditional healers about Garrit's spirit. The healers, she says, tell her to move on and to listen to her instincts to get over her loss. Whatever they say, it is not enough.

"Garrit's spirit is here," Jacobs said, "and I'm not ready to leave it yet."

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