There Are Buffalo on Selapiu Island – Sept 2020 Kundu
‘Karabau em i dai pinis!’ (The buffalo is dead!) the men shouted with great excitement. At the time I was a brand new ‘didiman’ and had been given instructions to shoot a buffalo. We were on Selapiu Island near Kavieng, and were on a buffalo hunt to collect blood and tissue samples for disease testing and I had just shot a big white buffalo bull.
In July 1967 I went to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea (TPNG) as an agricultural officer, commonly called a ‘didiman’, having graduated from Hawkesbury Agricultural College the previous year. Before going to TPNG I had no pre-training, no expectations or cultural awareness before going; I just went.
I had been sent an air ticket, a permit to enter TPNG, a date to travel and, when I arrived in Port Moresby, no one knew I had arrived until I presented myself, bag in hand and sweating profusely, to the reception of the Department of Agriculture, Stock & Fisheries (DASF) head office at Konedobu, Port Moresby. I was sent to a boarding house for a week to stay until they (whoever they were) finally sent me to the Islands.
The first posting for this wet behind the ears, culturally ignorant, linguistically unskilled, straight out of ag college and enthusiastic for adventure twenty-one-year-old, was to Kavieng, the main town of New Ireland. New Ireland is the banana-shaped island far to the north-east of New Guinea. One of the first things I had to do was to count the buffalo on Selapiu Island.
There are wild water buffalo on Selapiu Island and, when I was there in 1967, they had trashed the plantation, village gardens, and the whole ecosystem of the island. These buffalo were the offspring of animals brought to Selapiu Island by the German planters when New Guinea was a German colony.
After the First World War, the German colony of New Guinea was ceded to Australian control. This resulted, eventually, in the deportation of German citizens and the seizure of all German property. However, before good management of Selapiu coconut plantation could re-start, the buffalo had gone wild.
Fifty years later in August 1967, as the new agricultural officer, straight from Australia and posted to the Kavieng office, I was told to go to Selapiu Island and count the buffalo!
What else do you do with a new boy? I suppose it was like telling a new recruit to find the ‘left-handed cup’, or ask for a ‘long wait’, or something as stupid. For me at the Kavieng office I was told to ‘count the buffalo on Selapiu Island’.
I was provided with a boat called a ‘tinny’ with a 60 hp outboard motor, a local man who was a member of the fisheries section to be helmsman, navigator and local contact as his village was on a nearby island. There was also a large metal box to put my things in.
Early in the morning, when there was no wind, we skimmed across mirror-smooth water out of Kavieng Harbour. There were fingers of red sunrise colours reflected in the sea immediately around the boat as if we were skimming on fire. I was confused for a moment as the sea and sky were the same blue and there seemed no horizon.
The New Guinean helmsman instructed me to move to a more convenient place. This allowed the ‘tinny’ to plane over the water. The experience was unbelievably exhilarating as it was like flying very low. Within an hour or so we had arrived at an island and picked up someone who came from Selapiu but was now a refugee from the buffalo. This fellow was to be our guide.
As we had neared the island, and after the helmsman had slowed down to a crawl, with the rumbling sound of the idling engine a school of yellow fin tuna went splattering past, stirring the mirror-like water into a frenzy. Birds were screaming overhead and dropping like dive bombers into this cauldron of fish.
A little while later a pod of dolphins checked us out, leaping higher than the boat to see us and then swimming inches from the tinny’s bow.
If this was working in PNG, I was quite happy being the new recruit on a flick pass job of ‘What do you do with the new boy?’
We reached Selapiu Island, waded ashore, and were immediately met by the wreckage the buffalo had made. The buffalo had churned up swamps into stinking mud, damaged trees, and wrecked gardens.
There were seventy-year-old tall coconut palms with a tuft of fronds just visible on top. These coconut palms were the remnants of the plantation planted by the German colonists. Their fallen companions lay on the short-cropped grass, or as long grey poles of dead palms standing sentinel to another time. Replacement palms could not be planted as the buffalo would destroy them. The plantation had been all but abandoned to the buffalo, and the grass was short from their grazing.
We wandered around trying to count the animals but they ran away as soon as we were near, and counting was frustratingly difficult. Following the buffalo in the swamps was impossible, and on the open grassland of the plantation the buffalo bolted as soon as we appeared. All, except the ‘alpha bulls’ who would amble towards us with head held high, sniffed the wind and with intimidating bellows and snorts, telling us to keep away—which we did!
Interestingly these bulls were both white and black, although the white ones were covered in mud so I suppose they were grey. Their horns were big and when they lifted their heads to bellow, or sniff the wind, their horns were flat on top, but very thick.
After three days of trying to estimate the number of animals, I decided to say ‘there are lots of buffalo on Selapiu Island’.
We stayed overnight in a village government rest house on an island called Butei—some five minutes from Selapiu by ‘low-flying tinny’. These government houses are in all villages for travelling government personnel. The house was made from bamboo woven mats for walls, split palm logs for floor and thatched sago palm leaves for the roof. The house was very close to the beach, where small waves sloshed to a gentle rhythm. It was one of the most idyllic and tranquil places one could ever imagine.
One morning a sailing canoe silently moved out to sea and the trees next to the beach filtered the morning sun so it was not too bright. It was a huge difference to the ecological trashed island only a small distance away.
On returning to Kavieng a report was written that went to head office. Within a short time, a vet from the stock section wanted to go to Selapiu Island to shoot a few buffalo to get blood to do serum antibody tests to check the disease status of the herd. Because this mob had been isolated for years, they would reflect the original disease status of the past. I was told to organise the event with boats, staff and fire-arms.
I had had experience with rifles being a member of a rifle club and had also shot targets at ag college, as well as shooting pigs and rabbits on the farms I had worked on, so I felt quite experienced for the task set me.
I went to the police station and asked to borrow one of their rifles with ammunition. There must have been some communication between my immediate boss and the police, because the New Guinean police man at the reception said, ‘Yes sir, would you like to come to the armoury and choose which one you would like?’ Just like that! I chose a standard issue Lee–Enfield No. 1 Mk III and a full bandolier of ammunition and walked out of the police station with the rifle slung over my shoulder and the bandolier across my chest.
The vet who initiated this excursion for the sampling of buffalo blood arrived by plane. He was quite a robust man and I was a little worried about his ability to relate to the uncontrollable water buffalo of Selapiu. These Selapiu buffalo do not have the same placid attitude as the ones we see pulling ploughs and carts in South East Asia.
He wanted to go by boat, shoot a buffalo, get its blood and be back so he could catch the next plane to Port Moresby. He apparently had other duties to attend to. We piled into the tinny, but due to the extra weight the tinny would not get up and plane across the sea as before; instead, it ploughed through the water. We picked up our Selapiu refugee guide and arrived at the island by midday when it was hot, and any self-respecting buffalo were deep in the mud or water hole asleep. There was not a buffalo to be seen.
Eventually, the buffalo started to amble out of the swamps, onto the plantation pastures. However, they ran away as soon as they noticed us, except for the big bulls which, like before, confronted us with bellows and snorts. These guys were big and their horns were huge. The vet explained why these magnificent animals, just thirty to forty yards away, were challenging us.
He said they were only showing off, and protecting their harem. They probably would not come much closer. He mentioned that the white bulls demonstrated a high level of inbreeding as the original population from the German times included just a few animals.
He then identified a big white bull he would like shot so he could collect its blood.
With the loaded rifle in hand I slowly walked towards this big white bull. The wind was coming from the direction of the animal and he possibly could not smell or see me as their eyesight is poor. However, he knew I was there as he kept facing me, even when I moved to the side to a standing coconut palm. At about twenty yards away, and using the coconut palm to stabilise the rifle, I shot the bull in the forehead, which I thought was the best place to kill the beast (where the diagonal lines between the eyes and the ears cross). That’s what I was taught at ag college. But my learning was about cattle, not buffalo; big mistake!
I was expecting the buffalo to fall over and die but it just stood there. The .303 bullet did nothing to this big white bull. He just turned around and ambled away. I was young and could run, which I did, to follow the wounded bull. The New Guinea men were also running with me. We were on the chase. Jumping fallen coconut palms and crossing small creeks with one bound, with energy I didn’t know I had, I finally arrived at a dense clump of bush into which the big white bull had disappeared. I stopped only a few feet from this dense bush and was pondering whether I should follow. The New Guinea men shouted to me ‘Don’t go in there or he will get you.’
I didn’t have to go into the bush as the bull came out, straight for me. Its head was down and his horns hit my ankles as I jumped up. Then the bull tossed its head and I found myself flying over the bull and skidding along its muddy back in an undignified way. I landed on the grass, my hat gone and rifle flung away. I lay there for a few seconds before being helped up. I was okay. ‘Peta, yu stap orait?’ was the New Guinea men’s cry as they helped me up. ‘Baimbai, yumi mus kirup na kilia long dispela ples. Kwik!’ (Peter, are you OK? Now we must get up and get away from this place quickly!).
Looking around, I saw the bull circling and coming back at us. The New Guinea men were quickly up the nearby trees, which were really thin and, on later reflection, it was quite comical. The thin trees with the men in them were bending down, low enough for the bull to hit them.
I quickly retrieved the rifle, flicked the safety catch off, raised it to my shoulder and aimed at the bull, which was coming at me—fast! I can remember thinking ‘that bull is very close’, as it took up all my vision with its head down and only its neck in the rifle’s sights. I fired and the bullet hit the bull’s neck bone, smashing the bone and breaking the spinal cord. The head of the bull fell forward onto the ground in between its front legs. The whole body of the bull then cartwheeled over its head.
I stepped to one side as the bull’s body fell where I had just been standing. It hit the ground with a ‘whump’ letting out a great fart. I stood there shaking as I have never shaken before. I just vibrated. My hands shook, my legs shook, and my whole body quivered. I didn’t feel good. The New Guinea men were then beside me, shouting and sharing in the excitement of the kill. ‘Karabau, em i dai pinis!’ (The buffalo is dead) they shouted.
Then I realised something else had died—within me; the immortal Peter had died and the mortal was born. The idea that I was a great hunter with a powerful rifle was gone; all that was left was a shaking Peter and a powerful rifle and the knowledge that a .303 is powerful and had to be respected. I put the rifle on the ground until I stopped shaking.
Even though the big white bull lay at my feet twitching its life away, its neck smashed, and bodily fluids escaping—and I was still alive, unharmed!—perhaps I should have felt just a ‘little bit immortal’, but I didn’t. I felt sad at the loss of the dignity, beauty and magnificence of the ‘big white bull’.
Soon after, the vet arrived, red-faced and puffing. He waited a while to collect his breath and then chided me: ‘You silly bastard, you will never kill a buffalo by shooting it in the head; their horns are too big and tough and the brain too small. A head shot will be absorbed like a splinter. Shoot them in the heart, knocks them over every time. I thought you knew that! Mate, you were lucky.’ Taking a knife and sample bottles out of his pack, he then collected the blood and tissue samples needed from this huge white buffalo bull.
I cannot remember much of going back to Kavieng. I know we successfully shot a few more buffalo for blood samples. Shot in the heart, as instructed by the vet, with great success and no adventure. They died quickly. I hope at least I said thanks and paid lots of money to the New Guinea men that helped us in this adventure, but I don’t remember.