They say elephants can remember–and it certainly seems, from this story, that they remember those who care for them.
Richard James was a British game warden on the plains of Africa for many years, his service interrupted only by World War II.
Although his primary job was protecting the animals of the grasslands from poachers–all the animals–his favorites were the great elephant herds. He deeply respected these giants, whom he characterized as almost humanly intelligent, wise, gentle and loving.
He was, however, an enemy of one sort of elephant–those, usually male, who had gone “rogue” and become killers, often due to injury. (This was back in the days before loss of habitat and other pressures on the herds fostered “gangs” of juvie males who, cast out at adolescence and never having learned discipline from old, experienced bulls, began exhibiting behavior similar to human gangs.) These elephants were dangerous to man and beast alike, and he killed them with little regret to protect all from their depredations.
Prince was under no illusions about chasing down and killing rogues; he knew that the likelihood was that he would eventually be killed by one, and so he was. James’s rifle misfired one day as he was trying to dispatch an enormous bull with a broken tusk, which had already killed several villagers. Before his native companions could fire on the bull, it charged James and, lifting him with its trunk, flung him against a tree. The natives killed the bull, then gently lifted the dying James. His back was broken. With his last breath, he told them that he wanted to be buried there where he died, so that he would forever be part of the bush country he loved.
The natives followed his last request to the letter.
British officials in Serenje, the nearest city to the site of his death, didn’t. Within a month, they sent out a team to bring James’s body back to civilization–to lie in a whites-only cemetery in the city.
The team tried to carry out the mission, but ran into trouble the moment they arrived at the gravesite.
They found it surrounded by elephants: no longer gentle giants, but in fighting mode–as if they were guarding James’s grave. Despite killing several of the great beasts in an attempt to reach the grave and exhume James’s body, they failed; the elephants simply refused to budge.
It came down, in the end, to a choice: a massacre of elephants, or the risk that many humans would be killed, for the restive elephants looked to be preparing for a charge.
At that tense moment, one of the natives who accompanied the team, and who had been a witness to James’s death, let out a scream and turned and ran.
There, standing before them all, was Richard James, looking as he had in life.
It only took a moment for the team to realize that they were seeing his ghost. Several of them had helped bury him. They knew, beyond all doubt, that he lay in the grave within that circle of angry elephants.
They watched in silence as James turned his back and raised his arms. He seemed to be speaking to the elephants, and as he spoke, the giants ceased their trumpets and stampings of rage, and quieted.
One of the immense bulls, at a signal from James, suddenly went down on his knees, and James climbed onto his back. He faced those who had come to move his body, and the gesture he made to them was plain, though no words accompanied it: Go back to Serenje. You have no business here.
And with that, the bull James rode turned and walked off at a slow pace, followed by the others who had guarded his grave with such tenacity.
The team left without collecting the body.
Reports have continued, though, that James still roams the plains of Africa. He has most often been seen within a mile of his grave, still among the herds he loved.
I first read the story of the Ghostly Game Warden of Serenje in a 1970s Ripley’s Believe It. . .or Not! anthology, illustrated in color, and showing James in the uniform of a British wildlife officer of the 1950s. The story is also told, in slightly different form, by John Macklin in The Little Giant Book of “True” Ghost Stories (1998). Macklin mentions the year 1958 in passing as the apparent date of James’s death.
Serenje is in Zambia, but Macklin says that James actually died in Zimbabwe.