Cries of the Savanna
By Eric Freehling
Eagle Community Editor
Bagging a buck is one thing, stalking a cape buffalo is something else entirely.
Former Fenelton native Sue Tidwell grew up in a hunting family, but she never expected to take part in a 24-day safari in Tanzania, let alone write a book about it.
And she never expected to be an advocate for big-game hunting.
But she did, and her book, “Cries of the Savanna,” which she calls a journey to understanding African wildlife conservation, is her record of encountering the complexities of modern day Africa.
Tidwell and her husband, Rick, live on a 1,000-acre ranch his family owns in rural Idaho.
They met when she moved to Alaska and they both worked for the same airline, she as a flight attendant and he as a pilot.
Today, he flies for Alaska Airlines.
“When Rick took the job flying for Alaska Airlines, we bounced back and forth between living in our Idaho home and Seattle, making it nearly impossible to hold down a ‘regular job,’” she said. “Instead, I started writing ‘Cries of the Savanna,’ which allows me to work from wherever I am, including Fenelton, at least two months each year.”
Rick Tidwell had always wanted to go to Africa and hunt big game.
Sue Tidwell said, “It was a hunting safari, and this is what I was not real keen about actually.
“I always wanted to go to Africa, but as a non-hunter I envisioned photographing tourist places and national parks.
“I had no desire to go on a hunting safari, and I didn’t understand the concept of hunting exotic animals, but it was my husband’s dream ever since he was a kid,” she said.
She said she grew up in Fenelton, the daughter of Nancy and the late Jim Coyle, and her father and brothers hunted.
“I understood hunting. I’m not against hunting per se,” said Tidwell.
But Rick Tidwell was going to be hunting for zebra, antelopes and cape buffalo.
“We just think of African animals differently. Even a lot of hunters feel that way because they don’t understand it,” she said.
What she didn’t understand herself was the hunting was going to take them into the real, rural Africa, not a tourist-friendly game park with a resort nearby.
Tidwell said they and another couple spent 24 days in a very rural part of Tanzania sleeping in tents and listening to lions and hyenas prowling around the campsite at night.
“We were in very remote Tanzania, 16 hours from the nearest city, four hours from the nearest village, so it was very remote,” she said.
“Our water came out of a 3-foot hole in the ground,” she said. “We just don’t have a concept of the way people have to live over there. It’s a different world.”
“All of Africa is not a national park. The remote areas are tsetse fly infested, rough and rugged. There is no infrastructure,” she said. “Tourists want to go to see thousands of animals. It’s not like that in large parts of Africa.”
Most of the African landscape is habitat in its natural form.
Anything that can protect that habitat is critical, according to Tidwell, and big-game hunting, as counter intuitive as it sounds, is a way of protecting the habitat.
“Hunting protects a vast amount of the habitat in its natural form,” she said. “It gives the land a value in its natural form,” she said.
What Americans, brought up on a diet of Disney nature shows and Animal Planet documentaries, have to remember is that the African animals are dangerous and destructive to the humans around them.
Tidwell said that in the time she was there, three young children were killed and eaten by lions.
Africans don’t like animals that menace their crops, their livestock or themselves.
Much of the population in Africa is poor, she said, and you have to give them a reason to protect these wild areas and its wildlife.
Otherwise, the people will convert the habitat to farmland and the animals will be killed for food or fall prey to commercial and individual poaching.
“When people pay to hunt, it changes the attitudes of the local communities and gives protection to the habitat,” she said.
The money generated by big-game hunts means jobs for the local Tanzanians.
“It’s just common sense. You can feel it in your heart why hunting is so important,” she said.
The Tidwells’ hunting party traveled through the landscape in a modified Toyota Land Cruiser equipped with an elevated platform behind the cab.
There were 21 people taking care of the four foreigners in the hunting party. “You have a professional hunter, two trackers, a driver, a game scout who’s not affiliated with the hunting organization. She’s there to make sure everything is legal.
“There are cooks, the tent boys, the skinner. You have to purchase generators and a solar system,” she said.
“Imagine the work to take a shower,” she said. “They ironed my underwear. I was told not to take many clothes. They would be folded and ironed, on my cot,” she said.
One of the retinue was a Tanzanian game scout, a 23-year-old woman named Lillian.
“She spoke English and Swahli. We developed a friendship, and she opened my eyes to so many things,” said Tidwell.
Lillian was there to make sure that only the right animals were targets for the hunters.
They weren’t allowed to shoot animals of breeding range, only mature ones, old males past their breeding age and no longer spreading their genes.
The hunting party was after zebra, cape buffaloes, spotted hyenas and various antelope species.
Tidwell said merely hunting an animal doesn’t mean successfully bagging one.
She added, hunters pay a fee per animal on top of the safari price, and each animal costs a different amount depending on its population and a lot of other factors.
“Once you are out of the money that you allotted for yourself to spend, your hunting is over,” she said. “Hunters usually take the horns and skin back to have mounted,” Tidwell said. “All the meat is used; nothing is wasted.”
Meat from the kills was hung up to dry because there was no refrigeration.
Tidwell said after accompanying her husband through the “tall grass” in 100-degree heat stalking an animal, she found herself understanding the skills needed to be a successful hunter.
“You’ve got to work for it. Your nemesis was a zebra, who’s smart and alert and it hangs out with other antelopes in a symbiotic relationship,” she said.
Often birds would alert the zebras if an intruder was approaching.
Tidwell said she promised Lillian she would try to help the world understand why hunting was beneficial both to the African wildlife and the African people.
That’s why she wrote “Cries of the Savanna.”
“This book is my adventures. I try to get people to know the people we were with,” she said. “I’m passionate about helping people understand and just hope I can do it in a fun, entertaining manner.”
Tidwell said it took her two years to write the book and another year to edit it, find a cover and have beta readers — Africans and other hunters — read it and give suggestions.
The self-published book’s cover was created by an African artist. The book is available online.
“I’ve gotten some negative feedback,” she said. “I’ve gotten threats and called every name in the book.
“I feel I can’t put my head in the sand anymore,” she said. “Once you are on the ground in rural Africa, you see things in a whole different viewpoint than you would from our couches and our recliners.
“I promised Lillian I would try to help the world understand,” she said.
She noted anti-hunting groups are good at spreading their viewpoint, but if they have big-game hunting abolished, people are going to suffer and wildlife is going to die.
“I think if you can read a chapter or two, I try to tell this and incorporate things as I learned them,” she said, adding she’s not preaching in the book.
“I’m still in touch with Lillian. She’s still a game scout. I can message her in minutes, so she has read the whole book, clarified things where the author was confused,” Tidwell said.
Tidwell said she still comes back to Butler County a couple of times a year to visit family.
But she and her husband have a more exotic destination in mind.
“We hope to go back in May to Mozambique. We’re saving our money,” she said.