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Death in Happy Valley

A son of the colonial aristocracy goes on trial for killing a poacher in Kenya, where an exploding human population is heightening tensions and stretching resources to the breaking point

"After the first incident, people were sympathetic," said Clause, who worked with Cholmondeley on wildlife issues. "After the second, people despaired of him. He's a trigger-happy young guy, acting completely beyond the law." I told Clause that no other landowner had been willing to come down so hard on Cholmondeley. "Too many people say we must stick together as white people in Africa," Clause replied. There was a simple solution to the poaching problem, he went on, and it didn't involve guns. At the Kigio Wildlife Conservancy, which he manages, employees put up a ten-foot-high solar-powered electric fence around the entire 3,500-acre property. It wasn't cheap, and it certainly did not jibe with old notions about the endless African wilderness. But poaching ended overnight.

One day last November, a caravan of vehicles set out from Nairobi toward Soysambu, where the entire court in the trial of Tom Cholmondeley would be visiting locus in quo, as the periwigged lawyers put it--at the scene of the killing of Robert Njoya. The testimony that week had been more farce than melodrama. It had also provided an inadvertent demonstration of why getting a conviction for murder in Kenya can sometimes prove difficult.

Joseph Ubao, the first policeman to arrive at the scene the night of the killing, had stepped into the witness box with a swagger. He drew in a deep breath as if to summon up strength for what was clearly his great moment, then testified in phrases so carefully polished he often felt compelled to repeat them, softer the second time around, to savor the effect: "It was during the endeavor to shoot yet another dog that the bullet he was firing got the injured man.

At one point, the prosecutor handed Ubao Cholmondeley's rifle, so he could identify what he had described as a magazine for automatically loading bullets into the chamber. Ubao inspected the weapon closely, turning it at various angles and even fiddling with the telescopic sight, inspiring so little confidence that the clerk of the court actually ducked. Finally, he said, "Correction, my lord, the gun does not have a magazine." It was as if the prosecution had set out to embarrass its own witness.

Then Cholmondeley's lawyer moved in. Fred Ojiambo, the top litigator at the most prominent law firm in Kenya, posed his questions gently, and waited for the answer with mouth open, as if in anticipatory disbelief. He asked Ubao to name the parts of a rifle, including "that little fiddly thing," which Ubao identified as the trigger. But Ubao had no idea what to call "that contraption on top," the telescopic sight, and eventually admitted that he had mistaken it for a magazine. Ojiambo went on to demonstrate that the policeman hadn't cordoned off the scene of the killing, hadn't taken proper notes and still couldn't correctly identify the caliber of the rifle. Afterward, even Cholmondeley's mother murmured, "The poor man."

At Soysambu a few days later, the procession into the bush included Cholmondeley, his jailers, family, friends, reporters, photographers, television cameramen, soldiers with automatic weapons and riot police with face masks and plastic shields. Soysambu staffers trailed along the edges, picking up poachers' snares as they went. I lost count at 30. As we walked, I chatted with a friend of Cholmondeley's, who described the spate of armed robberies and shootings at Soysambu in the months leading up to the Njoya killing. The friend's intent was clearly to show that there were circumstances to mitigate the enormity of Cholmondeley's second fatal mistake. And in truth, it would have been hard not to empathize.

A woman named Sally Dudmesh joined the conversation. She had lived at Soysambu with Cholmondeley since the breakup of his marriage. In the months after the Ole Sesina killing, she said, attackers had shot and wounded a ranch manager and then, in a separate incident, his successor. But what had unnerved everyone, Dudmesh said, was an attack on a Soysambu mechanic named Jusa. Cholmondeley called Jusa's mobile phone. But the robbers had stolen it. "Where's Jusa? Where's Jusa?" Cholmondeley yelled. According to Dudmesh, the robbers saw Cholmondeley's name come up on Jusa's mobile phone. "They said, 'We've just killed him and now we're coming to kill you.'" Cholmondeley went out to patrol around the house, leaving two women with four children, including his own two sons, inside. "I said, 'Why don't we just run?'" Dudmesh recalled. "The mother of two of the children said, 'You can't run with four children under the age of 7.' It was one of the scariest moments of my life." In the end, no one came, and Jusa was unhurt.

But did empathy translate into exoneration?

By now, led by Carl Tundo, the friend who had been with Cholmondeley on the fateful afternoon, the court had arrived at the scene of the killing. In the months after the shooting, Cholmondeley's defenders had offered two arguments on his behalf. They said he'd been shooting at the poachers' dogs, standard KWS practice for game wardens, and that Njoya had been hit by a ricochet. They also said the poachers had turned their dogs to attack Cholmondeley.

But Tundo's testimony suggested that the poachers had never had a chance to attack. He pointed to the spot where he saw Cholmondeley suddenly drop to one knee and bring the rifle to his shoulder. In the thick underbrush, perhaps 40 feet ahead, there was a glimpse of movement and the sound of voices. "Then I heard a shot," he said. He turned and ran away, and the next thing he remembered was hearing Cholmondeley shout to bring the car because he had "shot a man by mistake."

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About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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