ELEPHANT HUNTING NOT AN OCCASION FOR LIGHTSOME MERRYMAKING. FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND ACRES OF FOREST IN WHICH THE KENIA ELEPHANT LIVES, WANDERS AND BRINGS UP HIS CHILDREN
The peril and excitement of elephant hunting can not be realized by any one who has known only the big, placid elephants of the circus, or fed peanuts to a gentle-eyed pachyderm in the park. To the person thus circumscribed in his outlook, the idea of killing an elephant and calling it sport is little short of criminal. It would seem like going out in the barnyard and slaying a friendly old family horse.
That was my point of view before I went to Africa, but later experiences caused the point of view to shift considerably. If any one thinks that elephant hunting is an occasion for lightsome merrymaking he had better not meet the African elephant in the rough. Most people are acquainted with only the Indian elephant, the kind commonly seen in captivity, and judge from him that the elephant is a sort of semi-domesticated beast of burden, like the camel and the ox. Yet the Indian elephant is about as much like his African brother as a tomcat is like a tiger.
The Hyenas Had Feasted Well
Great Stretches of Dense Forest
Many African hunters consider elephant hunting more dangerous than lion, rhino, or buffalo hunting, any one of which can hardly be called an indoor sport. These are the four animals that are classed as "royal game" in game law parlance, and each one when aroused is sufficiently diverting to dispel any lassitude produced by the climate. It is wakeful sporthunting these four kinds of gameand in my experience elephant hunting is the "most wakefullest" of them all.
Being Killed by an Elephant Is a Very Mussy Death
In my several months of African hunting I had four different encounters with elephants. The first two were on Mount Kenia and the last two were on the Guas Ngishu Plateau, near where it merges into the lower slopes of Mount Elgon. The first and the fourth experiences were terrifying ones, never to be forgotten. An Englishman, if he were to describe them, would say "they were rather nasty, you know," which indicates how really serious they were. The second and the third experiences were interesting, but not particularly dangerous.
Mount Kenia is a great motherly mountain that spreads over an immense area and raises its snow-capped peaks over eighteen thousand feet above the equator. The lower slopes are as beautiful as a park and are covered with the fields and the herds of the prosperous Kikuyus and other tribes. Scores of native villages of varying sizes are picturesquely planted among the banana groves and wooded valleys on this lower slope, each with its local chief, or sultan, and each tribe with its head sultan.
In a day's "trek" one meets many sultans with their more or less naked retinues, and every one of them spits on his hand, presses it to his forehead, and shakes hands with you. It is the form of greeting among the Kikuyus, and, in my opinion, might be improved. These people lead a happy pastoral life amid surroundings of exceptional beauty. Above the cultivated shambas, or fields of sweet potatoes and tobacco and sugar and groves of bananas, comes a strip of low bush country. It is a mile or two wide, scarcely ten feet high, and so dense that nothing but an elephant could force its way through the walls of vegetation. Most of the bushes are blackberry and are thorny.
Following the Trail
The elephants in their centuries of travel about the slopes have made trails through this dense bush, and it is only by following these trails that one can reach the upper heights of the mountain. Above the bush belt comes the great forest belt, sublimely grand in its hugeness and beauty, and above this belt comes the encircling band of bamboo forest that reaches up to the timber line. There are probably five hundred thousand acres of forest country in which the Kenia elephant may live and wander and bring up his children. He has made trails that weave and wind through the twilight shades of the forest, and the only ways in which a man may penetrate to his haunts are by these ancient trails. Mount Kenia, as seen from afar, looks soft and green and easy to stroll up, but no man unguided could ever find his way out if once lost in the labyrinth of trails that criss-cross in the forest.
For many years the elephants of Kenia have been practically secure from the white hunter with his high-powered rifles. Warfare between the native tribes on the slopes has been so constant that it was not until three or four years ago that it was considered reasonably safe for the government to allow hunting parties to invade the south side of the mountain. Prior to that time the elephant's most formidable enemies were the native hunter, who fought with poisoned spears and built deep pits in the trails, pits cleverly concealed with thin strips of bamboo and dried leaves, and the ivory hunting poachers. In 1906 the government granted permission to Mr. Akeley to enter this hitherto closed district to secure specimens for the Field Museum, and even then there was only a narrow strip that was free from tribal warfare. It was at that time that his party secured seven splendid tuskers, one of which, a one-hundred-fifteen-pound tusker shot by Mrs. Akeley, was the largest ever killed on Mount Kenia. And it was to this district that Mr. Akeley led our safari late in October to try again for elephants on the old familiar stamping ground. We pitched our camp in a lovely spot where one of his camps had stood three years before, just at the edge of the thick bush and on the upper edge of the shambas. News travels quickly in this country, and in a short time many of his old Kikuyu friends were at our camping place. One or two of the old guides were on hand to lead the way into elephant haunts and the natives near our camp reported that the elephants had been coming down into their fields during the last few days. Some had been heard only the day before. So the prospects looked most promising, and we started on a little hunt the first afternoon after arriving in camp.
The Old Wanderobo Guide
We took one tent and about twenty porters, for when one starts on an elephant trail there is no telling how long he will be gone or where he may be led. We expected that we would have to climb up through the strip of underbrush, and perhaps even as far up as the bamboos, in which event we might be gone two or three days. In addition to the porters we had our gunbearers and a couple of native guides. One of these was an old Wanderobo, or man of the forest, who had spent his life in the solitudes of the mountain and was probably more familiar with the trails than any other man. He wore a single piece of skin thrown over his shoulders and carried a big poisoned elephant spear with a barb of iron that remains in the elephant when driven in by the weight of the heavy wooden shaft. The barb was now covered with a protective binding of leaves. He led the way, silent and mild-eyed and very naked, and the curious little skin-tight cap that he wore made him look like an old woman. As we proceeded, other natives attached themselves to us as guides, so that by the time we were out half an hour there were four or five savages in the van.
He Was a Very Important Sultan
Saying Good-bye to Colonel Roosevelt
A Visiting Delegation of Kikuyus
No words can convey to the imagination the density of that first strip of bush. It was like walking between solid walls of vegetation, matted and tangled and bright with half-ripened blackberries. The walls were too high to see over except as occasionally we could catch glimpses of tree-tops somewhere ahead. We wound in and out along the tortuous path, and it was also torture-ous, for the thorn bushes scratched our hands and faces and even sent their stickers through the cloth into our knees. The effect on the barelegged porters was doubtless much worse.
After a couple of hours of marching in those cañons of vegetation we entered the lower edge of the forest and left the underbrush behind. We soon struck a fairly fresh elephant trail and for an hour wound in and out among the trees, stumbling over "monkey ropes" and gingerly avoiding old elephant pits. There were dozens of these, and if it had not been for the fact that our old guide carefully piloted us past them I'm certain more than one of us would have plunged down on to the sharpened stakes at the bottom. Some of the traps were so cleverly concealed that only a Wanderobo could detect them. In places the forest was like the stately aisles of a great shadowy cathedral, with giant cedars and camphor-wood trees rising in towering columns high above where the graceful festoons of liana and moss imparted an imposing scene of vastness and tropical beauty. In such places the ground was clean and springy to the footfall and the impression of a splendid solitude was such as one feels in a great deserted cathedral. At times we crossed matted and snaky-looking little streams that trickled through the decaying vegetation, where the feet of countless elephants had worn deep holes far down in the mud. Then, after long and circuitous marching, we would find ourselves traversing spots where we had been an hour before.
The elephant apparently moves about without much definition of purpose, at least when he is idling away his time, and the trail we were following led in all directions like a mystic maze. At this time I was hopelessly lost, and if left alone could probably never have found my way out again. So we quickened our steps lest the guides should get too far ahead of us. In those cool depths of the forest, into which only occasional shafts of sunlight filtered, the air was cold and damp, so much so that even the old Wanderobo got cold. It made me cold to look at his thin, old bare legs, but then I suppose his legs were as much accustomed to exposure as my hands were, and it's all a matter of getting used to it.
Our porters, especially those that were most heavily loaded, were falling behind and there was grave danger of losing them. In fact, a little later we did lose them. The trail became fresher and, to my dismay, led downward again and into that hopeless mass of underbrush which at this point extended some distance into the lower levels of the forest. We could not see in any direction more than twenty-five feetexcept above. If our lives had depended on it we could not have penetrated the dense matted barriers of vegetation on each side of the narrow trail. The bare thought of meeting an elephant in such a place sent a cold chill down the back. If he happened to be coming toward us our only hope was in killing him before he could charge twenty-five feet, and, if we did kill him, to avoid being crushed by his body as it plunged forward. Without question it was the worst place in the world to encounter an elephant. And I prayed that we might get into more open forest before we came up with the ones we were trailing. You can't imagine how earnestly we all joined in that prayer.
It was at this unpropitious moment that we heardstartlingly nearthe sharp crash of a tusk against a tree somewhere just ahead. It was a most unwelcome sound. There was no way of determining where the elephant was, for we were hemmed in by solid walls of bush and could not have seen an elephant ten feet on either side of the narrow trail. We also didn't know whether he was coming or going or whether he was on our trail or some other one of the maze of trails.
We quickly prepared for the worst. With our three heavy guns we crouched in the trail, waiting for the huge bulk of an elephant to loom up before us. Then came another thunderous crash to our rightand it seemed scarcely fifty yards away. Then a shrill squeal of a startled elephant off to our left and still another to the rear. Some elephants had evidently just caught our scent, and if the rest of the elephants became alarmed and started a stampede through the bush the situation would become extremely irksome for a man of quiet-loving tendencies. The thought of elephants charging down those narrow trails, perhaps from two directions at once, was one that started a copious flow of cold perspiration. We waited for several years of intense apprehension. There was absolute silence. The elephants also were evidently awaiting further developments.
A Clearing in the Forest
A Kikuyu "Cotillion"
Kikuyu Women Flailing Grain
Then we edged slowly onward along the trail, approaching each turning with extreme caution and then edging on to the next. Somewhere ahead and on two sides of us there were real, live, wild elephants that probably were not in a mood to welcome visitors from Chicago. How near they were we didn't knowexcept that the sounds had come from very near, certainly not more than a hundred yardsand we hoped that we might go safely forward to where the bush would be thin enough to allow us to see our surroundings. But there was no clearing. Several times a crash of underbrush either ahead or to one side brought us to anxious attention with fingers at the trigger guards. At last, after what seemed to be hours of nervous tension, we came to a crossing of trails, down which we could see in four directions thirty or forty feet. A large tree grew near the intersection of the trails, and here we waited within reach of its friendly protection. It was much more reassuring than to stand poised in a narrow trail with no possibility of sidestepping a charge. We waited at the crossing for further sounds of the elephantswaited for some time with rifles ready and then gradually relaxed our taut nerves. A line of porters with their burdens were huddled in one of the trails awaiting developments. I took a picture of the situation and had stood my rifle against the tree, and sat down to whisper the situation over. All immediate danger seemed to have passed. It seemed to, but it hadn't.
The Porters Came Down the Trail
Like a sudden unexpected explosion of a thirteen-inch gun there was a thundering crash in the bushes behind the porters, then a perfect avalanche of terrified porters, a dropping of bundles, a wild dash for the protection of the tree, and a bunch of the most startled white men ever seen on Mount Kenia. I reached the tree in two jumps, and three would have been a good record. The crashing of bushes and small trees at our elbows marked the course of a frenzied or frightened elephant, and to our intense relief the sounds diminished as the animal receded. I don't think I was ever so frightened in my life. But I had company. I didn't monopolize all the fright that was used in those few seconds of terror.
We then decided that there was no sane excuse for hunting elephants under such conditions. We at least demanded that we ought to see what we were hunting rather than blindly stumble through dense bush with elephants all around us. So we beat a masterly retreat, not without two more serious threats from the hidden elephants. A boy was sent up a tree to try to locate the elephants, but even up there it was impossible to distinguish anything in the mass of vegetation around. We fired guns to frighten away the animals, but at each report there was only a restless rustle in the brush that said that they were still there and waiting, perhaps as badly scared as we were.
My second elephant experience came the next day.
We started forth again, with a single tent, our guides and gunbearers, a cook and a couple of tent boys and twenty porters. This time we politely ignored all elephant trails in the dense bush and pushed on through the forest. Here it was infinitely better, for one could see some distance in all directions. We climbed steadily for a couple of thousand feet, always in forest so wild and grand and beautiful as to exceed all dreams of what an African forest could be. It more than fulfilled the preconceptions of a tropical forest such as you see described in stories of the Congo and the Amazon.
The air was cold in the shadows, but pleasant in the little open glades that occasionally spread out before us. Once or twice in the heart of that overwhelming forest we found little circular clearings so devoid of trees as to seem like artificial clearings. Once we found the skull of an elephant and scores of times we narrowly escaped the deep elephant traps that lay in our paths. Many times we saw evidences of the giant forest pig that lives on Mount Kenia and has only once or twice been killed by a white man. Sometimes we came to deep ravines with sides that led for a hundred feet almost perpendicularly through tangles of creepers and bogs of rotted vegetation.
We dragged ourselves up by clinging to vines and monkey ropes. On all sides was a solitude so vast as almost to overpower the senses. The sounds of bird life seemed only to intensify the effect of solitude. Once in a while we came upon evidences of human habitation, little huts of twigs and leaves, where the Wanderobo, or man of the forest, lived and hunted. Up in some of the trees were thin cylindrical wooden honey pots, some of them ages old and some comparatively new. And in the lower levels of the forest we saw where the Kikuyu women had come up for firewood. For some strange reason the elephants are not afraid of the native women and will not be disturbed by the sight of one of them. After seeing the women I am not surprised that they feel that way about it, but I don't see how they can tell the women from the men. Possibly because they know that only the women do such manual labor as to carry wood.
In the afternoon we reached the bamboos which lie above the forest belt. Here the ground is clean and heavily carpeted with dry bamboo leaves. The bamboos grow close together, all seemingly of the same size, and are pervaded with a cool, greenish shadow that is almost sunny in comparison with the deep, solemn shades of the great forest.
Then we struck a trail. The old Wanderobo guide said it was only an hour or so old and that we should soon overtake the elephant. It was evidently only one elephant and not a large one. It is fascinating to watch an experienced elephant hunter and to see how eloquent the trail is to him. A broken twig means something, the blades of grass turned a certain way will distinguish the fresh trail from the old one, the footprints in the soft earth, the droppingsall tell a definite story to him, and he knows when he is drawing down upon his quarry. As we proceeded his movements became slower and more cautious, and the plodding drudgery of following an elephant trail gave way to suppressed excitement.
It Looked Like the Rear Elevation of a Barn
Slower and slower he went, and finally he indicated that only the gunbearers and ourselves should continue. The porters were left behind, and in single file we moved on tiptoe along the trail. Then he stopped and by his attitude said that the quest was ended. The elephant was there. One by one we edged forward, and there, thirty yards away, partly hidden by slender bamboos, stood a motionless elephant. He seemed to be the biggest one I had ever seen. He was quartering, head away from us, and we could not see his tusks. If they were big, we were to shoot; if not, we were to let him alone. As we watched and waited for his head to turn we noticed that his ears began to wave slowly back and forth, like the gills of a fish as it breathes. The head slowly and almost imperceptibly turned, and Akeley signaled me to shoot. From where I stood I could not see the tusks at first, but as his head turned more I saw the great white shafts of ivory. The visible ivory was evidently about four feet long, and indicated that he carried forty or fifty pounds of ivory. Then, quicker than a wink, the great dark mass was galvanized into motion. He darted forward, crashing through the bamboo as though it had been a bed of reeds, and in five seconds had disappeared. For some moments we heard his great form crashing away, farther and farther, until it finally died out in the distance.
It was the first wild elephant I had ever seen, and it is photographed on my memory so vividly as never to be forgotten. I was more than half glad that I had not shot and that he had got away unharmed.
That night we camped in a little circular clearing which the Akeleys called "Tembo Circus," for it was near this same clearing that one of their large elephants had been killed three years before, and in the clearing the skin had been prepared for preservation. All about us stretched the vast forest, full of strange night sounds and spectral in the darkness. In the morning we awoke in a dense cloud and did not break camp until afternoon. Our Kikuyu and Wanderobo guides were sent out with promises of liberal backsheesh to find fresh trails, but they returned with unfavorable reports, so we marched back to the main camp again.
Thus ended our Kenia elephant experience, for a letter from Colonel Roosevelt, asking Mr. Akeley if he could come to Nairobi for a conference on their elephant group, led to our departure from the Mount Kenia country.
The other two elephant experiences were much more spectacular and perhaps are worthy of a separate story.
CHAPTER ONE | CHAPTER TWO | CHAPTER THREE | CHAPTER FOUR | CHAPTER FIVE | CHAPTER SIX | CHAPTER SEVEN | CHAPTER EIGHT | CHAPTER NINE| CHAPTER TEN | CHAPTER ELEVEN | CHAPTER TWELVE | CHAPTER THIRTEEN | CHAPTER FOURTEEN | CHAPTER FIFTEEN | CHAPTER SIXTEEN | CHAPTER SEVENTEEN | CHAPTER EIGHTEEN | CHAPTER NINETEEN | CHAPTER TWENTY | CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE | CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
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