Wild Life Under the Equator - Paul du Chaillu

An Elephant Pit


Querlaouen, Malaouen, and their wives and children, and all their families, which amounted to about forty people, had worked hard at digging elephant pits, of the same shape as those I have described to you in "Stories of the Gorilla Country," and which I saw in the cannibal country. The pits had been covered with branches of trees, while others were not for elephants to fall into. Often when they roam at night, before they know it, down they are. A great work it must have been to dig them; they were about fifteen feet deep, perfectly perpendicular, and about eight or ten feet in length and six feet broad.

Hanous  had also been fixed, such as I have described to you while among the cannibals, in a preceding volume. These were about ten or fifteen feet long; and at a distance of about a foot apart there were huge, sharp-pointed iron spikes about six or eight inches in length. Each of these hanous must have weighed several hundred pounds; and as they fell from a great height, the weight falling on an elephant's spine must be very great, and more than sufficient to break it.

So, passing through these tangled forests, we had to be very careful, in order not to fall into pits or to have a hanous fall upon our heads; for in that case you would never have heard from me again. Malaouen knew exactly where these pits were.

We were going through the forest with the greatest care, thinking that we might meet gorillas, among which might be one of those lone fierce males.

Suddenly we heard a noise in the distance. We listened. What could it be? Malaouen's quick ear soon detected that an elephant had been caught either by a hanou, or that he had fallen into the pit. We listened, to make sure of the direction the noise came from. We looked most carefully at our guns, to make sure that we could fully depend upon them, and then set out for the place where we suspected the huge beast was lying prostrate.

As we approached the spot, the moans of the elephant became louder and louder, and we at last fell into its track, which we followed, our direction being thus clearly indicated. At length we came to the pit. How careful we were in approaching it, and what a sight met our eyes! I came trembling on its brink, for fear that the earth would give way and precipitate me into the pit where the poor elephant was. What a sight met my eyes as I looked down! The bottom of the pit was filled with a black mass, which I recognized to be an elephant; the earth around was saturated with its blood. The poor creature was not dead. In its fall its ponderous weight had broken its four legs, and one of its magnificent tusks had been dashed to pieces; its head was all bleeding, and its trunk now and then moved up and down. The agonies of the poor creature were great. I was glad that we had come to end the sufferings of the poor beast.

So we raised our guns and fired right into its ear. Malaouen's gun gave a fearful recoil that almost knocked him down. I thought it had burst. All became silent. The elephant's ears and trunk dropped down, there was no more moaning; death had done its work.

Like almost all the people of his tribe, he carried an axe with him; a creeper was out down, and tied to a tree near by to serve as a ladder, and Malaouen dropped down into the pit. He had thrown his axe first and then descended; and as he stood on the elephant, how small he looked by the size of the huge beast! Then he cut the end of his tail, which is made of very coarse and very dark bristly hair ending in a tuft, and came up again. Joy filled his heart as we set out for the camp, and next for the village.

As soon as the news spread, we were received with wild demonstrations of joy. They were going to have a nice time. They were going to have plenty of elephant meat to eat. The children were also glad. I can assure you that a big elephant forms a large mass of flesh, and would help to pretty well fill a butcher shop. Then the news came that in a neighboring village, not far from ours, three elephants had been killed. I was quite astonished, for the animals are not plentiful in the region I was in; but I was obliged to believe the report when I saw the three new freshly cut tails of the elephants. One was given to me afterward, and a splendid thing it was to kill the nchouna, the ibolai, and the iboco flies.

I just came into the town when the ceremonial dance was about to be performed which precedes the division of the elephant meat. This is a thank-offering to two spirits, Mondo  and Olombo, who seem to have a presiding influence over the hunt.

A doctor from a country called Ashira, of which I will speak to you hereafter, was leading the ceremonies. I find it here as we find it often at home, that the prophet gains in repute the further he travels from home. In Goumbi, Quengueza's village, a Bakalai doctor was held in high repute. In Biagano, a Goumbi doctor was chief of all the prophets. Here among the Bakalai, only an Ashira doctor was thought worthy of performing the ceremonies.

The Ashira doctor of course was covered with all sorts of fetiches. He had painted his body in order to impress his audience with his great power, and every thing he did was done in a mysterious manner.

They had three pieces, cut from the hind-quarters of the elephants, boiling in large pots. Around these they danced, while the Ashira doctor chanted praises and petitions to Mondo and Olombo.

celebration after elephant hunt


A piece was cut off and sent into the woods to appease the hunger of these deities (or, more likely, of their representatives, the leopards, or the bashikouay or hyenas), and then the rest was eaten by the people, all in the presence of the doctor.

Next came the division of the great heaps of uncooked meat. The town, the town's friends, the hunters, the hunters' friends and their  friends, all came and got shares. I received about fifty pounds for myself, then besides I had a piece of the trunk, and four of the feet were given to me. These, by the way, must have weighed more than fifty pounds by themselves.

As soon as I went back to my place I got an orala  and smoked my meat, which I intended to keep, as we say, for a rainy day, that is, for a day when I would have nothing to eat.

I do not know why, but for a few days after the killing of the elephants the country was full of bashikouays. I could scarcely move anywhere without falling in with these fellows, and their bites were, as usual, very severe. They had no doubt smelled the elephant flesh and claimed their shares. I noticed that there was a curious little bird with these bashikouays, the Alethe castanea. This is a beautiful bird, which follows or precedes these bashikouays, and feeds on the insects that fly away from the ants; it is a new species. They fly in small flocks, and follow industriously the bashikouay ants in their marches about the country. The birds eat insects; and when the bashikouay army routs before it the frightened grasshoppers and beetles, this bird, like a regular camp-follower, pounces on the prey and carries it off.

The natives have some superstitions about this bird, and it is said by them to have a devil in it. For what reason they say so I could not find out.

My old enemies the snakes were also quite abundant, and as we pushed through the woods we often saw several great anacondas hanging from a projecting bough, waiting their prey. I shot a little bird, a very curious one, which, in its fall, lodged among some vines. I was anxious to get it, and began to climb up after it. Just as I was reaching out for my bird, a snake, belonging to one of the most venomous kinds found in these woods, stuck out his head at me from the thick vine foliage. I was very much startled, and dropped down to the ground without any loss of time. I could almost feel the reptile's breath against my face. It was a great scare. People do not get over snake bites very easily, and I am sure you are not astonished that I was frightened.