Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

An Elephant Hunt




After a few days the Fans began to get accustomed to me and I to them, and we were the best friends in the world.

They are great hunters. One day a woman returning from the plantations brought news that she had seen elephants, and that one of the plantain-fields had been entirely destroyed by them. This was an event of common occurrence in the country; for the elephants are not very particular, and whatever they like they take, not caring a bit how much hunger they may occasion among the poor natives.

When the news arrived a wild shout of joy spread among the villagers. The grim faces of the Fans smiled, and, in doing so, showed their ugly filed teeth. "We are going to kill elephants," they all shouted. "We are going to have plenty of meat to eat," shrieked the women.

So, in the evening, a war-dance took place; a war-dance of Cannibals! It was the wildest scene I ever saw. It was pitch-dark, and the torches threw a dim light around us and showed the fantastic forms of these wild men. Really it was a wild scene. They were all armed as if they were going to war. How they gesticulated. What contortions they made! What a tumult they raised! How their wild shouts echoed from hill to hill, and died away in the far distance! They looked like demons. Their skins were painted of different colors; and, as the dancing went on, their bodies became warm, and shone as if they had been dipped in oil.

Suddenly a deafening shout of the whole assemblage seemed to shake the earth. Their greatest warrior (Leopard) came to dance. Leopard was, it appears, the bravest of them all. He had killed more people in war than any body else. He had given more human food to his fellow-townsmen than many other warriors put together. Hence they all admired and praised him; and a song describing, his feats of arms was sung by those who surrounded him. How ferocious he looked! He was armed to the teeth. He had a spear like one of those I have already described. A long knife hung by his side, and the hand that held the shield carried a battle-axe also. In dancing, he acted at times as if he were defending himself against an attack; at other times, as if he were himself attacking somebody. Once or twice I thought he really meant to throw his spear at some one. I could hardly breathe while looking at him. He appeared actually to be a demon. Finally he stopped from sheer exhaustion, and others took his place.

The next day the men furbished up their arms. I myself cleaned my guns, and got ready for the chase, so that, if I should get a chance, I might send a bullet through an elephant.

The war-dish was cooked. It is a mixture of herbs, and is supposed to inspire people with courage. They rubbed their bodies with it, and then we started. There were about five hundred men. After leaving the village we divided into several parties. Each party was well acquainted with the forest, and knew just where to go. The march was conducted in perfect silence, so that we might not alarm the elephants. After proceeding six hours we arrived not far from the hunting-ground where the elephants were supposed to be. The Fans built shelters, and these were hardly finished when it began to rain very hard.

The next day some Fans went out to explore the woods, and I joined the party. The fallen trees, the broken-down limbs, the heavy footprints, and the trampled underbrush, showed plainly that there had been many elephants about. There were no regular walks, and they had strayed at random in the forest.

When the elephants are pleased with a certain neighborhood, they remain there a few days. When they have eaten all the food they like, and nothing remains, they go on to some other place.

The forest here, as every where else, was full of rough, strong climbing plants, many of which reach to the top of the tallest trees They are of every size; some bigger than a man's thigh, while many are as large as the ropes of which the rigging of a ship is made. These creepers the natives twist together, and, after working very hard, they succeed in constructing a huge fence, or obstruction. Of course it is not sufficient to hold the elephant; but when he gets entangled in its meshes, it is strong enough to check him in his flight till the hunters can have time to kill him. When an elephant is once caught, they surround the huge beast, and put an end to his struggles by incessant discharges of their spears and guns.

While the others worked, I explored the forest. Seeing that the men were careful in avoiding a certain place, I looked down on the ground, and saw nothing. Then, looking up, I saw an immense piece of wood suspended by the wild creepers high in the air, and fixed in it at intervals I saw several large, heavy, sharp-pointed pieces of iron pointing downward. The rope that holds up this contrivance is so arranged that the elephant can not help touching it if he passes underneath. Then the hanou (such is the name given to the trap) is loosed, and falls with a tremendous force on his back; the iron points pierce his body, and the piece of wood, in falling, generally breaks his spine.

I also saw, in different places, large, deep ditches, intended as pitfalls for the elephant. When he runs away, or roams around at night, he often falls into these pits, and that is the end of him; for, in falling, he generally breaks his legs. Sometimes, when the natives go and visit the pit they have made, they find nothing but the bones of the elephants and his ivory tusks.

The fence that the natives had made must have been several miles long, and in many places was several rows deep; and now there were elephant pits beside, and the hanous.

We were, you must remember, in a mountainous country; and I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw plainly the footprints of this animal where I myself had to hold to the creepers to be able to ascend.

When every thing was ready, part of the men went silently and hid themselves upon the limbs or beside the trunks of trees near the barrier or "tangle." Others of us took a circuitous route in an opposite direction from that in which we had come. After we had got miles away from the "tangle," we formed a chain as long in extent as the fence, and moved forward, forming a semi-circle, with the men ten or twenty yards apart from each other.

Presently, all along the line the hunting horns were sounded, wild shouts were sent up, and, making all the noise they could, the Fans advanced in the direction of the "tangle." The elephants were entrapped. Hearing the noise, of course they moved away from us, breaking down every thing before them in their flight. If they tried to go to the right, they heard the same wild shouts; if they tried to go to the left, they heard the same. There was no other way for them to go but straight ahead; and there, though they did not know it, were the tangle, the pits, and the hanou. They were going to surer death than if they had tried to break our lines; for then most, if not all of them, would have escaped. We were too far from each other to hinder them.

Onward we pressed, the circle of those giving chase becoming smaller and smaller, and the crashing of the underbrush more distinct, as we approached the elephants in their flight. The men's countenances became excited. They got their spears in readiness; and soon we came in sight of the tangles. What an extraordinary sight lay before me! I could distinguish one elephant, enraged, terrified, tearing at every thing with his trunk and feet, but all in vain! The tough creepers of the barrier in no instance gave way before him. Spear after spear was thrown at him The Fans were every where, especially up on the trees, where they were out of the reach of the elephant. The huge animal began to look like a gigantic porcupine, he was stuck so full of spears. Poor infuriated beast! I thought he was crazy. Every spear that wounded him made him more furious! But his struggles were in vain. He had just dropped down when I came close to him, and, to end his sufferings, I shot him through the ear. After a few convulsions of limb all became quiet. He was dead.

Some of the elephants had succeeded in going through the tangle, and were beyond reach.

Four elephants had been slain; and I was told that a man had been killed by one of the elephants, which turned round and charged his assailants. This man did not move off in time, and was trampled under foot by the monstrous beast. Fortunately, the elephant got entangled, and, in an instant, he was covered with spears; and terribly wounded. After much loss of blood he dropped down lifeless.

I am sure you will agree with me, after the description I have given of a Fan elephant hunt, that the men of this tribe are gifted with remarkable courage and presence of mind.

They have certain rules for hunting the elephant. These tell you never to approach an elephant except from behind; he can not turn very fast, and you have, therefore, time to make your escape. He generally rushes blindly forward. Great care must also be taken that the strong creepers, which are so fatal to the elephant, do not also catch and entangle the hunters themselves. A man lying in wait to spear an elephant should always choose a stout tree, in order that the infuriated beast, should he charge at it, may not uproot it.

The next day there was a dance round the elephant, while the fetich-man cut a piece from one of the hind legs. This was intended for their idol. The meat was cooked in presence of the fetich-man, and of those who had speared the elephant. As soon as all the meat had been cooked they danced round it, and a piece was sent into the woods for the spirit to feed upon, if he liked. The next day the meat was all cut up in small pieces, then hung up and smoked.

The cooking and smoking lasted three days, and I can assure you it is the toughest meat I ever tasted. Of course, like the Fans, I had no other food, and for three days I ate nothing but elephant meat I wish I could give you a notion how it tastes, but really I do not know what to compare it with. Beef, mutton, lamb, pork, venison, make not the slightest approach to a resemblance; and as for poultry, such a comparison would be positively aggravating!

The proboscis being one of the favorite morsels, a large piece of it was given to me. The foot is another part reputed to be a great dainty, and two feet were sent me, together with a large piece of the leg for a roast.

But the meat was so tough that I had to boil it for twelve hours, and then I believe it was as tough as ever; it seemed to be full of gristle. So, the next day, I boiled it again for twelve hours; all my trouble, however, was unavailing, for it was still hopelessly tough! I may say that the more I ate of elephant meat the more I got to dislike it. I do not think I shall ever hanker after elephant steak as long as I live. I wonder if you boys would like it? I wish I had some, and could induce you to taste of it. I am inclined to think you would agree with me, and never desire to renew your acquaintance with it.

How glad I was when I returned to Ndiayai village; and no wonder, for we had rain every day in the woods. As for the poor man who had been killed by the elephant, his body was sent to another clan to be devoured, for the Cannibals do not eat their own people.