Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

Dueling Hippopotami




What have we yonder in the water? A flock of hippopotami! Their bodies look for all the world like so many old weather-beaten logs stranded on a mud-bank or a sand-bar.

Every thing was still. The sun was very hot, and all nature seemed to repose. I was concealed on the banks of the river under a very shady tree, watching them. Suddenly, not far from me, two huge beasts rose as by enchantment to the surface of the water, and rushed toward each other. Their vast and hideous mouths were opened to their utmost capacity, showing their huge crooked tusks, which gave their mouths a savage appearance. Their eyes were flaming with rage, and each of them put forth all his power to annihilate the other. They seized each other with their jaws; they stabbed and punched with their strong tusks, lacerating each other in a frightful manner; they advanced and retreated; now they were at the top of the water, and now they sank down to the bottom. Their blood discolored the river, and their groans or grunts of rage were hideous to listen to. They showed little power of strategy, but rather a piggish obstinacy in maintaining their ground, and a frightful savageness of demeanor. The combat lasted an hour. It was a grand sight. The water around them was sometimes white with foam. At last one turned about and made off, leaving the other victorious and master of the field. A few days after I killed a hippopotamus, and its thick hide was lacerated terribly. Doubtless it was one of the beasts I had seen fighting.

The hippopotamus is found in most of the rivers of Africa which empty themselves into the Atlantic or Indian Ocean, but in none but the Nile of those which empty themselves into the Mediterranean; and in the Nile it is only met far up the river. Many as there were of them on the Fernand-Vaz, they were more numerous on the Ogobai.

How much sport I have had with them! How often have I studied their habits! And now I must give you some account of my encounters with them.

About five miles above my little settlement at Washington there was a place in the river shallow enough for them to stand and play around, and where they remained all day playing in the deep water, sometimes diving, but for the most part standing on the shallows, with only their ugly noses or heads lifted out of the water.

One fine morning I went toward them. We approached slowly and with caution to within thirty yards of them without seeming to attract the slightest attention from the sluggish animals. One might have asked himself, "Are they hippopotami or not?" Stopping there, I fired five shots, and, so far as I could see, I killed three hippopotami. The ear is one of the most vulnerable spots, and this was my mark every time.

The first shot was received with very little attention by the herd; but the struggles of the dying animal I had hit, which turned over several times and finally sank to the bottom, seemed to rouse the others, who began to plunge about and dive down into deep water. The blood of my victims discolored the water all around, and we could not see whether those who escaped were not swimming for us.

Presently the canoe received a violent jar, and, looking overboard, we perceived that we were in the midst of the herd. "The hippopotami are coming upon us!" shouted the men; "They are going to attack us!" We pulled out of the way as fast as we could, none of us being anxious to be capsized. It would have been a comical sight to see us swimming in the midst of a flock of hippopotami, and some of us, perhaps, raised up on the back of one as he came to the surface, or lifted, maybe, with his two crooked tusks in our body.

We were soon out of the way, and, looking back to see where were the animals I had killed. I saw nothing. They had sunk to the bottom, and of the three only one was recovered. It was found two days afterward on a little island near the river's mouth. Seeing this, I resolved never to shoot hippopotami while they are in the water, for I did not want to kill these animals for nothing; I wanted their skins and their skeletons to enrich our museums.

Some time after Joe had died, I determined to go on a night hunt after hippopotami. These animals come ashore by night to feed.

The Fernand-Vaz runs for many miles parallel with the seashore, separated from the sea by a strip of sandy prairie. On this prairie the hippopotamus feeds. He is sometimes called the sea-horse, for when his head is out of the water it looks from a distance exactly like the head of a horse. The "walk" of a herd is easily discernible. It looks very much like a regular beaten road, only their immense footprints showing who are its makers. In their track no grass grows. They always return by the same path they go out on. This gives the hunter a great advantage.

I chose a moonlit night, and paddled up to the vicinity of one of these "walks." There Igala, my hunter, and I set out by ourselves. I had painted my face with a mixture of oil and soot, which is a prudent measure for a white hunter in Africa. The beasts there seem to have a singularly quick eye for any thing white. I made myself look exactly like Igala. We both had black faces and black hands. I was dressed in the usual dark suit of clothes for the night; people there must not go hunting in light-colored garments. We chose the windward side of the track, for the hippopotamus has a very keen scent, and is easily alarmed at night, feeling, probably, that on land his sluggish movements, huge bulk, and short legs have their disadvantages.

We lay down under shelter of a bush and watched. As yet, none of the animals had come out of the water. We could hear them in the distance splashing about in the water, their subdued snort-like roars breaking in upon the stillness of the night in a very odd way. It was the only noise we heard—no, I can not say the only noise, for the mosquitoes were busily buzzing around and feeding upon us, taking advantage apparently of our anxiety to keep perfectly quiet.

The moon was nearly down, and the watch was getting tedious, when I was startled by a sudden groan. Peering into the distance, I saw dimly a huge animal looking doubly monstrous in the uncertain light. It was quietly eating grass, which it seemed to nibble off quite close to the ground.

There was another bush between us and our prey, and we crawled up to this in dead silence. Arrived there, we were but about eight yards from the great beast. How terrible he looked! The negroes who hunt the hippopotami are sometimes killed; I thought that one of us might be killed also. The animal, if only wounded, turns savagely upon his assailants, and experience has taught the negro hunters that the only safe way to approach him is from behind. He can not turn quickly, and thus the hunter has a chance to make good his escape. This time we could not get into a very favorable position; but I determined to have my shot nevertheless, eight yards being a safe killing distance, even with, so poor a light as we had at this time.

We watched the hippopotamus intently, looking at each other as if to say, "Are you ready?" We then raised our guns slowly. Igala and I both took aim. He fired, and, without waiting to see the result, ran away as swiftly as a good pair of legs could carry him. I was not quite ready, but fired the moment after him, and before I could get ready for running (in which I had not Igala's practice) I saw there was no need for it. The beast tottered for a moment, and fell over with a booming sound dead.

This closed our night sport, as none of the herd would come this way while their companion lay there. So we returned home. Poor Igala remonstrated with me for not running as he did. It appears that running was considered one of the chief accomplishments of the hippopotamus hunter. Our good luck created great joy in the village where meat was scarce. The men went out at daylight and brought the flesh home. Basket after basket came in, and as each one arrived all shouted except those who did not eat the hippopotamus. It is roonda  for them. Some of their ancestry had a long time ago given birth to a hippopotamus, and if they were to eat any, more births of hippopotami would come to them, or they would die. These shouted, "I wish he had killed a bullock instead of a hippopotamus."

The meat does not taste unlike beef, but was not so red. It is rather coarse-grained, and in the case of this animal it was not fat. It makes a welcome and wholesome dish. I tried to have some steaks; I must say they were rather tough, and did not go down easily. The broth was better, and I enjoyed it very much. There was something novel in having hippopotamus soup.

I have killed a good many hippopotami. It is a very clumsily built, unwieldy animal, remarkable chiefly for its enormous head, whose upper jaw seemed to be movable, like the crocodile's, and for its disproportionately short legs. The male is much larger than the female; indeed, a full-grown male sometimes attains the bulk, though not the height, of the elephant. In the larger specimens the belly almost sweeps the ground as they walk.

The feet are curiously constructed to facilitate walking among the reeds and mud of the river bottom, and swimming with ease. The hoof is divided into four short, apparently clumsy and unconnected toes; and they are able, by this breadth of foot, to walk rapidly even through the mud. I have seen them make quick progress, when alarmed, in water so deep that their backs were just at the surface.

The color of the skin is a clayey yellow, assuming a roseate hue under the belly. In the grown animal the color is a little darker. The skin of an adult hippopotamus is from one and a half to two inches thick on the middle of the back. It is devoid of hair, with the exception of a few short bristly hairs in the tail, and a few scattered tufts, of four or five hairs each, near the muzzle.

All along the Fernand-Vaz there were scattered herds of hippopotami, and I used to watch them from my house. I could see them at any time during the day. After they have chosen a spot, they like to remain there day after day, and month after month, unless they are disturbed, or their food becomes scarce. These animals consort together in herds of from two to thirty. They choose shallows in the rivers, where the depth of the water allows them to have their whole body submerged when standing. There they remain all day, swimming off into the deep places, diving for their grassy food, or gamboling in the waves. From time to time they throw up a stream of water two or three feet high. This is done with a noise like blowing, and it is doubtless an effort to get breath. It is pleasant to watch a herd peacefully enjoying themselves, particularly when they have two or three young ones among them. Some of the little fellows look very small, and are comically awkward They chase each other about the shoals or play about their dams; and I have often seen them seated on the back of their mother in the water. How careful their mothers seemed to be when they were swimming about, and carrying their young in the way I have described. It is a sight worth seeing; sometimes the whole herd of hippopotami will disappear for a long time under the water.

They prefer parts of the rivers where the current is not very swift, and are therefore to be found in all the lakes of the interior. They prefer to be near grass-fields. They are very fond of a particular kind of coarse grass which grows on these prairies, and will travel considerable distances to find it. They always return, however, before daylight. Their path overland is very direct. Neither rocks, nor swamps, nor bushes can prove formidable obstacles to a water beast of such bulk. I have seen their path lie through the thickest woods. Unless much pursued and harassed, they are not much afraid of man. If troubled by hunters they move their encampmeat, or go into countries where they can be more quiet.

Some of their favorite grass was growing on a little plain at the back of my house, and several times I found hippopotami tracks not more than fifty yards from the house. They had not feared to come as near as this; though probably, if the wind had been blowing toward them, they would have avoided the place.

They always choose a convenient landing-place, where the bank has a long and easy incline. This landing-place they use till they have eaten up all the provender which can be found in that vicinity. Before going ashore, they watch for an hour, and sometimes for two hours, near the landing, remaining very quiet themselves, and listening for danger. The slightest token of the hunter's presence, or any other suspicious appearances on such occasions, will send them away for that night. If no danger appears they begin to wander ashore in twos or threes. I never saw more than three of a herd grazing together; and, during their stay ashore, they place more dependence on their ears than on their eyes. I have watched them closely in many hunts, and I am sure that the beast walks along with his eyes nearly shut.

When playing in the water, this animal makes a noise very much resembling the grunt of a pig. This grunt it utters also when alarmed by the approach of man. When enraged, or suddenly disturbed, it utters a kind of groan—a hoarse sound—which can be heard at a considerable distance. They are quite combative among themselves, as you have seen in the case of the fight I have described.