Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

Hunting for a Leopard




On the promontory called Cape St. John, about a degree north of the equator, stood a Mbinga village, whose chief was called Imonga. This was, I think, in the year 1852. The country around was very wild. The village stood on the top of a high hill, which ran out into the sea, and formed the cape itself. The waves there beat with great violence against a rock of the tertiary formation. It was a grand sight to see those angry billows, white with foam, dashing against the shore. You could see that they were wearing away the rock. To land there safely was very difficult. There were only two or three places where, between the rocks, a canoe could reach the shore. The people were as wild as the country round them, and very warlike. They were great fishermen, and many of them spent their whole time fishing in their little canoes. Game being very scarce, there were but few hunters.

Imonga, the chief, had a hideous large scar on his face, which showed at once that he was a fighting man. Not a few of his men showed signs of wounds which they had received in battle. Many of these fights or quarrels took place in canoes on the water, among themselves, or with people of other villages.

I do not know why, but Imonga was very fond of me, and so also were his people. But one thing revolted me. I found that several of Imonga's wives had the first joint of their little finger cut off. Imonga did this to make them mind him; for he wanted his wives to obey him implicitly.

The woods around the village were full of leopards. They were the dread of the people, for they were constantly carrying off some one. At night they would come into the villages on their errands of blood while the villagers were asleep. There was not a dog nor a goat left; and within two months three people had been eaten by them; the very places could be seen in the huts where the leopards had entered. They would tear up the thin thatched palm-leaves of the roofs, and, having seized their victims, they would go back through the hole with a tremendous leap, and with the man in their jaws, and run off into the forest.

The last man taken had uttered a piercing cry of anguish, which awoke all the villagers. They at once arose and came to the rescue; but it was too late. They only found traces of blood as they proceeded. The leopard had gone far into the woods, and there devoured his victim. Of course there was tremendous excitement, and they went into the forest in search of the leopard; but he could never be found.

There were so many of these savage beasts that they even walked along the beach, not satisfied with the woods alone; and when the tide was low, during the night, the footprints of their large paws could be seen distinctly marked on the sand. After ten or eleven o'clock at night, no native could be seen on the sea-shore without torches.

During the day the leopard hides himself either in the hollow of some one of the gigantic trees with which these forests abound; or sleeps quietly on some branch, waiting for the approach of night. He seldom goes out before one o'clock in the morning, unless pressed by hunger, and about four o'clock he goes back to his lair.

I was now getting accustomed to face danger. Killing the buffalo that attacked me had given me confidence.

To kill a leopard must be my next exploit.

I selected a spot very near the sands of the sea, where I remarked the leopards used to come every night, when the tide was low. I chose a day when the moon began to rise at midnight, so that it might not be so dark that I could not take a good aim at the leopard, and see what was going on.

I then began to build a kind of pen or fortress, and I can assure you I worked very hard at it. Every day I went into the forest and cut branches of trees, with which I made a strong palisade. Every stick was about six feet high, and was put in the ground about a foot deep. These posts were fastened together with strong creepers. My little fortress, for so I must call it, was about five feet square. This would never answer; for the leopard might leap inside and take hold of me. So, with the help of some stout branches all tied strongly together, I built a roof. Then I made loop-holes on all sides for my guns, so that I might fire at the beast whenever he came in sight.

I was glad when I had finished, for I felt very tired. My axe was not sharp, and it had required several days to complete my work.

One clear starlight night, at about nine o'clock, I went and shut myself up in my fortress. I had taken a goat with me, which I tied a few yards from my place of concealment It was quite dark. After I had tied the goat, I went back and shut myself vary securely inside my strong-hold.

I waited and waited, but no leopard came. The goat cried all the time. It was so dark that even if the leopard had come I could not have seen it.

The moon rose by one o'clock. It was in its last quarter; and very strange and fantastic it made every thing look. There were the shadows of the tall trees thrown upon the white sand of the beach, while in the forest the gloom was somewhat greater. The sea came rolling on the beach in gentle waves, which, as they broke, sent up thousands of bright phosphorescent flashes. There was a dead silence every where, except when the goat cried, or some wild beast made the forest resound with its dismal howl. The wind whispered gently, mournfully through the woods.

I could not account for it, but now and then a cold shudder ran through me. I was quite alone, for the negro I had taken with me was fast asleep.

One o'clock. No leopard. I looked in vain all round me; I could see nothing.

Two o'clock. Nothing yet.

Suddenly I spied something a long way off on the beach, so far that I could not make out what it was. It came slowly toward me. What could it be? I asked myself. Soon I recognized a big spotted leopard. The goat, which had seen it, began to cry more loudly. The big beast came nearer and nearer. He began to crouch. Then he lay flat on the ground. How his eyes glittered! They looked like two pieces of bright, burning charcoal.

My heart beat. The first thought that came to me was, Is my house strong enough to resist his attack, in case I should wound him, or if, perchance, he should prefer me to the goat, and make an onslaught upon it?

The savage beast crawled nearer, and again crouched down on the ground. I took my gun, and, just as I was getting ready to fire, he made an immense leap, and bounded upon the goat. I fired. I do not know how, but, in the twinkling of an eye, the goat was seized, and both leopard and goat disappeared in the dark forest I fired again, but with no better success. In the morning I saw nothing but the traces of the poor goat's blood.

I did not return to the village till morning, for I dared not go outside of my palisade that night So, the goat being gone, I concluded I had better light a fire, to warm myself, and drive away the mosquitoes. I always carried a box of matches with me. I struck one, and soon succeeded in making a blaze with the little firewood I had collected.

Strange enough I must have looked, inside of my cage, while the fire sent its glimmering light around.

Finally, seeing that every thing was well secured, I went to sleep, taking good care to put myself in the middle of the fort, so that if, by any chance, a leopard came, he could not get hold of me with his paw. When I awoke it was broad daylight, and I immediately started for Imonga's village.