Chapter 17 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The Long-Horned Rhinoceros.

Great, indeed, was now the affliction of the field-cornet. Fortune seemed to be adverse in everything. Step by step he had been sinking for years, every year becoming poorer in worldly wealth. He had now reached the lowest point—poverty itself. He owned nothing whatever. His horses might be regarded as dead. The cow had escaped from the tsetse by avoiding the cliffs, and keeping out upon the plain; and this animal now constituted his whole live-stock,—his whole property! True, he still had his fine wagon; but of what use would that be without either oxen or horses? a wagon without a team! Better a team without a wagon.

What could he do? How was he to escape from the position he was placed in? To say the least, it was an awkward one—nearly two hundred miles from any civilised settlement, and no means of getting there,—no means except by walking; and how were his children to walk two hundred miles? Impossible!

Across desert tracts, exposed not only to terrible fatigue, but to hunger, thirst, and fierce carnivorous animals. It appeared impossible that they could accomplish such a task.

And what else was there to be done? asked the field-cornet of himself. Were they to remain there all their lives, subsisting precariously on game and roots? Were his children to become “Bush-boys,”—himself a Bushman?

With these reflections passing through his mind, no wonder that Von Bloom felt deeply afflicted.

“Merciful Heaven!” he exclaimed, as he sat with his head between his hands, “what will become of me and mine?”

Poor Von Bloom! he had reached the lowest point of his fortunes.

He had, in reality, reached the lowest point; for on that very day,—even within that very hour—an incident occurred, that not only gave relief to his afflicted spirit, but that promised to lay the foundation of future wealth and prosperity. In one hour from that time the prospects of the field-cornet had undergone a complete change,—in one hour from that time he was a happy man, and all around him were as happy as he!

You are impatient to hear how this change was effected? What little fairy had sprung out of the spring, or come down from the cliffs, to befriend the good field-cornet in his hour of misery? You are impatient to hear! Then you shall hear.

The sun was just going down. They were all seated under the great tree, and near a fire, upon which they had cooked their supper. There was no talking, no cheerful conversation,—for the children saw that their father was in trouble, and that kept them silent. Not a word passed between them, or only an occasional whisper.

It was at this moment that Von Bloom gave utterance to his sad thoughts in words as above.

As if seeking for an answer, his eyes were raised to heaven, and then wandered around the plain. All at once they became fixed upon a singular object, that appeared at some distance off, and was just emerging from the bushes.

It was an animal of some kind, and from its vast size Von Bloom and the others at first took it to be an elephant. None of them, except Swartboy, were accustomed to elephants in their wild state,—for, although these animals once inhabited the most southerly portion of Africa, they have long since deserted the settled districts, and are now only to be found far beyond the frontier of the colony. But they knew that there were elephants in these parts—as they had already observed their tracks—and all now supposed the huge creature that was approaching must be one.

Not all, Swartboy was an exception. As soon as his eyes fell upon the animal he cried out,—

“Chukuroo—a chukuroo!”

“A rhinoster, is it?” said Von Bloom, knowing that “chukuroo” was the native name for the rhinoceros, or “rhinoster,” as he called it in Dutch.

“Ya, baas,” replied Swartboy; “and one o’ da big karles—da ‘kobaoba,’ da long-horn white rhinoster.”

What Swartboy meant by this was that the animal in question was a large species of rhinoceros, known among the natives as the “kobaoba.”

Now I dare say, young reader, you have been all your life under the impression that there was but one species of rhinoceros in the world—that is the rhinoceros. Is it not so? Yes.

Well, permit me to inform you, that you have been under a wrong impression. There is quite a number of distinct species of this very singular animal. At least eight distinct kinds I know of; and I do not hesitate to say that when the central parts of Africa have been fully explored, as well as South Asia and the Asiatic islands, nearly half as many more will be found to exist.

In South Africa four distinct species are well-known; one in North Africa differs from all these; while the large Indian rhinoceros bears but slight resemblance to any of them. A distinct species from any is the rhinoceros of Sumatra, an inhabitant of that island; and still another is the Java rhinoceros, found in the island of Java. Thus we have no less than eight kinds, all specifically differing from one another.

The best known in museums, zoological collections, and pictures, is perhaps the Indian animal. It is the one marked by the singular foldings of its skin, thickly embellished with protuberances or knobs, that give it a shield-like appearance. This distinguishes it from the African species, all of which are without these knobs, though the hides of some are knotty or warty. The Abyssinian rhinoceros has also foldings of the skin, which approach it somewhat to the character of the Indian species. Both the Sumatra and Java kinds are small compared with their huge cousin, the Indian rhinoceros, which inhabits only continental India, Siam, and Cochin China.

The Javan species more resembles the Indian, in having scutellae over the skin and being one-horned. It is, however, without the singular folds which characterise the latter. That of Sumatra has neither folds nor scutellae. Its skin has a slight covering of hair, and a pair of horns gives it some resemblance to the two-horned species of Africa.

The natives of South Africa are acquainted with four distinct species of rhinoceros, to which they give distinct names; and it may be remarked that this observation of species by native hunters is far more to be depended upon than the speculations of mere closet-naturalists, who draw their deductions from a tubercle, or the tooth, or a stuffed skin. If there be any value in a knowledge of animated nature, it is not to these we are indebted for that knowledge, but far oftener to the “rude hunters,” whom they affect to despise, and who, after all, have taught us pretty much all we know of the habits of animals. Such a “rude hunter” as Gordon Cumming, for example, has done more to increase the knowledge of African zoology than a whole college full of “speculating” savans.

This same Gordon Cumming, who has been accused of exaggeration (but in my opinion very wrongfully accused), has written a very modest and truthful book, which tells you that there are four kinds of rhinoceroses in Southern Africa; and no man is likely to know better than he.

These four kinds are known among the natives as the “borele,” the “keitloa,” the “muchocho,” and “kobaoba.” The two first are “black rhinoceroses,”—that is, the general colour of their skin is dark—while the “muchocho” and “kobaoba” are white varieties, having the skin of a dingy whitish hue. The black rhinoceroses are much smaller—scarce half the size of the others, and they differ from them in the length and set of their horns, as well as in other particulars.

The horns of the “borele” are placed—as in all rhinoceroses,—upon a bony mass over the nostrils,—hence the word “rhinoceros” (rhis, the nose, chiras, a horn.)

In the “borele” they stand erect, curving slightly backwards, and one behind the other. The anterior horn is the longer—rarely above eighteen inches in length—but it is often broken or rubbed shorter, and in no two individuals is there equality in this respect. The posterior horn in this species is only a sort of knob; whereas in the “keitloa,” or two-horned black rhinoceros, both horns are developed to a nearly equal length.

In the “muchocho” and “kobaoba,” the after horns can hardly be said to exist, but the anterior one in both species far exceeds in length those of the borele and keitloa. In the muchocho it is frequently three feet in length, while the kobaoba is often seen with a horn four feet long, jutting out from the end of its ugly snout—a fearful weapon!

The horns of the two last do not curve back, but point forward; and as both these carry their heads low down the long sharp spike is often borne horizontally. In the form and length of their neck, the set of their ears, and other respects, the black rhinoceroses differ materially from the white ones. In fact, their habits are quite unlike. The former feed chiefly on the leaves and twigs of thorns, such as the Acacia horrida, or “wait-a-bits,” while the latter live upon grass. The former are of fiercer disposition—will attack man or any other animal on sight; and even sometimes seem to grow angry with the bushes, charging upon them and breaking them to pieces!

The white rhinoceroses, although fierce enough when wounded or provoked, are usually of pacific disposition, and will permit the hunter to pass without molestation.

These become very fat, and make excellent eating. The flesh of no African animal is esteemed superior to the calf of the white rhinoceros, whereas the black varieties never grow fat, and their flesh is tough and unpalatable.

The horns of all four are used by the natives for many purposes, being solid, of fine texture, and susceptible of a high polish. Out of the longer horns the natives manufacture “knobkerries” (clubs), and loading-rods for their guns. The shorter ones afford material for mallets, drinking-cups, handles for small tools, and the like. In Abyssinia, and other parts of Northern Africa, where swords are in use, sword-hilts are made from the horns of the rhinoceros.

The hide is also used for different purposes, among others for making the whips known as “jamboks,” though hippopotamus-hide is superior.

The skin of the African rhinoceros, as already stated, is without the plaits, folds, and scutellae, that characterise its Asiatic congener, yet it is far from being a soft one. It is so thick and difficult to pierce, that a bullet of ordinary lead will sometimes flatten upon it. To ensure its penetrating, the lead must be hardened with solder.

The rhinoceros, though not a water animal, like the hippopotamus, is nevertheless fond of that element, and is rarely found at a great distance from it. All four kinds love to lie and wallow in mud, just as hogs in a summer’s day; and they are usually seen coated all over with this substance. During the day they may be observed lying down or standing under the shade of some thick mimosa-tree, either asleep or in a state of easy indolence; and it is during the night that they wander about in search of food and water. If approached from the lee side they can easily be got at, as their small sparkling eyes do not serve them well. On the contrary, if the hunter go to windward, they will scent him at a great distance, as their sense of smell is most acute. If their eyes were only as keen as their nostrils, it would be a dangerous game to attack them, for they can run with sufficient rapidity to overtake a horse in the first charge.

In charging and running, the black variety far excels the white. They are easily avoided, however, by the hunter springing quickly to one side, and letting them rush blindly on.

The black rhinoceros is about six feet high at the shoulder, and full thirteen in length; while the white kinds are far larger. The “kobaoba” is full seven feet high, and fourteen in length!

No wonder that an animal of these extraordinary dimensions was at first sight taken for the elephant. In fact, the kobaoba rhinoceros is the quadruped next to the elephant in size; and with his great muzzle—full eighteen inches broad—his long clumsy head, his vast ponderous body, this animal impresses one with an idea of strength and massive grandeur as great, and some say greater than the elephant himself. He looks, indeed, like a caricature of the elephant. It was not such a bad mistake, then, when our people by the wagon took the “kobaoba” for the “mighty elephant.”

Swartboy, however, set them all right by declaring that the animal they saw was the white rhinoceros.