Chapter 20 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

Turned Hunters.

The field-cornet, then, had resolved upon turning hunter by profession—a hunter of elephants; and it was a pleasant reflection to think, that this occupation promised, not only exciting sport, but great profit. He knew that it was not so easy a matter to succeed in killing such large and valuable game as elephants. He did not suppose that in a few weeks or months he would obtain any great quantities of their ivory spoils; but he had made up his mind to spend even years in the pursuit. For years he should lead the life of a Bushman—for years his sons would be “Bush-boys,” and he hoped that in time his patience and toil would be amply rewarded.

That night around the camp-fire all were very happy and very merry. The elephant had been left where he lay, to be cut up on the morrow. Only his trunk had been taken off—part of which was cooked for supper.

Although all the flesh of the elephant is eatable, the trunk is esteemed one of the delicate bits. It tastes not unlike ox-tongue; and all of them liked it exceedingly. To Swartboy, who had made many a meal upon “de ole klow,” it was a highly-relished feast.

They had plenty of fine milk, too. The cow, now upon the best of pasture, doubled her yield; and the quantity of this, the most delicious of all drinks, was sufficient to give every one a large allowance.

While enjoying their new-fashioned dish of roast elephant-trunk, the conversation naturally turned upon these animals.

Everybody knows the appearance of the elephant, therefore a description of him is quite superfluous. But everybody does not know that there are two distinct kinds of this gigantic quadruped—the African and Asiatic.

Until a late period they were thought to be of the same species. Now they are acknowledged to be, not only distinct, but very different in many respects. The Asiatic, or, as it is more frequently called, the “Indian” elephant is the larger of the two; but it is possible that domestication may have produced a larger kind, as is the rule with many animals. The African species exists only in a wild state; and it would appear that individuals of this kind have been measured having the dimensions of the largest of the wild Asiatic elephants.

The most remarkable points of difference between the two are found in the ears and tusks. The ears of the African elephant are of enormous proportions, meeting each other above the shoulders, and hanging down below the breast. Those of the Indian elephant are scarce one-third the size. In his grand tusks the former has far the advantage—these in some individuals weighing nearly two hundred pounds each—while the tusks of the latter rarely reach the weight of one hundred. To this, however, there are some exceptions. Of course a two hundred pound tusk is one of the very largest, and far above the average even of African elephants. In this species the females are also provided with tusks—though not of such size as in the males—whereas the female of the Indian elephant has either no tusks at all, or they are so small as to be scarcely perceptible outside the skin of the lips. The other chief points of difference between the two are that the front of the Asiatic elephant is concave, while that of the African is convex; and the former has four horny toes or sabots on the hind-foot, where only three appear upon that of the latter. The enamel of the teeth presents still another proof of these animals being different in species.

Nor are all Asiatic elephants alike. In this species there are varieties which present very distinct features; and, indeed, these “varieties,” as they are called, appear to differ from each other, nearly as much as any one of them does from the African kind.

One variety known among Orientals by the name of “mooknah,” has straight tusks that point downward, whereas the usual habit of these singular appendages is to curve upward.

Asiatics recognise two main castes, or perhaps species, among their elephants. One known as “coomareah,” is a deep-bodied, compact, and strong animal, with large trunk and short legs. The other called “merghee,” is a taller kind, but neither so compact nor strong as the coomareah, nor has he so large a trunk. His long legs enable him to travel faster than the coomareah; but the latter having a larger trunk (a point of beauty among elephant-owners) and being capable of enduring more fatigue, is the favourite, and fetches a larger price in the Oriental market.

Occasionally a white elephant is met with. This is simply an “albino,” but such are greatly prized in many countries of Asia, and large sums are given for them. They are even held in superstitious veneration in some parts.

The Indian elephant at the present time inhabits most of the southern countries of Asia, including the large islands, Ceylon, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, etcetera. Of course every one knows that in these countries the elephant has been trained long ago to the use of man, and is one of the “domestic animals.” But he also exists in a wild state, both upon the continent of Asia and in its islands; and hunting the elephant is one of the grand sport of the East.

In Africa the elephant exists only in a state of nature. None of the nations upon this little-known continent tame or train him to any purpose. He is only prized among them for his precious tusks, and his flesh as well. Some have asserted that this species is more fierce than its Indian congener, and could not be domesticated. This is altogether a mistake. The reason why the African elephant is not trained, is simply that none of the modern nations of Africa have yet reached a high enough point of civilisation to avail themselves of the services of this valuable animal.

The African elephant may be domesticated and trained to the “howdah,” or castle, as easily as his Indian cousin. The trial has been made; but that it can be done no better proof is required than that at one period it was done, and upon a large scale. The elephants of the Carthaginian army were of this species.

The African elephant at present inhabits the central and southern parts of Africa. Abyssinia on the east, and Senegal on the west, are his northern limits, and but a few years ago he roamed southward to the very Cape of Good Hope. The activity of the Dutch ivory-hunters, with their enormous long guns, has driven him from that quarter; and he is no longer to be found to the south of the Orange River.

Some naturalists (Cuvier among others) believed the Abyssinian elephant to be of the Indian species. That idea is now exploded, and there is no reason to think that the latter inhabits any part of Africa. It is very likely there are varieties of the African species in different parts of the continent. It is well-known that those of the tropical regions are larger than the others; and a reddish and very fierce kind is said to be met with in the mountains of Africa, upon the river Niger. It is probable, however, that these red elephants seen have been some whose bodies were coated with red dust, as it is a habit of elephants to powder themselves with dust on many occasions, using their trunks as “dredgers.”

Swartboy spoke of a variety well-known among the Hottentot hunters as the “koes-cops.” This kind, he said, differed from the ordinary ones by its altogether wanting the tusks, and being of a far more vicious disposition. Its encounter is more dreaded; but as it possesses no trophies to make it worth the trouble and danger of killing, the hunters usually give it a wide berth.

Such was the conversation that night around the camp-fire. Much of the information here given was furnished by Hans, who of course had gathered it from books; but the Bushman contributed his quota—perhaps of a far more reliable character. All were destined ere long to make practical acquaintance with the haunts and habits of this huge quadruped, that to them had now become the most interesting of all the animal creation.