Chapter 31 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The Ant-Eater of Africa.

Hans was saluted by a volley of questions, “Where have you been? What detained you? What has happened to you? You’re all safe and sound? Not hurt, I hope?” These and a few others were asked in a breath.

“I’m sound as a bell,” said Hans; “and for the rest of your inquiries I’ll answer them all as soon as Swartboy has skinned this ‘aard-vark,’ and Totty has cooked a piece of it for supper; but I’m too hungry to talk now, so pray excuse me.”

As Hans gave this reply, he cast from his shoulders an animal nearly as big as a sheep, covered with long bristly hair of a reddish-grey colour, and having a huge tail, thick at the root, and tapering like a carrot; a snout nearly a foot long, but quite slender and naked; a very small mouth; erect pointed ears resembling a pair of horns; a low flattish body; short muscular legs; and claws of immense length, especially on the fore-feet, where, instead of spreading out, they were doubled back like shut fists, or the fore hands of a monkey. Altogether a very odd animal was that which Hans had styled an “aard-vark,” and which he desired should be cooked for supper.

“Well, my boy,” replied Von Bloom, “we’ll excuse you, the more so that we are all of us about as hungry as yourself, I fancy. But I think we may as well leave the ‘aard-vark’ for to-morrow’s dinner. We’ve a couple of peacocks here, and Totty will get one of them ready sooner than the aard-vark.”

“As for that,” rejoined Hans, “I don’t care which. I’m just in the condition to eat anything—even a steak of tough old quagga, if I had it; but I think it would be no harm if Swartboy—that is, if you’re not too tired, old Swart—would just peel the skin off this gentleman.”

Hans pointed to the “aard-vark.” “And dress him so that he don’t spoil,” he continued; “for you know, Swartboy, that he’s a tit-bit—a regular bonne bouche—and it would be a pity to let him go to waste in this hot weather. An aard-vark’s not to be bagged every day.”

“You spreichen true, Mynheer Hans,—Swartboy know all dat. Him skin an’ dress da goup.”

And, so saying, Swartboy out knife, and set to work upon the carcass.

Now this singular-looking animal which Hans called an “aard-vark,” and Swartboy a “goup,” was neither more nor less than the African ant-eater (Orycteropus Capensis).

Although the colonists term it “aard-vark,” which is the Dutch for “ground-hog,” the animal has but little in common with the hog kind. It certainly bears some resemblance to a pig about the snout and cheeks; and that, with its bristly hair and burrowing habits, has no doubt given rise to the mistaken name. The “ground” part of the title is from the fact that it is a burrowing animal,—indeed, one of the best “terriers” in the world. It can make its way under ground faster than the spade can follow it, and faster than any badger. In size, habits, and the form of many parts of its body, it bears a striking resemblance to its South American cousin the “tamanoir” (Myrmecophaga jubata), which of late years has become so famous as almost to usurp the title of “ant-eater.” But the “aard-vark” is just as good an ant-eater as he,—can “crack” as thick-walled a house, can rake up and devour as many termites as any “ant-bear” in the length and breadth of the Amazon Valley. He has got, moreover, as “tall” a tail as the tamanoir, very nearly as long a snout, a mouth equally small, and a tongue as extensive and extensile. In claws he can compare with his American cousin any day, and can walk just as awkwardly upon the sides of his fore-paws with “toes turned in.” Why, then, may I ask, do we hear so much talk of the “tamanoir,” while not a word is said of the “aard-vark?” Every museum and menagerie is bragging about having a specimen of the former, while not one cares to acknowledge their possession of the latter! Why this envious distinction? I say it’s all Barnum. It’s because the “aard-vark” is a Dutchman—a Cape boor—and the boors have been much bullied of late. That’s the reason why zoologists and showmen have treated my thick-tailed boy so shabbily. But it shan’t be so any longer; I stand up for the aard-vark; and, although the tamanoir has been specially called Myrmecophaga, or ant-eater, I say that the Orycteropus is as good an ant-eater as he. He can break through ant-hills quite as big and bigger—some of them twenty-feet high—he can project as long and as gluey a tongue—twenty inches long—he can play it as nimbly and “lick up” as many white ants, as any tamanoir. He can grow as fat too, and weigh as heavy, and, what is greatly to his credit, he can provide you with a most delicate roast when you choose to kill and eat him. It is true he tastes slightly of formic acid, but that is just the flavour that epicures admire. And when you come to speak of “hams,”—ah! try his! Cure them well and properly, and eat one, and you will never again talk of “Spanish” or “Westphalian.”

Hans knew the taste of those hams—well he did, and so too Swartboy; and it was not against his inclination, but con amore, that the latter set about butchering the “goup.” Swartboy knew how precious a morsel he held between his fingers,—precious, not only on account of its intrinsic goodness, but from its rarity; for although the aard-vark is a common animal in South Africa, and in some districts even numerous, it is not every day the hunter can lay his hands upon one. On the contrary, the creature is most difficult to capture; though not to kill, for a blow on the snout will do that.

But just as he is easily killed when you catch him, in the same proportion is he hard to catch. He is shy and wary, scarce ever comes out of his burrow but at night; and even then skulks so silently along, and watches around him so sharply, that no enemy can approach without his knowing it. His eyes are very small, and, like most nocturnal animals, he sees but indifferently; but in the two senses of smell and hearing he is one of the sharpest. His long erect ears enable him to catch every sound that may be made in his neighbourhood, however slight.

The “aard-vark” is not the only ant-eating quadruped of South Africa. There is another four-footed creature as fond of white ants as he; but this is an animal of very different appearance. It is a creature without hair; but, instead its body is covered all over with a regular coat of scales, each as large as a half-crown piece. These scales slightly overlie each other, and can be raised on end at the will of the animal. In form it resembles a large lizard, or a small crocodile, more than an ordinary quadruped, but its habits are almost exactly like those of the aard-vark. It burrows, digs open the ant-hills by night, projects a long viscous tongue among the insects, and devours them with avidity.

When suddenly overtaken, and out of reach of its underground retreat, it “clews” up like the hedgehog, and some species of the South American armadillos—to which last animal it bears a considerable resemblance on account of its scaly coat of mail.

This ant-eater is known as the “pangolin,” or “manis,” but there are several species of “pangolin” not African. Some are met with in Southern Asia and the Indian islands. That which is found in South Africa is known among naturalists as the “long-tailed” or “Temminck” pangolin (Manis Temminckii).

Totty soon produced a roasted “peacock,” or rather a hastily-broiled bustard. But, although, perhaps, not cooked “to a turn,” it was sufficiently well done to satisfy the stomachs for which it was intended. They were all too hungry to be fastidious, and, without a word of criticism, they got through their dinner.

Hans then commenced relating the history of his day’s adventure.