The African Elephant

THERE is not the least difficulty in distinguishing the Asiatic from the African elephant. The ears of the former are comparatively small, only reaching a little below the eyes, while the ears of the African species are of enormous dimensions, actually crossing on the back of the neck, drooping far below the chin, and extending beyond the shoulder-blade. Generally, the ears are laid so flatly against the neck, that they seem almost to form part of the skin of the head and shoulders; but when the creature is suddenly roused, the ears are thrown forward, and stand out so boldly, that they look more like wings than ears. Towards the lower part the ears form themselves into slight folds, which are not without some degree of elegance.

The end of the trunk also differs from that of the Asiatic species. In that animal a kind of finger projects from the upper part of the extremity; but in the African species the end of the trunk is split so far, that the two lobes act as opposable fingers, and serve to grasp any object which the animal desires to hold. This structure can easily be seen by offering the animal a piece of biscuit. The forehead, too, affords another means of distinction, being convex in the African, and flat or slightly concave in the Asiatic.

Another very decided difference lies in the teeth. These enormous engines of mastication are made up of a number of flat plates laid side by side, and composed of enamel and bone. In the Asiatic species these plates are nearly oval in form, and may be imitated by taking a piece of cardboard, rolling it into a tube, and then pressing it until it is nearly flat. But in the African species these plates are of a diamond shape, and may be rudely imitated by taking the same cardboard tube, and squeezing it nearly flat at each end, leaving the centre to project. In consequence of these distinctions, several systematic zoölogists have thought that the African elephant ought to be placed in a separate genus, and have therefore called it Loxodonta Africana, the former of these words signifying “oblique-toothed.” I think, however, that there are no real grounds for such a change, and that the genus Elephas is amply sufficient for both species.

The enormous ears of the African elephant are not without their use to the hunter, who finds in them an invaluable aid in repairing damages to his wagons and guns. Even if a gun-stock be smashed,—an accident which is of no very unfrequent occurrence in South African hunting,—a large piece of elephant’s ear, put on while fresh and wet, and allowed to dry in the sun, sets matters right again, and binds the fragments together as if they were enclosed in iron. Sometimes the ear seems to be a protection to the animal; for it is so tough and strong, despite its pliability, that the hunter will occasionally find several bullets lodged in the ear, which have not been able to penetrate through a substance at once tough and flexible.

This species is of a thirsty nature, so that wherever elephant paths are seen, the hunter knows that he is not very far from water of some kind. And as elephants have a fashion of travelling in Indian file, it is easy enough to trace their footsteps, and so to find the water. The animals go to drink in the evening, as do many other wild beasts, and the quantity which they consume is enormous. They go close to the water’s edge, insert the end of the  trunk into the liquid, draw it up until the two nostril-tubes are full, turn the end of the trunk into the mouth, and then discharge the contents into the stomach. When satiated, they amuse themselves for a while by blowing water all over their bodies, and then retrace their steps to the forest glades whence they came.

The enormous quantity of water which they carry home within them has a rather curious effect. At tolerably regular intervals a loud, rumbling sound is heard, much resembling the “glug-glug” produced by pouring wine out of a bottle, and lasting a few seconds. Were it not for this phenomenon, the hunters would meet with far less success than at present is the case. When hiding from a foe, the elephant can remain motionless, so that not a cracking stick nor a rustling leaf betrays its presence. But it cannot prevent this periodical rumbling; and accordingly, when a hunter is in the bush after elephants, he sits down every few minutes, and waits, in order to catch the sound which tells him that elephants are near. Even in the semi-domesticated specimens at the London Zoölogical Gardens, this sound is easily to be heard.

The African elephant is more hunted than the Asiatic species, and affords better sport and greater profit to the hunter. It seems to be a fiercer, more active, and probably a more cunning animal, and, owing to the character of the country through which it ranges, it seems to be of a more nomad disposition. The chase of the African elephant appears to exercise a kind of fascination over its votaries, like the chase of the chamois among the Swiss mountaineers; and when a hunter has fairly settled down to the business, he cannot tear himself away from it without exercising great self-denial. Perhaps few sports are encompassed with greater difficulties and dangers, or involve greater hardships; and yet the wild, free, roving life has such charms, that even a highly-educated European can scarcely make up his mind to return to civilization.

In the first place, elephant hunting is not, as are many sports, an expensive amusement. On the contrary, a hunter who possesses a sufficiency of skill, courage, and endurance will be able not only to cover his expenses, but to pay himself handsomely for his trouble. There is certainly a very large expenditure at the outset; for a hunter will need two wagons, with a whole drove of oxen, several good and seasoned horses, a small arsenal of guns, with ammunition to match, provisions for a lengthened period, and plenty of beads and other articles which can be bartered for ivory. Moreover, a number of native servants must be kept, and the amount of meat which they consume daily is almost appalling.

Then there are always great losses to be counted upon. The cattle get among the dread Tzetse flies, and die off in a few hours; the horses catch the “paardsikte” (a kind of murrain), or tumble into pitfalls; wagons break down, servants run away with guns, native chiefs detain the wagons for weeks, together with a host of minor drawbacks. Still, if a man is worthy of the name of hunter, and boldly faces these difficulties, he will pay himself well, provided that his health holds out—there are so many valuable articles to be brought from Southern Africa, such as the horns and furs of animals, the skins of birds, ostrich feathers, and ivory.

The teeth of the elephant, too, are valuable, and are made into various articles of use and ornament. A set of knife-handles made of elephant’s tooth is sometimes to be seen, and I have now before me an excellent specimen of a knife-handle, which shows the alternate rows of enamel and bone in a very striking manner, and is certainly a much handsomer article than a handle made of simple ivory.

An adult elephant with long tusks


 The elephant is, indeed, one of the most eccentric of animals. There is no possibility of calculating upon it, and nothing but experience can serve a hunter when measuring his own intellect against the elephant’s cunning. The scent or sight of a human being at the distance of a mile will send a herd of powerful male elephants on their travels, the huge creatures preferring to travel for many miles rather than meet a man. Yet, when assailed, there is scarcely any animal which is more to be dreaded. It forgets fear, and, filled with blind rage, it will chase an armed man in spite of his rifle, and will continue to charge him until it dies.

It will engage in deadly battle with its own species, or with the mail-clad rhinoceros, and yet will run away at the barking of a little dog. There was a curious instance some years ago, when an elephant that was travelling in America went mad, escaped from its keeper during the night, and traversed the country for miles, doing great damage. It broke carts to pieces, killed the horses, and was trying to force its way into a barn where another horse had taken refuge, when it was checked by a bull-dog, which flew at the huge animal, bit its legs, and worried it so thoroughly, that the elephant, mad as it was, fairly ran away. Indeed, nothing seems to cast this gigantic animal into such a state of perplexity as the noisy attacks of a little, cross-tempered, insolent, yapping terrier. The elephant cannot understand it, and gets into such a state of nervous irritation, that it never thinks of running away or annihilating its diminutive foe, but remains near the same spot, making short and ineffectual charges, until the hunter comes up and deliberately chooses his own position for attack.

The flesh of the elephant is anything but palatable, and when cut into strips and dried in the sun, has been aptly compared to leather straps. A well-known hunter said that the character of elephant’s flesh might easily be imagined by taking the toughest beefsteak ever cooked, multiplying the toughness by four, and subtracting all the gravy. The natives, however, are possessed of marvellously strong jaws and sharp teeth, and to them meat is meat, whether tough or tender. There are, however, several parts of the elephant which are always good; and these are the heart, the feet, and the trunk. The heart and trunk are simply roasted, with the addition of some of the fat from the interior of the body; but the feet require a more elaborate mode of cookery.

While some of the men are cutting off the feet, others are employed in digging a circular hole in the ground some ten feet deep and three wide, the earth being heaped round the edge. An enormous heap of dry wood and leaves is then piled over the hole, set on fire, and allowed to burn itself out. As soon as the last sticks have fallen into the hole, the men begin to rake out the glowing embers with long poles. This is a laborious and difficult task, the heat being so great, that each man can only work for a few consecutive seconds, and then gives way to a cooler comrade. However, there are plenty of laborers, and the hole is soon cleared. The elephant’s foot is then rolled into the hole, and covered over with the earth that was heaped round the edge. Another pile of wood is then raised, and when it has completely burned out, the foot is supposed to be properly baked. Thus prepared, the foot is thought to be almost the greatest luxury which South Africa can afford, the whole interior being dissolved into a soft, gelatinous substance of a most delicate flavor. There is never any lack of fuel; for the elephants break down so many branches for food, and in their passage through the bush, that abundance of dry boughs can always be picked up within a limited area.