Help via Ko-Fi

With an Elephant Hunter in Africa

by Alfred Jordan

WHITE men had not cared to venture among the Wanderobos. Little was known of them, but this little was enough. It pertained to the tribe's wildness and its stealthy ways of fighting. On the rare occasions when a man of another tribe so far forgot himself in chasing game as to enter a Wanderobo forest he would find everything serene. There would be no unusual sound or movement. The stillness of the woods, broken only by the singing of birds and perhaps by the cries of animals, would cause him to believe that he was far from the haunts of man. But suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, would come a poisoned arrow; then another and another.

So it was that the forests and sweeping plains of the Wanderobo country on the highlands of German East Africa, six thousand feet above the sea, had been free from white invasion. It was ideal for hunting; every kind of game stalked its own prey in the scrub and belts of woodland; in the high grass elephants grazed quietly.

For me the elephants had a special interest, since at that time there were no German regulations to prevent a man from shooting a sufficient number of the animals on a single hunt to gain a small fortune from the ivory. I had been on a long cattle-trading trek among the Lumbwa, and was indulging in a bit of civilization in the towns along the Uganda Railway, but, growing tired of this, I made up my mind to go on an elephant hunt in Wanderobo land.

The project involved no great risk on my part, because, while the Wanderobos knew no other white man, they knew me. A year before I had come upon a band of them and had been able to win their favor by killing a lion which had carried off a Wanderobo girl. I had hunted with them and had learned their peculiar dialect, a rather musical jargon not unlike that of the Lumbwa, which I knew well.

With as little delay as possible after deciding upon the trip for ivory I left the railway and in ten days was in camp with twenty carriers on a grassy slope reaching away from the Magor River. In a dense wood a little way up the stream were some huts, made by bending the tops of saplings to the ground and covering them with grass and sticks, and so concealed in the underbrush as to be impossible to see until one was close upon them. These constituted a temporary Wanderobo village.

Because of the necessity of drawing to within twenty-five or thirty yards of game before they could kill it with their arrows, the Wanderobos were almost always hungry, so I fared forth each morning after the dew was off the grass to provide meat not only for my own men, but also for my savage friends, whom I expected to help me in my elephant hunt. Always on these tramps I searched for tracks of the big animals that were my special quest, and one forenoon I found them. The grass was much trampled and showed long streaks where the elephants had passed through.

When I entered the Wanderobo village that afternoon I sent my boy for the chief and informed him that many elephants were grazing along the Ronganda hills. This news caused excitement. The Wanderobos had not seen the tracks themselves because the Lumbwa, their deadly enemies, were known to hunt among these hills, and on this account my friends had kept away, but they were eager, of course, for information about the elephants. The moran, or warriors, clad in monkey-skins and armed with spears and arrows, gathered around me. To convince them absolutely of the presence of the herd I sent my boy back to camp for a saucer and a small tin of kerosene. When he had returned and had handed me these articles I drew back from the group of savages to perform a little witchcraft.

"Watch me," I exclaimed. "Into this saucer I am about to pour some water. I will touch the water with fire. If the elephants are still within our reach, the water will blaze up. If it does not blaze, the elephants have gone and we will have to be satisfied with poorer meat. We will see."

To the kerosene I then applied a match. When the Wanderobos, craning their necks, saw the flame, they raised their voices in a shout of joy. I motioned to the chief and witch-doctor, and we three withdrew to make our plans. It was arranged that four men start at dawn to locate the herd.

These runners came in the morning to my camp, and, shivering in my tent door, I gave them instructions and watched them disappear in the half-light around the hill. A little later all the other warriors gathered about my tent and we went on a hunt for zebra and antelope to provide the women and children with meat while the men were hunting elephants. Upon our return in the evening we found the runners already back, with the information that many elephants were feeding only eight miles away.

The Wanderobo warriors scattered to make preparations for the hunt, withdrawing into the thick bush, out of sight of the women and children, who, it is believed by this tribe, render the poison harmless if they come too near when it is being smeared upon the arrows. But the women were not idle. They were clutching handfuls of grass, throwing it into the air and chanting weirdly, "Oesenie, Sirreon Engai!" (O great spirit, bring us fortune!)

THE news that elephants were to be hunted had been carried by runners to every Wanderobo village within twenty miles, and all night warriors kept coming in. In the morning, about one hundred and fifty of them had assembled, a strange collection of savages who jumped and yelled, half-crazy from eating, as part of the preparations for the killing, leaves of the culie or morie, a bush which produces an intoxicating juice. We delayed our start until forenoon, not iintending to attack the elephants that !day but to go into camp and be ready for the hunt at dawn.

Keeping a sharp lookout for wandering Lumbwa, we established ourselves, after a march of three hours, on a hillside and sent four men ahead to see where the herd was moving. I went out to procure meat for the big party, and in the course of the day dropped three antelopes and two waterbuck, a sufficient supply of food for all. Meanwhile the runners had returned and reported that there were about two hundred elephants in the herd, including many bulls, and that one of these, the leader, was very large, with tusks about six feet long. This meant nine feet when the ivory was taken out, since the lip covers about six inches and two feet and a half are in the head.

There was a feast that night. Around a huge fire the moran leaped and shouted, breaking the silence of the night with the doleful sound of the elephant-hunt song and appearing, with the flickering firelight shining upon their dark bodies, more like strange demons than human beings. At last they ceased the ceremonies. Quiet came, disturbed only by the occasional deep-throated growl of a lion stalking its prey, and now and then by the dismal cry of a hyena in the hills.

But after a while my rest was interrupted by a fresh outbreak of noise among the Wanderobos and I arose to see what the savages were about. They had thrown more fuel upon the fire, and Labersonie, the chief, tall and very old, stood in its light, with the moran gathered around him at attention. He was giving them a shanri, or talk, and I crept up quietly to listen.

"El moran, my warriors," the old chief was saying, "to-morrow we hunt the beast which gives us all we require, plenty of meat, food for our wives and children, a skin that makes good sandals, and ivory which we can sell for cows and oxen, and so have milk for our children when sickness comes. Now, the elephants must be slain only by men with strong arms and without fear. Perhaps some of you are afraid. If this is so, there is time to return to the women.

"Menutukie, this is your first time with the great animal of the forest. Your father was a hunter when he and I were moran together, but perhaps his son has not the courage of the warrior who is gone, who met his death through the terror of the bush, the buffalo. Perhaps you would like to climb a good tree, and watch how warriors kill the forest king."

Menutukie became greatly excited at these words, leaping into the air and wildly shaking his bow. I think there was a half smile on Labersonie's face, for he was in the habit of thus inspiring his warriors on the night before a foray, and evidently was a master of the art, as some of his moran became so frenzied that others had to hold them. I felt that the coming hunt would be a good one, but feared that the loud and continued shouting might alarm the elephants.

THE grass was wet and the air chilly when we started at sunrise toward the herd. Three moran had been sent out an hour earlier to ascertain whether the elephants had shifted during the night. The close proximity of the latter was indicated, after a tramp of an hour or so, by the sudden appearance of a rhino, which tore out of the bush and, maddened with fear of the elephants, the rhino's mortal enemy, was ready to attack and trample any moving thing in his way. Lumberingly but swiftly he was bearing down upon us, yet I did not want to take the chance of startling the elephants by a shot. This somewhat trying situation wras relieved by some moran, who rushed at the rhino with their spears and succeeded in turning him to the right.

We reached the top of a high hill called the Soiat, and there we came upon the men who had gone out in advance. They pointed down the slope to a stretch of level ground where, just visible above the tall grass, I saw the big backs and heads of the grazing herd. The elephants were feeding slowly toward a belt of forest, in which, after their morning's grazing, they would lean against trunks of trees until the noonday heat had passed.

Knowing that the Wanderobos will never attack elephants in the open, I called a halt. We rested, and watched the herd disappear beneath the branches. Then we made ready for the onslaught. Each warrior streaked his face with a black powder prepared from burnt wood by the witch doctor, to render him invisible to the elephants. Old Labersonie sent some men across the level to the edge of the forest where, I was told, two saplings would be bent together into an arch through which everybody must pass in order to please Engai, the spirit.

We had arranged that two companies of twenty men each should take positions on either side of the elephants; that I and twenty men should line up where the animals were likely to leave the forest, and that the remainder of the party should circle around the herd and drive it toward us. We separated and quickly took our stations.

For a while we waited. Then I heard a faint crashing, steadily becoming louder. In a moment I could distinguish the different sounds—the cracking of small trees, the roars of the bulls, the shrill cries of the cows, the yelling of the savages. Suddenly the elephants broke into sight, ears extended and trunks uplifted. They came ponderously but rapidly and directly toward us. I knew that I should have to do good shooting to escape alive from the stampede, and I lost no time, the reports of my rifle promptly adding to the din of yells and roars. At the first shot I dropped a big bull, but still they came on. I shot another and then another of the leaders of the herd, but those behind swerved round the prostrate ones, and still came swinging on, frenzied by the savage cries behind them.

I thought they would never turn, and saw myself trampled beneath their feet, but suddenly a big bull, waving his trunk like a signal, swerved to the left. The mob followed, and for a moment we were safe.

"Mongaso! Mongaso!" the men of my party shouted. This was their name for me, but I had no ears for it just then, being too intent on a bull which had left the herd and was still bearing down upon us. My first shot hit him in the trunk and he did not stop. I fired again. The bullet reached the mark this time and the great beast swayed and sank.

Meanwhile the warriors who had driven the herd out of the forest had jumped in among them. They were shooting arrows in all directions, dodging, eluding the big bodies almost by inches. It looked as if their superstition about the black powder with which they streaked their faces must be correct, for no other men could have mingled in that stampede and come out alive. But in a moment their stock of arrows was exhausted and they crouched in the grass as the mob thundered past them.

Now they gathered round me, shouting my name again and telling of the number of elephants killed, and together we started to search for bodies in the grass. In each there were numerous arrows and some showed wounds where imbedded arrows had been pulled out by the elephants themselves with their trunks.

The chief sent runners to bring the women and children, and gave orders to cut up the meat for a big feast. When the final tally of dead elephants was made I found that they numbered eighteen bulls and twelve cows.

The next day at camp I sent my men back for the ivory. The largest pair of tusks weighed two hundred and ninety-one pounds, and altogether I had about eighteen hundred pounds of ivory, which, at the rate of about three dollars a pound, meant that I should realize a substantial profit when I reached the trading-posts along the Uganda Railway.


MY NEXT elephant hunt was for pleasure, although not so much for my own pleasure as that of a gentleman from the Netherlands whom I happened to meet at the outpost of Ikona, in German East Africa, and who had plenty of money and desired excitement.

We started with a good outfit and a few carriers. My Dutch friend, having never before been on a real hunt in the bush, found the march over the hills and plains, through scrub and forest, somewhat laborious, but he was game enough, and we arrived in six days at the beautiful Alama River. Here we camped, and after resting for a day, started early in the morning to meet the elephants.

It was not long before we came upon the first detachment of the herd. About one hundred bulls, cows, and calves were grazing in the elephant grass. My companion, who had talked bravely about what he would do with his rifle when he saw an elephant, now began to ask questions about the safety of shooting into the herd. I paid no attention to him, being too busy aiming at a fine bull, but the Dutchman's nervousness may have interfered with the accuracy of my own shot. At all events it was a poor one and the elephant was merely wounded. At the sound of the shot the others of the mob raised their heads in quick alarm and closed quickly around the wounded bull. Now the stampede began. With trunks and tails raised, the elephants swerved away from us.

I had no opportunity to get another good shot, but my Dutch companion was more courageous now and was keen to continue the hunt. We had moved along a slope for about two miles when I perceived, by the waving of the grass, that we were close to another herd. They did not get our wind, and I wras able to creep up close, the Dutchman following with hesitating steps.

A big bull happened to be nearer than any of the others, and, kneeling for careful aim, I fired. Once more, for some reason my aim was bad. The bull lifted his trunk in astonishment, evidently hit but not much hurt. Then he swung around and came rushing toward us, an impressive spectacle, the biggest animal of the bush in rage. There was something fine about his onrush, but it evidently was not to the liking of the Dutchman, for he flung my .500 express rifle to the ground—a proceeding which annoyed me greatly—and took to his heels.

The charge of the bull straight toward me was so unexpected that I had no time for further shooting. The raging beast towered above me, his trunk raised like a huge club, his driving tusks and small eyes, which seemed to blaze with fury, making a picture of violent death which is still vivid in my memory. In desperation I threw myself to one side and to the ground.

Then I began to crawl. So heavy was the grass that rapid movement was impossible, and after forcing myself along for a few yards on my hands and knees, I lay still, hardly breathing. Thrashing about, trampling the grass, waving his trunk and bellowing loudly, the bull came so close that I could have hit his big legs with a stick. I felt that this was my last hunt—a step or two in my direction would have brought his feet upon my body, and I knew that if he should scent me it would be the end.

But miracles, I am glad to be able to say, sometimes happen. The wind favored me and I was concealed completely in the grass. With a movement as sudden as his onrush, the bull swung around and went crashing back toward the herd. Rising, I pushed my way back to where I had been forced to drop my rifle in my flight on hands and knees and, aiming quickly, took a shot at the retreating beast, hoping that this would cause him to swing again so that I could hit him in the head. The bullet struck him in the flank, but only served to hasten him on his way.

I now sat down to get my breath and to wipe the perspiration from my fevered brow, and in a few moments I saw the round face of the Dutchman peering at me cautiously through the grass. Needing a vent for my wrought-up feelings, I promptly poured a hot volley of words into my companion for casting away my cherished rifle and taking to his heels. To tell the truth, however, I did not blame him much. He explained, half humorously, that he had not been able to control the motions of his legs, and said that he did not believe he could have faced the charge of that elephant for a thousand pounds. "The big bull come so quick!" he exclaimed.

But the flush of the hunt was now upon him and, with protestations that the next time he would try to stand his ground, he readily agreed to follow the herd with me. So we started off again and after about a mile of hard going through the thick undergrowth once more saw the elephant mob; the animals were grazing on a long slope just above us.

A short distance to our right was a mass of tangled bushes, which I knew marked a swamp. We stole up slowly and quietly to get within easy gunshot of our quarry, but they must have got our wind, for suddenly each trunk was thrown up, almost with the precision of soldiers handling arms. Then, all together, the mob stampeded and came thundering down the slope, head-on toward us, the bulls in advance as usual, and the cows hurrying along their calves by pushing and half lifting the small elephants with their tusks. Only for an instant I watched the spectacle. I knew that this stampede could not be stopped by bullets—there were too many elephants and they were charging too directly.

"Come on! Come on!" I shouted to the Dutchman. "We'll have to run for it. Follow me!"

I made for the swamp, with my friend—clutching the rifle desperately this time—bringing up the rear in excellent form. Once he stumbled and I thought for an instant that our race was finished, but he recovered himself somehow and we waded on. The grass being only about up to our armpits, we could see all too vividly the advancing mob. What was more important, the elephants could see us, and the bulls in front had their trunks suspended for blows that would knock us many feet if we could not reach the refuge of the swamp before the beasts reached us.

I was beginning to despair of this. We had struck a rise in the ground which made our progress slower. With the tangled grass about our feet it was like a flight in a nightmare, when one tries to run and can not, but in a moment the ground sloped down again and we made more speed. The bellowings of the elephants had become a roar when we finally reached the marsh, plunged into the mud and water, and here, up to our waists in ooze, watched the mob go careering by. Not until the last extended tail had disappeared did we drag ourselves out and begin our weary tramp back to camp.

The cook had an excellent supper almost ready, and, after we had done it ample justice, the gentleman from the Netherlands, smoking his pipe in front of the tent in the cool and quiet evening of the highland wilderness, expressed an opinion to the effect that an elephant hunt was a great experience but that one was sufficient for a lifetime.


AFTER conveying my friend safely back to the post of the German Government at Ikona, I took another peep at civilization in the towns along the railroad and then looked about for a real huntsman to accompany me on an expedition for ivory for the market.

I found my man. He was a big Englishman, an ex-member of the King's Guards and a soldier of fortune who was ready for adventure of any kind. We started from old Kisumu, a trading-post on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria Nyanza. Our vessel was an Arab dhow and our fellow passengers a choice collection of Arabs, East Indians and Swahalis, all bound across the lake to hunt and trade.

Buffeted by adverse winds, we were ten days on the big inland sea of Africa and the supply of provisions began to run low. For the purpose of stocking up again the old Arab captain cast anchor off the island of Lusinga and signaled to the natives to send out canoes, but for some reason the latter paid no attention. Driven by necessity, a number of Swahalis plunged off the dhow to swim ashore, all of them reaching it in safety except the last, who, among the reeds, uttered a frenzied shriek. What this meant we knew only too well—a crocodile had seized the swimmer. With a long knife in his mouth, an Arab jumped overboard to the rescue—a brave deed, but unfortunately the rescuer was too late.

With our equipment wet from incessant rains we at last landed at Shirati, hired some sixty native carriers and pushed on without delay. We passed through Ikona, where I had met the huntsman from the Netherlands, and camped some miles farther on, near a Wasire village, which was surrounded by a high cactus hedge to keep off lions, especially plentiful in this locality.

Only for a day we tarried here, pushing on in the gray light of dawn. Lions prowled around us, doing good service in keeping our carriers close up with us, and we shot a lion and a lioness, obtaining two fine skins. In addition, my partner dropped a rhino which had caused the porters to cast down their loads and speed for the nearest mimosa trees.

In four days we came upon the fresh spoor of elephants—the ground almost bare of grass, and the trees stripped clean of bark. We camped near a pool of water to which the elephants evidently came to drink, and the same morning found the herd. It was divided into three mobs, the biggest numbering about one hundred animals, and the other two about fifty each. The large mob was made up chiefly of cows and calves, with only eight or ten bulls among them, but these were all good tuskers. The second mob were mostly young bulls with tusks weighing under fifty pounds. The third detachment was composed of full-grown bulls. It was the one we wanted.

The animals were facing us, flapping their ears busily to keep off the flies, and incidentally giving us a fine view of their ivory. My partner and I each selected a fine bull, took aim, and mine dropped with a shot through the head. My partner, however, was not so lucky. He hit only the trunk, the elephant gave vent to a squeal of pain and rage; the others threw up their trunks with the same soldier-like precision that I had noticed when hunting with the Dutchman, and took flight. We pursued them, firing as we went, and passing a young bull which was quite dead, we came up with two big ones groggy from wounds, dropped them and pushed on.

Long shadows were beginning to reach eastward from the hills when we remembered that we had gone since early morning without food or water. Estimating the camp to be about fifteen miles behind us, I proposed that we try to refresh ourselves with sleep and then look for a spring—a quest of more importance than any hunt for ivory, since water was not easy to find on these semi-arid highlands, and both of us had become extremely thirsty. But my partner, being keen to get back to camp, would not listen to my suggestion.

After about nine miles of one of the hardest tramps of my life we lighted a fire and threw ourselves on the ground in utter weariness. I felt my tongue thickening from thirst. Sleep or rest being impossible, I climbed a rise to obtain a view of the country in the starlight. At a great distance I made out a faint glow. Could it be our camp? Descending the hill at once, I roused my partner from a half stupor. Lighting firebrands as a safe-guard against some hungry lion or leopard that might feel inclined to leap upon us in the darkness, we resumed the weary tramp. For an hour or so we feared that the glow ahead was from a grass fire started by wandering savages, but finally we could make out dark forms passing to and fro against the light, and knew that it was our own fire and that the boys were waiting for us.

All the next day we lounged about the camp while our carriers brought in the ivory, but the following morning we again took up the pursuit of the elephant herd. For two weeks we hovered about it, dropping a bull here and there, and killing about twenty lions and leopards for their skins. After obtaining the ivory from eighteen bull elephants and eight cows, we trekked back to Shirati, sold the ivory to the traders and counted up our profits.

A statement as to these will convey an idea of the commercial side of ivory hunting. The expenses must first be reckoned. On the three months' trip in question these were as follows:

The German Government tax of 100 rupees ($33.33) on each elephant shot 2,600 Rupees.
Wages of 55 porters at 3 rupees a month for three months 495 Rupees.
Wages of cook at 10 rupees a month 30 Rupees.
Wages of two gunbearers at 5 rupees a month 30 Rupees.
Backsheesh 295 Rupees.
Provisions 300 Rupees.
Ammunition 150 Rupees.
Presents to natives 60 Rupees.
Tax on one rhino and two buffalo at 30 rupees each 90 Rupees.
Tax on fifty antelopes at 3 rupees 150 Rupees.
Tax on fifteen gazelles at one rupee each 15 Rupees.
Total 4,215 Rupees.

The profits were:

Ivory of 18 bull elephants 12,240 Rupees.
Ivory of 8 cows 2,160 Rupees.
Government bounty on 9 lions at 20 rupees each 180 Rupees.
Bounty on 9 leopards at 10 rupees each 90 Rupees.
Proceeds from sale of 9 lion-skins 180 Rupees.
Proceeds from sale of 9 leopard-skins 90 Rupees.
Total 14,940 Rupees.
Less Expense 4,215 Rupees.
Net Profit   10,725 Rupees ($3,217.50)

It will be seen from this that the monetary returns from an elephant hunt of three months were not inconsiderable, but such profits can be realized no more from ivory hunting in East Africa. Within a year both the British and German Governments have awakened to the danger of the extinction of the elephants within their domains and have made regulations forbidding the shooting by a single hunter of more than two elephants a year.

But the traveler can still see an occasional lion from the car windows on the Uganda Railway, and leopards invade the hen-houses of the farmers. With immense reaches of virgin territory, the country will remain for a long time to come a paradise for hunters of big game.