Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/September 1886/In the Lion Country

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


THE majority of people have possessed pets of some description or other, but few are able to say that they have owned a couple of tame lions, for tame they were when I owned Leo and Juno, and I can vouch that more interesting pets were never the property of any individual. How I became their possessor I will endeavor to the best of my ability to inform my readers.

In those happy days, now some years past, when war had not broken out between the Boers of the Transvaal and Great Britain, I was hunting large game to the north of the Crocodile River, where the country of Lubengulo, King of the Matebeles, abuts on that of Kama, King of Bamansrwatos. The margin of the Crocodile River here is covered with thick timber or dense masses of reeds, but, as you retire a mile from the above-named water-course, bush-veldt becomes the dominant feature of the landscape, and is the haunt of innumerable species of the larger descriptions of African antelope. This may well be accepted when I state that from my wagon-box I have seen, at break of day, hartebeeste, wildebeeste, eland, and sassabi within easy rifle range of my position. Moreover, buffalo, quagga (the favorite food of lions), and giraffe were far from scarce in this vicinity. Thus it is not to be wondered at that the king of beasts should be found numerous where there was to be obtained such an abundance of his favorite food, while water and shelter, two necessaries to his existence, were ever close at hand.

Nightly we had heard for nearly a month the deep-muttered growl or awful roar of the monarch of the waste, but, the weather being fine and the nights clear, had little dread of his attacking either my bullocks or horses. Another protection I possessed against lions intruding themselves into my camp was, that with me were a troop of dogs of such excellence as had seldom been seen in an African hunter's camp. Several of these dogs had been imported, and great care was taken in their selection that strength and courage was their sine qua non, as they were to be my companions in a very distant journey.

The other dogs that completed the pack had been procured from the colony, and therefore had considerable experience in the pursuit of the smaller varieties of buck, as well as an occasional encounter with some of the larger members of the cat family, such as leopards, caracals, etc., for these species of the feræ naturæ still are to be found in considerable abundance south of the Orange River. The morning previous to the occurrence of the incident to which I owe the obtaining of my two pets, Leo and Juno, broke with such an appearance of bad weather that, by the advice of my servants, I determined to shift my camping-place to more elevated and, therefore, drier ground. A ridge, thickly covered with mapini brush, and here and there studded with meruli and mimosa trees, was selected for our new encampment, and, as the distance to it was not over six miles, it was not deemed necessary to inspan the bullocks till three hours after noon. Although the weather had threatened since sunrise, the rain kept off until we had completed about half our journey, when, as is not unusual in tropical climates, commenced one of those down-pours that have to be experienced to be appreciated. But this was not all; with the rain came thunder, and with the thunder, lightning, of which it would be difficult to say whether the awe-inspiring voice of the one was more terrible to listen to than the sight of the brilliant, rapidly repeated flashes of the other. Bullocks can not trek with wet yokes, or their shoulders become galled; thus I had to call a halt, although no shelter was near to shield us from the warring elements. I have witnessed thunder-storms in the Rocky Mountains, West Indies, and Malay Archipelago, but never have I witnessed them so terrific as in the interior of South Africa; certain am I that in no other part of the world are they so dangerous. And the whole animal creation seems to be well aware of this; for whether it be the Caffre or the ox, the elephant or the giraffe, all equally appear to dread the tempest's violence, and become for the time being so prostrated with fear as to remain awe-stricken on the spot where they have been overtaken, without one thought of seeking shelter. Having upward of a couple of hundred-weight of gunpowder in my wagon, to have it struck by the electric fluid would have been certain destruction to all my belongings, so I took the only precaution in my power, viz., to unfasten the chain, trek-tow, from the disselboom, so that that important portion of my gear should not act as a conductor to the inflammable part of my load. In proportion to the violence of these hurricanes, so short is their duration; thus in an hour the storm had passed to leeward, and naught remained to indicate its visit, save an occasional distant flash of lightning and the muttered deep intonation of the retreating thunder. Soon the cattle were again made fast to the wagon, and with hurried steps we pursued the remainder of our journey. No doubt we rejoiced that the storm had passed; but, if I and my Caffres did so, every creature imbued with life appeared to do likewise. Thus the francolins and korans, which had formerly been silent, now piped and chattered from every ant-heap; while the gorgeous bee-eaters, sugar-birds, brilliant orioles and sociable grossbeaks disported themselves in every direction. Even the grasshoppers and lizards had found a voice, and with it seemed to thank the Creator of the Universe that the danger had now passed. Of course, after the rain the trek was heavy, but fat and young bullocks, with a light load behind them, soon traversed the intermediate space to our new camping-ground.

In a well-organized hunting expedition every member of it has his allotted task to perform; thus some are employed in cutting thorn bushes to make the cattle-kraal, while others gather fuel for the night fires, or assist the cook in preparing the evening meal. Where we had halted timber was not abundant, and what we obtained there was so saturated with the late rain that it was not without considerable difficulty a fire could be made from it. As the sky had become clear and bright, master as well as man anticipated a dry night; but, as the sun went down, dark opaque clouds commenced rising to the eastward, which gradually shut up the face of the heavens, causing the surroundings to be involved in inky darkness. The wind now began to rise in oft-repeated fitful gusts, driving with it sheets of penetrating rain that made even the interior of my wagon far from comfortable. It might have been eight o'clock or thereabout when my Bechuana hunter reported to me that the bullocks were exceedingly uneasy in their kraal, adding further, "Baas! there are lions about, and, as the fence round them is not strong, I think you bad better tie the bullocks up to their yokes." Advice from such a source was not to be disregarded, for this man had spent all his life among the wild beasts of interior Africa, and knew their habits and haunts as well as we do those of any of our domestic animals. Thus, after much trouble, and with the assistance of my lanterns, the bullocks were removed from the kraal and made fast to their respective yokes, while the end of the trek-tow farthest from the wagon was firmly secured to a tree by the aid of a green rheim, the brake on the after-wheels being firmly jammed down. Having taken these precautions. William bade me goodnight and turned in among his companions under my desert house. The poet says. "Coming events cast their shadows before." Some feeling of this kind must have actuated me, for I had an intuitive perception that, before daybreak made its appearance, some misfortune or other would occur. Again and again I filled my pipe, and almost as often took my rifles from their rack, to assure myself that their breeches were not under the drip that came from many a rent in the tilt. I tried to read, but, although I had that wonderfully entertaining work, "The Woman in White," I could not concentrate my mind upon it.

Twice I had gone forth and added fuel to the far from brilliant watch-fires, and while doing so did not fail to observe that none of the bullocks had lain down, but with anxious, distended eves gazed earnestly up to windward. Trek oxen are, without exception, obstinate, perverse creatures, sometimes taking alarm where nothing is to be dreaded, at other times not taking the slightest precaution to avoid danger where it must have been obvious to them. So, seeing nothing, hearing nothing. I retook myself to my shelter. I had about finished another pipe, when a sudden prolonged pull upon the trek-tow so violently shook my domicile that, if proper precautions had not been taken, it doubtless would have been overturned. At this moment my Bechuana boy placed his head under the curtain of the tilt, and in smothered words told me that he knew there were lions round us. Not doubting the truth of his statement, I professed to disbelieve it, for. said I. "Why don't the doss challenge them? Where are the lazy curs?"

William for that was my boy's name promptly answered: "If one or two lions here, dogs bark: but I think that there are seven or eight. and that they are scattered round about us. so that does are afraid to go into the bush." Scarcely had my boy done speaking when I thought that the wagon must really go over, for the horses that were tied to the sheltered side of it commenced to pull and jerk their halters with such violence as several times to raise the weather wheels an inch or two off the ground. As nothing so reassures these animals, when alarmed, as the human voice, I got out of my domicile and stood at their heads and talked to them in such kindly language as they were conversant with; in the mean time ordering all my attendants from under the wagon, directing them at the same time to pile on more fuel so as to make a blaze as soon a possible.

Dark as the night was, all were busy around the little encampment, if I except the dogs, who seemed to be possessed of such timidity that neither word-nor blows could drive them out from the shelter they had taken between the wheels. For some minutes all had become quiet, and I commenced to hope that it had been a false alarm, when a roar so loud and close as to awake the echoes of the surrounding koppies broke the monotonous stillness of the night. Such a roar I have never heard previously or since; let him that likes say what he may, it made the earth tremble. To the reader it may appear impossible that any animal can produce a volume of sound that almost rivals the thunder in its density; but let me assure him, if he has heard a mature male lion, in the full vigor of his life, give utterance to his wrath, he will agree with me that there are a sublimity and grandeur in the voice, which, if they do not equal the depth and power of thunder, very nearly approaches to it.

If quiet had comparatively reigned before, now all was excitement. To and fro the bullocks rushed, trying to break their rheims, the horses reared and pulled upon their halters as if determined to strangle themselves, or upset the wagon, while every native who was not armed seized a fire-brand and shouted and called to my animals to endeavor to still their fears. 80 intense was the darkness that nothing could be seen, yet William fired a couple of shots in the direction from which he imagined the sound proceeded. The blaze and report of his heavy elephant gun, one would imagine, would have driven off anything in the form of a quadruped; but not so: the lion roared again at even shorter distance than at first, causing the bullocks to become frantic with fear, and therefore to use their utmost power and strength to break loose.

I thought I could trust my rheims, but alas! I was in error, for one more violent struggle than had previously been made took place, and they grave way, and the whole team went down to leeward as if they were stampeding before a forest fire. As the method (for it certainly is a preconcerted and arranged plan) adopted by lions when about to attack a span of cattle may not be known generally, I will briefly attempt to describe it. Lions, as a rule, hunt in family parties. A very old male, not unfrequently incapacitated from taking an active part in pursuing game, is generally to be found at the head of this coterie, and on him devolves no unimportant part of the programme adopted by them when a trader's or traveler's cattle are resolved upon as the victims of their ferocity and power.

Down to leeward, a hundred or more paces below where the bullocks are made fast, the young, active males and lionesses place themselves behind what available cover is to be found. This being: done, the aged manikin goes to windward of the encampment and shakes out his abundant mane in the breeze, so that the effluvia from it may be carried down to the excited draught animals. One sniff of the tainted breeze in a moment brings every ox to its feet; when standing, often trembling with fear, they gaze with dilated eyes into the impenetrable darkness. Closer and closer approaches the aged lion to his victims, shaking and reshaking the tawny dense covering of his fore-quarters; then, if the traveler's rheims be not strong, he may look out for a stampede; but should they hold, the aggressor, as a climax to his former manoeuvre, gives utterance to his deepest and loudest roar, when the frightened beasts, if not secured by the stoutest fastenings that can be obtained, will break off and rush with inconceivable rapidity into the very jaws of their foes secreted to leeward.

Such was the plan adopted on the occasion of which I speak, and the result was the loss of three of my best trek bullocks. However, I had one satisfaction: as the patriarch followed on their heels, assisted by the light from our now blazing fires, I was enabled to place a pair of ten-to-the-pound bullets through his tawny hide. This I was certain of, for I heard distinctly the thud, that never to-be-forgotten and tell-tale sound of success that quickly responded to the delivery of each shot. My performance in marksmanship was not wonderful, for the object I fired upon was large, and within fifteen paces of where I stood. The foe nevertheless did not drop in his tracks, but continued his course, evidently intending to join his relatives and participate in the now provided banquet of newly slaughtered beef. But man proposes, God disposes, for many an ominous growl of pain distinctly told that the old marauder was not in a frame of mind or body to enjoy the feast. The night was so intensely dark that it would have been utter madness to have risked my life or any of my people's to drive the lions from their prey, so we satisfied ourselves by piling on fresh fuel and firing an occasional shot in the direction in which we knew the feast was taking place.

With the break of day the troop had departed, leaving behind them nothing but a quantity of scattered bones, half a dozen hyenas, and as many jackals to tell of the tragedy which had occurred but a few hours before. Soon the unclean brutes followed the example of their betters and skulked off in various directions, doubtless with the intention of returning when the camp was deserted, or as soon as night again placed her impenetrable seal of obscurity upon the landscape.

On inspecting the locality where the disaster had taken place, an indentation in the ground was discovered, where several pools of coagulated blood were found, the soil around them scratched up and tufts of grass torn by their roots from the ground scattered about, while the only spoor in the immediate vicinity was that unquestionably of the old warrior on whom I had opened fire. William took up his trail, and, at the distance of half a mile, our foe was detected under the shelter of a mapini-bush. Poor brute, it was evident that he was sick unto death; still, his heart was willing for the fight, though his body was weak in power to assist him. On perceiving our advance, with a determined effort, he gained his legs and faced us, his countenance as plainly as language spoken showing that surrender without a final effort was not intended.

I fear I was prompted by too many feelings of revenge to appreciate the noble sight the discomfited foe presented; for what wonder? Had I not lost three of my best draught-cattle?—a loss the magnitude of which can scarcely be understood except by those who have been placed in similar positions. The gallant beast's head was down, his lips curled upward, so as to show his formidable tusks, while his tail, as stiff and straight as a crow-bar, was erected aloft. If he had possessed the power now, he would have charged; as it was, he remained as splendid a target as the most fastidious could desire. I aimed between his eyes, and, ere the smoke had drifted away from the muzzle of my smooth-bore, the hero lay extended at length upon the sparsely covered veldt. While admiring my prize, three Makalakas approached me; the grin upon their countenances showed that they had something unusual to tell, or else something to dispose of. I was not long detained in doubt which it was; for from under a kaross two of their number produced each a lion cub, about the size of a six months-old kitten. While admiring the little beauties, who seemed in no way to feel the awkwardness of the position, a roar was heard in the distance, which caused the Makalakas to pick up their treasures and rapidly gain a position behind William and myself. "By gum," exclaimed William, "here comes ma!" and scarcely had he delivered his brief assertion than her ladyship made her appearance, trotting hastily toward us. When seventy or eighty yards off, she halted and uttered a suppressed growl, different in intonation from any that I had ever heard emanate from any of her family. Up to this time the little wee beasties had been models of propriety, but the voice of their dam had in a moment transformed them into fiends incarnate, for they scratched and bit their possessors with such determination and energy, at the same time squealing, that the Makalakas were fain to drop them on the ground, the better to enable them to retain possession of them. The three natives had a busy time of it in accomplishing their purpose, but William and I had other and more important matters to attend to, for, the moment the lioness heard the screams of her offspring, open mouthed and almost flying with velocity she charged upon us.

My first shot staggered her and brought her to the ground, but in an instant she regained her feet, and, nothing daunted by the check she had received, continued her headlong course. Again I pulled the trigger, and down she fell, her shoulder smashed, for her left fore-leg dangled and doubled under her as if deprived of joints; but a three-legged lioness is not incapable of doing mischief, and so William thought, for at only a few paces he administered the coup de grace, aimed in the region of the ear, which put a favorable termination to a short but very exciting scene.

My new acquaintances, I learned, were herdsmen of Lubengulo, King of the Matebeles, who, when driving their cattle up, to kraal them for the night, disturbed a lioness; a Bushman who was with them fired at her a poisoned arrrow, which, it was believed, had taken effect. As a scratch from one of these pygmy weapons is almost certain to produce death in a few hours, my new friends had gone at break of day to search for their anticipated prey, but, losing the trail and making sundry efforts to regain it, they unexpectedly discovered the youngsters in a hole scooped in the bank of a dry water-course, which they at once secured.

Fortunately, they encountered us when they did, or Madame la Mère would have made them regret their temerity. On examining the lioness, no indication that she had been struck by the arrow of the Bushman was to be seen; either the bowman had missed her or this was not the animal he had shot at. A couple of pounds of gunpowder and four bars of lead were treasures too valuable for natives to refuse, so Leo and Juno became my property. The herdsmen, not satisfied with the discovery that the killed lioness was not wounded with the Bushman's arrow, renewed their search, and in the course of the day, on their return to their kraals, passed my encampment bearing a newly taken hide, satisfactory evidence of the rapid and fearful certainty of the virus with which they anoint the points of their diminutive weapons.

There are several poisons in use among the aboriginal tribes of Southern Africa, but that extracted from a caterpillar, and designated by the natives "mangue," is the most fatal. The pain which the victims suffer who have been inoculated with it must be fearful indeed; but it is not long endured, for two or three hours generally put an end to the stricken animal's existence. Of course, this time is more or less protracted by the size of the wound, the locality in which it is situated, and the quantity of the venom used; for instance, on one of the tributaries of the Zambesi, a lioness that had been wounded at sundown did not expire till the following daybreak, during all which time the cries of anguish that she kept repeating, terribly told how fearfully the poor creature was suffering. On examination, this victim of the poisoned arrow only had a slight puncture beneath the skin close to the flank, but the firmness of the hide had prevented the missile from falling from the wound.

As the habits of semi-barbarous people always possess great interest for me, I trust they do so for my readers, and I will therefore describe the two other poisons in use among the Bush-people, and the manner in which they are employed to serve their purpose. First, I will advert to the juice of the euphorbia. This is a family of plants all alike foreign to the European eye in appearance, although not by any means strictly tropical. Some species possess much more poisonous matter than others, the most deadly being in appearance like a crooked pole with a bunch of long, hard leaves decorating its summit. When employed by the natives for the purpose above spoken of, it is collected in quantities on the margin of a small vley or pond of water, when it is beaten between stones till the necessary quantity of the juice impregnates the water. At night unconscious game, probably thirsting from the hours they have passed in the sun-dried desert, come to the vley to satisfy their craving for drink, but scarcely have they done so when they become intoxicated, and soon after lie down to sleep the sleep that knows no waking. In this death I do not think the victims suffer much pain, for all that I have seen that have been killed in this manner were in the positions they would assume if they had laid down to take their natural sleep.

It is strange that this poison is much more injurious to horses, zebras, and quaggas, than it is to cloven-hoofed or horned animals. Why I state this is that while the former will not proceed over half a mile after they have imbibed the subtile fluid before being incapacitated from going farther, the latter will travel many miles ere they drop, if drop they do, for I am convinced that many escape death from this poison, although possibly brought Very close to it.

To carnivorous animals, such as lions, leopards, hyenas, dogs, etc., it does not produce death, only stupefies them for the time being; at least, such was my observation in reference to my dogs, when I knew that they had drunk a quantity of the diluted water. It is to be regretted that the natives should use such a means to secure game, for I know of a whole herd, amounting to over fifty zebras, perishing in one night, although the requirements of the few inhabitants of the district would have been amply supplied by a couple of carcasses, for it must be remembered that in these regions decomposition sets in very rapidly after life becomes extinct.

The third poison used by these most interesting natives, the Bushmen, is that taken from the glands of the Mamba cobra, or puff-adder, with which the points of their arrows are thickly coated. Exposure appears to weaken these reptiles' virus, for, previous to any important hunt taking place, the barbs of the tiny weapons receive a fresh dressing of the baneful fluid. Game killed by all the above methods is eaten by the human family, or carnivora, without producing any evil effects.—Land and Water.