The Big Ones


There is a strange thing about the elephant, said Jordan. In a storm I have seen them covering their tusks with their ears, bringing the great flaps forward like a cape. The lightning can strike their ivory. I believe this because once I saw a lone bull taking shelter in a storm, his ears forward over his face, yet this did not save him. When the storm had gone and the sun came out I went to where he had been standing, and there I found a tusk newly broken off, and it weighed 64 pounds.


There is another strange thing about the elephant. Only once did I see one lying down, like a cow in a field. I thought he was dead until he got the scent of me and rose up. Natives told me that they had never seen the Big One lying down, and this is strange when you think how long the elephant can live, and all the while on his feet.

They are wonderful animals and I have a great love and admiration for them, which may seem odd to you, thinking that I shot them for their ivory. But you have to see them to understand what I mean, when a herd of them is hull down on a yellow ridge and then something sets them moving and the sun comes suddenly on their tusks, and a bull trumpets, arid that is a sound like nothing else you have ever heard, for it is a sound you feel as much as hear. You feel it in your stomach, you feel it as it moves up and catches your throat. Once the world must have been full of more terrible sounds, when the elephant was outnumbered and outmastered by animals that are now only Latin names and plaster casts in a museum. But the elephant has survived them all and trumpets his pride.

The herd comes on slowly, gently, ears like sails, like a fleet of great frigates, moving down, swaying and swinging until they halt again, and now there is no

sound but the wrench of grass as they tear it up, and, if you like impudent paradoxes, the rumble of their stomachs. All elephants have indigestion, and this is the most uncharitable practical joke in zoology.

But think of their ivory. Thirty inches of it in the skull before it begins to curve outward for another six feet, and threaded with a nerve that you pull out like a cord. The top part of the skull is empty, a great and mysterious vacuum, and every time I saw a native axe beating its way into this silent hollow I felt uneasy and sometimes ashamed.

Elephants are left-handed, I mean that they use the left tusk for digging and rooting, so that you never get a perfectly matched pair of tusks—the left is always shorter than the right. On a big bull the foot can be five feet in circumference, cushioned with layers of fat between layers of bone, yet in movement the elephant is dainty and silent, lifting his feet and putting them down as softly as a young lady in a minuet. I have followed a big herd into long grass or a forest and heard nothing, not a sound of them, until I broke through to the other side and saw them two miles away, grazing. Placid and unquarrelsome, myopic and incurious, they do not seek to determine their mastery, yet nothing dares attack them. I have never seen a clawing lion hanging from an elephant's shoulder, the lion knows better than that. Nothing will attack an elephant but man, and only man can make him savage and relentless.

Craig Helkett was a young officer in the King's African Rifles, and one year, many years ago, he decided to kill an elephant before he went home on furlough. He caught a bull with a mortal chest shot, but left the firing of it too late so that the bull came on him. It thrust one of its tusks through Helkett's stomach, and then through his thigh, and it picked him up and threw him into the bush, and then stood there and died.

It took two weeks, day and night trek, for his boys to carry Helkett into Entebbe, and yet he lived.


There are things I believe about the elephant, and there are things I do not believe. I have never seen the Elephant Graveyard and I do not believe that it exists. The elephant dies where he dies, and he does not walk to find his cemetery, even to please the romantics, and if you ask why, then, are not his bones found, the answer is that they are. They are found by the vulture, the hyena, the lion and the wild dog, and these take the meat. They are found by the native, the grass-fire and the bush-storm, and these take the ivory and destroy the bones.

But this I know about a dying elephant: if you have wounded one and he feels the dying inside him he will thrust his head deep into a thorn bush, as if he knew that you had killed him for his ivory and that the thorns will repay him a little with your suffering.

He is wise. He will not step over a trench, be it as shallow as your hand, but, suspecting traps, will walk a mile along its length until it is gone. And although the flies breed and live on his little eyes his scent and hearing are miraculous.

These things I believe about the elephant. I do not believe in the rogue elephant, the outlaw, although perhaps it is just that I have never seen one. But I have seen a herd with its scouts out, young bulls on the perimeter watching, and this only among elephants who have met Man. I have seen elephants pick up a wounded bull, pick him up, I say, between their barrel bodies and carry him away, while the young bulls stand between you and the herd with their trunks up in a swan's-neck.

This, too, I can tell you about the elephant. A friend of mine was killed by a cow elephant and when she had killed him she broke off young branches and covered his dead body with them.

I shot elephant with a -500 Express. It was the best gun I knew, although I also used a single-barrelled • 600 that can knock down a five-ton elephant, not that it is always a matter of one shot and posing for your picture with your foot on its neck. I once put 29 bullets into a bull before he went down, and I am not proud of that.

But a • 600 is good for thick country where you can be within five or six yards of your animal before you get a chance to fire and you've got to knock it down or lose it. Occasionally I used a Canadian -280 with a pointed round, and for open country a • 256 Mannlicher, although not against elephant. Yet Selous once said he preferred the higher velocity and flat trajectory of the Mannlicher against elephant, but Selous was Selous. A bullet in an African animal means little to it at the time of the hit, except something that makes it run the harder, away from you or toward you. You must get a brain or a heart or a spine shot, and when I was hunting with a Texan rancher called Bronson I saw him put nine • 35 Mauser bullets into a hartebeeste before it stopped running and died. On Victoria Nyanza the first officer of the steamer Clement Hill fired twenty-two • 303's into a hippo before killing it, which was ignorant and senseless for you shoot a hippo through the nostril as it yawns at you, and the bullet passes into its brain-pan. With each successive shot I fired at a badly-hit animal my shame increased.

Those were the weapons I carried, and sometimes I had a Webley -45 as side-arm, but this was merely an affectation and I got along too well with the natives to have to frighten them with a revolver. I had a skinning-knife at the back of my belt and I carried a reongu—a straightened rhino horn club which cannot be destroyed, except by fire.

There was little more a hunter needed—a double-fly tent, camp bed and netting. In twenty-five years I never slept in a native hut. And it was a good life. My chop-boxes carried tea and coffee and sugar and salt. I shot my meat, eland, impala, antelope. I've sat in the bush and had a dinner of guinea-fowl with a tin cup of wine, and thought myself more fortunate than anyone at Del Monico's.

I was an ivory-poacher and that was too long ago for anyone to do anything about it now, anyone with the exaggerated respect for the law you find in frightened people. Elephant poaching began long ago, too, long before I was a boy and went off to find adventure with the Cape Mounted in the Boer War. The Arabs turned to the business when slave-running became too costly and too dangerous. Then they became the middlemen and white men did the shooting. Game licences came with the sportsmen, and with the game laws came the game rangers, and after the rangers came the railways and the roads and the towns and the film-makers, but by then I had gone from Africa.

I always had a licence for elephant. I have one still, made out to me in the Belgian Congo by the Bureau of Bandundu: it is reproduced on page 28 overleaf.

The independent elephant hunter was in instinctive rebellion against this sort of thing. For years he had been content to take his life in his own hands, shoot his elephant without permission, live in fever swamps, go alone among the Nandi and the Kisi, trade his ivory, get drunk in Kericho and Nairobi, fight when he wanted to, die the way he chose. He was made a poacher by the game laws. He shot for profit. He had no home. He had no library wall to stud with the horns of kudu and rhino. He was in Africa for life, not for the season.

There was Jones who killed a leopard with his hands after he had shot her. She came back along her own blood trail and she leaped on him. He got his knee in her ribs and crushed her and killed her for he was a big man, but not before she had bitten through his thigh and left him with a limp to remember her by. When Banks was in Congo Belge

tossed by that buffalo he clung to a mimosa tree and stayed there until the bull went away. He was badly gored and deaf for ever. It did not stop his poaching. His gun-bearer became his ears, keeping beside Banks and signalling with his hands.

There was a South African hunter called Deacon. When poaching along the Belgian border he was caught and taken to Beni. The Belgians took away his equipment, his rifles and six tusks, and they let him go because they had no jail in which to hold a white man. They told him to trek back to British territory thirty miles away and they did not want to see him in Beni again. But he waited out in the forest until night, and then he came back, and he gagged and bound four sentries, released his boys from jail, broke into the store and took his rifles and tusks, and was over the border by sunrise.

There was a Canadian who was wealthy enough to live safely at home, but he added to his private income of 15,000 dollars a year by ivory-poaching. A native sergeant and four askaris caught him in Belgian territory one day, and when he refused to go with them the sergeant raised his rifle. The Canadian pulled out his revolver and killed the soldier. Then he held up the askaris and made them march before him to the Nile, where he crossed over. The Belgians demanded his extradition, but found themselves blocked by the law forbidding a native policeman to arrest a white man.

With elephant grazing in thousands across the Semiliki I could make three or four thousand pounds a year, and this is fifty years ago. All up the Inzia the elephants were always plentiful, but their tusks were narrow and worn to sharp points because the soil was gravelly where they rooted. But there was good killing and this will show you how good for one summer:

July: Nine bulls averaging 20 kilo tusks, value 6,500 francs. August: Seven bulls averaging 25 kilo tusks.

September: Fourteen bulls averaging 30 kilo tusks. October: Eighteen bulls, averaging 40 kilo tusks. I was lucky with the Big Ones.

Once I took a concession on 55,000 acres in the Thysville area, and it was about that time that I was ready in my elephant fever to believe a Frenchman when he told me that there were water-elephant. He said that he had seen them swimming in Lake Leopold like hippo. Then I knew it was a dream out of ignorance, for all elephant love water. I have seen them crossing a river full of crocodile in the Belgian Congo, going down to the water like a regiment, bulls, cows and calves, and into the strong current and out the other side. They are good road-makers, good ford-finders.

It was in that country that I came across my King Elephant. He must have been thirteen feet at the shoulders, and his tusks would have been a record had I been able to kill him. This you must believe, for I have seen thousands of elephant and shot many bulls.

Yet when the King came out of the grass I could not shoot. The sun was behind him and his shadow fell across me. When he saw me his ears came out like the opening of doors, his trunk swung up and he trumpeted. I aimed for his ear and fired, but it was a bad shot. If it hit him at all it glanced across his skull, but it turned him and I saw a great white scar like a sabre-cut on his shoulder. He went off and I followed him. I found the marks of his tusks where he had pulled himself up the slopes, and I followed him until mid-day but never close enough to fire again. He crossed the waters of the Kuilo like a barge; there was no way I could follow him.

My boys said he was a ghost elephant, and that they had wounded him often with their muzzle-loaders, and I wanted that King Elephant as I had wanted nothing else. I saw him often and never killed him. One morning I tracked him and saw him, but he knew I was there, and he trumpeted and went down the other side of the ridge. I swore and ran after him and fell over a root. The jolt fired my Express and when I picked it up I found that one barrel was split two inches at the muzzle where it had been choked with dust.

The King had that sort of luck. I thought I should go home. Then I thought, there's one more barrel to the gun. So I went on. I saw him again, five hundred yards off, switching his ears at the flies on his eyes. I tried to head him off but he beat me by fifty yards. I was in a temper, which is no state to be in if you wish to shoot an elephant. I gave him a slanting shot, hoping this would slow him before he took to the river, and I rammed another round into the breech. But he had gone over the water into the tall grass and between us was the river with the crocodile rippling it.

And when I looked at my gun I saw that the second barrel had worked loose. Had I fired another shot it would have blown up in my face. I never did shoot the King. Perhaps no one did. He was an immortal.

I would spend days watching elephants, not wanting to shoot them, just wanting to watch them. I have seen them put out a grass fire. I have seen them methodically trample out each flame until the fire was gone and there was only black earth. I have seen a herd coming over a cliff face in play, scores of them, sliding down on their rumps like schoolboys, hundreds of them making a black waterfall in the red dust, trumpeting and trilling.

I have seen a herd scatter at danger and yet regroup uncannily twenty miles on in the grass, and this with the range of their fly-encrusted eyes no more than thirty yards. I have seen them at the salt-licks where they dig up the earth and eat it, and where the sportsmen wait for them comfortably in blinds. But not always comfortably for sometimes the bulls will form into line like cavalry and charge the blinds.

For years I believed I knew one certain thing about the elephants. I believed that it would not charge into a small island of trees. Even the young ones seemed to know that such a place might contain a trap-pit, or that in the branches above was poised a spear, held fast in a log. So when a cow elephant scented me one day, and came up surlily to mark me out, I ran to such an island of trees for safety. But she came in after me with trunk searching and I had to kill her.

I have a great respect for the elephant, that grass-eater.

I believe in the Elephant Stone, although I have never seen it. In New York I once talked with dealers of precious gems, and while some had heard of the Elephant Stone none had ever seen it. But the natives believed in it, and I heard them speak of a Swahili trader who bought one from a Loita Masai for much money and cattle. But the Swahili trader and Loita Masai were dead, and you could not find them, but always there was somebody in a Masai munyata who knew of the Stone. They respected it and said it brought death, for the Swahili had been killed by a leopard and the Masai by a buffalo, which are both terrible deaths.

The Elephant Stone will be found, when it is found, up there in an elephant's skull, and if you see a bull without tusks maybe that bull is carrying the Stone in the temple of his great head, for the tusks have not grown outward, if you understand me, but inward, inward to form this hard stone of great beauty, just as an oyster grows a pearl.

I was once told that the Wanderobo had found such a stone behind the eye-socket of a great bull, but I never found it. I do not know what it looks like, except that it is larger and more lustrous than the Koh-i-noor.

I once shot a tuskless bull when I was with the Wanderobo, a great bull that lay all night in the forest, and I sweated as I waited for the morning when the skull could be cleft open. In the morning the Wanderobo cut into the skull with their axes and there, at the right side of the skull, where the tusk should start, was a large ball of ivory about the size and shape of a cocoanut. I hacked at it with a hatchet, believing it to be the shell of the Stone, and in the end I had nothing but splinters and shavings of ivory, for there was no Stone.

But it is my fancy to believe that it exists.

* * *

In the Kisumu Province, by the shores of Lake Victoria, when I was young I had camped by the house of a Dutchman with whom I drank in the evening and talked about the Cape. He had a husky brother who came up from Londiani Station and this brother wanted to shoot an elephant for he had shot nothing larger than eland, and when a man has shot an elephant his life is full. So I said that I would take him to shoot his elephant if he would pay the expenses. All I wanted was half the ivory.

But I had picked the wrong Dutchman. On our first night out, by a Masai munyata, he took a young girl and the warriors wanted to spear him there. I talked with the old men where they sat in their blankets in the dust, and I made them presents and I told them that the Dutchman had been drunk and this excuse they accepted and talked their elmorani out of killing. But to the Dutchman I said other things, and he took my anger badly, but I did not then realize how badly.

On the third day we struck fresh elephant spoor, their tracks and the tall cones of their droppings, and we followed this until dusk, and again the next morning, with the trail going across the bare Kidon valley. I looked into the ripple of the heat haze and could not see them. I knew they were making for the Seli lake and I knew we should find them there.

There was only one tree in the valley, one tree that you could call a tree, black and squat, and we camped beneath it for the night. My Dutchman had spoken little to me since we left the Masai munyata and as the lions began to cough beyond the rim of our fire I watched his face. He was listening for the lions and he was listening for them hard, hearing them before they roared, and when they did roar his lips twitched. I went to sleep and left him to his imagination while the lions chased the zebra in the dark.

I was awakened by the sound of rhino, the angry squeal of it and the roll of its hooves and I came out of my tent quickly with my gun, afraid, for the rhino, who needs glasses in the daylight has cat's eyes at night and loves to charge a camp.

I threw brushwood on the fire and as it flared up I saw the rhino draped in the Dutchman's tent as if it were a coat, snorting, plunging, stabbing with its three-foot horn. I aimed at it and paused, struck by the intriguing notion that as well as wearing the tent the rhino might well be wearing the Dutchman too.

Then he shouted at me from the tree above 'Shoot, damn you, shoot!'

The rhino now had his head free from the canvas and was standing there in the firelight, blowing through his nose and staring at me from behind his horn. So I fired both barrels of the Express and saw the dust come out of his hide. He went down on his knees, pushing up the earth with his jaw and died.

The Dutchman stayed in the tree and would not come down. I called for my boys and they came out of the darkness, looking at the rhino, looking at the tree and grinning. They told me; they said after I had gone to sleep the roaring of the lions had worried the Dutchman even more and he had gone from boy to boy telling them to go out and drive the lions away, until they left him in disgust and built another fire a hundred yards off". Left alone he had climbed the tree and watched the rhino come out of the brush.

It was first light and I told my cook-boy to make some coffee, and the smell of this brought the Dutchman down out of his tree, in a temper about the loss of his tent which he seemed to think was my fault.

I was sorry he was so afraid.

The morning brought us the sight of elephant, down the rise half a mile away, about fifty of them, like a group of black hillocks in the grass. I said I would go forward and the Dutchman should follow me at an interval.

The elephants were stretched along the bottom of a little rise and my gun-bearer and I worked round until we were facing them, and then we sat down in the grass to wait for the Dutchman. I saw him coming, about five hundred yards away, and I stood up and waved my hat to him, and perhaps he saw me and perhaps he didn't. But when he saw the elephant beyond us he opened fire.

His first and second bullets went over our heads and we lay down in the grass. The elephant shook their ears at the sound of the Dutchman's gun and went off, and with them went my chance of getting their ivory which, I told myself, was the only reason why I was tolerating this idiot. I stood up and waved again, and now he fired several shots. I called the boy and told him to creep up to the Dutchman, and if the bwana looked sane enough to understand, to acquaint him with the situation.

The Dutchman came up full of apologies. He said that he thought we were lions. He was very much afraid of lions, this Dutchman.

I gave him my -500 to carry and asked him to tread boldly in my footsteps, and we went after the herd again.

We got to within fifty yards of it, and it was led by a fine old tusker who was pushing the glory of his ivory before him. I fired with the Mannlicher and if I hit him it did him no harm, but the herd rippled and a young bull broke off from it and came at us, ears wide like a mainsail, trunk up, his triangle of a mouth red.

I turned to take the -500 from the Dutchman, but he had gone and so had the boys. I had time for one more shot with the Mannlicher and then threw myself on the ground. The thud of his charge jarred my chin, and I waited for him to trample me and it was as if I waited a year before I would take my face out of the dirt and lift it to see the motionless grass and the sky, lift it higher until I saw my bull about thirty yards away, standing still, square on his feet, tusks up, trunk curled, but wondering where I had got to. He was very close and I shot at his heart. He gave a forward plunge and swayed, but he did not go down. Then, sadly almost, he moved off into the grass.

My boys came up, and the Dutchman was behind them, staring at me as if he were surprised to find me still alive. I shared his surprise.

I didn't like the look of the grass, the black profile of the elephant's spine above it. We could hear him breathing as he fought the bullet inside him.

I climbed the lower branches of a mimosa to see him the better, and I disturbed some honey-bees and they spun around me, stinging me on the neck and face and arms. I swore at them and began to come down, and as I moved the young bull swerved out of the grass blowing delicate bubbles of blood. He saw me and charged. I fired. The recoil threw me from the branch and we came down to earth together, but he was dead.

The boys took an hour to draw out the stings, and it was kind of them to do that before they took the honey from the hive as their sweet share of the day's comedy. The Dutchman watched the stings being plucked out with that stare of impersonal curiosity you see on people's faces at a road accident. When the last sting was out he remarked that he had not yet shot his elephant. I told him to supervise the cutting-out of the tusks. I felt that this was about as close to shooting an elephant as he would ever get.

He hunted zebra the next day and made a great killing. The day following he spent drying their skins. On the third day I decided that we could do worse than go after lion. If he shot one he might be less embarrassed by their music at night.

We went over a swamp toward the hills. It was then, I believe, that the Dutchman discovered murder in his heart and was not shocked by the discovery.

He saw the lioness first and called to me. She was a tawny beauty, in silent lope, carrying a pig in her mouth, with her ears back. My Dutchman's shout alarmed her. She dropped the pig and went back on her haunches. And the pig, still alive with its back unbroken, twinkled off, running straight at us, through my legs and throwing me. As I fell I heard my Dutchman fire, and I rolled over to see the lioness going into the grass.

I found no blood-spoor but I felt charitable. He could have hit her. I was beating the grass to make sure when I heard him fire again, and I went over. He was sitting on his heel staring across the stream. He said he had shot the lioness, but when I went over I found a leopard, a fine male with a bullet through its chest. He deserved congratulations for that shot, even though he had mistaken a leopard for a lioness, and so I congratulated him and I told him I would go down and get the boys to bring the leopard in.

I had reached the thick reeds when his shot took my helmet from my head. It is never wise to become hysterical when this sort of thing happens, so I lay down to think about it. And having thought I became angry. I crawled on my knees and skirted the reeds until I had the Dutchman in view at close range. He was sitting there with his gun on his thighs staring at the spot where he had last seen me, and perhaps he was wonder-ing whether he had killed me. I fired two shots at him, close enough for him to feel them passing. He sat quite still. I put two more shots over his head and was pleased to hear him scream. He went on screaming until I walked out, carrying my helmet, with my forefinger through the hole he had put in it.

He sulked, and I had had enough of him and this elephant hunt which had turned out to be no elephant hunt at all.

I put some cartridges in my pocket and went to shoot the marabou storks that would be feeding on the maggots in the dead bull, and I was mad enough or bad-tempered enough to leave it too late to find my way back to the camp.

I decided to light a fire and stay there the night. I was the Great White Hunter, the Bwana Mkuba, but I had no matches in my pocket and no skill with fire-sticks. I had to go back. Or stay in the darkness, a free gift to any lion. So I walked and as I walked I knew there was very little chance of finding the camp. I walked on the ridges looking for the glow of the fire, and perhaps I would have seen it eventually, or perhaps I would not, but for the rhino.

One moment there was silence, just the rustle of my boots in the grass. The next moment the rhino was behind me, breathing like a shunting engine. I did not wait for him to scent me, I ran. Of all the points of the compass I could have chosen to run, the one I chose instinctively in my fear led me to the camp, with my boys leaping up as I came upon it, and shouting.

I went to bed without speaking to the Dutchman. For all I knew he might have been in another tree.

We went back to Londiani the next morning. I left the Dutchman without sorrow. He took up land in the Nandi country, and I heard the Nandi killed him. This could be so, for the endito of the Nandi are as beautiful as any Masai maiden.