Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 1/Snakes and their prey

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume I (1859)
Snakes and their prey: An African adventure.
by Arthur Clarence
4508734Once a Week, Series 1, Volume I — Snakes and their prey: An African adventure.
1859Arthur Clarence


I was out shooting, writes a gentleman, resident in the colony of Port Natal, to a friend in England, and observing an oreebec (a small red buck), I endeavoured to approach it near enough to secure a shot; and making a circuit I came up towards it, keeping a small hill between myself and the buck, until I thought I might venture to look out and see the whereabouts of my intended game. What was my surprise, when I found that the animal had not moved since I first saw it, and was then standing in a peculiar attitude, perfectly motionless, and not twenty yards from me. These little creatures have extraordinary sight, and are very timid, rendering it difficult to approach within a hundred yards, unless you surprise them while sleeping in long grass. I stood watching the buck for some time, at first supposing it to be sick. I then thought I would see how near I could get; and there being an ant-heap close beside the buck, I approached, and, on looking over the mound, saw the head of a large boa-constrictor lying just out of a hole under the heap; and the buck stood with its head turned on one side, in an awkward position gazing intently on its deadly enemy, and not in the least aware of my vicinity. I retreated cautiously, fearing to break the spell, and wishing to watch the last act in this singular mesmeric drama.

The buck must have remained at least five minutes in this transfixed position, the hair of its back erect, its eye dilated, and its attitude stiff and unnatural. Suddenly I saw it on the ground, the thick black coils of the boa enfolding its body and legs. I fired instantly, and the reptile slowly unwound himself, compelled to succumb to a power more terrible than his own. My gun has one barrel rifled, the other a smooth bore for shot. I had discharged shot only, not being far off, and the body of the snake was nearly severed; yet in the short instant during which he had embraced his prey he had broken every bone of the pretty creature’s body. I measured the snake, and found its length to be eighteen feet nine inches.

The eye of the boa is very peculiar while mesmerising its prey; it almost appears to emit flame. It may be compared to an amethyst or a ruby, or both, with an emerald stuck together, and rapidly revolving in the sun.

Its mouth was closed, or nearly so, and its long tongue darting from side to side, as if in greedy anticipation of the dish of venison which awaited its devouring jaws.

On another occasion I watched a smaller boa, about eight feet long, whilst engaged in the act of swallowing a fowl. It first seized the head, and appeared to swallow with great difficulty, making convulsive efforts, observable from the rings of its tail upwards. After some hard struggles, the head and neck of the fowl disappeared, but the wings being extended, presented rather a serious impediment to further proceedings; and I was curious to see how the snake would get over his difficulties,—for even a juggler would be nonplussed if required to swallow knives and forks crossways,—and I soon found that he was quite equal to the emergency. After a series of painful efforts, tantalising, doubtless, to a hungry boa, the reptile brought his tail to the rescue: extremes met, and, folding the wings together, he at last forced the body of the fowl between his jaws. He now, however, seemed to have got himself in a greater fix than ever. The distension caused his neck to appear only as thick as my thumb, and from the form and setting of his teeth he could not disgorge his Brobdingnag mouthful, and I began to think that his snakeship had really rather more than he knew what to do with.

Not a bit of it. After resting a minute or two, he coiled round his distended jaws, and commenced an ingenious process of compression, beginning at his head and working downwards along the neck and body,—stuffing himself as you would a sausage,—till he had completed this extraordinary manœuvre of deglutition. The whole operation lasted about twenty minutes, and, I must confess, seemed anything but a gratifying mode of appeasing the animal appetite.

I captured this boa, and kept him some time in a cask, and ultimately gave him to a friend who was proceeding to Cape Town.

The skin of the boa, and that also of the inguano (a large water lizard), make beautiful, soft, and very durable slippers. I will send you the next I get.

Peter’s Maritzburg, Port Natal.
Arthur Clarence.