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Under the Sun/The Elephants’ Fellow-Countrymen

IV.

THE ELEPHANT’S FELLOW-COUNTRYMEN.

The Rhinoceros a Victim of Ill-Natured Personality. — In the Glacial Period. — The Hippopotamus. — Popular Sympathy with it. — Behemoth a Useless Person. — Extinct Monsters and the World they Lived in. — The Impossible Giraffe. — Its Intelligent use of its Head as a Hammer. — The Advantages and Disadvantages of so much Neck. — Its High Living. — The Zebra. — Nature’s Parsimony in the matter of Paint on the Skins of Animals. — Some Suggestions towards more Gayety.

ELEPHANTS, there is no doubt, are favorites with the public, and they merit their popularity. It is difficult, perhaps, to say as much for their cousins, the rhinoceroses. For some reason or another, the public resent the personal appearance of these animals, and no one compliments them. Straightforward opprobrium is bad enough, no doubt, but depreciatory innuendo is still harder to bear, just as the old writer tells us, in the matter of the patient patriarch, that “the oblique expostulations of his friends were a deeper injury to Job than the downright blows of the Devil.”

A rhinoceros, therefore, when he stands at the bars with his mouth open in expectation of the donation which is seldom thrown in, hears much that must embitter his hours of solitary reflection. The remarks of visitors are never relieved by any reference to his sagacity or docility, as in the case of the elephant; nor does any appreciation of usefulness to man temper the severity of their judgments upon him. That he is very ugly and looks very wicked is the burden of all criticism, and it is a wonder that under such perpetual provocation to do so he does not grow uglier and look wickeder than he is. No ordinary man could go on being called “a hideous brute” for any great number of years without assuming a truculent and unlovable aspect; and it would not, therefore, be much matter for surprise if the rhinoceros, although such conduct were altogether foreign to his character and even distasteful to his feelings, should develop a taste for human flesh.

As it is, he munches hay — not with any enthusiasm, it is true, but with a subdued satisfaction that bespeaks a philosophic and contented mind.

In the wild state, whether he be the African species or the Asiatic, the rhinoceros is a lazy, quiet-loving beast, passing his days in slumber in some secluded swamp of reed-bed, and coming out at night to browse along the wild pastures that offer themselves on forest edges or the water-side. In his caged condition his life is simply reversed, for his days are spent under the public eye, in wakefulness and mental irritation, while his nights are given unnaturally to repose and solitude. There are no succulent expanses of grass and river herbage to tempt him abroad with his fellows, as in the nights of liberty in Nubia or Assam; and let the moonlight be ever so bright he cannot now, as once, saunter away for miles along the lush banks of some Javan stream, or loiter feeding among the squashy brakes of the Nile. But captivity, if it robs him of freedom, injures the rhinoceros less than most of the beasts of the field, for he was never given to much exercise, and his life was an indolent one. Now and again, it is true, the hunters found him out, and awakened him to an unusual vivacity, and on such occasions he developed a nimbleness of limb and ferocity of temper that might hardly have been expected of so bulky and retiring an individual. Sometimes also he crossed the elephant on his jungle path, and in a sudden rush upon his noble kinsman vindicated his right of way, and expended all the stored-up energy of many months of luxurious idleness. But such sensations were few and far between. As a rule, his company were diminutive and deferential — wading birds of cautious habits, and the deliberative pelicans, wild pigs, and creatures of the ichneumon kind. The great carnivora never troubled their heads about such a preposterous victim, and the nations of the deer kind, couching by day in the forest depths and feeding by night in the open plain, saw nothing of the bulky rhinoceros. He lived therefore in virtual solitude, — for water-fowl and weasels were hardly worth calling companions, — and was indeed so vigilant in guarding his concealment that he remained a secret for ages.

The rhinoceros, therefore, figures nowhere in folk-lore, and neither fairy tale nor fable has anything to tell us of it. Art owes little to it, and commerce nothing. It points no moral and adorns no tale. Unassisted by associations, and possessing neither a literature nor a place in the fauna of fancy the monstrous thing relies for sympathy and regard simply upon its merits, and these have sadly failed to ingratiate it.

With the hippopotamus the case is somewhat different, for the apparently defenceless nature of the river-horse enlists public sympathy on his behalf, while the very absurdity of his appearance disarms ill-natured criticism. The horn of the rhinoceros is its ruin, for the popular esteem will never be extended to a creature that carries about on the tip of his nose such a formidable implement of offence. The hippopotamus, fortunately for itself, is unarmed, so that a certain compassionate regard is not considered out of place. Its skin, though ludicrous, looks smooth and tight, suggesting vulnerability, or even a tendency to burst on any occasion of violent impact with a foreign body, while the rhinoceros wears an ill-fitting suit of impenetrable leather, which hangs so easily upon its limbs as to lead the spectators to suppose the brute had deliberately put it on as a kind of overcoat for defence against any possible assailants. Thus prepared for emergencies, it carries its bulk about with a self-reliant demeanor that, taken in conjunction with the aggressive tone in which it grunts, alienates all tenderness of feeling, and makes sentiment impossible.

The hippopotamus, on the other hand, seems to have had all its arrangements made for it without being consulted beforehand, and to submit to the personal inconveniences that result with a mild and deprecatory manner that commends it to sympathetic consideration. Had proofs of its own future appearance been sent in to the hippopotamus to revise, it might have suggested several useful alterations, — a greater length of leg in order to keep its stomach off the ground, and a head on such a reasonably reduced scale that it could hold it up.

As matters stand. Behemoth lives under considerable disadvantages. It is true that he is amphibious, and that when tired of dragging his bulky person about on the land he can roll into the water and float there. But this dual existence hardly makes amends for the discomforts of such a bladder-like body. The world, however, owes both the hippopotamus and the rhinoceros a grudge, inasmuch as neither contributes to human welfare. That their hides make good leather is no adequate justification for such huge entities, and the fact of their teeth and horns being useful for paper-knives and walking-sticks hardly authorizes two prodigious creatures to occupy so much terrestrial space. It is centuries ago since the elephant made good its claim to be considered a friend and benefactor of the human race, but neither of its great companions has ever bestirred itself in the service of men. Their day, perhaps, is coming.

Immense tracts of country are being now opened up in Africa to the world’s industries, and the highways of future commerce lie right through the homes of the rhinoceros and hippopotamus. How startling will be the effect upon the wild creatures of the forests and the rivers! Long-established nations of monkeys and baboons will be driven by the busy axe from the shades they have haunted for generations, and as, league after league, the creepers and undergrowth are cleared away, multitudes of animal life will have notice to quit. Progress will order them to move on, and so by their families and parishes they will have to go, — the sulky leopard-folk and solemn lemurs, troops of squirrel and wild-cat, and the weasels by their tribes. Diligent men will mow down the cane-beds that have housed centuries of crocodiles, and the exquisite islands will be cleared of jungle that human beings may take possession of the ancestral domains of the lizard kinds. Wildernesses of snakes will have to go, and out of the giant reeds flocks of great water-fowl will rush startled from their hiding-places. Advancing to where the older timber grows and the nobler plains are spread, the colonist will disturb the bulky rhinoceros and the lordly elephant; and in the creeks of river and lake that will come under man’s dominion the hippopotamus will find its right of place challenged. The time, therefore, it may be, is not far distant when the present waste of traction power will cease, and the two monsters, hitherto useless, be trained to drag our caravans across the plains and our barges down the rivers of the Dark Continent.

From my speaking of the elephant as a Mammoth, of the rhinoceros as a Titan, and the hippopotamus as Behemoth, you might fairly charge me, reader, with having forgotten that these animals, big as we think them, are really after all only the pygmies of their species. But I had not really forgotten it, for before me lies a paragraph announcing the discovery, in Siberia, of one of those colossal animals, which nature is very fond of dropping in, in a casual way, every now and then, just to keep our pride down and to remind us, the creatures of a degenerate growth, what winter meant in the years gone by and what kind of person an inhabitant of the earth then was.

He had to be very big indeed, very strong, and very warmly clad, to be called “the fittest” in the Glacial Period, and to survive the fierce assaults of the Palaeolithic cold. This rhinoceros, therefore, exceeds by some cubits the stature of the modern beast, and is also by some tons heavier.

It appears that an affluent of the Tana River was making alterations in its course, and in so doing cut away its banks, revealing the embedded presence of a truly Titanic pachyderm, which, for want of a fitter name, has been temporarily called a rhinoceros. But it is such a creature that if it were to show itself now in the swamps of Assam or on the plains of Central Africa, it would terrify off its path all the species of the present day, whether one-horned or two-horned, and make no more of an obstinate elephant than an avalanche does of a goatherd’s hut that happens to stand in the line of its advance. Its foot, if set down upon one of the rhinoceroses of modern times, would have flattened it as smooth as the philosopher’s tub rolled out those naughty boys of Corinth, who had ventured to tickle the cynic through the bunghole with a straw. Besides its size, the huge monster in question asserts its superiority over existing species by being clothed in long hair, a fleece to guard it against the climate in which it lived, and from which even the tremendous panoply of the nineteenth-century rhinoceros could not sufficiently protect the wearer. Thus clad in a woolly hide and colossal in physique, the Siberian mammal not only lived, but lived happily, amid snowy glaciers that would have frozen the polar bear and made icicles of Arctic foxes.

Perhaps even man himself did not exist in the rhinoceros’s day; at any rate, if he did, he had the decency to secrete himself in holes and burrows, and when the mammoths came along the road to get out of their way. He was a feeble creature at first, and his best accomplishments were those that taught him how to escape his many foes, for our ancestors had but little time for the cultivation of other arts and sciences when the best part of their days and nights had to be spent in scrambling up trees out of the reach of prowling carnivora, and running away from ill-tempered things of the rhinoceros and elephant kind. Gradually, however, he began to defend himself, and from defence he rose at last to the dignity of offence. Armed only with flint-stones, he had the audacity, this progenitor of ours, to attack the bulky pachyderms; and, if the testimony of the crags and clay may be believed, he actually overcame the Goliaths of the forest with his pebbles. Were it not, indeed, for these relics of the age of flint weapons, it might be doubted whether man was ever contemporary in Britain with the mammoth; but as matters stand, there is every reason for supposing that he was. Whether this juxtaposition of human implements and animal skeletons means that our ancestors slew the beast or that the beast ate our ancestors, it is impossible to say. Probably they both gave and took.

It was an age of silence and twilight and snow; an epoch of monsters.

In Australia a huge marsupial, with the head of an ox, and compared to which our kangaroo is only a great rat, straddled and hopped about as it pleased, in the company of wombats as big as bears; and in America the megatherian sloth crept browsing among the forests of the primeval continent, like some bulky thing of Dreamland, voiceless, solitary, and slow-footed; while the glyptodon — the wondrous armadillo of the past, that could have driven its way through a street of houses as easily as the mole tunnels through the furrows of a field — wandered with the same strange loitering pace along the river banks. In those days there was no need for the beasts to hurry, for life was long and there was nothing to harm them; so they crawled about on land and waded in the water as lazily as they pleased. It is true that the extinct kangaroo, as big as a hippopotamus in the body, had an enemy in the pouched lion; but there were twenty kinds of lesser kangaroos which the carnivorous beast could attack first; so the largest lived on in peace and flourished, growing more and more huge, until at last Man appeared in a spectral sort of way upon the scene, and annihilated the genus. For reptiles, our own colonies in Africa supply individuals worthy in every way to have been the contemporaries of these giants. Huge herbivorous dragons — two-tusked reptiles with the skulls of crocodiles — grazed along the rich pastures of the antediluvian Africa; and iguanadons, prodigious creatures of the lizard kind, with large, flattened, crushing teeth covering the palate above like a paving-stone, and working upon a corresponding breadth of surface in the lower jaw.

For birds, again, we need go no farther — for we should certainly fare no better — than our own colony of New Zealand, which monopolizes the wonders of the bird paradise, where a score of gigantic feathered things, as big as camels, had the islands all to themselves, feeding to their hearts’ content on the nutritious fern-roots. The nurseries of the dinornis and the moa had, however, their bogey in the terrible harpagornis, a bird of prey far larger than the condor or the lammergeyer, and sufficient in itself to justify the old-world traditions of the roc, the sirmurg, and the other gigantic fowls of story. But the adult birds had no cause for fear even from such an eagle as this; and so the geese grew so big that they could not fly and gradually dispensed with wings, and the coots became so prodigious that they, too, gave up flying as a troublesome and unnecessary method of locomotion; and everything at last came to waddling about together, too fat to go fast, and so secure from harm that they had no cause for haste.

It was a grand world in one sense, but a stupid, useless world in other respects. The leviathans and the behemoths of the time — creatures of unlimited space and time and food — prowled about, without any horizon to their migrations, cropping the herbage as they went and dying where they happened to be standing last. They would not even take the trouble to settle for posterity the question as to the exact limits of their habitation, but dropped their preposterous bones into snowdrifts, which melted and swept them off to distant sea-beds, or into rivers which tumbled their venerable remains along from the centres of continents to their shores, or left them stranded, with all sorts of incongruous anachronisms, to puzzle the ages to came.

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For ever so many centuries nobody with any pretensions to intelligence would believe that such a creature as the giraffe existed. It was its neck that did it, and a man who persisted in believing in that part of its body might have been sent to the stake for it. It was in vain that travellers tried to convince Europe that they had seen such an animal with their own eyes, for as soon as they came to the neck part of their description they were put out of court at once. Yet it was a case of “neck or nothing,” and, as our forefathers would not have the neck at any price, they had nothing.

The idea of a zebra was difficult enough for them to entertain, but of a zebra gone to seed, in such a way as these travellers described the giraffe, appeared preposterous and impossible; so they said. Yet in earlier days the giraffe was known to Europe, for Imperial, wild-beast-killing Rome had not only known the camel-leopard, but had been much amused by it, for the giraffe has a method of fighting which is entirely original, and is a very pleasing illustration of the instinct which teaches wild animals to make the most of nature’s gifts. The giraffe has neither claws nor tusks nor beak nor sting nor poison-fangs nor sharp teeth, nor yet hobnailed boots; so when it is out of temper with one of its own kind it does not fly in the face of Providence by trying to scratch its antagonist’s bowels out, as a tiger might, or toss it like a rhinoceros, or peck its eyes out like a vulture, or sting it like a scorpion, or strike it like a cobra, or fly at its throat like a wolf, or jump on it as the costermonger does. The sagacious animal is conscious how foolish and futile such conduct on its part would be. On the contrary, the giraffe, remarking that it has been provided by nature with a long and pliable neck, terminating in a very solid head, uses the upper half of itself like a flail, and, swinging its neck round and round in a way that does immense credit to its organization, brings its head down at each swing with a thump on its adversary The other combatant is equally sagacious, and adopts precisely the same tactics; and the two animals, planting themselves as firmly as possible by stretching out all four legs to the utmost, stand opposite each other hammering with their heads, till one or the other either splits its skull or bolts.

Their heads are furnished with two stumpy horn-like processes, so that the giraffes, when busy at this hammer and tongs, remind the spectators somewhat of two ancient warriors thumping each other with the spiked balls they used to carry for that purpose at the end of a chain. It is possible that the knowledge of this fact about giraffes would have gone far towards convincing our obstinate forefathers and foremothers of the creature’s actual existence, and it is impossible, therefore, to deplore too sincerely the lamentable ignorance of natural history which deprived preceding generations of the enjoyment of this animal. To the Romans so eccentric a procedure in combat greatly endeared the giraffe; and it is within the limits of reasonable expectation to believe that our ancestors of the Dark Ages would similarly have appreciated it had they allowed themselves to be so far convinced of its entity as to get one caught.

For the giraffe is distinctly an enjoyment. It is a pity, perhaps, that it has not got wings; but we must accept things as we find them, and, taken all round, there is no doubt that the camelopard is a comfort and a pleasure. It gives us hopes of further eccentricities, and contracts the limits of the marvellous. It is about the best instalment of the impossible that has been vouchsafed us.

The hippopotamus is a great prodigy in its way, and the kangaroo is out of the common. But they are neither of them of the same class as this sky-raking animal, that passes all its life, so to speak, looking out of a fourth-story window. Think of the places it could live in! A steeple would be as comfortable as possible for it, or its body might be put into a back kitchen and its head up the chimney. The cowl at the top outside would keep the rain off its head, and, as the wind blew it round and round, the giraffe, from its sweep’s eminence, would be gratified by a gyroscopic view of the surrounding country. It is the only animal that lives on the earth and never thinks about the ground it walks on.

It takes terra firma as a matter of course, and does not even trouble itself to find out where the trees grow from. It browses on the tops of them without troubling itself to wonder how leaves got so high up in the air; and while other animals are snuffing about on the earth, and blowing up the dust to their own inconvenience, the giraffe reconnoitres the ceilings, and knows all about the beams. The hippopotamus in the next house would never even surmise that there was such a thing as a roof over him unless it were to fall on his head, but he thoroughly understands the bricks and flagstones with which his apartments are paved; but with the giraffe it is just the reverse. Spiders, as a rule, build their cobwebs in the cornices, in order to be out of harm’s way; but in the giraffes’ house, if they do not wish to be perpetually molested by sniffing, they have to build in the angles of the floor; and, in the countries where giraffes are common, we may similarly presume that little birds never sit and sing on the tops of bushes, but always about the roots, or else the giraffes might accidentally nibble them off the twigs. Sometimes, it is true, the giraffe stoops to mammalian levels; but there is something so lofty even in its condescension that the very act of bending enhances the haughtiness of its erect posture, and suggests that it does it from policy. To be always keeping state, and forever in the clouds, might make shorter animals accuse it of acting superciliously; so, remembering’ Bacon’s maxim, that “amongst a man’s inferiors one shall be sure of reverence, and therefore it is good a little to be familiar,” it affably condescends at intervals. Its usual gestures are all cast in Alexandrines, and so, like the poets, it breaks a line every now and then to relieve the over-stateliness of the measure.

It is difficult to believe that the giraffe finds much fun in life; for, after all, most of the fun of the animal world goes on upon the ground. Of course, if the giraffe thinks itself a bird, it may be contented enough all by itself in the air, but its aspect is one of subdued melancholy, such as appertains to all anomalous positions, whether those of queen-dowagers or dodos. The dodo, for instance, left all by itself as the last of its race (like Kingsley’s poor old gairfowl on the All Alone Stone), must have had many sad moments. It was prevented, on the one hand, by the demise of all its kindred, from enjoying the society of its own species, and, on the other, by the dignity of being-about-to-become-extinct, from mingling in the social life of more modern fowls. The giraffe, in the same way, moves about with a high-bred, languid grace that has more than a suspicion of weariness about it.

Yet, taken all for all, it has not been hardly treated by nature. If its neck had been telescopic, like a turtle’s, it would, indeed, have been unduly favored, but as it is it comes off impartially. Its long neck must necessarily betray it to its enemies, for no lion worth its salt could help seeing a giraffe as it lounged about, browsing in the middle of the sky, with its upper-t’gallant-stunsails set; but then again the giraffe, from such an elevated lookout, should be able to descry the prowling beast of prey at a greater distance. Its length of neck, again, so medical science assures us, secures it from all danger of apoplexy; but on the other hand, it is terrible to think what a giraffe’s sore throat would be like. Imagine seven feet of sore throat! Again, the camelopard carries no water-butts inside it, as the camels do, although it lives in the plains of Africa, where water often fails; but in recompense it has a tongue about two feet long — no small comfort to it when thirsty — and eyes that project after the manner of a shrimp, so that, if it likes, it can look behind it and in front at the same time. Thus, counterbalancing defect and advantage, we find the giraffe very fairly off, while in the conditions of its wild life there is much to rank it among the happier of the beasts.

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Next door, so to speak, to the giraffes are the zebras, and, passing from one to the other, the thought occurs how pleasantly art might be made to supplement nature in the coloring of animals, or how agreeable it would have been if in the first instance Nature herself had painted a few more of the larger animals as she has decorated these two comrades of the African wilderness.

In the bird world, color has been lavished prodigally, and among insects we find hues of every tone and brilliance. The wicked caterpillar, for instance, is defended, from those who would take away his ill-spent life, by shades of green and brown that harmonize with the vegetables he ravages; and why was the same considerate anxiety for its welfare not extended to the gentle hippopotamus?

A pea-green river-horse, browsing among the reed-beds of Old Nile, would have added a charm to the scene; and Stanley would hardly have been so angry with the behemoths of Victoria Nyanza if he had found them floating among the lotus-pads, painted in imitation of water-lilies. The rhinoceros, again, is a hideous object, from its vast expanse of mud-colored skin; yet what a surface he presents for a noble study in browns!

What fine effects of shade might not be obtained among those corrugated folds of hide; or let us for a moment consider what he would look like burnished! Nature has not stinted metallic tints in bird, or insect, or fish, or reptile; and yet in the mammals, where such magnificent results might have been attained, she withheld her hand. It is difficult, indeed, in these degenerate days to imagine such a superb spectacle as a herd of brazen elephants crashing their way through a primeval forest; or rhinoceroses, glittering like the dome of the Boston State House, wandering among the ruins of old Memphis; or hippopotamuses of mother-o’-pearl, sporting on the bosom of Old Nile with electro-plated crocodiles!

The carnivora advantage by the accident of their painted skins; but the zebra and the giraffe need no excusings for crime, for they commit none. They are innocent and beautiful at one and the same time. The hippopotamus, poor monster! is only innocent, and the rhinoceros is neither, and each, therefore, receives from the public its proportion of depreciative comment; the former being patronized for its helplessness, and bantered on its personal appearance; the latter being rudely spoken of, not only for the ugliness of its looks, but the wickedness of them, the malicious twinkle in its little eyes, and that offensive horn at the tip of its nose, which Pliny tells us he always sharpens upon an agate before attacking the elephant.

Now, if all were impartially adorned in colors, all would share more largely in public sympathy; for just as no one now would think of shooting the gold and silver pheasants, no one then would think of prodding a golden rhinoceros with his umbrella, or betraying the confidence of a silver hippopotamus with empty paper-bags or the innutritions pebble.