Gateway to the Classics: The Country of the Dwarfs by Paul du Chaillu
The Country of the Dwarfs by  Paul du Chaillu

Hunting for the Ipi

Hunting for the ipi.—Camping out in the woods.—Capture of an ipi.—Description of the animal.—A new species of ant-eater.

We left the plantation at daybreak. Mayombo, the head slave, was the leader, and some of his children were with us. We all had guns; the boys carried, besides, two axes. In a little while we were in the forest. It was an awful day's hunt, and the first time since my return that I had to rough it in such a manner. We wandered over hills and dales, through the woods and the streams, now and then crossing a bog, leaving the hunting-paths, struggling for hours through the tangled maze and tough patches of the wild pine-apple, which tore my clothes to rags and covered my poor body with scratches. The thorns and cutting edges of sword-like grass which grew in many places, and the sharp points of the pine-apple leaves, were not very pleasant things to get among. It was like the good old tine, but I did not fancy the good old time. I was not yet inured to such tramps; I had forgot all about them, but I knew that it was nothing but child's play when compared with the hardships I had suffered in my former explorations, or with what I expected to undergo in the future. I knew that I was hardening myself for what was coming by-and-by, and that it was necessary that I should go through such a schooling before starting for that long Nile journey from which I knew not if I should ever come back. I must get accustomed to sickness, to hunger, to privations all kinds, to forced marches; I must be afraid of nothing and trust in God for the result.

The end of the day was approaching; the birds gave forth their last songs, calling their mates, so that they might not be far apart for the night; the butterflies had ceased to fly, and were hiding themselves under the large leaves to keep away from the rains.

We had not been successful, but did not despair. We were to sleep in the woods, for the plantation was too far away. Oh, I was so tired. Mayombo immediately went off to cut some poles to support the large leaves which were to protect us from the rains, while his two sons collected as fast as they could the leaves, and I looked after firewood. I soon came to a spot where the dead branches lay thick on the ground, and I shouted, "Come here, boys!" A little after sunset our camp was built and our fires were lighted; then the boys pulled from their bags several plantains and a little parcel of dried fish packed in leaves. Not far from our camp a little rivulet ran meandering toward the sea; its water was clear and cool, so we had chosen a nice spot for the bivouac; but fires were to be kept burning brightly all night, "for," said Mayombo, "leopards are very plentiful here; we can not keep our goats; and two men have been missing within a month." After that exhortation, Mayombo, who was a great smoker, filled his pipe and lay down by the fire. In the mean time my supper had been cooked, but I was too tired to enjoy it, and I was too tired even to sleep.

The next evening we returned to the plantation, where all were glad to see us. After, a day of rest we started again, for Mayombo swore that I should not rest till I had an ipi. We went in another direction, and Mayombo again took his two sons with him. Toward noon Mayombo gave a cluck, and pointed out to me a dead tree lying on the ground, and a strange-looking track leading up to it, and whispered into my ears the word "Ipi!"

That dead tree had been lying there, I suppose, for hundreds of years; nothing remained of it but the trunk, which was hollow throughout, and looked like a tube fifty or sixty feet long.

I examined the ground carefully at one end of the trunk, and saw no footprint there, so the animal had not gone out; at the other end the tracks were fresh, and it was evident that the animal had hidden inside the night before. I said to Mayombo. "Perhaps the ipi has gone away." "Oh no," said he "don't you see there is only one track? Besides, it could not turn on itself, and, in order to get out, it has to go straight on to the other end."

Immediately he took the axe and cut down some branches of a tree of which he made a trap to catch the animal if it should come out. The branch was put firmly in the ground, and the top was bent over with a creeper attached to it, at the end of which was a ring, through which the animal would have to pass before he could get out; a little forked stick held the ring, which the animal would shake as it passed through; the limb Would fly up instantly, and high in the, air would the ipi dangle.


Capture of the Ipi.

When all this had been done, Mayombo, who had collected wood at the other end, set fire to it, to smoke the animal out. He was not mistaken; the ipi was inside, and it made for the opposite extremity and was caught. There was a short struggle, but we ran up and ended it by knocking the ipi with all our might on the head.

I saw at once that the ipi belonged to the pangolin genus (Manis  of the zoologists), which is a very singular kind of animal. They are ant-eaters, like the Myrmecophaga of South America; but, while the South American ant-eater is covered with hair like other mammalia, the pangolins have an armor of large scales implanted in the of the upper surface of the body, from the head to tip of the tail, each scale overlapping the other like slates on the roof of a house.

Like the ant-eater of South America, the pangolins have no teeth, but they have a long extensile tongue, the extremity of which is covered with a glutinous secretion so sticky that their prey, after having been touched, adheres to the tongue and can not get away. The tongue of an ipi may be extended out several inches. The ipi feeds on ants.

During the day the ipi hides itself in its burrow in the earth, or sometimes in the large hollows of colossal trunks of trees which have fallen to the ground, like the tree just described to you; but they generally prefer to borrow in the soil, and these burrows are usually found in light soil on the slope of a hill. By the singular structure of the ipi, it can not turn to the right or to the left at once; in fact, it is quite incapable of bending its body sideways, so it can not "right about face" in its burrow. Accordingly, there are two holes in each burrow, one for entrance and one for exit.

But if the ipi and the pangolin can not bend their bodies sideways, they are very flexible vertically, their stomachs having no scales; so, if they are surprised or want to sleep, they roll themselves in a ball, the head being inside and forming the centre, and they coil and uncoil themselves in this manner very readily.

The only way you can find the ipi or the pangolin is by the trail they leave on the soil, and following them till you reach their burrows.

The great trouble in finding the ipi is not only that the animal is very scarce, but that it never comes out except at night, when the rattle it makes among the dead leaves is great. The strange creature must see well with its queer little eyes to be able to perceive the ants upon which it mostly feeds, and it must take time in satisfying its appetite, for a great many little ants must be required to fill its stomach. When the ipi has found a spot where the ants it wants to eat are plentiful, it stops by them, and with its long tongue, which protrudes several inches, catches them one by one. When an ant is caught the tongue goes in again. I wonder how many hundreds of times the tongue must come out and go in with an ant before the hunger of the ipi is satisfied!

I was not mistaken; this ipi was a new species, and the scientific name is Pholidotus Africanus. This large one was a female, and measured four feet six inches from the head to the tip of the tail. It was very stout and heavy, the tail very short in comparison with its body, and the scales very thick, and of a yellow or tawny color. The males are said to be much larger, and, according to what the negroes say, must reach the length of six feet They are very ugly to look at. Their tail, being very thick, makes a large trail on the ground as they move about.

Though in some respects they may be thought to resemble the lizard, the pangolins have warm blood, and nourish their young like the rest of the mammalia.

I need not tell you that I was glad to discover this new species. After securing the ipi we returned at once to the plantation, and as soon as I arrived I went to work and took off its skin, and hard work it was, I assure you, the scales were so thick and big.

When we came into the village with the ipi there was great excitement, for the animal is so rare that but two or three persons there had ever seen a specimen.

I went to bed happy, feeling that I had had the good fortune of discovering a new and most remarkable animal, which God had long ago created, but which had never before been seen by the white man.

Of course I had a curiosity to see how the ipi tasted, and I had some for breakfast the next morning, and it was good, but not fat, though the natives said that at certain seasons they are very fat.

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