The terrible bashikouay.—March of an ant army.—They build bridges.—They enter houses.—Their habits.
One day I was plodding along in the vast forest in search of game, and was suddenly startled by a strange noise falling upon my ears. I heard the footsteps of wild beasts running away. I thought even that I saw the glimpse of a gorilla; I certainly heard distinctly the footsteps of an elephant soon after. At last I heard at a great distance a mighty crash as if elephants were running at great speed through the forest, breaking every thing before them.
What can all this mean? I asked myself; and I knew not why, but a vague feeling of awe began to creep over me. I knew that something strange must have happened or was coming. Were we going to have an earthquake? It could not be a tornado, for we were in the beginning of the dry season.
Finally the insects which had begun to fly at the beginning of this tumult now grew thicker and thicker, when suddenly I was annoyed, by fearful bites, and in less time than I have taken to write I was covered by a kind of ants called by the Bakalais Bashikouay. I leaped and fled with the utmost haste in the same direction the insects and beasts had taken. An army of bashikouay ants was advancing, and devouring every living thing in its way. I was almost crazy, for they were in my clothes and on my body, and often when they gave a bite a little piece of flesh would come out.
When I thought I was out of reach I immediately took off my clothes. They had, in their fury, literally buried themselves in these, and their pincers were deep into them; and like the fierce bull-dog of our own country, when once they bite they never let go their hold; and many and many a time their bodies were severed from their head as I pulled them out; their pincers clung still to my flesh.
I defy any living man to stand quiet before an army of bashikouay; he would certainly be killed and devoured. This was incontestably the largest army of bashikouay I have ever seen, and how it swept over the forest, driving every thing before it!
These little ants are more powerful when combined in such an army than any living thing in the forest. All other animals things are put to flight before their march. It is only in the interior that one can have an idea of their number.
I dressed myself again, and began to breathe freely, when lo! these bashikouay were again coming in my direction. So I fled, striking for a path that led to a stream, and at last reached the wet and swampy grounds, which I knew they would not care to approach if they continued to spread and advance in the direction I had taken.
How many and how many times I have been disturbed by these ants in the forests of Africa!
Of all the ants which inhabit the regions I have explored, the most dreaded of all is the bashikouay; it is very abundant, and is the most voracious creature I have ever met. It is the dread of all living animals, from the elephant and the leopard down to the smallest insect.
At the end of this chapter is the drawing of an ordinary bashikouay, taken by the artist from one of the four I had with me.
No wonder that the animal and insect world flies before them! And now I am going to say a good deal of what I know about them; if I should tell you all, the account would appear so incredible that perhaps you would say it must be untrue; but I write this book to instruct you, and to show you that the ways of Nature are wonderful.
These bashikouay, so far as I have been able to observe, do not build a nest or house of any kind; they wander throughout the year, and seem never to have any rest. They are on the march day and night. I never saw them carry any thing away; they devour every thing on the spot.
It is their habit to march through the forests in a long regular line, just as soldiers would do, and with quite as much order and regularity. The line is about two inches broad, and must be often several miles in length. All along this line are larger ants, who act as officers, standing outside the ranks, and keeping this singular army in order. These officers stand generally with their heads facing their subordinates. They remain thus until their squads have passed, and then join them, while others take their place.
The number of a large army is so great that I should not even dare to enter into a calculation. I have seen one continual line passing at good speed a particular place for twelve hours. It was sunrise when I saw them, and it was only a little before sunset that their numbers began to diminish. An hour before the end of the column came, it was not so compact, and I could see that these were the stragglers; and many of these stragglers also seemed to be of a smaller size: they were evidently tired. When I saw them in the morning l did not know how long since this vast army of bashikouay had begun their march. This was the largest column I ever saw. You may imagine how many millions on millions there must have been included in this column. I have seen much smaller columns on the march, but it generally required several hours for them to pass.
Strange as it may seem, these ants can not bear the heat of the sun, hence they could not be found in a country where the forests are scarce. If they come to a place where there are no trees to shelter them from the sun, they immediately build underground tunnels, through which the whole army passes in column to the forest beyond. These tunnels are four or five feet underground, and are only used during the heat of the day. I have noticed that these open spaces are often passed by them during the night to the forest beyond.
I suppose that these underground tunnels must be numerous; I do not see how otherwise the ants could protect themselves against the heavy rains. I have never seen them lying drowned on the ground after a storm. Hence they must know, when a storm is coming, how to disappear; and generally after a heavy rain these armies are more numerous in the forest, for they probably come in quest of food, of which they have been deprived during their subterranean marches. They always attack with a fury which passes description. Where the soil is sandy, no bashikouay can be found.
When they get hungry the long file spreads and scatters itself through the forest in a front line: how the order reaches from one extremity of the line to the other almost at the same time I can not tell. Then they attack and devour all that comes within their reach with a fury and voracity which is quite astonishing. As I have said, the elephant and gorilla fly before this attack; the leopard disappears from his den; the black men run away for their lives; for who would dare to stand still before such an army? In a very short time any adversary would be overpowered, and I am sure that in about two or three hours nothing would be left of the opposition. Antelopes which I have killed have been stripped of every bit of flesh in that time. At times, when they have spread themselves, they do not advance with rapidity, but seem to go in a rambling sort of a way.
It is said that now and then a man is put to death in the following manner. He is tied to a tree which is in the path of this bashikouay army. What a terrible death it must be!
March of bashikouay ants.
Every animal that lives on the line of march where they have spread is pursued, and, though instinct seems to indicate the forthcoming danger, many are caught. In an incredibly short space of time the mouse; the insect, and many small animals are overwhelmed, killed, eaten, and their bare skeletons only remain. If they ever get into a fowl-house, it is all over with the fowls. The insects seem to be the greatest sufferers. The ants seem to understand and act upon the tactics of Napoleon, and concentrate with great speed their heaviest forces upon the point of attack. They must certainly understand each other; but how, we shall never be able to know. Surely there must be commanders for these vast hordes of soldier ants, for when in a line on the march not one will leave the ranks, even though the insects, which they would devour in an instant when spread for a raid, are close by. It is but seldom that they are able to capture antelopes, for these animals run away too fast for them.
As I have said before, they travel night and day. Many a time some of you who have perused my books may have read that I have been roused from sleep and obliged to rush from the hut, sometimes into the water, or at other times have been obliged to protect myself with fires, or by spreading hot ashes or boiling water around me. Often I have suffered terribly from their advanced guard, who had got into my clothes, and who would not get out, and soon managed to get on my body.
When they enter a house they clear it of all living things. Roaches are devoured in an instant. Rats and mice spring round the room in vain. An overwhelming force of ants kills a strong rat in less than a minute or two, and in an incredibly short time, despite the most frantic struggles, its bones are stripped. Every living thing in the house is devoured. Centipedes, scorpions, small spiders can not escape, and of this I was glad. They will not touch vegetable matter. Thus they are in reality very useful; for without them the insects would become so numerous that man would not be able to live. I always rejoiced when they got hold of a serpent, though these are pretty shy, and manage generally to get out of the way, except when they are in a state of torpor.
When on the march the insect world flees before them, and, as you have seen in the beginning of the chapter, I had the approach of a bashikouay army heralded to me by this means. Wherever they go they make a clean sweep, even ascending to the top of many small trees in search of birds'-nests, and to devour the young of caterpillars. They pursue their poor prey with an unrelenting fury, and seem to be animated with the genius of destruction. Their manner of attack is by an impetuous leap. Instantly the strong pincers are fastened, and they only let go when the piece seized upon gives way. If they were large they would certainly be the most fearful creature man could ever encounter, and they would destroy all the living creatures of the forest.
When on their line of march they often find little streams—which of course are not very wide; they throw themselves across and form a bridge, a living bridge, connected by two trees or high bushes on opposite sides of the stream. This is done with great care, and is effected by a great number of ants, each of which clings with his fore-claws to his next neighbor's body or hind-claws. Thus they form a high, safe bridge, over which the whole vast regiment marches in regular order. If disturbed, or if the bridge is broken by the violence of some animal, they instantly attack the offender with the greatest animosity.
To find the place for these bridges must require a good deal of sagacity. By one way or another they find a spot where on each side there is a branch of a tree, almost always a dead one, that has fallen on the ground, and which overlaps the stream. Often in falling this tree has broken in two pieces, and the piece on the other side almost joins it. The branch on the further side must be lower on the ground, so that, as they form the bridge, they begin it from the higher side.
The Bashikouay Ant, magnified to twice its natural size.
These bashikouay do smell things a long way off, and they are guided by their sense of smell. They are quite large, often the ordinary-sized ones being half an inch long, and are armed with very powerful fore-legs and large strong jaws, or nippers, with which they bite. The head is almost if not quite as large as the body; the large ones are almost one inch in length. The kind of which I have spoken is dark brown in color, but I have found in the mountains of the interior a somewhat larger species, almost black, and intensely voracious. Besides these two there is still another species of bashikouay, which I have only met two or three times in the mountains, south of the equator. It is of a great size, at least double the size of the one I have just spoken to you about. The body is grayish-white in color, the head of reddish-black; its fangs are very powerful, and it is able to make a clean bite out of one's legs. It is thus a very formidable animal, but fortunately its motions are not as quick as those of its fierce brother; for if they were, I do not know what would become of a man in the midst of such an army. It does not march in such vast armies, nor does it precipitate itself upon its prey with such an irresistible fury. In its motions it is almost sluggish. They do not invade villages, or climb trees in pursuit of prey, and they are not so voracious as their fellows before mentioned. If they were, they would doubtless clear the country of every living thing, for they are much more powerful. They are, in fact, to the other ants what whales are to fish. If as ferocious, they would depopulate the country, and would themselves have to starve and then disappear.
Now I have told you about the bashikouay, and feel that I could tell you more; and you may rely implicitly on what I have said, for what I have written is from very close observation. I wish this record of the bashikouay to stand.
Some day civilization may reach Equatorial and Central Africa; then the forest will give place to open fields, and the bashikouay ant will disappear, for it can not bear an open country. Such is the order of nature which God has created, that when a race of men or beasts has gone it will never come back. The mastodon, and those gigantic animals and reptiles which once were, have never reappeared.