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Paul du Chaillu

Bald-Headed Apes

The nshiego mbouve.—Bald-headed apes.—Their houses in the trees.—Lying in wait for them.—We kill a male.—The shrieks of his mate.—Description of the animal.—Farewell to Shimbouvenegani.

As I was trudging along one day in the woods, rather tired of the sport, and on the point of going back to the camp, I happened to look up at a high tree which we were passing, and saw a most singular shelter or home built in its branches. I immediately stopped and asked Okabi why the hunters slept in that way in the wood. Okabi laughed, after looking at me quizzically, and then he told me that no man had ever built that shelter. He said that it was made by a kind of man of the woods, called nshiego mbouvé, an animal which had no hair on the top of its head. I really thought Okabi was joking. An animal—a man-monkey—with no hair on the top of his head!—a bald-headed ape! It was now my turn to laugh, for I did not believe Okabi's story about the bald-headed animal, though I believed what he said about the shelter in the tree.

I saw at once that I was on the trail of an animal which no civilized man had ever seen before. I no longer felt tired, but pushed on through the woods with renewed ardor and with increased caution, so as not to alarm our prey. The shelter we had seen was an old one, which had been abandoned, but we had a hope of finding another which should be still occupied.

We were not disappointed. We soon found two more shelters. They were about twenty feet from the ground, and were on two trees which stood a little apart from the others, and which had no limbs below the one on which the nests were placed. This location for its house is probably chosen by the animals to secure them at night from beasts and serpents, and from the falling limbs of surrounding trees. They build only in the loneliest part of the forest. They are very shy, and are seldom seen, even by the negroes.

Okabi, who was an old and intelligent hunter, told me that the male and female together select the material for their nest or shelter. It is constructed in part of the branches of the tree itself, which they twist in with the boughs of other trees collected by them for the purpose. The shelters I saw had the shape of an umbrella.

We concealed ourselves by lying flat on the ground amid the bushes near by, and keeping perfectly still. My patience was sorely tried. Mosquitoes and flies were continually biting me. Ants now and then were creeping upon me, and some of them managed to get under my clothes. Besides, I had some fear of the Bashikouay, or of the white ants, coming to disturb me, or of snakes creeping upon me. So, as you may imagine, I was not comfortable, neither had I pleasant thoughts.

At length, just at dusk, we heard the loud peculiar "hew, hew, hew," which is the call of the male to his mate. I was glad to know I had not waited in vain; and, looking up, I saw a nshiego mbouvé sitting under his nest. His feet rested on the lower branch; his head reached quite into the little dome of a roof; and his arm was clasped firmly about the tree trunk. This, I suppose, is the position in which they sleep. Soon after his mate came and ascended the tree.

After gazing till I was tired, I saw that one of the animals showed signs of being alarmed. Had they smelt us? Had we made a noise that excited their suspicions? Anyhow, we raised our guns and fired through the gloom at the one that seemed asleep. I almost felt sorry for the unfortunate beast, which fell with a tremendous crash, and died without a struggle. The other uttered an awful shriek, and came down the tree with the utmost rapidity. I fired, but missed the animal, and in less time than I take to write it the poor creature had disappeared in the woods.

I was very hungry, for I had eaten nothing since breakfast. We built a fire at once, and made our camp. Then we built several more fires, to prevent an attack of the Bashikouay ants, in case they should come that way. The poor ape was hung up to a limb out of reach. During the night I could hear, now and then, in the distance, the piercing shriek of its mate, which no doubt was calling for the absent one. At last I fell asleep on my bed of leaves and grass, as pleased a man, perhaps, as any in the world.

The next morning I examined the nshiego mbouvé. Okabi, pointing to the head, triumphantly exclaimed, "See, Chaillie, is not the animal bald-headed? Did I not tell you the truth?" So it was. The nshiego was quite bald; not a hair could be seen on the top of his head. He was a full-grown specimen, and measured three feet and eleven inches in height. His color was intensely black, and the body was covered with short, rather blackish hair. On the legs the hair was of a dirty gray, mixed with black. On the shoulders and back the hair grew two or three inches long. This animal was old, and his hair was a little mixed with gray. The arms also, down to the wrists, were covered with long black hair. The hair is much thinner than on the gorilla, and is blacker, longer, and glossier. The nose, also, is not so prominent. Though only three feet and eleven inches in height, the animal had an extremely broad chest, though not so powerful as that of the gorilla. The fingers, also, were much longer, and not large; and the hand was longer than the foot; while the gorilla, like man, has the foot longer than the hand.

Some of the teeth were decayed; so the poor fellow must have had the toothache badly; and I suppose there were no dentists among the nshiego mbouvés. I have killed several of these animals. One of them was a very old one; he had silvery hair; nearly all his teeth were decayed, and some were missing, which had dropped out with age. He was getting so infirm that he had not strength enough to pick berries or break nuts; and, when killed, he had only leaves in his stomach.

After enjoying myself thoroughly at the olako of Shimbouvenegani, we returned to the village of Damagondai. Shimbouvenegani dressed himself again in state, that is to say, he put on his swallow-tailed coat and his beaver hat. In this regal costume he accompanied us to our canoes, and there bid us good-by.