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The Great Hunters

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Catching Baby Elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park:  P J Pretorius

While thinning out a herd of elephant in the impenetrable Addo Forest near Port Elizabeth, Pretorius had these experiences with their young. 

Baby elephants are lovable beasts, and in the Addo I captured several. It was a pleasant interlude to shooting. But one or two of them provided me withy some excitement.

I knew that there would have to be some one to look after the Cape boys (1) in the job of preserving specimens, and I had therefore applied to the Minister of Justice to grant leave to a policeman from Uitenhague, one van der Linde, whom I had known before I had set out on the elephant trail, so that he might assist me.

The first time he came out with me we traveled until three o’clock before getting sight of the beasts. They quickly got our wind, and I was able to drop one of them. I knocked down another, but the animal jumped up again and cleared after the herd. Although everyone was tired, I told van der Linde that we had to follow the trail, as I was bound to finish off a wounded animal. I walked ahead, and he followed immediately behind me with my second rifle, in case any mishap might occur to my Jeffries. (2) Invariably an elephant makes for the densest part of the bush, and in consequence we had to follow the spoor by forcing our way through well-nigh impenetrable barriers, with our hands before us to shield our faces. After half a mile we heard a terrific squealing a few yards in front.

I pushed forward, only to come face to face with a baby elephant. Instantly I lowered my rifle, for I did not want to shoot the little creature, but young Dumbo charged right at us and tried to bump me with his head. I side-stepped him, and he lumbered on. I grabbed his tail, and, as I hung on, he dashed through the Cape boys, scattering them in all directions. I was handicapped by the fact that I had my rifle in my right hand and did not want to drop it, for there was a likelihood that the baby would lead me straight to the herd, in which case I should have to let the infant go and face an attack by the parents.

I yelled for help, but neither van der Linde nor the others came to my assistance, and after we had gone fifty yards the elephant suddenly swung round. I was so unprepared for this that I was lifted off my feet, hurled through the air, and fell on the flat of my back with nearly all the breath knocked out of me, while the baby ran at me with his head lowered, side-stepped, and dashed past me. I scrambled up and again caught his tail.

But now I was sure the herd had departed, otherwise I should have been attacked, and so I dropped my rifle, and still calling, “Come and help me!” held on to the youngster like grim death.

No one appeared, but fortunately, after we had gone another two hundred yards through scrub and thorns we reached a pan. Here in the open I was able to get a proper grip of the elephant. To do so I caught hold of the top of his trunk with my right hand, and with my left I grabbed the trunk lower down. This did not arrest his progress, but made him go round in circles, screaming with fury all the time.

At this stage two of the Cape boys arrived. The elephant was still staggering forward, while I was streaming with perspiration and nearly exhausted. I shouted at the two boys to get hold of the unruly infant. They collared him round the neck, while I rested for a few minutes. They struggled with him, but could not hold the wretched creature, and he set off for a patch of num-num trees at a lively pace. I bellowed at the boys to hang on to him and to catch him by the tail. The moment they did so they were dragged right through the bush, while I rushed round to head off his retreat. When he emerged – the two boys still hanging on - I got my arms round his neck once more, and then van der Linde turned up. There were now six of them grabbing the elephant and trying to stopped him, and all the while his screams were deafening.

We were in the open now, and not far away was a homestead owned by Mr. Philip Fourie. When we came to the lands about a mile from the house I told them to let the elephant go.

I ran ahead, and the elephant promptly trundled after me. He tried to bump me with his head in order to make me accelerate my pace, but by this time he was a very tired baby, almost as fatigued as I was, and when we reached Fourie’s house, an hour after we have captured him, he was as tame as a kitten. In the yard I chatted with Fourie, while the young elephant stood peacefully beside me, just like a huge puppy. It is really remarkable how they take to the first whom they see and smell; they always stick to that individual, for they are creatures of great sagacity and long memory.

As our camp was so far distant I asked Mr. Fourie if we could stay there, to which he replied that he would be delighted; and, moreover, he gave us a store-room in which we put the elephant. Mr. Fourie and his brother were curious to ascertain the elephant’s strength, and we agreed to test it. Obtaining a strong manila rope, which was used for a windlass, (3) we tied it round the youngster’s neck. Fourie and his brother held on to one end while I walked away. The elephant followed me, and Fourie and his brother, though both big men, might as well have been a couple of ants for all the effect they had on the elephant. Although they dug their heels in, they soon toppled over as the elephant walked unconcernedly forward. And remember Coerney, as we christened our captive, was only four feet high.

Four days later I tracked a herd traveling at a fast pace towards the south. I kept close on their trail for nearly four hours. They went down a steep kloof, and as they climbed the other side I sighted them and killed three. Another was badly wounded, so I ran after him to administer the coup de grace. (4)

I could only see his head, and, since it was impossible to get in a side shot, crawled through the thicket in front of him. Just as I reached the danger line he let rip with his trunk, missing my head by a hair’s breadth and sweeping my hat off – which he grabbed, stuffed into his mouth, and chewed for a few minutes before spitting it out. I finished him off, and regretfully seized the remnants of my headgear. While I stood there contemplating the animal I heard screams, and, looking round, saw a baby charging towards me. I put a hand on his forehead, and side-stepped. He again turned on me, and, since the bush was not too thick, I said to the boys, “Pick up the stuff and follow me.”

I walked in the direction of the camp, closely followed by the elephant, who every now and then would bump me with his head if I was not going fast enough to please his wishes. This certainly is the easiest way to catch a baby elephant. If the bush is not too thick, set off for camp the moment he comes at you. For the first mile or so he might give trouble, but after that he will follow as tamely as a dog.

Fortunately for hunters, a young elephant does not realize the strength of its trunk. I caught seven baby elephants in the Addo bush, and if one of them had employed its trunk to tap me on the head I should not be alive to tell the tale. This particular baby rubbed itself against me every time I stopped, and followed me into the camp meek as a lamb. We named him Addo, and he and Coerney had many a peaceful meal together.

Speaking of meals, the greatest difficulty in rearing a baby elephant is to discover and maintain its correct diet, as it is extremely susceptible to diarrhoea, and dies very quickly. Although the milk from an elephant looks thin and watery, it is by no means weak. Once I had some elephant’s milk analysed. The certified report proved that the milk contains at least 100 per cent. more albumen (5) than that of an ordinary cow. To find a substitute for that is no easy matter. Experience has shown me that it needs a gallon of cow’s milk, half a pint of cream, the whites of two dozen eggs, and four pounds of boiled rice to provide a young elephant with an average, naturally balanced ration.

During the same week of Addo’s capture I found that the elephants had trekked to Sundays River, so we set off after them through waterless country, and reached a portion of the herd that afternoon. I got to within a few paces of one elephant and fired an ear shot, which, if accurately placed, causes the animal instantly to sink on its knees. When any other animal receives such a shot its head slumps forward to the ground, but an elephant’s head remains erect, for it has a number of sinews about two inches wide between the skull and the neck, and these keep the head stiffly upright, three feet or so above the ground, after death. Even if you approach the animal a day later you will find that the head is still rigid, with all the appearance of life. So lay this particular animal when I came up to him. This was one of the rare occasions on which I shot one elephant out of the whole herd; in practically all other instances I killed three, four, or even five before the remainder broke away.

This elephant was a female, and it was not until we came right up to the animal and stood beside her that I noticed a little one standing under its mother’s head. It was trying to drink; but when it saw me it emerged under the maternal neck and smelt me. As I walked to the road leading to Mr. Jack Harvey’s farm the baby docilely followed me. Rain was falling heavily, and we were wet and muddy. When we knocked at Mr. Harvey’s door he at once invited us to enter. It was eight o’clock at night, and we did not feel inclined to go in, for we were in a bedraggled state, and I had only wanted to ask him if he knew of a short cut to our camp.

“If I enter the elephant followed me into Harvey’s sitting-room, where he soon made himself an utter and complete nuisance.

Believe me, an elephant, even if it is young, in a sitting-room is more disturbing than a bull in a china shop!

On the way home that night we detected the presence of a large number of elephants just ahead of us. In that almost sepulchral darkness I did not want to shoot, and ardently hoped the animals would leave the road, for we were cold and miserable and wanted to get to camp. We tried shouting; eventually I fired a few shots in the air, but not one of the herd moved. The more noise we made the more did the elephants trumpet in a challenging chorus. I am fully convinced that they knew they were my superiors in the dark, for they would not budge an inch, though in daylight they fled as soon as they scented me.

With great difficulty we managed to branch off, outflank the herd, and pick up the road again near the camp. Meanwhile the baby had stayed close to me and had not made the slightest attempt to join the herd.

I sold Addo to a circus proprietor, a Mr. Boswell, at a price of three hundred pounds. The day the deal was concluded Boswell said to me, “Is this elephant tame enough for us to exhibit to the people at to-night’s performance?”

“Yes,” I declared; “we’ll bring him along.”

Where they were pitched was some miles away, and I started about five o’clock driving in a spider drawn by two smart steeds. Addo had departed in the care of two Cape boys, while a Miss D’Arcy and Miss Allan, two visitors to my camp, accompanied by van der Linde, set off ahead of me on horses.

On a steep dip of the road the dissel-boom (6) jerked out, the horses pulled the reins out of my hands, and I catapulted out of the cart, landing on my knees. When I lifted my head I saw both horses still trotting along the road. I got up and ran after them. Unfortunately, just as I grabbed the reins the horses snorted and bolted down the narrow road. I at once thought of the girls in front and feared they might be hurt. I raced on for all I was worth.

After a quarter of a mile or so I heaved a great sigh of relief, for I found the two girls safe and sound standing on the side of the road. They told me that van der Linde had nearly been killed, as he had turned his mount broadside on to stop the two stampeding horses and in a flash had been knocked down, horse and all. He had speedily remounted and given chase. Running on, my next encounter was with the two Cape boys who had been in charge of the baby elephant. But Addo was not there; the bolting horses had stampeded him! The road to Addo that afternoon took on the appearance of an African chariot race, with an elephant in pursuit of two maddened horses.

Nearly at Addo Station I found van der Linde with the two horses. They had run into a barbed-wire fence and had become so entangled that he had managed to capture them. I asked him where Addo was, but he did not know.

It was dark now, and I walked to the road, struck a match, and saw that the elephant spoor was there all right. As I approached the station I saw a vague form that looked very much like the animal enter the yard. And there I found him, standing in a corner, peaceful and, I fancy, reflective. The moment I came up to him he lifted his trunk, smelt me, and followed as I walked out.

The Boswell galaxy of talent had already given a few turns, and now the circus proprietor requested me to enter with the elephant, for he had announced to the audience that they were about to see an elephant once he is truly tamed is remarkable.

This little chap went among hundreds of people and took as little notice of them as he would of pebbles. He followed me right round the circus ring, and was as uninterested in the other animals as he was in the audience.

I then told the onlookers to stand in front of their seats, and I would demonstrate the wonderful powers of scent possessed by the animal. I assured every one they would be quite safe. The people rose and crowded together, while I tried to get away from the little beast. I mingled with the audience, turned this way and that, but Addo found me every time, and entirely ignored every other person in that not inconsiderable congregation.   


  • Cape boys. The Cape “boys” were men from the Uitenhague gaol. No-one else would voluntarily venture out with Pretorius.
  • My Jeffries. This was a .475 bore double-barrelled rifle.
  • Windlass. Strictly a mechanical contrivance working on the principal of a wheel and axle on a horizontal axis and used for hauling in of rope or chain. Pretorius is using the term rather loosely here.
  • Coup de grace. (French) The finishing blow.
  • Albumen. The substance is a constituent of most animal solids and fluids. It exist nearly pure in white of an egg.
  • Dissel-boom. (Afrikaans) Shaft of a cart or wagon.