Some Curious Animals Of South America

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )


MANY years ago there walked into a Liverpool broker's office a quiet, shrewd-looking individual, who asked for a sample of some strange kind of wool he had seen in one of the dock-warehouses. The head clerk stared; such a request had not been made for years, but, recovering his presence of mind, he took down from a shelf a dust-covered roll of blue paper and gave it to the stranger, who departed.

A month later, the mysterious customer reappeared, and this time asked to see one of the principals, neither of whom happened to be in, as there was little business to attend to, things being bad on 'Change, and there were many more sellers than buyers. A clerk hurried off to fetch the head of the firm, and when on his arrival the stranger gravely asked him what price he would take for the entire lot of wool (fifty odd bales) he was astonished, for the consignment from South America had been eating its head off in rent for months past — no one would even look at it, much less make a bid.

Impulsively the head of the firm quoted sixpence a pound, less ten per cent. for cash, and the buyer, quietly filling up a check on account, instructed him where to deliver the bales, and left without divulging what he intended to do with them.

The office became a scene of wild excitement, and to celebrate so utterly unexpected a sale, a holiday was given all round.

The stranger's name was Salt (afterward Sir Titus Salt), and his queer purchase was alpaca-wool, the merits of which as a textile he was the first to discover, and thereby made his fortune. .

On the plateaux of the Chilian and Peruvian Andes—often veiled in clouds eleven thousand feet above the sea-level — llamas and alpacas (the South American "ships of the desert "), from time immemorial — long before the Spaniards came there—were jealously guarded by the natives, llamas as beasts of burden, and both llamas and alpacas for their flesh and wool.

The conquerors of Peru called llamas sheep, describing them more accurately as resembling camels without humps. But their graceful heads, big ears, and prominent eyes at once recall the kangaroo, while their feet have only two springy toes, completely divided, and -padded underneath, each shod with a hoof hooked down-wards, and as admirably adapted for mountaineering as is the elastic pad of the camel for treading the yielding sands of the desert.

Like sheep, the domesticated llamas are herded at night to protect them from beasts of prey, and at sunrise are turned out to graze, led by the fathers of the flock.

The wild llamas and alpacas love the almost inaccessible heights, whence can be had the most superb views all along the backbone of the Andes range, tiers upon tiers of snowy peaks stretching in every direction ; on the west, the Pacific Ocean, on the southeast, the boundless Argentine pampas. But the llamas and alpacas care for none of these things, their only concern being to find good pasturage.

Similar to the llama and alpaca, but much smaller, being about the size of a big sheep, is the vicuna, with its beautiful rich fleece. In regions of perpetual snow it flourishes, but perishes on the warm plains. When hunted, the least thing suffices to throw it into a state of wild terror, so that at a big drive it is forced, if possible, into defiles, across which cords with many coloured rags attached have been tightly stretched, and the fluttering of these in the wind completely paralyses the vicuna.

The fourth of the llama species is the wild huanaco, or guanaco, of Patagonia, whose yellowish fur is often used for carriage-rugs.

Patagonian Indians relentlessly hunt these animals down on horseback. When within reach they secure them with the bolás — long lines with balls at each end — which they dexterously throw, and thereby entangle the animals' legs.

Guanacos have been described as having the head of a camel, the body of a sheep, the feet of a deer, the neigh of a horse, and the speed of the race horse.

All the tribe are difficult to stalk on the open plain, owing to their acute powers of hearing and seeing, and their alert watchfulness; there being always one or more sentinels on the " look-out."

One thing I would impress upon visitors to a zoological garden. Never approach too near the gentle-looking creatures in the llama enclosure. Without the slightest warning, if they have been previously annoyed, or if they take a dislike to your attire or your personal appearance, they are likely, being ruminants, to bring up from their false stomachs portions of half-digested fodder, and, with fatal precision, eject the vile-smelling stuff into your face.

Chinchillas.—Dame Fashion for a time consigned chinchilla-furs into the background, but now has rein-stated them, which is wise of her, for they suit almost every complexion, brunettes especially, reflecting their own softness upon the wearer's face. The best are light silver-grey in the centre, and cost almost as much as a Russian sable. London imported 23,300 of the real and scarce skins from Peru and Bolivia, and 122,500 of the bastard from La Plata in a recent year.

Whence come the animals to whom we are indebted for their furs? That they must be small we know, for each cloak consists of many skins. So fine is the hair that one would imagine chinchillas came from a warm country. As a matter of fact, these little animals are about the size of large rats. Many years ago a traveller funnily described them as resembling woolly field-mice that lived underground and fed on wild onions; they live high up in the Chilian and Peruvian mountains, nearly within reach of the snow-line, burrowing closely together like rabbits, and are so prolific, that two litters of four young ones each are produced each year. They need to multiply and increase in order to make up for the drain upon their numbers, thousands being exported and thousands being hunted down by muzzled dogs (so as not to injure their delicate fur) or caught in traps by the natives living within reach of their haunts.

When I was on the west coast of South America, bundles of chinchilla-skins were frequently offered to me for sale by ragged Peruvian youths. Absurdly small prices were asked, but they invariably turned out to be damaged, or badly preserved (those rejected by regular hunters), or they were pelts of the lagotis — a little animal resembling the chinchilla - which, although soft, have not the same uniform shade; and can be readily distinguished by experts.

Like most of the " leaper " family —jerboas, squirrels, and Cape hares—chinchillas stand upon their hind legs, and feed with their fore-paws in a charming manner. Their food is dried grass, seeds, and bulbous plants, which they grub up from soft soil, for their delicate fore-limbs, shorter than their hind ones, have not much strength.

To my thinking, no animals are more pleasing to look at than these little fellows as they frisk and play about, pretending to chase one another, then stopping short to listen attentively, before nibbling a bit here and there after the manner of squirrels. They have widely-spread ears, a brush-shaped tail, pretty head, the upper lip adorned with long, cat-like whiskers or feelers, expressive eyes, and symmetrically-rounded bodies.

Easily tamed, they make charming pets, and are so gentle in disposition that they can be safely handled and fondled. In Chili they are kept, like eats, in the houses, seem contented with their lot, and instinctively learn good manners.

I once visited the small eat-house at the Zoo some weeks after a litter of baby chinchillas had come into the world, and I induced the keeper to let me see them. The interesting family was in a special compartment behind the scenes, and in a box, snugly provided with wool and hay, was the mother and three tiny counterparts of herself.

I asked permission to handle them, and I took them carefully up, the mother making no protest, but looking up at both of us with a human expression of anxiety, blended with trustfulness, that I shall never forget.

Sea-lions.— The sea-lions of the south (the coasts of Peru, Chili, and Patagonia) represent the walruses of the frozen north, nearly equalling them in size, but are with-out tusks.

I came to know a lot about sea-lions when on the islets adjoining the Chinchas, off the coast of Peru.

Among the British vessels at the Chinchas off the North Island was the Mindanao. Its captain and I became great friends, attracted by our common liking for natural history, and I was delighted when he suggested getting up a picnic of congenial souls to explore the Ballistas, an uninhabited group of islands visible from the Chinchas.

We borrowed a roomy whale-boat fitted with two masts, took with us sufficient food for several meals (turkeys, good and cheap, being the principal item), and, well supplied with guns and ammunition, we sailed away — a party of six—early one Iovely morning, with a steady but moderate fair wind and smooth sea, the ideal of yachting weather.

No guano deposits of mercantile value have ever existed on this rocky group. The sea-lions and seals leave few fish for the birds, without which there can be no accumulation of deposit.

While we were there seal-life was abundant, and the young ones were almost fully grown. We thoroughly explored the rugged coast of the first islet we came to, and on an isolated rock discovered a sea-leopard (the leopardine seal), a large animal, with long, tapering neck, very small head (pale grey above, yellowish below), and its back spotted with white, like the pard.

Before we could get near him he heard us, quietly rolled himself into the sea, disappeared, and came up a long way off. On the weather-side of the largest island we came to the mouth of a great cave, inaccessible from the land, and could see its shelving beach running far into the cliffs, where hundreds of sea-lions, young and old, reposed in fancied security, for they were seldom disturbed, the steady trade-wind habitually raising too much sea to admit of landing, although one of our party, who had been to the Ballistas before, told us that he had contrived to land with a few men, but the sea-lions in their hurry to get into the water charged in a body, knocked them all down, and severely hurt one of them. The lions had evidently chosen their place of retreat with great judgment.

We got as near as we dared and fired a salute into the air. Such a commotion ensued ! The herd, tumbling over each other, shuffled into the sea, breasting the big waves that broke upon the beach. Then they made straight out to the offing, several huge fellows passing within a yard or two of our boat, and we had a good look at them.

Uncouth on land, they are graceful enough in the water, swimming rapidly and easily with their fore-flippers, their hind legs apparently closed. A few were fully four-teen feet long, with the girth of an ox, and a weight that we estimated at fully fourteen hundredweight. They glanced fiercely at us, and bristled up their manes, looking exactly like swimming lions. They are usually dark grey in colour. We noticed, however, that though their teeth were formidable, they were blackened, and generally decayed.

Almost all the animals bore the marks of deep gashes, the result of frequent combats in the pairing season, when the males seize their rivals with indescribable fury, after roaring like bulls. They are most cruel to their wives (who are smaller in size), bullying them until they become worn out and thin.

Each male has from fifty to eighty mates. Each harem is kept distinct, and should there be any attempt at encroachment a fearful encounter takes place.

In these communities are certain cross-grained old bachelors—like rogue-elephants expelled for some dire offence—who live alone, snarling and barking, avoiding the society of ladies, and making themselves disagreeable to all and sundry of their species.

We sailed away without harming the water-lions and reached the lee-side of the island — deeply indented by coves beneath the precipitous cliffs—where the water was smooth. Suddenly, without the least warning, we found ourselves surrounded by a vast assemblage of sea-lions, sporting about and chasing great fish of twenty pounds weight or more which we could see in the clear water. We had none of us ever witnessed such a scene, and we fairly lost our heads.

All our party except myself were sailors, and being out for fun, were reckless and as full of it as a lot of overgrown boys. The lions, great and small — the young ones being big and powerful for their age—played close to the boat for, I should think, half an hour, popping to the surface in every direction, looking at us with curiosity for an instant, and again diving. Hundreds must have been about us, and if a concerted rush had been made, the boat would have been swamped in no time.

There was no alternative but to fire, not in self-defence, but for the purpose of securing specimens. We were all too wildly excited, however, to shoot straight. Our double-barrelled muzzle-loaders took a little time and care to re-charge, and it afterward transpired that one of us had kept capping and re-capping his gun, unaware that he had in his excitement rammed down the musket-balls before the powder with the wad at the top. Another man went on loading until he had filled the barrel to the top, but luckily the gun would not go off, or we should all have been injured, crowded together as we were.

Not a lion was hit. As for me, at a very early stage in the adventure I was out of it, and could load no more, for I had left the ramrod in one of the barrels and blown it to pieces when I fired. We were determined, however, to return with something to exhibit at the club as a result of the day's outing. So we started for a distant and isolated rock, and softly landed, hoping to catch a big bachelor sea-lion asleep on the farther side. We did so, and mortally wounded him, but just as we got alongside him he contrived to tumble into the sea, and being not quite dead, came struggling to the surface.

Taking to our boat, we soon caught up to the creature, and some one foolishly gave him the contents of both barrels, when, to our great disappointment, he instantly sank into deep water. Of course, what ought to have been done was to have secured him first with a rope round his hind flippers.

Once more we essayed, and this time found -a few females on another rock. We killed two outright, and returned late in the evening to the Chinchas, tired but triumphant.

Upon dissecting the carcases we found several good-sized pebbles in the stomach. The skippers declared they had been swallowed for ballast, but as a matter of fact all the seal tribe make use of them for much the same reason that fowls make use of gravel—to help to digest their food. The size and quantity of fish they consume is great. The bigger -fish they secure in the kelp at- the sea-bottom.

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