Jaguars — Capybaras — Armadillos — Deer — Horned Cattle
( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )
Steaming up the Panama or the Uruguay (mighty twins that, united, form the River Plate) to Ascunçion, or to Salto, the traveller sometimes — especially after floods —meets with floating islands, camelotas, composed of water-plants which bind together the soft alluvial soil, and thickly covered with low trees and bushes, the growth of years.
These islands appear to be tenanted only by birds, but close inspection often reveals, as in my own experience, a large cat-like quadruped creeping through the cover. This is the jaguar, the " tigre " of the Spaniards.
Some of my fellow passengers, forgetting that the captain would not stop his boat for all the jaguars in the world, got their rifles and began a fusillade, but as they were bad shots the " tigre " lived to pass another day on his floating territory, where he was lord of all.
The home of that jaguar was in the lonely regions of Paraguay and the adjoining southern district of Brazil. But I have introduced him in this chapter because most of the beautiful skins, called by furriers, " great panther skins "— the back a rich tawny yellow marked with open circles of brown, sometimes with a star in the centre, the belly nearly white—are collected by the Indians and sent down to Buenos Ayres for shipment.
Restlessly pacing his den at the Zoo, or lying indifferent to everything, the jaguar does not show to advantage. He looks stumpy and less graceful than the leopards, but in his native forests he is the essence of activity, and the most dreaded of South American animals. Alligators and boa-constrictors occasionally overcome him, but only one quadruped, the great ant-bear, can vanquish him in a fair fight by tightly embracing him and tearing open his sides with its. enormously powerful claws.
The beast can both climb and swim, and thus, by preying upon everything with life in it, secures a very varied diet. He is powerful enough to kill with one blow of his paws the wild horses on the Paraguayan pampas, breaking their spines and carrying the carcases away. He is always on the prowl for them; the swiftest cannot escape him, but are, seized with a strange paralysis of fear when chased, and quickly give in. The jaguar mounts to the very top of trees, climbing from one branch to the other in pursuit of monkeys that scatter with dismal whistlings in all directions. He lies in. wait at the river-side for tapirs and capybaras, and, in spite of their tough hides, easily slays them.
The jaguar is an adroit fisher, and, crouched at full length along the lowest boughs of some overhanging tree, watches patiently until a fine four-pound pirai, or a fresh-water dolphin, swims beneath, when he instantly scoops it up with his claws.
The jaguar loves turtle, and silently waits until one crawls on to the sand spits to lay its eggs, then rushes on it, and with a dexterous turn of his talons, cleans out its shells as neatly as if with a dissecting knife, then digs up the eggs and surfeits himself.
Twice a day, at the rising and setting of the sun, the jaguar utters a peculiar cry, the one as if to announce his day's work had begun, the other that it had ended. It is somewhat alarming to hear it in the silence of the wood, unless one knows what it is, for it sounds as though a gun were being fired in some cavern, the pulsations rolling up in a startling manner through the thickly-growing trees.
The jaguar is a most dangerous animal to tackle, and to follow up a wounded one is to court serious injury, if not death. He might be up a tree, which makes him more dangerous than a tiger, for the latter cannot climb. He seldom attacks man, but will sometimes follow a mounted traveller for miles and fall upon him at night in his hammock.
If the jaguar is seen on the open plain the Indians run him down, and seize him with the lasso. He is generally hunted with a pack of dogs until " tree'd," then dispatched with a rifle; but no one single-handed should attempt this apparently simple venture —a miss or a slight wound, and the jaguar jumps down and furiously attacks the hunter.
A very daring feat is sometimes performed by the Indians or Guachos in destroying this ferocious cat. With his left arm encased in a rolled-up sheep's skin, and a sharp, five-feet long lance in the other hand, the intrepid hunter goes boldly to the animal, which has been driven out of the bushes. Lashing his great tail, and glaring with his green eyes at the intruder, the jaguar waits until sure of his spring, which the hunter parries with the protected arm, and with the firmly-held lance impales the brute, who thus brings about his own destruction.
The above feat, however, is not often attempted. The aspirant must have specially strong nerves, and must undergo a long course of training before venturing on it, for the slightest slip in parrying the blow would be fatal.
Capybaras (or Carpinchos).—When strolling with my dogs along the arroyos (rivulets) of the Ria Negro —an affluent of the Uruguay river—they used frequently to pause, give a prolonged sniff in the air, and start off, barking, into the thick reeds lining the banks; but the scent of the animals — something like that of an old boar —was as perceptible to myself as to the dogs. Then would be heard a great crashing and rustling, and with a grunt-like bark something would glide unseen into the water, while the dogs frantically proclaimed that the carpincho — for such it was —had been too quick for them.
One day I took with me only one dog, a steady old pointer. I had not been out half an hour when he came to a dead stop in front of a dense mass of water-side plants. Creeping quietly up and putting them cautiously on one side, I found what I had come to seek — a young carpincho, snugly curled up and fast asleep, and I prodded him with my stick. Up he jumped as if he had been shot, and escaped into the stream, but gave me time to see him swim on the surface then dive and run along the bottom of the clear water.
I never shot these harmless animals, though often asked to do so by the guachos — native péons, or cattle men—who consider them good eating, and prize them for their hoglike hides, which they cut into strips and make into useful lashings.
Being aquatic creatures, they are so seldom seen that a description of them will, perhaps, not be out of place. Capybaras are the largest of the rodents (sometimes four feet long and proportionately stout), and are not unlike large-headed, blunt-nosed guinea pigs. Their legs are short and their feet slightly webbed; they have no visible tail, and the body is covered with coarse brownish hair. Their ears and eyes are small, and they have a fine set of gnawing front teeth. They have been de-scribed as " rabbits as large as sheep," and as " water-pigs much resembling the hippopotamus in shape and habits, but only about the size of a dog."
With their splendid incisors they gnaw and do much damage to plantations in the tropical parts of South America; but in the River Plate countries, the natural food—to which it is confined—is grass and roots. They are easy to tame when young, and will follow their owner about like a dog.
The cavies, to which tribe carpinchos belong, are found only in South America. Of the several varieties, the smallest is no bigger than a rat; and it is singular that this little creature, the well-known guinea-pig, whose domestication in Europe dates as far back as the middle of the sixteenth century, when it was first brought from Guiana, Peru, and Brazil, should have been persistently described as a native of the Guinea coast of South. Africa. In its wild state it leads a nocturnal life, and burrows like all its species.
Armadillos.—" There ! " said the German curator of the fine Buenos Ayres museum, pointing out to me the shell of an animal mounted on wooden pedestals in lieu of feet, " When you return home you can tell your scientific friends that you have seen and handled the genuine remains of the glyptodon, a gigantic armadillo that used to roam about the Argentine plains."
I was duly impressed, but a short time afterward, when up country, I was introduced to the modern armadillo, at table, of all places in the world ! I was at a dinner given by my host, the manager of the famous Liebig's Extract of Meat Factory and Estancia at Fray Bentos, when a savoury-smelling entrée was brought round to me, which looked like fricasséed chicken. It was delicious, something like delicate pork and fowl, and I indulged in a second helping. What is it? I inquired.
An armadillo," was the reply, " the small kind. But the next time you shall have it roasted, in native style, in the shell." He fulfilled his promise, and I found it still more savoury.
Armadillos, residents of the great plains of Brazil, and also of the River Plate, vary in size from that of a small rabbit to about three feet in length, and when unrolled, with their heads and long upright ears poking out from their mailed backs, they look comically like jackasses gazing out from the front of an armoured train.
They may be classed amongst Nature's freaks, more like reptiles than animals. Instead of being covered with hair, the whole of the upper part of their short-legged bodies is protected by a cuirass composed of parallel rows of variously-shaped horny plates, extremely mobile, so that, hedgehog like, they can roll themselves up the instant they are outrun, which is their usual fate, as they cannot travel fast. Where the soil is soft, they scoop out a hole with their strong claws and disappear. Even if you are quick enough to catch them by the tail just before they disappear in the sand, no pulling will extract them.
To dig them out would be too tedious a process, occupying, perhaps, three-quarters of a day, so the guachos light a fire at the entrance, and when the fumes reach the armadillos they bolt, and they are easily captured.
Armadillos feed on insects and flesh, which latter in the River Plate they easily obtain from the dead cattle, sheep, and horses that lie about; but those near towns are accused of digging up corpses from the churchyard, and are consequently regarded with aversion as an article of food. When tightly rolled up, they look like a certain sort of Brazilian nut, and it would be difficult to tell the head from the tail were it not for an angular protuberance, which is really the os frontis.
The common wood-louse, closely resembles the armadillo, and rolls itself tightly up on approach of danger. Hood, in his " Haunted House," writes :
" The wood-louse dropp'd and roll'd into a ball,
Deer.—At one time, before railways opened up the country, many districts in the River Plate were covered with ostriches and deer peacefully grazing together. But when European immigration set in, their destruction became so great, that it was found necessary to protect them by law, and a heavy fine was imposed for killing them recklessly.
When I was in South America the few remaining large kind of deer with fine antlers kept close to the woods, but I have caught a glimpse of one in the brushwood of a river valley, and I have seen their skins for sale. The gâma (literally, " she deer "), a smaller kind, were fairly plentiful in the open country.
My host preserved the gâmas, or, rather, he discouraged the catching of them, and when, at the town of Fray Bentos, he asked me if I would like to try my luck at procuring a pair of antlers and a skin for his wife, I considered myself favoured. Of course I said " Yes," and started on my solitary twelve-mile journey to the branch estancia, with many injunctions not to lose my way. " But," added Mr. X., " the old mare will take you right if you let her alone. She has been backwards and forwards hundreds of times." I took his advice, for there were no landmarks, and I let my steed " gang her aïn gait."
The estancia superintendent received me hospitably, giving me the national dish, asado (ribs of beef pierced through with an iron asador [spit], and stuck in the ground before the fire), which, though unsightly, was the sweetest meat I ever tasted. In a northerly direction a herd of cattle were feeding in the far distance, to which the superintendent pointed, saying, " You will very likely find deer there."
Thither I set off. Around me was abundant bird-life, above and below, but no sign of four-footed animal other than the herd. At last I reached its edge, and the steers and cows, after looking at me with unpleasant inquisitiveness, decided that I was harmless, and went on grazing.
Presently, to my astonishment, I espied a couple of small deer — a buck and a doe—feeding in the midst of the cattle about half a mile away. There were no bushes or hillocks to conceal me, and I wondered how I was to get within range. I hobbled the mare, and commenced to stalk, using the group of cattle as cover.
It was not comfortable work, for the cattle resented my presence (I was on foot, which they did not consider orthodox!), but gradually I lessened the distance between us to one hundred and fifty yards. Then I had to wait until the cattle got out of the line of fire.
My small-bore double rifle was ready, but my nerves were not, and, for the first time in my life, I had an at-tack of " buck-fever," and could not hold the weapon steady. I soon recovered, however, and with two shots I secured the buck, but it was poor sport going after these semi-domesticated creatures, as they are more easily approached than the strictly-preserved deer in the English parks.
Now came the question : How was I to get the skin and antlers home, for I had come out without a knife. While lamenting my remissness, an old guacho appeared on the scene, to whom I tried to indicate by gestures that I wanted a knife, for he could not understand my poor attempt at Spanish. As soon as he comprehended my meaning, he whipped out a formidable-looking blade, knelt down, and dexterously skinned the buck, and was delighted when I gave him the carcase as his perquisite.
The next day I rode back triumphant with the spoil and laid it before Madame X. After this adventure I sometimes galloped after the deer for a bit of fun, but never again drew trigger upon them.
Horned Cattle.- To quit the subject of River Plate animals without mentioning cattle, would be a mistake.
Whence did these cattle originally come? No remains of indigenous ones have ever been found, and the Indians retain no tradition of their existence before the advent of Europeans.
They were probably taken over by the Spaniards direct from the mother country when De Solis discovered the mighty Plate River, or they were imported into Brazil at an earlier period, and gradually made their way south, where under the favorable conditions of abundant water, unlimited pasturage, and suitable climate, they increased and multiplied exceedingly. They were then taken in hand by the cattle-farmers who soon discovered their worth in hides and tallow; and, finally, the original breed — scraggy and big-horned —were systematically crossed with shorthorns and other choice British types. Now the River Plate claims to have the finest cattle in the world; it also boasts of a greater number than any other country, not even excepting Australia, and to own forty thousand head is by no means uncommon.