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- Equinoctial Regions of America V2 - 30/97 -


untamed and savage nature. Now the jaguar--the beautiful panther of America--appears upon the shore; and now the hocco,* (* Ceyx alector, the peacock-pheasant; C. pauxi, the cashew-bird.) with its black plumage and tufted head, moves slowly along the sausos. Animals of the most different classes succeed each other. "Esse como en el Paradiso," "It is just as it was in Paradise," said our pilot, an old Indian of the Missions. Everything, indeed, in these regions recalls to mind the state of the primitive world with its innocence and felicity. But in carefully observing the manners of animals among themselves, we see that they mutually avoid and fear each other. The golden age has ceased; and in this Paradise of the American forests, as well as everywhere else, sad and long experience has taught all beings that benignity is seldom found in alliance with strength.

When the shore is of considerable breadth, the hedge of sauso remains at a distance from the river. In the intermediate space we see crocodiles, sometimes to the number of eight or ten, stretched on the sand. Motionless, with their jaws wide open, they repose by each other, without displaying any of those marks of affection observed in other animals living in society. The troop separates as soon as they quit the shore. It is, however, probably composed of one male only, and many females; for as M. Descourtils, who has so much studied the crocodiles of St. Domingo, observed to me, the males are rare, because they kill one another in fighting during the season of their loves. These monstrous creatures are so numerous, that throughout the whole course of the river we had almost at every instant five or six in view. Yet at this period the swelling of the Rio Apure was scarcely perceived; and consequently hundreds of crocodiles were still buried in the mud of the savannahs. About four in the afternoon we stopped to measure a dead crocodile which had been cast ashore. It was only sixteen feet eight inches long; some days after M. Bonpland found another, a male, twenty-two feet three inches long. In every zone, in America as in Egypt, this animal attains the same size. The species so abundant in the Apure, the Orinoco,* (* It is the arua of the Tamanac Indians, the amana of the Maypure Indians, the Crocodilus acutus of Cuvier.) and the Rio de la Magdalena, is not a cayman, but a real crocodile, analogous to that of the Nile, having feet dentated at the external edges. When it is recollected that the male enters the age of puberty only at ten years, and that its length is then eight feet, we may presume that the crocodile measured by M. Bonpland was at least twenty-eight years old. The Indians told us, that at San Fernando scarcely a year passes, without two or three grown-up persons, particularly women who fetch water from the river, being drowned by these carnivorous reptiles. They related to us the history of a young girl of Uritucu, who by singular intrepidity and presence of mind, saved herself from the jaws of a crocodile. When she felt herself seized, she sought the eyes of the animal, and plunged her fingers into them with such violence, that the pain forced the crocodile to let her go, after having bitten off the lower part of her left arm. The girl, notwithstanding the enormous quantity of blood she lost, reached the shore, swimming with the hand that still remained to her. In those desert countries, where man is ever wrestling with nature, discourse daily turns on the best means that may be employed to escape from a tiger, a boa, or a crocodile; every one prepares himself in some sort for the dangers that may await him. "I knew," said the young girl of Uritucu coolly, "that the cayman lets go his hold, if you push your fingers into his eyes." Long after my return to Europe, I learned that in the interior of Africa the negroes know and practise the same means of defence. Who does not recollect, with lively interest, Isaac, the guide of the unfortunate Mungo Park, who was seized twice by a crocodile, and twice escaped from the jaws of the monster, having succeeded in thrusting his fingers into the creature's eyes while under water. The African Isaac, and the young American girl, owed their safety to the same presence of mind, and the same combination of ideas.

The movements of the crocodile of the Apure are sudden and rapid when it attacks any object; but it moves with the slowness of a salamander, when not excited by rage or hunger. The animal in running makes a rustling noise, which seems to proceed from the rubbing of the scales of its skin one against another. In this movement it bends its back, and appears higher on its legs than when at rest. We often heard this rattling of the scales very near us on the shore; but it is not true, as the Indians pretend, that, like the armadillo, the old crocodiles "can erect their scales, and every part of their armour." The motion of these animals is no doubt generally in a straight line, or rather like that of an arrow, supposing it to change its direction at certain distances. However, notwithstanding the little apparatus of false ribs, which connects the vertebrae of the neck, and seems to impede the lateral movement, crocodiles can turn easily when they please. I often saw young ones biting their tails; and other observers have seen the same action in crocodiles at their full growth. If their movements almost always appear to be straight forward, it is because, like our small lizards, they move by starts. Crocodiles are excellent swimmers; they go with facility against the most rapid current. It appeared to me, however, that in descending the river, they had some difficulty in turning quickly about. A large dog, which had accompanied us in our journey from Caracas to the Rio Negro, was one day pursued in swimming by an enormous crocodile. The latter had nearly reached its prey, when the dog escaped by turning round suddenly and swimming against the current. The crocodile performed the same movement, but much more slowly than the dog, which succeeded in gaining the shore.

The crocodiles of the Apure find abundant food in the chiguires (thick-nosed tapirs),* which live fifty or sixty together in troops on the banks of the river. (* Cavia capybara, Linn. The word chiguire belongs to the language of the Palenkas and the Cumanagotos. The Spaniards call this animal guardatinaja; the Caribs, capigua; the Tamanacs, cappiva; and the Maypures, chiato. According to Azara, it is known at Buenos Ayres by the Indian names of capiygua and capiguara. These various denominations show a striking analogy between the languages of the Orinoco and those of the Rio de la Plata.) These animals, as large as our pigs, have no weapons of defence; they swim somewhat better than they run: yet they become the prey of the crocodiles in the water, and of the tigers on land. It is difficult to conceive, how, being thus persecuted by two powerful enemies, they become so numerous; but they breed with the same rapidity as the little cavies or guinea-pigs, which come to us from Brazil.

We stopped below the mouth of the Cano de la Tigrera, in a sinuosity called la Vuelta del Joval, to measure the velocity of the water at its surface. It was not more than 3.2 feet* in a second, which gives 2.56 feet for the mean velocity. (* In order to measure the velocity of the surface of a river, I generally measured on the beach a base of 250 feet, and observed with the chronometer the time that a floating body, abandoned to the current, required to reach this distance.) The height of the barometer indicated barely a slope of seventeen inches in a mile of nine hundred and fifty toises. The velocity is the simultaneous effect of the slope of the ground, and the accumulation of the waters by the swelling of the upper parts of the river. We were again surrounded by chiguires, which swim like dogs, raising their heads and necks above the water. We saw with surprise a large crocodile on the opposite shore, motionless, and sleeping in the midst of these nibbling animals. It awoke at the approach of our canoe, and went into the water slowly, without frightening the chiguires. Our Indians accounted for this indifference by the stupidity of the animals, but it is more probable that the chiguires know by long experience, that the crocodile of the Apure and the Orinoco does not attack upon land, unless he finds the object he would seize immediately in his way, at the instant when he throws himself into the water.

Near the Joval nature assumes an awful and extremely wild aspect. We there saw the largest jaguar we had ever met with. The natives themselves were astonished at its prodigious length, which surpassed that of any Bengal tiger I had ever seen in the museums of Europe. The animal lay stretched beneath the shade of a large zamang.* (* A species of mimosa.) It had just killed a chiguire, but had not yet touched its prey, on which it kept one of its paws. The zamuro vultures were assembled in great numbers to devour the remains of the jaguar's repast. They presented the most curious spectacle, by a singular mixture of boldness and timidity. They advanced within the distance of two feet from the animal, but at the least movement he made they drew back. In order to observe more nearly the manners of these creatures, we went into the little skiff that accompanied our canoe. Tigers very rarely attack boats by swimming to them; and never but when their ferocity is heightened by a long privation of food. The noise of our oars led the animal to rise slowly, and hide itself behind the sauso bushes that bordered the shore. The vultures tried to profit by this moment of absence to devour the chiguire; but the tiger, notwithstanding the proximity of our boat, leaped into the midst of them, and in a fit of rage, expressed by his gait and the movement of his tail, carried off his prey to the forest. The Indians regretted that they were not provided with their lances, in order to go on shore and attack the tiger. They are accustomed to this weapon, and were right in not trusting to our fire-arms. In so excessively damp an atmosphere muskets often miss fire.

Continuing to descend the river, we met with the great herd of chiguires which the tiger had put to flight, and from which he had selected his prey. These animals saw us land very unconcernedly; some of them were seated, and gazed upon us, moving the upper lip like rabbits. They seemed not to be afraid of man, but the sight of our dog put them to flight. Their hind legs being longer than their fore legs, their pace is a slight gallop, but with so little swiftness that we succeeded in catching two of them. The chiguire, which swims with the greatest agility, utters a short moan in running, as if its respiration were impeded. It is the largest of the family of rodentia or gnawing animals. It defends itself only at the last extremity, when it is surrounded and wounded. Having great strength in its grinding teeth,* particularly the hinder ones, which are pretty long, it can tear the paw of a tiger, or the leg of a horse, with its bite. (* We counted eighteen on each side. On the hind feet, at the upper end of the metatarsus, there is a callosity three inches long and three quarters of an inch broad, destitute of hair. The animal, when seated, rests upon this part. No tail is visible externally; but on putting aside the hair we discover a tubercle, a mass of naked and wrinkled flesh, of a conical figure, and half an inch long.) Its flesh has a musky smell somewhat disagreeable; yet hams are made of it in this country, a circumstance which almost justifies the name of water-hog, given to the chiguire by some of the older naturalists. The missionary monks do not hesitate to eat these hams during Lent. According to their zoological classification they place the armadillo, the thick-nosed tapir, and the manatee, near the tortoises; the first, because it is covered with a hard armour like a sort of shell; and the others because they are amphibious. The chiguires are found in such numbers on the banks of the rivers Santo Domingo, Apure, and Arauca, in the marshes and in the inundated savannahs* of the Llanos, that the pasturages suffer from them. (* Near Uritucu, in the Cano del Ravanal, we saw a flock of eighty or one hundred of these animals.) They browze the grass which fattens the horses best, and which bears the name of chiguirero, or chiguire-grass. They feed also upon fish; and we saw with surprise, that, when scared by the approach of a boat, the animal in diving remains eight or ten minutes under water.

We passed the night as usual, in the open air, though in a plantation, the proprietor of which employed himself in hunting tigers. He wore scarcely any clothing, and was of a dark brown complexion like a Zambo. This did not prevent his classing himself amongst the Whites. He called his wife and his daughter, who were as naked as himself,


Equinoctial Regions of America V2 - 30/97

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