From Jungle to Zoo on the Wild Animal Trail (Jun, 1931)
From Jungle to Zoo on the Wild Animal Trail
as told by FRANK BUCK
Famous Animal Collector
One of the most thrilling jobs in the world is that of Frank Buck, who captures wild animals for zoos all over the globe. He tells of some of his perilous experiences in this article. With Edward Anthony, he is author of “Bring ’em Back Alive,” a fascinating book of his animal collecting adventures.
FOR eighteen exciting years I have been gathering live animals, reptiles and birds for the zoos, the circuses and dealers. I have brought back to America thousands of specimens. I have had more than my share of thrills, including narrow escapes from the fangs of venomous serpents and the claws of man-eating tigers.
One day not so long ago I was in the office of Dr. William T. Hornaday, then Director of the New York Zoological Park. After discussing some lesser assignments, Dr. Hornaday reopened a subject that had been close to his heart for some time. “Isn’t there any way we can secure an Indian rhinoceros?” he asked. “You know I’ve always wanted one.”
The Indian rhino, as far as India itself is concerned, is virtually a non-existent animal. In the little state of Nepal, the Indian rhino has always been regarded as royal game, no one except the Maharajah and those friends and associates to whom he gave special permission being allowed to hunt it.
On May 20th of that year I sailed for Hong Kong, on the first leg of one of the most important collecting trips I have ever undertaken. While the Nepal expedition for the Indian rhinos was my big objective, I also had other important orders. Incidentally, Philadelphia’s zoo also asked for a rhino.
The St. Louis Zoo had commissioned me to secure for them a collection of Indian waders (cranes, storks, flamingoes), also some gib- bons and antelope. Then there was an order for a whole zoo which I had contracted for with the city of Dallas.
I also had an order from Al G. Barnes, the circus man, for three elephants, two tigers, two tapirs and two orang-outangs.
The New York Zoo, in addition to the In- dian rhino, had commissioned me to get a pair of snow leopards, a pair of markhor goats and a few smaller animals. I merely mention these to give you an idea of the extent of my business and the scale on which I was operating.
My diary reveals that I arrived in Singapore on the 28th of June. There I made preliminary arrangements for the trapping, and, in some cases, the purchase of the specimens I was after. Then I sailed for Calcutta.
At Calcutta I had a stroke of good luck. One of the many inquiries designed to help me discover some one who could be helpful in getting me on the right side of the Maharajah of Nepal resulted in the information that General Kaiser Shum Shere, a nephew of the Maharajah, was in town. He had come down from Khatmandu in his official capacity and had established a sort of Nepalese headquarters in Middletown Row, in the European section of Calcutta.
Shum Shere proved to be a dapper little man of about 35, with a dapper little beard. Shum Shere did not waste any time in getting to the point. I could have two Indian rhinos for 35,000 rupees. This is about $12,600. It’s a lot of money to invest in a couple of animals that have to travel 16,000 miles before you can hope to get your money back.
We closed the transaction and I was delighted when Shum Shere told me that he would personally head the expedition for the animals I sought This meant that the job would be intelligently organized and prosecuted, for the general is a truly great shikari, a man who has won the respect of the greatest hunters in Asia.
The deal for the rhinos settled, I decided on a collecting trip that took me through Burma and down the Malay peninsula to Singapore where I wound up with a great many specimens, including elephants, tigers, smaller animals and birds.
It was arranged that I was to keep in touch with a representative in Calcutta who was to be notified by Shum Shere after the latter had captured the two rhinos. Then I was to proceed to Nepal for the animals.
After days of reconnoitering, the General, who was working with a force of thirty elephants and well over a hundred Gurkhas, surrounded a female rhinoceros with a good sized calf. He shot down the mother, knowing that the rest was easy. By this I mean that it is well known to those who are familiar with the habits of the rhinoceros family that rhino calf will stand beside the dead body of its mother until decomposition starts to set in.
As the old cow dropped in her tracks, rope fencing, about four feet high and inter- minably long, was quickly brought up and thrown around the calf, making an enclosure of probably an acre in extent. A small army of Gurkhas managed the rope fencing, and they gradually closed in on the young rhinoceros until it was hemmed within an enclosure only 25 or 30 feet in diameter.
The animal put up a game fight, the General said, it being necessary to use his entire force of men to keep the fencing taut and prevent the baby rhino—(a mere infant weighing about a ton)—from dashing through.
At this point in the proceedings logs and poles were cut from the forest and brought up to the rope corral. These were driven in the ground close together and banked high with earth on the outside. The rhino was left this way for several days, until somewhat weakened and easy to handle.
A second calf was captured in the same manner. .
They gave me a total of $16,000 for the two rhinos and it would take much bookkeeping to show that I didn’t make any money on the deal. As near as I can figure, I broke even.
One of my adventures that I will always remember, which came unfortunately close to making an end of me, began with this simple sentence: “We want a king cobra—a big one.”
Several times I had heard those words from Dr. Raymond Ditmars of the New York Zoological Park. For a long time I had been on the lookout for a specimen that would fill the bill, but without success.
The difficulties involved in landing a big king cobra are many. Most of the Asiatic traders and trappers that supply me with specimens of other kinds, including dangerous animals and reptiles, have a fear of cobras that makes the disquiet that all other jungle terrors arouse in them seem mild in comparison.
The reason for this is that of all the creatures that dwell in the jungle of Asia it is the most vicious, being the only one that will attack without provocation. Nowhere in the world is there an animal or reptile that can quite match its unfailing determination to wipe out anything that crosses its path.
This lust to kill invests the king cobra with a quality of fiendishness that puts it in a class by itself, almost making of it a jungle synonym for death. I think of the many natives, within my own experience, that have succumbed to it, of animals that suffered the same fate.
I can’t get out of my mind, for instance, the picture of a big water buffalo, a fine specimen weighing about 1,500 pounds, that, walking through a rice padi, had the misfortune to step too close to a ridge where a six-foot king cobra lay coiled up.
The uncompromising reptile struck and the buffalo was dead in less than an hour.
The ordinary poisonous reptile makes a quick strike and injects what venom it can in a fraction of a second. When the king cobra strikes it holds its victim fast in its jaw until it has completely emptied its poisonous sacs. The result is an infection from which recovery is impossible, the system being too saturated with the killing fluid.
Nine times out of ten the mere smell of a human being will send a tiger scurrying off into the jungle. The same is true of the leopard. The sudden appearance of a native child has been known to stampede a whole herd of elephants. The cobra alone refuses to admit that man is anything to worry about. Cross its path anywhere at any time and he’ll raise two or three feet of his body off the ground, stretch out his great hood and go for you.
Wherever 1 went all over the map of Asia I looked around to see if there wasn’t a chance of picking up the king cobra that was wanted in New York. Then one day I had a stroke of luck. I was up on the northeastern border of Johore looking over some tigers. An old Malay Sakai came by with a box on his head.
It didn’t take me long to see that the old baboon had something remarkable to offer— the largest king cobra I had ever seen.
In fact, it later proved to be the biggest in the world. I gave him ten dollars and the giant king cobra was mine.
I was curious to hear from the old Sakai how he had come by the tremendous cobra he had sold me. One of the Asiatic jungle’s strangest products, he stood before me hugging his ten dollars to his chest, greatly pleased with his bargain and smiling that I might get a good look at the hideous black stumps that once were teeth.
One night when the jungle was a bit chill and damp, he and his comrades started a fire. Sakais have a habit of rolling in the warm ashes on such occasions. One of the men was going through these strange gymnastics when he felt something strike him in the chest.
Instinctively he reached out and grabbed it, yelling for all he was worth as he did. Curled up in the ashes, some of them half asleep, were other Sakais. When they heard their fellow tribesmen cry out they jumped up to see what was wrong. They found him holding an enormous king cobra. Seeking a warm place the cobra had come into the Sakai camp.
As the victim kept shrieking away that he had been bitten by a king cobra, one of the Sakais who had scrambled up out of the ashes got a firm hold on the snake behind the head and took it away from his doomed comrade. Only a Sakai would have had the nerve to do that.
With the old man directing the operations, a long pole and strips of rattan were quickly produced and the cobra was stretched out and lashed to the pole. Later it was transferred to an old wooden box.
The first thing I did when I got back to Singapore with my record-breaking king cobra was to order a fine teakwood box with a heavy plateglass top sliding in a groove. We prepared to transfer the snake by placing the old box over the new and knocking the decaying bottom out of the old The snake would drop through and with one quick slide of the plateglass top I would finish the job of installing him in his new and more comfortable home.
I had two Chinese boys and two Malay boys working with me in the compound, which gave me more help than I needed for the simple task to be done. The scene of our operations was a nipa-thatched shed in my compound, inclosed on three sides, open in front and partly filled with empty tiger cages and other boxes stacked to the roof.
I sent one of the Chinese boys for the old box. With the rear wall of the shed at my back, I was standing beside the new box which was in readiness for its tenant. As the boy approached he stumbled over some object on the ground, jarring the box sufficiently to cause the rotten bottom to fall out. The snake fell with it, landing on the cement in front of me, belly up.
In a fraction of a second my four boys were frantically scrambling to places of safety. I was debating whether to do the same thing myself. It was really the sensible thing to do. After all, who wants to fight a cobra?
The piled-up tiger boxes formed a wall on my left, the stolid sidewall of the shed was at my right and behind me was the back of the shed.
I hesitated long enough to give the snake a chance to right itself. It reared its head three feet and spread its greenish brown hood. Then it saw me.
Instinctively I jumped backward. There wasn’t far to go. Another four or five feet and I’d hit the back of the shed. As I made my brief retreat the snake struck, missing my leg by only an inch or two.
I was trapped. I suffered more from plain ordinary fright at that moment than at any time in all my long career of adventure. Through my mind flashed a quick picture of what had happened to the Sakai that this terrible reptile had bitten.
I flattened myself against .the back of the shed, grimly eyeing the killer that lay almost at my feet. The expressionless eyes calmly looking back at me gave me a cold and clammy feeling. I didn’t want to die this way. Desperately I ran my eyes around for something to bring down over the enemy’s head.
Anything would do, anything that could be converted into a club—a stick of wood, a . .
The cobra was poising itself for another strike. The hideous head rose slightly and stretched forward a bit.
Staring hard ahead I poised myself too . . for a fight to a finish, though just how I was going to fight I didn’t know. I had nothing to fight with, nothing with which to fend off the attack.
Frantically slipping over my head the white duck coat which I was wearing over a bare skin—quaint custom of the tropics— I held it in front of me, and as the snake came on I lunged forward and threw myself upon it.
I hit the ground with a bang, the cobra under me. I could feel the wriggling body under mine, and with each wriggle I pressed down harder.
I was hopeful of keeping the reptile so weighted down that it would not be able to do anything with those murderous fangs. I screamed like a lunatic for those boys of mine. The cobra continued to squirm and wriggle.
With a crazy kind of desperation I kept pressing down with my body. Part of the Snake got loose and kept hitting against my hip. In my unhinged condition T decided that the part that was free was the head and every time it struck I imagined myself being bitten.
I started yelling like mad for one of the other boys. One of the Chinese lads appeared. He was game. As I cautiously raised up a bit, not sufficient to allow the reptile to lift its head enough for a striking position, he slid his hand underneath me and made a quick grab for the snake behind the head; and as I slowly raised up higher and higher he began the process of tightly twisting the white duck coat over the cobra’s mouth, head and neck until it was helpless.
Less than ten minutes later the king cobra that had almost succeeded in killing me was dropped into his new box. Dr. Ditmars was delighted with his giant cobra when it was delivered to the Bronx Zoo four weeks later.