by Ivan Mackerle
Do the pieces of eggshells that people in Madagascar still find today come from the legendary elephant bird? Does the monster still live in the midst of the forest? We were full of curiosity as we set out for an adventurous trip.
“It was then about fourteen feet high to the bill of him, with a big, broad head like the end of a pickaxe, and two huge brown eyes with yellow rims, set together like a man's—not out of sight of each other like a hen's. His plumage was fine—none of the half-mourning style of your ostrich—more like a cassowary as far as colour and texture go. And then it was he began to cock his comb at me and give himself airs, show signs of a nasty temper...and then he kicked me. It was like a cart-horse. I got up, and, seeing he hadn't finished, I started off full tilt with my arms doubled up over my face. But he ran on those gawky legs of his faster than a racehorse, and kept landing out at me with sledgehammer kicks and bringing his pickaxe down on the back of my head. I made for the lagoon, and went in up to my neck. He stopped at the water, for he hated getting his feet wet, and began to make a shindy, something like a peacock's, only hoarser. He started strutting up and down the beach.”
This is how H.G.Wells, the English classic of science fiction, described the meeting of a shipwrecked mariner with the prehistoric elephant bird. His story “Aepyornis Island” is not too fantastic. Such a bird actually lived on the Madagascar Island. People wrote about it in fairy-tales but also in old travelogues. The traveler Marco Polo was told by natives that a bird Ruh lived on the island and was similar to an eagle but was much larger. They said it could kill an elephant. It would grasp the elephant in its claws, take it up and than drop it. The bird wold slice open the elephant`s stomach with its beak and eat the entrails.
It did not take long for the world to come to believe in the existence of these giant birds. Doubtful voices of skeptical scientists were silenced in 1850 when an Arabic merchant Abbadi brought three intact eggs and several bones of a giant bird to France. It was the zoological sensation of 19th century. The egg had a volume of ten liters, which equals the contents of approximately one hundred and eighty hen eggs. During the following ten years the French paleontologists managed to find enough bones that they could compose the entire skeleton. It become apparent that the bird had looked like an ostrich with strong legs. It was three meters high and weighted half a ton. But it could not fly, let alone carry an elephant. But it could still be dangerous for man. With a blow from its strong beak the bird could crush the human scull and kill a man with a single kick. Scientists called it Aepyornis, but they could not determined when it went extinct. At first they thought it was during prehistory, but than they came up with a finding that changed their ideas. They found a bronze ring on the leg of Aepyornis with some mysterious signs. Soon the scholars found out, that the signs on the ring came from the epoch about the oldest city-civilization of India, Mahendzo-Daru – from five thousand years ago. Other findings gradually reduced this date and today it is thought the bird could have lived as late as the 17th century. However, the natives keep worrying the zoologists by saying that the eggs they sometimes find in moors and dunes of the southern part of the island look as if they were laid only recently. What if the scientists are wrong and the elephant bird still survives somewhere in the far away parts of the island?
For many years I have been passionately engaged in looking for unknown and supposedly extinct animals, such as the Loch Ness monster or Big Foot. No small wonder that our group set out to search for the legendary elephant bird. We were an experience-proven group. Jirka Skupien, Jarda Prokopec, my son Danny Mackerle and me. Past objects of our expeditions include the wild man-hobit nittaewo of the Sri Lanca, the dangerous animal tatzelwurm of the Austrian Alps and the Death Worm of the Mongolian desert Gobi. Pascal Gui, a native Malagasy now living in Prague, joined us in the search for the giant bird. He studied journalism in the Czech Republic and he speaks Czech well so he made an excellent interpreter for us.
We wanted to go through the southwestern coast of the island and explore the out-of-the-way places around the mouth of Ilinta River. We were lucky from the very start. A native from Tulear showed us a giant Aepyornis egg. We looked at it with reverence and examined it from all sides. It was truly magnificent. It did not seem to be very old, so we asked him where he had found it. The bird could not be far from the nest. At first the native hesitated to tell us but a bundle of bank notes finally opened his mouth. He pointed at a place on the map in the area of sands near a small village called Androka.
We were driving for an entire day. The road was in terrible condition with deep holes and huge stones. At some places it reminded me of a hiking trail somewhere in a rock city, or the dry bottom of a river. Occasionally we had to utilize the four wheel drive. There was dry and thorny bush all around us. Finally the bush disappeared and we had a beautiful view – blinding yellow dunes spreading far in all directions. We stopped in a small grove of treelike cacti and raffia palms to build camp. Impatient Jirka grabbed his camera bags and went scouting. We drunk a few gulps of warmish water, took our backpacks and ran after him. Jarda took a spade - just in case there was an Aepyornis skeleton sticking out of the sand. We feel like we were in the Sahara. Our feet sunk into the fine sand, the sun shone mercilessly and hot haze of fata morgana hovered above the dunes. We separated into an extended order and slowly walk among the hilly sand dunes. I looked for the highest place to be able to see the surroundings and then I heard Pascal shouting. He had found something! We ran to him and could not believe our eyes. The plateau of one long sand dune was covered with a number of shells. They looked like scraps from a porcelain mug but they came from a broken egg of the elephant bird, or rather from multiple eggs. We did not have to dig them out of the sand because they were right on the surface as if they had been laid there only recently. Had young birds hatched out of them, or were the eggs just broken by something? We crawled on our knees and looked for matching scraps. We would have liked to compose at least one whole egg. In our collector´s fervor we forget about the world.
“The natives are coming,” said Danny. And they were. A weird procession was walking on the crest of a sand dune – women carrying loads of wood on their heads. They walked upright and as light as if they felt no loads on heads. Sometimes, they carry goods to the market, at other time a bucket with water or a pack of bricks. One might wonder how their thin necks can hold the burden. Their hands remain free so they seem light even with a heavy basket on their head. They develop a noble poise and a charming gait. The women walking on the sand dune stopped and looked toward us. Some of them separated and came down to us. They saw we were whites and wanted to know what we were looking for there. They stopped several feet from us, put aside their plastic buckets with wood and looked at us with curiosity.
“Salam,” we greeted them. The women had a cheerful light in their eyes and started murmuring something. However, our conversational skills came to an end; we did not know another Malagasy word. When we failed to respond, they realised we did not understand and started arranging something. They must have been talking about us because they kept looking at us and laughing out loud. One of them started singing, swinging in the rhythm and wiggling her hips. She playfully smiled at us and uncovered her shining white teeth. She radiated energy and sensuality. Still wiggling, she turned her back to us, rolled up her skirt and pantomimed motions of sexual intercourse. Taken aback, we watched her chocolate brown buttocks. The other women laughed hard. Our embarrassment seemed ridiculous to them, they must have been accustomed to different reactions from their men. We quickly recovered and called Pascal who was digging in the sand nearby trying to find a whole egg or even bones. He came and translated our “witty” sentences. After a while, conversation was at full speed and our meeting ended with prospect of hope. We were invited to dinner in their village.
We arrived to the village before sunset. It was only a few primitive shacks, under coconut palms right on the seashore. Only then did we learn that the girl who had invited us for dinner was the daughter of the village chief. She ceremoniously lit a lamp and brought food – a giant three-kilogram lobster and a bowl of manioc. We were hungry and the fine lobster meat quickly disappeared in our mouths. We were joking about the ironical situation: We did not eat anything the previous night , talked about a simple hot dog for hours and just then we were having a royal dinner that would cost at least thousand crowns in Europe. Lobster is gourmet speciality and we were eating it there to satisfy hunger..
After dinner we were introduced to the chief and got to explain the purpose of our trip. We expected to hear some stories from him indicating that some last birds might be hidden here some places, but we were disapointed. The chief did not confirm it. If someone saw the giant bird, we would have known about it. He had not even heard the neighbouring tribes talk about it. We are interested at least in legends – so we asked when was the last time Aepyornis lived there. He remembered that in his childhood he used to hear that fathers of their grandfathers hunted this bird. He is said to have been slow and clumsy, so he was easy prey. By rough calculation, we learned it was about one hundred years ago, which is not very long! We regained hope that the bird did survive some place well-hidden from people. While the chief´s daughter took away our plates, we made jokes that if the tribes had not exterminated the bird, but rather bred it like hens, they would have enough to eat now. One egg would feed the whole village.
The next day we set out for the delta of Ilinta River. It is a large area of forest marshes that is absolutely inaccessible most of the year. Before the trip we read about some weird larynx squeaking being heard here. If a couple of the remnants of this bird species truly survived today, it could only be there. But it was a dry period when we were there and the river was dried up. Thick bushes and trees prevented us from scouting. Our jeep was scratched from boughs and we proceeded very slowly. Quite often we had to turn back and try another road. Finally we realised that walking would be faster. Although we were using a machete, the journey was difficult and exhaustive. It was likely that no human foot had ever threaded these places. At night we tried to record Aepyornis´s voice. But we heard no screeches and the tape remained empty. We did not give up and kept looking for some traces during the following days – maybe a print of a big three-toad foot in the sand, a piece of feathers or perhaps some droppings. But we found nothing. Gradually we realised that such a big bird could hardly be hiding there. The former high forests had vanished and the entire area was covered with thorny bushes and brushwood. The head of a three-meter high bird would stick out of the bushes. At last, we have seen the elephant bird after all. In the museum Tsimbazaza in the capital city of Madagascar we at least got to examine its skeleton.