Komoon! Capturing the Chad Elephant

by Heinrich Oberjohann, translated by Rhoda de Terra. Pantheon, 1952. 219 pages.

Books about the sparsely populated, landlocked, and arid country of Chad are hard to find. Even this one, the long-out-of-print adventures of a German animal collector, can be assigned to Chad only with some ambiguity. Lake Chad, where Heinrich Oberjohann journeyed alone in the 1930s to capture young elephants for zoos, is bordered not only by the country of Chad but by Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Oberjohann wastes no time on preliminaries in this briskly written account, but does mention that he asked permission of British colonial officials to approach the lake by way of the Nigerian province of Bornu. The village of "Kinghava," where he made his base camp, is not included in modern atlases. But regardless of exactly where Kinghava is located, the author makes clear that he traveled extensively, on foot and on horseback, around the shores of this enormous lake, most of which (despite a border dispute with Nigeria) falls within the boundaries of what is now Chad.

Drought in the Sahel has dried up Lake Chad to a fraction of its former size, and some predict that the lake may completely disappear in the foreseeable future. In the 1930s, however, an expanse of open water at the heart of the lake was surrounded by a sea of papyrus reeds in which a number of smaller lakes were hidden. Oberjohann lived here for four years as he tracked, studied, captured, and sometimes released the elephants that lived here in the swamps. (He had been told that the Lake Chad elephants were the largest in the world, but doesn't say whether he found that to be true.)

Oberjohann reveals himself to be a strange mixture of the brutal and the sensitive. His preferred method for capturing a young elephant was to separate it from its mother, sometimes by screaming at the herd to create a stampede. He would rope a young elephant or even grab it by the tail and let it tow him through the swamp until it tired. A very young elephant, disoriented and anxious for protection, would sometimes follow him willingly back to camp. Whenever possible Oberjohann avoided shooting adult elephants to get access to their young, and generally fired only when in imminent danger. (Most so-called elephant attacks, he explains, are only bluff.) Yet he continued to capture baby elephants even though they invariably died after a few days -- for a simple reason that he only discovered after eighteen of them were sacrificed. And aside from Colo, his right-hand man, he treated his Berber assistants with contempt, describing them as "children of nature," sometimes whipping them, and exhibiting no interest in their lives and culture.

The author's curiosity is reserved mostly for the elephants themselves, and his respect for them increases during his years among them. Elephants will not attack a sleeping man, he notes, and he witnesses two of them trying to help a wounded comrade. Their intelligence is extraordinary: he is lured into an ambush by one herd, and he discovers that the lone elephants that he and other hunters had routinely shot as dangerous "rogues" were in fact sentries posted to alert the herd to danger.

Though written in the style of a boy's adventure story, Komoon! contains some unusual and astute perspectives on elephant behavior. Oberjohann observes the extraordinarily keen hearing of the elephants, and the "deep ventriloquist grumblings" by which they seem to communicate. Noticing repeatedly that a danger to one herd would cause another herd many miles away to bolt at the same moment, he wonders whether the first elephant to notice a threat "emitted a sound which was heard by the elephants but was unaudible to the human ear" -- coming close to guessing at the infrasonic communication discovered years later by acoustic biologist Katy Payne and described in her 1998 book Silent Thunder.

From Komoon! Capturing the Chad Elephant:

The herd saunters but it stays close together. In the afternoon hours you hear no quarreling among the various families; the elephants browse as they range. With their trunks, they probe the bottom of the water, tearing up big bundles of reeds, root and all. They are after the succulent reed-marrow, which is more tender the closer it is to the ground...

It is hard to get used to the deafening noise made by the breaking and crushing of great masses of tough reeds and the rush of masses of water displaced by two hundred elephants. Nowhere else have I ever felt such an oppressive sensation of fear, neither on the veld nor in the dense forest. My senses were whipped to a high pitch by this diabolical elephant orchestra, and in this state of feverish excitement I could travel with the herd for days at a stretch without tiring. As a matter of fact, this was not the time for sleeping. Without any warning, a couple of living, gray mountains might suddenly pass only a yard from you. Added to this there was always the danger of a surprise attack by some solitary animal watching on the fringe of the herd.