Even Elephants Pray by Alexander Bulatovich

edited and translated by Richard Seltzer

Copyright 1993

This excerpt appeared in the September/October 1994 issue of Safari, The Journal of Big Game Hunting, published by Safari Press, 15621 Chemical Lane, Building B, Huntington Beach, CA 92649-1506. (714) 894-9080.


Europe was stunned when Africans decimated a modern Italian army at the Battle of Adowa in 1896.

At the Conference of Berlin, the European powers had partitioned Africa into spheres of influence, granting Ethiopia to Italy. But Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II had no intention of passively submitting to European colonialism. He maneuvered for years to arm and prepare his troops, then -- when the time was right -- he struck decisively.

In Russia, news of the battle sparked public sympathy and charity for the brave defenders of that ancient Christian realm. A Red Cross mission was squickly assembled to rush medical aid to the Ehtoipian wounded. A young Russian cavalry office, Lieutenant Alexander Bulatovich of His Majesty's Life-Guard Hussar Regiment, volunteered for this mission and fell in love with the coutnry, its people, its culture, and it's natural wonders. When the Red Cross Mission left, he stayed on for several months to travel and hunt in the wilderness.

Later, he returned to Ethiopia three more time, and wrote two books about his experiences.

The following excerpt (the second excursion in From Entotto to the River Baro ), describes an extraordinary elephant hunt that Bulatovich took part in during his first trip in 1896. On this expedition, he had 14 servants and one gun per servant, including six Gra guns, two 3/8-inch-caliber rifltes, one carbine, one double-barreled funting gun and one Gra system four-guage elephant gun (with explosive bullets) weighting 24 pounds which he had bought in Addis Ababa.

1,000 Galla warriors -- 400 armed with three small spears each and riding horses, and 600 walking, half of them with small spears and the other half with three-yard-long spears -- set off on this expedition. Five men and 41 elephants died.

From Addis Ababa to Lekamte, the residence of Dajazmatch Gebra Egziabeer is an estimated 360-400 versts [238-264 miles]. The elephant hunting season had already begun. I had little time left. I intended to cover this distance as fast as possible, so that after hunting I could catch the steamer leaving Jibuti on April 2. Therefore, having provided myself with a letter from the Emperor to Dajazmatch Gebra Egziabeer, I declined a translator and durgo along the way.

We set out at 12 noon on February 13. On the 15th, we camped at the vertex of a road crossing in Chalea. On the 16th, having passed the city of Bareilu, and having made a brief daytime stop at the city of Likamakos38 Abata, we climbed Mount Tibye. The shum of the Likamakos killed a ram for us, and here we took part in the Lenten church service. On the 17th, we passed the summit of Mount Tibye and Mount Amara. On the 18th, we crossed the upper reaches of the Gibye River; and on the 19th, at 12 noon, we arrived at Lekamte. Thus we traversed the whole distance in six days, going 60 versts [40 miles] a day along a very difficult mountain road. We set out at six in the morning and walked till noon or one o'clock, made a short stop and then again walked until evening. We were on the move ten to eleven hours a day.

Our food for this time consisted almost exclusively of peas fried in a pan; and for the first days, up until Lent, we ate gazelles killed along the way, for the most part raw, so we did not have to drag them along with us.

Notified by me of my arrival, the Dajazmatch sent all the soldiers at hand to meet me. I already knew Dajazmatch Gebra Egziabeer from before. During my stay at the home of Dajazmatch Demissew, Gebra Egziabeer was gravely ill. He had a severe fever which he had caught on an elephant hunt. It was immediately after the rains, when the huge grass was not yet burnt. Having surrounded the elephants, they set fire to the grass, but a stiff wind suddenly arose and spread the fire over the whole field and carried the flames toward the hunters. They saw too late the danger that was threatening them. Already there was no way out.

Fortunately, there was a swamp nearby into which they all threw themselves and hid in mud up to their heads. The fire passed them by, taking several victims. Without exception, all the survivors fell sick with a fever, from which several men died.

Being of very strong constitution and not having previously been sick, the Dajazmatch suffered especially severely from the fever and asked me by letter to help him. One day I went to him and gave him some of my quinine.

Dajazmatch Gebra Egziabeer is a Galla. From time immemorial, his clan has ruled this region. Twenty years ago it was conquered by the Tekla Haymanot, the Negus of Gojjam; but he could not hold out here. Ras Gobana, the famous general of Emperor Menelik, subdued all the surrounding Galla lands, and Leka, in view of its hopeless situation, voluntarily submitted to Menelik and now pays him a tribute consisting of 100 ukets39 of ivory (150 pounds), 500 ukets of gold (about one pound) and a fixed tax for houses and cattle. Moreover, the inhabitants are obliged to maintain the troops of the Emperor who are stationed within the bounds of the region. At the time of the death of his father, Abakumsa (as Gebra Egziabeer used to called) was christened and had one of his three wives christened andrepudiated the rest, giving them to his retinue. Emperor Menelik and Empress Taitu were their godparents. At the christening, he took the name Gebra Egziabeer -- which literally means "God's slave." Promoted to Dajazmatch by Menelik, he inherited all the possessions of his father: very extensive possessions which, on the west, border on the possessions of Abdurakhman. The Dajazmatch is a very sympathetic and intelligent man. He is interested in everything, understands what can interest a European, and recounts very wisely and interestingly the history of his people and their former customs.

On February 20, together with 800 men armed with military guns, we began the hunt and set out to the north toward the valley of the Abbay -- the Blue Nile. Each soldier, in addition to a gun, also carried little skins of grain or flour, enough for ten days. The kitchen went with us: two servants, carrying on their shoulders in rope nets large broken pumpkins in which hung dough that was being made sour for injera. It was a luxury which I would have liked to have foregone, but the Dajazmatch insisted on it.

My whole cargo was packed on one mule and consisted of a small tent, one change of linen and two large skins of corn for the servants -- enough for ten days.

The leader of the hunt was Baljeron40 Haile Maryam, also a Galla, but baptized and trying in every way to imitate the Abyssinians.

The hunt was unsuccessful. We wasted ten days, sending out scouts and looking for elephants where they had been before. We found old tracks, but there were no elephants.

We came across other game in great quantities, but it was forbidden to shoot them.

On the last day, I killed a hippopotamus in the Angar River. Since the provisions had run out, the Galla had not eaten for a day. They dragged the dead hippopotamus with lianas to the shore and quickly ate it up, roasting its white flesh on the campfire.

On March 2 we returned to Lekamte.

Handek, the area where we hunted, embraces all the southern course of the Angar River and the rivers which flow into it from the left, and likewise the valley of the Didessa River. Beyond Angar begins Lima, the property of the Gojjam Negus, which extends to the Abbay River. Both the one region and the other are uninhabited in their low-lying parts because of dreadful fevers that reign there. Enticed by the fertility of the soil, Galla go down there at the good time of the year, sow seeds, and come back later to harvest. Large areas of land are planted with cotton. It's hard to imagine a place more beautiful than this.

Bounded on the southeast, the east and the northeast by high mountains, cut by frequent streams and rivulets, the banks of which are overgrown with thick forest, it is all covered with low fruit trees with bright green glittering leaves. These trees bear varieties of fruit which all have a very thick layer of flesh and a stone in the middle. In taste, they are for the most part sour.

On the day after our return, the Dajazmatch assembled another party of hunters; and on March 4, we set out again, this time with a detachment of a thousand Galla men, armed only with spears, to places where no one had disturbed the elephants for three years. The leaders of this hunt were Azzaj Haile Iesus and Agafari41 Wolda Giyorgis. Of the thousand men, four hundred were on horse and armed with three small spears each, and the other six hundred were on foot, half with small spears and the other half with four-arshin-long [three-yard-long] spears with huge points and yard-long blades. This long spear is called a jambi.

They throw it from the top of a tall tree when an elephant passes under it. The force of the fall of the spear is so great that it sometimes pierces all the way through an elephant. Usually, one such spear is sufficient to bring an elephant down.

Only my servants and several soldiers of the dajazmatch were armed with guns.

At first we divided into two detachments, one of the azzaj, the other of the agafari, and set out toward the west to the Didessa valley. After fruitless searches in the forests surrounding the Didessa, on the third day we united again and went up north, toward the watershed between the Angar and the Didessa. For five days, our searches were fruitless, despite the fact that setting out at dawn we only began to set up camp at sunset. I was simply amazed at the endurance of the Galla and, in particular, the endurance of the scouts who were sent out ahead. If we did 40 versts [26 miles], then they, probably, did at least 60 [40 miles], through dense bushes overgrown with thorns, in part through high grass which was half-burnt with sharp hard stalk bases. When you look at that terrain, you are amazed at how they, barefoot, not only walk through it, but even run.

We usually made camp in the valley of some rivulet. When night fell and the campfires were lit, all the old Galla would gather in conference with the azzaj, discussing what to undertake and where to go tomorrow. Gray, taciturn, with an invariable pipe between the lips, they seated themselves around the fire and sedately deliberated, sometimes conjectured. When the camp began to quiet down, each day a dialogue took place that on the one side was the orders for the following day and on the other side was a public prayer.

"Abe, abe," was heard from one end of the camp.

"E,e,e," they answered from the other end.

"Tomorrow we will set out early to this place."

"Good. Good."

"We have a guest with us."

"I know. I know."

"Until he shoots, no one else attack."

"Good. Good."

"May God help us find the elephant."

"Let it be so."

"Let Maryam help us."

"Let Giyorgis, Mikael, Gabriel help us."

"Listen, listen," cries one to the other. "May Satan not get

mad at us."

"May he not send a goro42 at us."

"Let him not strike us with sickness."

"May the Angar, the Didessa Rivers help us."

"Let the Jirgo, Tume Sibu, Tibye Mountains help us."

"All pray God that He help us." And amid the night stillness there begins a drawling, plaintive song. Someone asks for mercy upon him. Someone asks for an elephant to be sent to him.

Someone asks that his spear be guided. Some enumerate their previous triumphs. And long, long into the night stillness,

these plaintive sounds are heard.

Finally, on Sunday, March 9, we came upon a fresh night track. The scouts who had been sent ahead reported this to us; and the whole band, those who were on horseback at a trot and the rest at a run, rushed there. Up until noon, we couldn't catch the elephants. Finally, at 12:30, the scouts reported that the elephants were resting in the shade of trees by a nearby stream.

The azzaj gave the order to surround the elephants, and seventy mounted men (including me, since a week before I had bought myself a hunting horse) rushed at a gallop straight to the indicated spot. Having galloped three versts [two miles], we suddenly heard cries, "There they are!" Fifty paces in front of us, we saw a huge herd of elephants fleeing from us. A hundred head of elephant, big and small and all red from the clay of the stream bed, flapping their ears and trembling with their whole bodies, raising high their trunks, ran in panic. I shot several times from my horse. Some of my companions shot, too. But the elephants hid. Meanwhile, the bearers of jambi succeeded in climbing into the trees which stood in the middle of the stream.

The other spear-bearers on foot likewise came in time. The elephants, having tried to flee to the other side of the stream, turned when they saw the mounted hunters. The grass was set afire, and the frightened elephants scattered, like a broken brood of partridges. There was no escape for them. In the forest, the jambi struck them; on the edge of the forest -- the spear-bearers on foot and my servants with guns. Just as they broke out farther, we surrounded them, like a swarm of flies, and even behind them along the plain, where high grass grew and thick trees, we struck with whatever we could. Those who had guns shot. The others hurled spears which plunged into the elephants' bodies and which the elephants pulled out of their wounds with their trunks and angrily threw back at us. Anyone whom an elephant charged saved himself by fleeing while others distracted the animal off to the side. If an elephant pursued someone all the way to the hill, it was almost impossible to escape. I saw how one elephant, having rushed at a Galla who had galloped by at twenty paces from me, in the twinkling of an eye snatched him from the saddle with his trunk, let forth a cry and threw the man against the ground, intending to trample him. Fortunately, others succeeded in distracting the elephant, and it left his victim. In another case, an elephant threw a large broken branch at a Galla who had been with us and broke his arm. Five, ten, fifteen minutes of pursuit and an elephant fell. It was then considered the catch of the one who first wounded it, and the fortunate hunter rushed to cut the tail and the end of the trunk and the ears as material evidence of his triumph.

The field of the hunt presented an interesting picture. All around the grass blazed with a crackling sound. In the woods,there was endless shooting and cries of terror or triumph, and all this uproar was drowned out by the bellow and screech of the panic-stricken elephants, throwing themselves now at one person, now at another. The Galla believe that at such moments of despair the elephants are praying to God, throwing sand and grass to heaven. I personally saw elephants doing this.

Only at 7:30 in the evening did this hunt, that was really more like a battle, end. None of us had had any food in our mouths since morning, nor a drop of water. It was impossible to drink from the stream because it was all red with blood. But no one bothered to think of food or drink.

On this day forty-one elephants were killed. Five were my share. (I killed three and my servants two). We lost five men killed: three crushed by elephants and two killed by our shots. One man had a broken bone in his right arm. With triumphant songs, we returned to camp, not feeling tired.

On the following day, one group set out to extract the tusks and another set out to pursue the wounded elephants. Meanwhile I examined the wounds inflicted by my elephant gun. It had a remarkable effect. I killed all my elephants with it, and with a single bullet in the head.

On Tuesday, all the elders gathered and sorted out the disputes about who first wounded an elephant. The Gallas do anything to show their right to an elephant. They resort to bribes and to guile. But the Azzaj knew the people he was dealing with. He waited until the provisions had been exhausted, so that hunger would separate the true from the false. He didn't miscalculate. I didn't wait for the end of the disputes. Since my elephants were without question, I hurried off with my trophies to Lekamte.

On Thursday, March 13, at noon, the Dajazmatch ceremoniously met me; and on Friday the 14th, at three in the morning, I set out for Addis Ababa. The send-off was moving, since during the hunt the Galla had grown fond of me. As a gift, many of them on the day of the hunt had brought me their spears, covered with the not yet dry blood of elephants. They did this completely unselfishly. Gebra Egziabeer and I exchanged gifts. I gave him the elephant gun, and he gave me his own saber and a large buffalo goblet.

Russian Eyes by Alexander Bulatovich, translated by Richard Seltzer. Unique and detailed first-hand account of Ethiopia in 1896-98 -- at the change of an era -- by a Russian officer with remarkable understanding of the many varied people who lived there and keen insight into their destiny.

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