Friday, 7 August 2015

Up de Graff and the Giant Anacondas

     The green anaconda, Eunectes murinus, the great water boa of the Amazon, is the heaviest, and one of the longest snakes in the world, but how long does it grow? It certainly reaches 20 feet [6.1 m], although the vast majority are shorter. Any individuals longer than that are officially unconfirmed but, since they grow throughout life, and since every species contains freakishly large individuals, we should not doubt their existence. It is the truly gigantic forms which remain controversial. Perhaps it is natural for the white man to project onto the hostile wilderness monsters two or three times the known maximum (though we never hear of 30 foot long alligators). However, the fact that the Indians also tell of them might give us pause for thought. Percy Fawcett, we know, claims to have shot and measured (? by pacing it) an anaconda 62 feet [18.9 m] in length. So, either he was a bare-faced liar, or there really are such monsters out there.
     With this in mind, and since the aim of this blog is to rescue reports which may have got lost, I should like to share with you a record which, until now, appears to have been largely overlooked.
      I recently dipped into my waiting-to-be-read pile and retrieved a book originally purchased 29 years ago: Head-Hunters of the Amazon, seven years of exploration and adventure by Fritz W. Up de Graff. Although originally published in 1921, my copy is the 1926 Cornstalk edition published in Sydney. It boggles the mind that a country of little more than five million people was actively publishing works such as this. Be that as it may, it is one of the all time great travel books, and since it has recently been re-issued in paperback form, there is no excuse for not reading it.
     Mr Up de Graaf was a New York engineer who arrived in Ecuador in late 1894. Having set off into the jungles of the east in 1897, he fell in with an expatriate compatriot called Jack Rouse. Having learned that the Yasuní River was completely unexplored, for fear of the savage infieles (heathens) - now known as the Huaorani, or Aucas - they hired five Yumbo Indians to take them up the river in a dugout canoe. Thus began a series of adventures of which the following are only minor incidents.
     One morning, while bathing in a pool, he felt the bottom move under his feet. He had stepped on, not a stingray, as he had first thought, but an anaconda. They managed to kill it with a shot, but all seven of them were hard pressed to drag the still squirming body from the water. In fact, the decapitated body coiled around his legs and nearly broke them in its dying contractions. It took them all day to skin it, and they discovered "an almost totally digested deer in its stomach". Don't assume anything amazing about that. Rainforest deer are on the small side; the largest, the red brocket, Mazama americana would seldom weigh in at more than 48 kg. The snake was 30 feet [9.1 m] long.
     Or was it? He was writing more than 20 years after the event, and there is no indication as to how it was measured - certainly not with a tape in the primitive conditions under which they operated. Also, I am deeply suspicious of a round number such as 30. In any case, they considered it was very, very big. The following paragraph is instructive.
In order to preserve the skin we had to make a frame with two thirty-foot saplings, upon which to stretch it and place it in the sun. Finally a thatched shelter as long as the skin itself had to be built to protect it from the rain while it was drying. By the time we had rolled it into a cylindrical package about three feet high and stowed it in the canoe we nearly had a mutiny. After packing it along with us for a few days, we began to fear the infieles would smell us coming! Jack said its only use was that it made it unnecessary to cut a trail while out hunting. At last, after trying in vain to keep it dry, we left it to the ants in one of our temporary camps. [p 76]
     When you hear that lengths over 20 feet have not been "confirmed", what does this mean? Obviously, it means measured by someone whom the zoologist in question trusts. As often as not, that means nothing but a dead or anaesthetized specimen from a zoo or museum. However, if gigantic specimens occur, they are likely to be quite rare, and only encountered adventitiously as in the above case, and the chances of having the measurement "confirmed" are remote. Bringing in a live specimen would be next to impossible. The prize of $50,000 offered by the Wildlife Conservation Society for the live delivery of any 30-footer will remain unclaimed for a very long time.
     Their next experience was even more dramatic. At one point they were poling along the river when Jack saw what he initially believed was a dead alligator. Instead, it was a huge anaconda.
There lay in the mud and water, covered with flies, butterflies and insects of all sorts, the most colossal anaconda which ever my wildest dreams had conjured up. Ten or twelve feet of it lay stretched out on the bank in the mud; the rest of it lay in the clear shallow water, one huge loop of it under our canoe, its body as thick as a man's waist. I have told the story of its length many times since, but scarcely ever have been believed. It measured fifty feet for a certainty, and probably nearer sixty. This I know from the position in which it lay. Our canoe was a twenty-four footer; the snake's head was ten or twelve feet beyond the bow; its tail was a good four feet beyond the stern; the centre of its body was looped up into a huge S, whose length was the length of our dug-out, and whose breadth was a good five feet. [pp 83-84]
     This time, the noise made by Jack in fumbling for the rifles alarmed it, and it vanished with a swirl of water which nearly swamped them.
     Can we cut this story down to size? Obviously, his memory may have misled him about the length before and behind the canoe, and it probably did not completely double over on itself under the craft. What about the canoe's length of 24 feet [7.3 m]? The natives almost certainly did not cut them to precise sizes. However, it is clear from the rest of the book that they came in discrete categories, some of them even larger. The book contains a photo of a typical canoe, and from the height of the man inside, it is clearly at least 20 feet long. Also, the one they used held seven people and their supplies, so 24 feet seems reasonable. Even without an S-bend the snake would have been beyond the official limit.
     But, before we go any further, I need to make a digression. In Wanderings in South America (1825), Charles Waterton told how a friend had killed a 22-foot anaconda with a pair of stag's horns (he means antlers) protruding from its mouth. He assumed that the snake had been unable to swallow the head, and was waiting for the rest of the stag to be digested.
     Now, I have a lot of problems with this, the length of the snake not being one of them. For a start, in snakes, as in other vertebrates, the stomach is separated from the mouth by a long gullet or oesophagus, so it would be rather difficult to digest something which still had part of the body sticking out of the mouth. Secondly, snakes typically swallow their prey head first. Thirdly, the antlers of a brocket are mere spikes, and are unlikely to cause trouble to any snake which can handle their hooves. A white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, which lives in Venezuela, would be a different matter. However, I doubt if even a 22-foot anaconda could swallow a fully grown male which, after all, are the only ones which possess antlers. No, the story is probably based on some anaconda which tried to swallow something too big for it, or which disgorged its prey.
     This had naturally provoked a lot of criticism, and reflected badly on Up de Graff, for it was assumed that the story I am about to repeat was "brought wholesale from Waterton". While hunting in the forest, he heard a noise, halted, and saw, ten feet [3 metres] above the ground a long, thin neck surmounted by a head with a pair of horns, which projected sideways. It was an anaconda. Hooking the "horns" in the undergrowth, it withdrew its head, leaving behind the putrid head of a deer. This explained, he mused, what he had witnessed one or two times before: the head of a deer in a tree.
     Apparently these reptiles, although they have been known to swallow horses and cattle [!], cannot  negotiate the head of a spike-horn deer; so, in order not to be deprived of so toothsome a morsel, they swallow the body and wait until they can break off the half-rotten head from the partly digested trunk. That they must wait a considerable length of time before they can accomplish this feat is certain, for the head of which I saw the anaconda rid itself was already in an advanced stage of decomposition. Afterwards, I learned from the Indians that what I had seen is of common occurrence in the forest. [pp 117-118]
      Now, the rest of Up de Graff's book carries the air of authenticity, judged from my readings on South America, and this is confirmed by the lengthy introduction by R. Cunninghame Graham. Nevertheless, this was one item I initially considered made up, and thus casting a shadow over the whole narrative. On second reading, however, I note that he did not say the anaconda was exceptionally large. Nor did he say, as the commentator assumed, that the snake reared up ten feet from the ground; it was probably in the tree to start with (an uncommon occurrence, I will admit). What I feel happened is that, having fallen under Waterton's spell, he has simply  misinterpreted the sight of an anaconda disgorging a deer's head which, after all, is mostly bone, and difficult to digest.
     This was not the last of the experiences with the serpents. On 23 October 1899 he was on the Santiago River in Peru when he and a companion called Ed Morse, when they got up close and personal with a dormant anaconda. This time he had a journal in which to record the event as follows:
Having sighted the great reptile coiled up on a fallen tree which lay half in the water, half on the bank, we paddled quietly up to within a yard or two for closer inspection. It lay in a pyramid of coils, apparently sleeping. Surprised that it did not move, we splashed water on it to wake it up; there being no result, I started to prod it with my paddle, and still meeting with no success, I lifted my paddle and brought it down on the snake's side with a resounding whack that actually broke the blade. It squirmed a little, but soon lay still again. Determined to get a closer view, I climbed out on to the log and kicked the fat black coils. It showed some signs of animation, so I got back into the canoe and continued to prod it. Finally it awoke, slipped into the water while still half rolled up, and swam leisurely away on the surface, giving us a good chance to judge its length. Comparison with the twenty-four foot canoe showed it to be some thirty feet long. Its indifference to our attack was amazing, in view of our previous experiences of the same species on the Yasuní. Moreover it did not seem to have fed recently, no swelling being apparent. [pp 267-8]
     Although he states that this was the fourth and last anaconda he saw, the book contains a photo of one, not coiled up on a half-sunken log, but fully extended on a horizontal log, so I wonder if this wasn't taken by someone else some other time.
     Are all these accounts the unvarnished truth, free of any exaggeration, inaccurate estimation, or faulty memory? It is easy enough to incorrectly estimate the length of a snake in the wild. It is also easy enough to invent a story which can't be contradicted. Likewise, it is easy enough to call a person a liar without proof. So I keep an open mind. Maybe Up de Graff overstated his case. Maybe Fawcett didn't shoot a 62-footer. Maybe Algot Lange did not kill and skin an anaconda 54 ft 8 in [16.66 m] long when dry. Any individual claim can be dismissed, but in the aggregate, I think there are sufficient reports by reliable people to support the contention that snakes much longer than the official maximum exist. It is not as if they didn't exist in the past - google Gigantophis and Titanoboa.
     Just don't expect it to be confirmed any time soon.
(If you are interested, there is more on Up de Graff's adventures here.)

1 comment:

  1. Even though 100 years is a 'long time' (for us humans), in the scheme of things it's nothing, so it does raise eyebrows that at least a few 40,50,60 (!) foot anaconda's lived a mere 100 years ago, and now finding an 18 footer is a rarity. Has the Amazon changed so much in 100 years in terms of de-forestation and development that super-sized specimens no longer *can* exist? Seems hard to believe. I can possibly see a 30-footer a century ago, the difference (just pacing it off) from 20 to 30 is pretty dramatic, and the thickness probably increased even more-so.