Hunting Pumas and Guanacos, Part 1
Next day I went round the estancia and had a look at Don Ramon’s alpacas. He lent me a fine pacing horse for this purpose. My animals in the meantime were turned out where there was plenty of excellent pasture.
The alpacas were exceptionally good. Most were of a mixed colour; several were pure white; only a very few were black. These animals are bred for their wool, which is extremely fine, and expensive to buy. Carosses, i.e. rugs, are made from their skins. Their flesh is highly esteemed by the natives. In flavour it comes between goat and mutton. White alpaca rugs are worth money. I have frequently brought some home and sold them for £40 and £50 apiece. Black alpaca rugs fetch much more, being rarer. My favourite is the white variety. Odd bits of alpaca skin, left over from rug-making, are made up into foot-warmers. The alpaca is built on the same lines as a guanaco, but somewhat sturdier. Like the llama, it is indigenous to Peru and Bolivia.
Ramon was good enough to sell me three white alpaca rugs for £20 apiece. One I gave to my father; the others brought me in £100. Since the Great War the prime cost has increased 50 per cent. or more.
The following morning, just after breakfast, one of Ramon’s Indians brought word that a cow had been killed by pumas. His dogs had chased the raiders to a hill about two miles from the estancia, where there were a lot of rocks and several small caves. Don Ramon had a very fine strain of Borzoi, and five hounds beside, that he had bred by mating one of the Borzois with a wild-dog bitch. He had captured the latter a few years previously when hunting guanacos. He shot her mother as she came rushing out of one of the self-same caves where the Indian had now located the pumas. Close by he found a litter of pups, which he took home and brought up by hand on milk. There were five in all. Ramon gave two away, but retained two dogs and a bitch for himself. The dogs he kept separate by themselves; the bitch he put to one of his Borzois, with the result already mentioned.
Well, we started off without delay after the pumas, taking with us the five hounds and their parents. I rode a grand chestnut pacing horse, bred by Ramon, and he rode a bay. They both showed plenty of quality and blood. The Indian trotted on ahead, until we arrived within about three hundred yards of the caves. We then dismounted, and, while he held our horses, stalked our quarry cautiously. The well-trained dogs followed at our heels until fifty yards or so from the rocks. Ramon then laid them on the trail. They quickly picked it up; but though they nosed about for an hour, and searched every corner and hole, where even a cat might hide, they found nothing. So we remounted our nags, and rode off to another mix-up of rocks and caves about a mile and a half away. We hadn’t ridden half a mile before the big Borzoi dog, Czar, gave tongue, followed at once by Florita, the wild-dog bitch. How I longed for my galloping chestnut, for though the pacers could pace eight or nine miles an hour, they couldn’t gallop for toffee! At any rate the dogs quite outdistanced them.
On reaching the rocks we dismounted, and in the usual South American way, threw the reins over our horses’ heads to the ground—having, of course, unbuckled them first. There was no fear of the horses getting away: they had been trained to stand until the reins were picked up. The dogs were now barking furiously outside a long, low cave that looked most forbidding. None of them appeared anxious to enter, but Ramon persuaded the big Borzoi to go in. About two minutes later, out rushed three pumas. Ramon was standing about thirty yards away from the cave, and I about the same distance to the left of him. He had his Martini and I my father’s 16 double-barrelled Holland and Holland. The biggest puma was one of the largest I had ever seen. I was fortunate enough to get him with my first barrel. With the other I fired at another puma not quite so big. My bullet broke his leg, and the dogs soon put an end to him. Don Ramon accounted for the third puma. He hit it in the ribs and it got away; but we followed its trail on our horses, and after a lovely ride of five miles or so, over the High Flats, caught up with it in a small valley leading towards a distant range of mountains. Our dogs flung themselves on to their quarry. Then ensued a rare rough and tumble. Brought to bay, the puma fought desperately. Spitting and snarling like a fiend incarnate, she threw the dogs off again and again. But they would not be denied, and, although more than one was severely mauled, pressed home the attack. At last Florita, snapping up a favourable opportunity, dashed in and seizing the puma by the throat, hung on till she had torn a hole in its windpipe. Ramon was very glad when the end came, for he was fond of his dogs, and we had not dared to fire a shot for fear of hurting them.
Had Ramon been using my weapon, the puma would never have got away at all. Don Lisandro Mendizabal, who was a great friend of his, told him he wouldn’t mind going anywhere with my rifle, because it made so big a hole, nothing could stand up against it.
On our way back to the estancia, we each fired two shots at some big condors, three of which were flying overhead. Don Ramon missed altogether; but I was lucky enough to break the wing of a big male bird with my second shot and so brought it to the ground. We waited till the Indian came up, and left it in his charge. He skinned the bird and preserved it “Indian fashion,” in order that I might take it home as a trophy to my father. It measured 9 ft. 7 in. from tip to tip of its expanded wings. Don Ramon showed me one in his drawing-room, that went exactly 11 ft. 7 in. That also was a male bird with a white collar. The different varieties of condor are fully described in Adventures in Bolivia wherein is quoted Baron von Humboldt’s description of these wonderful birds. Mr. Hudson, the great authority on South America, wrote me on three separate occasions about the Condor Real, or king of the condors, a bird reputed to be pure white. He doubted the existence of such a bird, and suggested that if one really existed, it had probably grown white with age. Not long before his death, however, he was good enough to write and say certain facts had come to his knowledge which convinced him that I was right in contending the Condor Real is a distinct species, and a pure white bird.