The Amerindians and Bush Negroes have their own manner of handling big snakes. "When these snakes get old and bulky," explains a Surinamer, "they lose their quickness and they tend to stay on the same narrow paths. They leave behind a silvery trail of mucus, and this attracts little animals like frogs. Later the snake comes back along the path and gobbles up the frogs. The natives spot these highways, and they imbed a razor in a piece of wood and bury it along the trail with just the blade sticking out. When the big fat snake comes sliding along, he conveniently opens himself up from neck to tail."
As one might by now gather, the sportsmen who hunt in Surinam are not ordinary sportsmen, nor do they hunt in a normal manner, nor are there many of them. A hunt, Surinam style, is an exercise in agony, a forced-march sort of affair in which no one out of top condition can take part. A hunt begins at dawn and ends at noon, when the hot midday sun becomes too much for the dogs, a motley group of skinny mixed-breeds. The idea, as you set forth from camp, is to cover as much ground as possible in this limited time. Quickly the canopy of the rain forest closes over the hunting party. The ground is almost lifeless; there is no green vegetation, because no sunlight can get through the treetops to provide photosynthesis. With no identifying landmarks, the entire sortie is conducted by compass. To keep up with the dogs, the hunters must move at a fast clip; therefore no water or food is carried. If the party comes across a certain type of liana, a vine that stores water, thirsts are assuaged. Otherwise, one does without. "You must be totally mobile," explains William Gummels, former police chief in Paramaribo, who now, at 60, sets a hunting pace that would wind an ocelot. Wearing sneakers, he trots through the forest with total disdain for all the vaunted dangers. "If this place were as tough as they claim," Gummels says in a basso profundo with a thick Dutch accent, "would I still be alive?"
In the next breath he points out that a week earlier one of his dogs was killed by a seven-foot bushmaster, and then launches matter-of-factly into another tale not guaranteed to soothe the craven North American. "A friend and I hunted together one day with four dogs. We went to a place where we had already had good hunting, and we heard our dogs barking far ahead of us, and then we don't hear a thing at all. Then we find one dog, slashed to death. A few meters farther on, we find a second one, dead. The third one we never seen back to this day. But now we knew it is a tiger [jaguar] taking our dogs. And now we have one dog left only. He is walking back with us through the forest when suddenly we heard a noise in the brush, and the tiger is going off with our last dog. So it was for the tiger—what you call?—a total success."
The favorite quarry of Gummels and the small coterie of Surinam hunters is the pingo, a wild boar that weighs more than 100 pounds and travels in troops of 20 to 400 in a wide swath through the jungle. Hunter Orlando Brakke says: "If you are in the bush and the pingos are coming you will know it when they still are 500 meters away. It is a roar and a clacking of thousands of teeth chewing across the jungle. They are always walking, never stopping. They walk all the way to the Surinam River and then to the Coesewijne, turn around and go to the Saramacca, then come back, always following one leader. Everything they meet on the way they kill with their tusks and their teeth. When you follow where a troop of pingos has walked you will find no animals, no snakes, no grass, no roots, nothing. They are the vacuum cleaners of the bush."
When the pingos sense danger, they come together in a tight group and gnash their teeth loudly, almost as if they were communicating with one another. "When we hear them going ka! ka! ka!" says Gummels, "we grab first the dogs, because the pingos will kill them. Then we wait for the pack to pass by, but we are careful not to shoot the leader. If you shoot the leader the pack will lose its sense of direction and run around crazy, and then you will be run over by them. One must always have a tree picked out nearby." The trick in pingo hunting is to station oneself close enough to the pack to pick off some stragglers, but not so close as to be killed. The first rule is: when in doubt, climb.
At certain times of the year the pingos go berserk en masse, milling around and swimming rivers and stomping on farmers' fields. Then it becomes easy to kill them with clubs or any heavy object, though nobody would consider this kind of slaughtering to be a form of hunting. Gummels tells of a man who shot 56 such loony hogs in a single day and trucked them all into Paramaribo, where their roast-young-suckling-pig flavor was enjoyed by thousands.
Another favorite Surinam target is the pakira, a smaller hog and a less gregarious one. It travels in groups of four to 12, and the group can be chased into a hole by hunting dogs. "You seal off one entrance to the hole and push a stick through till you touch a pakira," Gummels explains. "That will make another pakira come out the other exit, and you shoot him. When the first one comes out, the others appear in a single file, like a shooting gallery, and you get them one by one."
Now and then hunting dogs pick up the trail of a tapir, the huge hippopotamuslike creature that may weigh up to 600 pounds. There are no ground refuges big enough for the tapir, so it seeks to protect itself by wading into water holes and snapping its powerful teeth at the dogs. The tapir is peaceful, by Surinam standards, though one hunter says "he can take down whole trees with a single bite just to get at the leaves, and he will bite a dog in two."
For the North American hunter in search of bizarre quarry suitable for impressing the boys back at the Elks Club in Sioux City, Surinam also boasts such animals as the giant armadillo (up to 100 pounds): the capybara, world's biggest rodent; the coatimundi, long-nosed kin of the raccoon and one of the smartest animals in the animal business; the agouti, which looks like a big rat and tastes like tender beef; and a wild swamp dog that comes with webbed feet. A favorite target of the Amerindians and Bush Negroes is the howler monkey, one of the heaviest of the American monkeys and the worst dinmaker since the Rolling Stones. The hyoid bone of the howler's throat has developed into a resonator, and at night, high in the banak and the purpleheart trees, he provides an auditory late late show, a sort of Chiller Theater, for those encamped beneath. In this treetop social structure, the female monkey is the aggressor, panting around from male to male until she finds a sport willing to mate with her. One wonders what all the howling is about.
The sportsman who would consider going to Surinam and studying such matters should be reminded that the country, by North American standards, is still on the primitive side and somewhat removed from the flow of world affairs. You will not be eaten by cannibals and you will not be sickened by the pure, fresh water, but you will be overtaken by a feeling of insularity, a total separation from things American. The only English-language news available to the visitor is a daily mimeographed newsletter containing such items as: