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Do the pieces of eggshells that people still find today in Madagascar come from the legendary elephant bird? Does the monster still live in the midst of the forest? We were full of curiosity as we set out for an adventurous trip.
“It was then about 14 feet high to the bill of him, with a big, broad head like the end of a pickaxe, and two huge brown eyes with yellow rims, set together like a man’s—not out of sight of each other like a hen’s. His plumage was fine—none of the half-mourning style of your ostrich—more like a cassowary as far as colour and texture go. And then it was he began to cock his comb at me and give himself airs, show signs of a nasty temper…and then he kicked me. It was like a cart-horse. I got up, and, seeing he hadn’t finished, I started off full tilt with my arms doubled up over my face. But he ran on those gawky legs of his faster than a racehorse, and kept landing out at me with sledgehammer kicks and bringing his pickaxe down on the back of my head. I made for the lagoon, and went in up to my neck. He s,topped at the water, for he hated getting his feet wet, and began to make a shindy, something like a peacock’s, only hoarser. He started strutting up and down the beach.”
This is how H. G. Wells, the English master of science fiction, described the meeting of a shipwrecked mariner with the prehistoric elephant bird. His story, “Aepyornis Island,” is not too fantastic. Such a bird actually lived on the island of Madagascar. People wrote about it in fairy tales and old travelogues.
The traveler Marco Polo was told by natives that a bird called Ruh lived on the island and was similar to an eagle but much larger. They said it could kill an elephant. It would grasp the elephant in its claws, take it up, and then drop it. The bird would slice open the elephant’s stomach with its beak and eat the entrails.
It did not take long for the world to accept the existence of these giant birds. Doubtful voices of skeptical scientists were silenced in 1850 when an Arabic merchant named Abbadi brought three intact eggs and several bones of a giant bird to France. It was the zoological sensation of the 19th century. The egg had a volume of ten liters, which equals the contents of approximately 180 hen eggs.
During the following ten years, French paleontologists managed to find enough bones to reconstruct the entire skeleton. It become apparent that the bird had looked like an ostrich with strong legs. It was three meters high and weighed half a ton. It could not fly, let alone carry an elephant, but it could still be dangerous for humans. With a blow from its strong beak, the bird could crush a human skull and kill a man with a single kick.
Scientists called it Aepyornis, but they could not determine when it went extinct. At first they thought it was during prehistory, but then a remarkable discovery changed their ideas: a bronze ring bearing mysterious symbols was found on the leg of an Aepyornis. It was determined that the signs on the ring came from the time of the oldest civilization of South Asia, Mohenjo-Daro, 5,000 years ago.
Other findings reduced this date, and today it is thought the bird could have lived as late as the 17th century. However, natives report that the eggs they sometimes find in moors and dunes of the southern part of the island look as if they were recently laid. Could the elephant bird still survive somewhere in the remote reaches of Madagascar?
For many years I have been searching passionately for unknown and supposedly extinct animals with an experienced team that includes Jirka Skupien, Jarda Prokopec, and my son, Danny. Past objects of our expeditions include the dangerous Tatzelwurm of the Austrian Alps and the Death Worm of the Gobi Desert. Pascal Gui, a native Malagasy now living in Prague, joined us in the search for the giant bird. Gui studied journalism in the Czech Republic and was an excellent interpreter.
Our quest began with an exploration of out-of-the-way places around the mouth of the Ilinta River on the southwestern coast of Madagascar. We were lucky from the start. A native from Tulear showed us a giant Aepyornis egg. We looked at it with reverence and examined it from all sides. It was truly magnificent. It did not seem to be very old, so we asked him where he had found it. The bird could not be far from the nest. At first the man hesitated to tell us, but a bundle of banknotes finally opened his mouth. He pointed at a place on the map in the area of sands near a small village called Androka......Read the rest of this article exclusively in the April 2008 issue of FATE. Click here to buy this issue now!