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The Chamois and Their Foes - Harper's


The only European species of the antelope family are the chamois (Antelope rupicapra), which inhabit the highest regions of the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Caucasus. On inaccessible cliffs and rocky crags these graceful mountaineers make their home, and except when disturbed by the approach of man, lead a peaceful and harmless life. The chamois resembles the wild goat of the Alps, but is more elastic and spry. It is especially distinguished from it by the absence of beard, and by its black glistening horns, which are curved like a hook and pointed.

In the spring the chamois is very light-colored, but as summer advances, its coat assumes a reddish-brown hue, which by December often becomes coal black. Its eyes are large, black, and full of intelligence, and its delicate hoofs are surrounded by a projecting rim which renders it firm-footed and able to march with ease over the great glaciers or along narrow ledges of rock.

These pretty animals live in herds, five, ten, and sometimes twenty together. They are merry, wise creatures, graceful and agile in their movements, and spring from cliff to cliff and across chasms with extraordinary lightness and sureness of foot.

In the winter the chamois seek the upper forests on the mountain slopes, where, under the shelter of the widely branching umbrella fir, the drooping boughs of which hang almost to the ground, they find snug quarters, and long dry grass for winter provender.

The opening of spring in the Swiss Alps is attended by many wonderful phenomena. It would seem that no power was strong enough to break the icy chain in which the high Alps are bound fast; but there comes a day, generally early in April, when beautifully tinted veils of cloud form over the southern horizon, and a death-like stillness prevails in the mountains. The eye of the experienced hunter detects this sign in a moment, and knows it to be the token of approaching danger. If among the glaciers, he hastens to the valley below, where he finds the villages in commotion. Sheep and cattle are being hurriedly housed, and everything being secured against the dreaded Föhn, which is surely coming from beyond those rose-tinted clouds in the south. The Föhn is a warm wind which, in the spring, comes blowing northward from the hot African desert. On a sudden the stillness is broken by a terrible rushing sound, and a burning breath like fire strikes on the snowy pinnacles and glaciers. All nature is soon in an uproar. Mighty banks of snow, loosened from their winter resting-place, roar and rumble down the mountain-side in avalanches, bearing huge rocks and giant trees in their arms. The whole winter architecture of the mountains crumbles to ruins before the burning desert wind.


When the storm is over the great ice beds and banks of snow cease their pranks, and peace reigns once more in the mountains. But the strength of winter is broken. The Föhn returns again and again, and soon patches of bluish-green begin to appear here and there among the high precipitous crags. When the highest mountain pastures are open, the chamois leave their forest retreat, and troop upward into the most lofty regions. Here they lead a happy life. They are most frolicsome in the autumn, and may be seen for hours together gambolling and chasing each other upon the very smallest ledges of rock, where it would seem almost impossible to maintain a foothold. There are sometimes bitter fights, too, between the male chamois, terrible contests for leadership. Grappling each other with their horns, they battle until the superiority of strength is decided.

The chamois is very shy, and is always on the alert. Its sense of hearing, of smell, and of sight is very acute, and the most skillful hunter will sometimes search the mountain pastures for days without securing his game. When the troop is grazing, a sentinel is always appointed, who stands on the watch sniffing the air. At the least approach of danger the careful sentinel gives a shrill whistling signal of warning, and instantly the troop is filing off between the rocks and along the chasms, where no human foot could follow, all whistling together as they march. The only chance of the hunter to escape detection by these watchful creatures is to approach them from above, for, as if conscious that there are few so daring as to penetrate the upper regions of eternal snow, the sharp eye of the sentinel is on the look-out for danger from below.

As the greatest skill and courage are required to secure this valuable game, a good chamois-hunter is a person of importance in the wild Swiss valley where he lives, and the family of which he is a member glory in his deeds, and relate them to awe-struck listeners around the evening fireside. Chamois-hunting is the central point around which cluster all the charms of romance and dangerous adventure; it is the subject of many popular ballads, and its hold upon the imagination of the people is wonderful. Chamois skulls adorned with the black hooked horns may be seen among the most precious treasures of many a Swiss household, each one suggestive of some tale of wonderful bravery and endurance.

The chamois-hunters of Switzerland lead a strange life. None knows when he departs from his home in the morning with his gun, ammunition, and alpen-stock, if he will ever return from the mysterious misty heights towering before him far aloft in the clouds. The pursuit of the chamois will often lead him to the narrowest boundaries between life and death, to overhanging cliffs, and across gorges where even the falling of a bit of turf or the loosening of a stone would be fatal. Up, up, the hunter must go in search of the cunning game, until lost among the cliffs, and blinded by the thick mists which appear as clouds to those in the valley below, he may often wander in the trackless solitudes for days, with the terrible roar of avalanches sounding in his ears, before being able to return to his home. And yet in face of all these dangers, the Swiss, apart from the price they obtain for the flesh, skin, and horns of the chamois, have an inborn love of this sport, and stories are told of many celebrated hunters, men to whom every rock, tree, and path on the high mountains was as familiar as the streets of their native village, and who feared neither fogs, snowstorms, nor avalanches. But few of these hunters, however, have died at home in their beds, for in the end accident overtook them, and their lofty hunting ground became their grave.