In the Footsteps of Giants

The sun is lost in the egg. It returns only in the form of a half-shimmer refracted dimly from one of the many smooth and ancient craggs that dot its surface. It’s much bigger than I thought it would be. Zhou Enlai smiles broadly, exposing three capped teeth, and slowly passes it to me.

“Do you see why we had to stop in Antsirabe?”

I can’t speak so nod, and hold out my arms in an attempt to receive the egg gingerly. This is impossible. More than its size, and at its widest point it measures almost three feet, what really impresses me is the weight. It’s full. I gape, rolling the bulk of the egg back and forth in my hands, convincing myself that I can’t be hearing what I know I am: sloshes, slight splashes, what must but can’t be the yolk. There is only so much of this I can take before I give up, screw up my eyebrows and ask Zhou what’s inside.

He smiles. “What do you think?”

“It sounds like a full egg. It feels like one, too.”

He barks an order and it disappears, is taken from my hands by a porter and secreted away into a padded box stamped with the insignia of the People’s Republic of China.

“That’s exactly right,” he says.

“But that can’t be. That egg couldn’t be any less than three hundred years old. There’s got to be another explanation.”

“There is. It’s fresh.”

Zhou Enlai is an imposing man, not tall, but what he lacks for size he makes up in pure energy. On the trails he bounds ahead of me, the group, pausing only to point out a rare bird, bug, or lizard. From August to May he is a professor of zoology at Duke University, a job he says he enjoys because he “mostly doesn’t have to deal with any lacrosse students”. His smile is framed by a month-0ld beard, trimmed during the school year, he says, but now allowed to grow out, black hairs curling over the tan parts of his face. The straps from his pack dig into his blue flannel shirt, and his hiking boots are as worn as the dirt road. In other words he is exactly what you might expect from an excited young scientist working in the field.

But his is no ordinary research expedition, and he is leading no team of graduate students. He has been commissioned by the Chinese government to do something that few scientists working above sea level have in the last hundred years: explore.

“Right now, big things are happening in China,” he says, by way of explanation. “There have been many changes. Suddenly China is on top of the world again. She wants to prove to her citizens and to everyone else that she deserves to be there. This is a piece of that. Chinese must be seen to lead in every field. And for zoology, the best way to do that is to find something.”

He’d been to Madagascar before, as a student in the early nineties, and more recently as part of a group of researchers investigating the effects of logging and farming on some of the island’s rare indigenous animals, many of which exist in no other place in the world.

In Magarano, on the eastern coast, he met a Malagasy trader from the interior village of Antsirabe named Sauakari who told him that he had seen an elephant bird, a creature of amazing proportions extinct since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Zhou was interested, but his commitment to his project prevented him from investigating further. He did, however, set Sauakari up with an international calling card and instructions to contact him at Duke if he saw anything else. It was only months later that the trader acquired the egg, apparently found in an abandoned nest. That was all that Zhou – and the Chinese government – needed to get started.

“The egg is enough. But they have the shells of four in the Smithsonian, and of at least one in every major museum in the western world. And no one else has a live elephant bird.”

The elephant bird, otherwise known as the voura patra, is the largest bird to survive into the modern era. At eleven feet tall and 1100 pounds, it is believed to be the inspiration for the mythical Roc, its tales carried into the West by Arabic and Indian traders. Though never seen by a European, it was well known to the islanders, who used its eggs for food and to make ritual artifacts.

In 1658 the French Governor of Madagascar, √Čtienne de Flacourt, wrote one of the only contemporary accounts of the elephant bird when it was described to him by the natives. He paints it as “a large bird which haunts the Ampatres and lays eggs like the ostriches”, saying that it was forced to place its eggs in only “the most lonely places” so that people might not take them. Oral accounts of the bird seem to agree with this assessment, describing the bird as a shy, peaceful giant. But could it really have survived into the present without anyone noticing it?

“It’s certainly possible,” says Zhou. “The Ivory-billed woodpecker, for example, has gone ‘extinct’ several times, only to be rediscovered again and again after a period of a few years. And that’s with people actively looking for it. In Borneo they think they’ve discovered a new species of civet, possibly, which no one on the island has ever seen before. So for the elephant bird to continue on in this island, with all its dense jungles… well, that’s why we’re here.”

And, of course, there’s the egg. Concrete evidence always helps when you’re dealing with vague possibilities. But Zhou isn’t so sure that the egg’s evidence can be defined as ‘concrete’. “I do think it’s real. But the fact is that I offered Sauakari a lot of money. He’s earning much more as our guide than he would be otherwise. So we can’t be sure until we get it into a lab. It wouldn’t be the first time something like this has happened before.”

That’s true. The history of zoology is an interesting one, and it is filled with as many clever hoaxes as amazing discoveries. Most of these date back to colonial times, when new settlements were forced to compete for homeland attention and funding. But perhaps the most well-known example is also one of the most recent: the famous photograph of the Loch Ness monster, showing an inky silhouette rising up from the depths of the lake, was in reality a fake. The hoax was masterminded by Marmaduke Wetherell, who was hired in 1933 to track down the beast for London’s Daily Mail, and was able to convince a respectable gynaecologist to pretend he had taken the picture, giving the picture an air of credibility. What is perhaps most interesting about the photograph is that even those who did not believe it to be the monster believed that it was genuine, thinking it might be some other creature like a fish or an otter. The revelation that it was fake dealt a serious blow to the study of cryptozoology, the study of creatures about which evidence is uncertain, a field already choked with amateurs.

“There is a sense that what we’re doing right now isn’t real science,” Zhou tells me early one morning, both fingers wrapped tight around his steaming cup of coffee. “That I’d be better off in a lab or, if in the field, studying an animal that we already know much about. Maybe that’s true: there is something unrealistic in searching for dinosaurs in the congo, abominable snowman in the Himalyan mountains. But I didn’t become a scientist to reinforce the status quo. I’m not in this field to blindly accept the work of those that came before me. I want to challenge the authorities, find something thought lost and eliminate the mystery. I want to show others that science is not something static but ever-changing, constantly evolving to meet new information, and not staid enough to refuse all wild dreams. I want to teach all of this to a new generation of Chinese scientists, the ones young enough to still get excited by this.” Here he pauses and laughs, takes a sip of his coffee. “This is going to sound corny, but I want the world to grow. Even if it’s only by one bird and a handful of scientists.”

He smiles and stares into a middle distance.

“Even if it’s only by one bird.”

As much as he waxes poetic about the future and present of science, Zhou Enlai is not a man entirely without motive. There is, of course, the enormous fame he would enjoy both at home and abroad, fame which might help ease the return of the potential prodigal son.

“I love China, but before, it was no place to live. My grandfather was forced to work twelve hour shifts in a coal mine, then spend his evenings searching the slag heap for waste coal which he could bring home and use to provide heat for his family. It was terrible, and they were very poor, but he refused to leave. There’s something that I admire in that. The pride, I think. Not only in yourself but in your country. My father was more realistic and he left as soon as could, and I admire that too. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities if he had stayed in China.

“I wasn’t born there, but I feel a deep connection. Of course there’s the language, which I grew up speaking. But it’s something else, too. I feel roots. My dad thinks I’m crazy. He’s only been back a few times. But when I go there, it’s almost as if I am wading in history, as if that’s the place that I really belong, where my children will belong. It’s difficult to explain. I don’t get the same feeling when I go back to my old hometown, to Brooklyn. So much has changed that I don’t feel as if I live there any more. It exists in my memories only, that’s it, maybe I know a few landmarks but they aren’t the same as when I was small.”

He couldn’t have moved back before because it would have been “too unstable”, he says. But his contract at Duke is almost over and he’s thinking of leaving. He wants to be in China for the Olympics, a moment of triumph that he believes will usher in a new age for his people, though he concedes it will also be an incredibly touristy morass. “It could be busy, smelly, whatever. I don’t care. It will be ours.”

This is a common phenomenon among second-generation members of immigrant families, the identification with a country that at best might be hazy blotch in their memories, at worst, and typically, nothing at all. For these people, who only start to gain first-hand knowledge of their “homelands” as adults, the tendency is to glaze over the often harsh realities and romantise the country, in some cases even renouncing the citizenship of the one in which they were born. It happened in the 1980s in Jewish suburbs of New York, with the second generation kids of more or less Americanised parents growing forelocks and “returning” to Israel. More recently it was evidenced by the London bombings, terrorist attacks orchestrated for various reasons, but by mainly English-accented second generation members of immigrant families, identifying themselves with countries and ideas that their parents fled. That isn’t to say that Zhou is anything as radical as a terrorist, but it does shed some light on his enthusiasm for the search.

For example, why he might be more willing than others to ignore bad omens and accept incomplete evidence. Which is why, on a hilltop overlooking a valley crowded with trees, he might be more compelled to point at a loose collection of dead plant matter and call it a “nest” instead of its much more common name, which is “mud”. Which is exactly what he’s doing, basing his assumption on nothing more than a hunch and a shrug from Sauakari, whose people told many stories about the bird, but none about its nest.

The uninspiring clump of damp sod is little more than four feet in diameter, roughly sized, with a barely perceptible buildup along the edges, a slight ridge, something you have to squint to see, almost like a magic eye. One could imagine the elephant bird fitting into such a space, even raising chicks there, but one’s imagination would have to be very active. For one thing, there isn’t enough of a lip to suggest that the space was occupied by an eleven-hundred pound bird, let alone one laying such massive eggs. For another, there aren’t any feathers. None of this, of course, phases Zhou.

“We’re close, I can smell it. This is the first step, it always is,” he says, as he dances around the site, occaisionally pointing out something he considers interesting to the team of two Chinese photographers circling it with cameras at their faces, supplying a constant sober stream of flashbursts and slight steps.

“It’s very old. That’s the problem. And it’s slightly exposed on this hillside, with some of the tree cover looking like it has recently been blown down. The wind would have scattered the feathers, flightless or not that’s what they’re designed for. The odd shape of the nest could also be attributed to this, perhaps the wind shifted some of the building materials in one direction, as it certainly did help to flatten them. But of course, that’s pure speculation. No one knows what size the elephant bird builds their nest because we’re the first ones to take a look at it.” He smiles broadly and pats me on the back, almost knocking me over. “Isn’t it exciting!”

I have to admit that it is, though only if the nest is in fact that of the voura patra. If it isn’t, it will turn out to be anything but.

Three weeks into the expedition, and it’s our best evidence so far. Our only evidence, in fact, aside from the egg, which we can’t be sure is real, or know fully where it came from. Hardly an auspicious start to an enterprise meant to bring glory to a nation of over a billion people.

We camp nearby for a week, for the nest and the hope that, somewhere nearby, we might find another sign. We don’t, however, and soon leave.

On my last day in camp, Zhou and I sit by the fire, watching pots boil and porters folding tents and slipping metal tools into place. The air is as charged as the steam rising through it, the whole camp a flurry of motion. The expedition is splitting in half, with most of us returning home by way of Antananarivo, Zhou remaining behind with Sauakari and a few others. He’s going to keep looking for as long as possible, he says, though he doesn’t think he’ll have to.

“It’s shy. It keeps a low profile. Sauakari was alone when he saw it, for example. I think that it’ll be easier to track with less people. We’re aiming for invisibility.”

As Zhou continues, I can’t help but noticing his manic energy, the almost frantic way that he moves his hands when he speaks. He’s eager to get back and working on the egg, but he doesn’t want the rest of the expedition to be a total failure.

“The odds were low coming out here. I have to admit that. I thought maybe with Sauakari’s help… but the chances of him running into that thing were one in million, maybe more than that, and not likely to be repeated so easily. I’m sure it’s out there. This jungle is huge, and dense, and besides that it’s probably easier for the bird to move through it than us. But I don’t think that it’s impossible. We’ve learned a lot since we started here. I think it’s only a matter of time.”

But when I shake hands with Zhou and say my goodbyes he’s a different man, and perhaps the realities of the search have sunk in, realising that it’s not as easy as he thought it was going to be. There’s a grim sort of energy pouring out of his eyes, a certain rigidity in his lower jaw that wasn’t there before, in a face earlier so quick to smile. But there’s something else in his eyes too and it’s not hard to make out: the creature is eleven feet tall, and weighs over a thousand pounds. The voura patra; the elephant bird.


  1. Yeah, it was fantastic. Typos: tendancy, diametre

    Next time I am collecting, I will be thinking of the elephant bird.

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