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Wild Life in the West Highlands

IT has fallen to my lot to have lived in daily proximity to the mightiest of our terrestrial mammals; to have seen from my verandah the great, grey, massive creatures marching solemnly and silently across the hillside within a rifle-shot of one’s armchair. This was in Ceylon, before the era of the Suez Canal; when there was yet no harbour at Colombo, and ships lay at anchor far out in the road-stead; when railways were there still unheard of, and coffee-planting was at its zenith.

The Indian elephant is inferior in size to the African species, and is also structurally different in various points. The Ceylon race, again, differs from its Indian neighbours in that the great majority are tuskless, being for the most part provided with a pair of short ‘tushes’ only, which project but a few inches from the jaw. Ceylon elephants probably average, when full-grown, about eight feet in height at the shoulder; but many exceed nine feet. Although they are always measured at the shoulder, the back is somewhat arched and gives a considerably higher measurement than the shoulder. A curious fact that has been frequently substantiated is that twice the circumference of the fore-foot will be found to give practically the exact height of the shoulder.

The elephant is gregarious, and generally lives in small bands or 'herds.' Twenty or thirty years earlier than the time referred to, before they had been so much persecuted, these herds were often very large; but at the time I was in Ceylon six or eight was a common number to find together, although on one occasion a herd was seen that must have been somewhere between thirty and forty in number.

These animals are distributed all over the Island and not, as often supposed, in the flat and hot 'Low Country' only. They were found throughout the mountainous Central Province to a height of 7000 feet or more. In spite of their great size, weight and apparent clumsiness, no hill-side is too steep, no pass too rocky or difficult for them. The 'elephant paths,' trodden by the feet of countless generations, are to be found traversing in every direction those mountain ridges and summits: to-day, no doubt, much of the jungle or dense forest which used to clothe the mountains to the very top must have been cleared by the axes of the planters. These paths are to be found ascending rocky gorges, or threading steep and narrow passes which, in their ruggedness, one could scarcely credit as being passable by such unwieldy creatures. The peculiar structure of their hind legs, with their knees instead of hocks, must be of great assistance to them.

In old days the natives were accustomed, in default of fire-arms, to kill them in a cruel, if effective manner. In a defile, where the elephant must of necessity place his foot on a certain spot, a barbed iron spike was placed point uppermost, the lower end fixed firmly in a concealed log. His foot transfixed with this horrid implement, the poor beast was helpless and a ready prey to the spears of the hunters.

One day, on taking shelter from a shower, in a cave on a newly-cleared hill-face, I found lying on a rock shelf an old and much rusted iron weapon, which is now lying before me. It is eighteen inches in length, forged from a square bar of half-inch iron; at one end is a barbed blade about four inches in length, the rank barbs projecting some one and a half inches; the other end is beaten out into a diamond-shaped point without barbs. This, we were told, was one of these very weapons; and certainly it seems to have been exactly adapted for such a purpose. Beside it lay an ancient leaf-shaped spear-blade ten inches in length and three inches in width. The tang was broken off, and the ferrule that had once encircled the shaft was lying beside it. The shaft itself had doubtless long since decayed.

Although so clumsy in appearance the elephant is surprisingly swift and active. Even on level and open ground an enraged elephant will soon overhaul the quickest runner in a straight-run course; in jungle, or the giant grass that clothes much of the open country, a man has no chance, unless he can evade his pursuer by quick dodging round tree or rock or some such cover. Even in densest jungle the noiselessness is extraordinary with which at times they will disappear from sight and hearing. When, on the other hand, a herd is suddenly alarmed and dashes off in panic, the crash of smashing trees and branches together with their loud reverberating roaring is awe-inspiring.

The eyesight of the elephant is rather defective, as might be surmised from the small and sunken eye; but the senses both of hearing and of smell are extremely acute. When approached in cover and still unconscious of man's presence, their proximity is often betrayed by dull rumbling noises or perhaps by the rustling of branches as they are gathered by the trunk. Or attention may first be attracted by the flapping of the great ears as they fan themselves. Placid and sleepy as they may seem in such a case, a furious and charging elephant is the very incarnation of savage rage. The trunk and tail erect, the great ears cocked and extended bat-like, the little bloodshot eyes flashing with fury, and the ear-rending scream of his 'trumpeting' form altogether a nerveshaking spectacle; few who have experienced it at close quarters will greatly desire to have it repeated.

The popular notion that the elephant is a gentle, placid and inoffensive animal is by no means correct. When roused, they are savage and wary and pertinacious to a degree in following up anyone who incurs their wrath. This is particularly the case with the solitary old bull, the so-called 'rogue.' An elephant, which for some reason or other has elected to lead a solitary existence, establishes himself in a favourite haunt, and there may exercise for years a reign of terror; the undoubted intelligence of the animal serves but to increase the danger. A `rogue,' on finding itself pursued by trackers, will retire noiselessly into thick thorny cover, and, stepping to one side, will then retrace its steps and halt in some dense thicket close to its former path, ready to burst forth without the slightest warning on its unwary pursuers. These `rogues' became a standing menace to a whole district, and the Government used to offer considerable sums as a reward for their destruction.

A notorious brute of this description infested the district where I was first employed. One morning his huge tracks were found deeply marked in the soil of the garden adjoining the verandah of the little wooden bungalow in which I slept. The elephant had passed in the night within not more than six or eight yards. Not long after, two estate coolies, a man and woman, were making a` moonlight flitting' and were found in the morning by the roadside a mile away, the woman dead, the man with a broken thigh and otherwise terribly injured by this brute. A plucky Malay 'conductor,' inspired by the reward of a hundred rupees, was foolhardy enough to stalk the rogue single-handed. He was armed with an ancient weapon that looked more dangerous to the owner than to the quarry, but he was lucky enough to kill him with the first discharge. Female elephants accompanied by their young are also to be treated with caution, as they will sometimes attack without the smallest provocation.

In old days, when these animals were in vast numbers, the damage they did to the crops and cultivation of the unarmed natives was enormous. Stages erected in the paddy-fields for watchmen, fires by night and similar devices availed but little, as the cunning beasts soon learned to disregard them. At that time rewards were paid for their destruction, whereas to-day a license has to be obtained before one can be shot. This state of things was naturally an encouragement to the sportsman, and the names of mighty hunters - 'Sam Baker,' Major Rodgers, Palliser and others - are remembered for their deeds of prowess. Baker, afterwards known more widely as Sir Samuel Baker, the whilom leader of African exploration, has in his books on Ceylon left most interesting accounts of his experiences. Some notion of the number of elephants in his day may be gathered from the fact, vouched for by him, that in three days three men killed no less than 104 of these great beasts - a slaughter only to be excused by the damage inflicted by such hordes on the helpless villagers.

In my time the hunter took his life in his hand. The country was covered in great part by thickest jungle, and was often impenetrable to man save by the paths made by the elephants themselves. All hunting, therefore, was necessarily on foot; and there were no breech-loaders. Comparative safety was only to be found by stealthy approach to the closest of quarters, say to within twenty yards or less. Then you tried to kill your beast by a single well-directed shot from a heavily charged and powerful weapon in one of the fatal spots in the head which reached the brain. Big as is the elephant's head, the brain is relatively very small ; and unless the bullet reached the brain it might as well have been fired into the nearest tree. The fatal spots are three ; the frontal shot, that on the temple between the eye and ear, and the shot behind the ear, raking forward. Only one of these could be at any one time available, according to the position of the animal and the man ; and in each case the spot to be reached, to be fatal, is no larger than a saucer. Then, too, the exact angle of fire had to be kept ; if the animal stood higher, lower or on a level with the gun, the angle of fire varied accordingly. Add to all this the dense volume of smoke from the heavy charges of the black powder of that period, and it will be readily seen that absolute coolness and nerve were called for. Much necessarily depended on the pluck and trustworthiness of the natives who carried the spare guns. It was our rule never to approach an elephant-above all, `a rogue'-alone. Two sportsmen went together, taking turns for the shot ; the second stood steadily, a little to one side to give assistance, should the first shot fail in immediate effect. Three double weapons each, two at least of these of heavy calibre, constituted an efficient battery ; and it added immensely to the coolness of the hunters if these spare guns were carried by men in whom they could place implicit reliance. Such a man, for instance, was `Nielgalla Banda,' of iron nerve and unfailing pluck, who is immortalised in Baker's books. He it was, by great good fortune, who took me up to my first elephant -a notorious old rogue who luckily fell dead at the first fire.

From time immemorial a lucrative traffic has been carried on in catching and taming elephants for the Indian market. One method of entrapping them on a large scale is that of the 'Kraal' - a Dutch variant of 'Corral,' in India known as a `Keddah.' This is a great and lengthy undertaking, involving much expense and the employment of hundreds of men for weeks on end. A suitable spot having been selected in dense forest in some secluded district, a stock aded enclosure of immense strength is formed of stout tree stems, bound with the tough creepers known as 'jungle ropes.' A long funnel-shaped entrance-way of similar structure and in V form leads out from the inlet gate to the jungle; all is kept as hidden and natural as possible, in the thick forest.

The native drivers start weeks in advance, gently heading and urging all herds that are within practicable distance towards the kraal, until at last they arrive close to the entrance. Then comes the great final effort on which success depends. At a given signal a simultaneous rush is made by the beaters, with shouting, gun-firing, and other discordant noises until, if all goes well, some at least of the herd have found their way into the funnel, and finally into the enclosure itself. Then the great gates are swung to and secured. The maddened brutes rush to and fro, screaming, roaring and trumpeting, and strive to break through the stockade. They are met by blank shots and spear points until, exhausted, they give in.

The noosers then enter, mounted on tame elephants. With great nimbleness they soon manage to get the nooses of their tough rawhide ropes round the legs of the captives. The ropes are then made fast to trees, and the poor beasts are helpless. In a wonderfully short time they accept the situation, and, escorted by the tame ones, are taken to the coast for shipment.

Another and more sporting method of elephant catching was carried on by the so-called Moormen, a brave and energetic Mohammedan race who are said to be of Arab descent. These men on foot used to capture elephants, without the help of tame ones. Provided with long elastic ropes of raw hide of great strength, they stalked the herd until they got close to their intended victim, preferably a half-grown animal. Sometimes they would succeed in getting a noose round a hind-leg before the beast was aware of their presence ; failing this they surrounded and teased it into charging some of their number. Then the others seized the opportunity of rushing in and affixing the noose. The free end of the rope was then secured to a tree of not too large diameter, which yielded somewhat to the violent struggles of the elephant. So, one by one, every limb was secured, the trunk itself was bound, and the elephant rendered helpless.

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