by Samuel White Baker
Wild Country-Dealings in the Marvellous-Enchanting Moments The Wild Elephant of Ceylon--'Rogues'-Elephant Slaughter-Thick Jungles-Character of the Country-Varieties of Game in Ceylon--'Battery for Ceylon Sport'-The Elk or 'Samber Deer'-Deer-coursing.
It is a difficult task to describe a wild country so exactly, that a stranger's eye shall at once be made acquainted with its scenery and character by the description. And yet this is absolutely necessary, if the narration of sports in foreign countries is supposed to interest those who have never had the opportunity of enjoying them. The want of graphic description of localities in which the events have occurred, is the principal cause of that tediousness which generally accompanies the steady perusal of a sporting work. You can read twenty pages with interest, but a monotony soon pervades it, and sport then assumes an appearance of mere slaughter.
Now, the actual killing of an animal, the death itself, is not sport, unless the circumstances connected with it are such as to create that peculiar feeling which can only be expressed by the word `sport.' This feeling cannot exist in the heart of a butcher; he would as soon slaughter a fine buck by tying him to a post and knocking him down, as he would shoot him in his wild native haunts--the actual moment of death, the fact of killing, is his enjoyment. To a true sportsman the enjoyment of a sport increases in proportion to the wildness of the country. Catch a six-pound trout in a quiet mill-pond in a populous manufacturing neighbourhood, with well-cultivated meadows on either side of the stream, fat cattle grazing on the rich pasturage, and, perhaps, actually watching you as you land your fish: it may be sport. But catch a similar fish far from the haunts of men, in a boiling rocky torrent surrounded by heathery mountains, where the shadow of a rod has seldom been reflected in the stream, and you cease to think the former fish worth catching; still he is the same size, showed the same courage, had the same perfection of condition, and yet you cannot allow that it was sport compared with this wild stream. If you see no difference in the excitement, you are not a sportsman; you would as soon catch him in a washing tub, and you should buy your fish when you require him; but never use a rod, or you would disgrace the hickory.
This feeling of a combination of wild country with the presence of the game itself, to form a real sport, is most keenly manifested when we turn our attention to the rifle. This noble weapon is thrown away in an enclosed country. The smooth-bore may and does afford delightful sport upon our cultivated fields; but even that pleasure is doubled when those enclosures no longer intervene, and the wide-spreading moors and morasses of Scotland give an idea of freedom and undisturbed nature. Who can compare grouse with partridge shooting? Still the difference exists, not so much in the character of the bird as in the features of the country. It is the wild aspect of the heathery moor without a bound, except the rugged outline of the mountains upon the sky, that gives such a charm to the grouse-shooting in Scotland, and renders the deer-stalking such a favourite sport among the happy few who can enjoy it.
All this proves that the simple act of killing is not sport; if it were, the Zoological Gardens would form as fine a field to an elephant shot as the wildest Indian jungle.
Man is a bloodthirsty animal, a beast of prey, instinctively; but let us hope that a true sportsman is not savage, delighting in nothing but death, but that his pursuits are qualified by a love of nature, of noble scenery, of all the wonderful productions which the earth gives forth in different latitudes. He should thoroughly understand the nature and habits of every beast or bird that he looks upon as game. This last attribute is indispensable; without it he may kill, but he is not a sportsman.
We have, therefore, come to the conclusion that the character of a country influences the character of the sport. The first question, therefore, that an experienced man would ask at the recital of a sporting anecdote would be, `What kind of country is it?' That being clearly described to him, he follows you through every word of your tale with a true interest, and in fact joins in imagination in the chase.
There is one great drawback to the publication of sporting adventures--they always appear to deal not a little in the marvellous; and this effect is generally heightened by the use of the first person in writing, which at all events may give an egotistical character to a work. This, however, cannot easily be avoided, if a person is describing his own adventures, and he labours under the disadvantage of being criticised by readers who do not know him personally, and may, therefore, give him credit for gross exaggeration.
It is this feeling that deters many men who have passed through years of wild sports from publishing an account of them. The fact of being able to laugh in your sleeve at the ignorance of a reader who does not credit you, is but a poor compensation for being considered a better shot with a long bow than with a rifle. Often have I pitied Gordon Cumming when I have heard him talked of as a palpable Munchausen, by men who never fired a rifle, or saw a wild beast, except in a cage; and still these men form the greater proportion of the `readers' of these works.
Men who have not seen, cannot understand the grandeur of wild sports in a wild country. There is an indescribable feeling of supremacy in a man who understands his game thoroughly, when he stands upon some elevated point and gazes over the wild territory of savage beasts. He feels himself an invader upon the solitudes of nature. The very stillness of the scene is his delight. There is a mournful silence in the calmness of the evening, when the tropical sun sinks upon the horizon--a conviction that man has left this region undisturbed to its wild tenants. No hum of distant voices, no rumbling of busy wheels, no cries of domestic animals meet the ear. He stands upon a wilderness, pathless and untrodden by the foot of civilisation, where no sound is ever heard but that of the elements, when the thunder rolls among the towering forests or the wind howls along the plains. He gazes far, far into the distance, where the blue mountains melt into an indefinite haze; he looks above him to the rocky pinnacles which spring from the level plain, their swarthy cliffs glistening from the recent shower, and patches of rich verdure clinging to precipices a thousand feet above him. His eye stretches along the grassy plains, taking at one full glance a survey of woods, and rocks, and streams; and imperceptibly his mind wanders to thoughts of home, and in one moment scenes long left behind are conjured up by memory, and incidents are recalled which banish for a time the scene before him. Lost for a moment in the enchanting power of solitude, where fancy and reality combine in their most bewitching forms, he is suddenly roused by a distant sound made doubly loud by the surrounding silence--the shrill trumpet of an elephant. He wakes from his reverie; the reality of the present scene is at once manifested. He stands within a wilderness where the monster of the forest holds dominion; he knows not what a day, not even what a moment, may bring forth; he trusts in a protecting Power, and in the heavy rifle, and he is shortly upon the track of the king of beasts.
The king of beasts is generally acknowledged to be the 'lion'; but no one who has seen a wild elephant can doubt for a moment that the title belongs to him in his own right. Lord of all created animals in might and sagacity, the elephant roams through his native forests. He browses upon the lofty branches, upturns young trees from sheer malice, and from plain to forest he stalks majestically at break of day 'monarch of all he surveys.'
A person who has never seen a wild elephant can form no idea of his real character, either mentally or physically. The unwieldy and sleepy-looking beast, who, penned up in his cage at a menagerie, receives a sixpence in his trunk, and turns round with difficulty to deposit it in a box; whose mental powers seem to be concentrated in the idea of receiving buns tossed into a gaping mouth by children's hands,--this very beast may have come from a warlike stock. His sire may have been the terror of a district, a pitiless highwayman, whose soul thirsted for blood; who, lying in wait in some thick bush, would rush upon the unwary passer-by, and know no pleasure greater than the act of crushing his victim to a shapeless mass beneath his feet. How little does his tame sleepy son resemble him! Instead of browsing on the rank vegetation of wild pasturage, he devours plum-buns; instead of bathing his giant form in the deep rivers and lakes of his native land, he steps into a stone-lined basin to bathe before the eyes of a pleased multitude, the whole of whom form their opinion of elephants in general from the broken-spirited monster which they see before them.
I have even heard people exclaim, upon hearing anecdotes of elephant-hunting, 'Poor things!'
Poor things, indeed! I should like to see the very person who thus expresses his pity, going at his best pace, with a savage elephant after him : give him a lawn to run upon if he likes, and see the elephant gaining a foot in every yard of the chase, fire in his eye, fury in his headlong charge; and would not the flying gentleman who lately exclaimed 'Poor thing!' be thankful to the lucky bullet that would save him from destruction?
There are no animals more misunderstood than elephants; they are naturally savage, wary, and revengeful; displaying as great courage when in their wild state as any animal known. The fact of their great natural sagacity renders them the more dangerous as foes. Even when tamed, there are many that are not safe for a stranger to approach, and they are then only kept in awe by the sharp driving hook of the mohout.
In their domesticated state I have seen them perform wonders of sagacity and strength; but I have nothing to do with tame elephants; there are whole books written upon the subject, although the habits of an elephant can be described in a few words.
All wild animals in a tropical country avoid the sun. They wander forth to feed upon the plains in the evening and during the night, and they return to the jungle shortly after sunrise.
Elephants have the same habits. In those parts of the country where such pasturage abounds as bamboo, lemon grass, sedges on the banks of rivers, lakes, and swamps, elephants are sure to be found at such seasons as are most propitious for the growth of these plants. When the dry weather destroys this supply of food in one district, they migrate to another part of the country.
They come forth to feed about 4 P.M., and they invariably, retire to the thickest and most thorny jungle in the neighbourhood of their feeding-place by 7 A.M. In these impenetrable haunts they consider themselves secure from aggression.
The period of gestation with an elephant is supposed to be two years, and the time occupied in attaining full growth is about sixteen years. The whole period of life is supposed to be a hundred years, but my own opinion would increase that period by fifty.
The height of elephants varies to a great degree, and in all cases is very deceiving. In Ceylon, an elephant is measured at the shoulder, and nine feet at this point is a very large animal. There is no doubt that many elephants far exceed this, as I have shot them so large that two tall men could lie at full length from the point of the forefoot to the shoulder; but this is not a common size: the average height at the shoulder would be about seven feet.*(*The males 7 ft.6 in., the females 7 ft., at the shoulder.)
Not more than one in three hundred has tusks; they are merely provided with short grubbers, projecting generally about three inches from the upper jaw, and about two inches in diameter; these are called 'tushes' in Ceylon, and are of so little value that they are not worth extracting from the head. They are useful to the elephants in hooking on to a branch and tearing it down.
Elephants are gregarious, and the average number in a herd is about eight, although they frequently form bodies of fifty and even eighty in one troop. Each herd consists of a very large proportion of females, and they are constantly met without a single bull in their number. I have seen some small herds formed exclusively of bulls, but this is very rare. The bull is much larger than the female, and is generally more savage. His habits frequently induce him to prefer solitude to a gregarious life. He then becomes doubly vicious. He seldom strays many miles from one locality, which he haunts for many years. He becomes what is termed a 'rogue.' He then waylays the natives, and in fact becomes a scourge to the neighbourhood, attacking the inoffensive without the slightest provocation, carrying destruction into the natives' paddy-fields, and perfectly regardless of night fires or the usual precautions for scaring wild beasts.
The daring pluck of these 'rogues' is only equalled by their extreme cunning. Endowed with that wonderful power of scent peculiar to elephants, he travels in the day-time DOWN the wind; thus nothing can follow upon his track without his knowledge. He winds his enemy as the cautious hunter advances noiselessly upon his track, and he stands with ears thrown forward, tail erect, trunk thrown high in the air, with its distended tip pointed to the spot from which he winds the silent but approaching danger. Perfectly motionless does he stand, like a statue in ebony, the very essence of attention, every nerve of scent and hearing stretched to its cracking point; not a muscle moves, not a sound of a rustling branch against his rough sides; he is a mute figure of wild and fierce eagerness. Meanwhile, the wary tracker stoops to the ground, and with a practised eye pierces the tangled brushwood in search of his colossal feet. Still farther and farther he silently creeps forward, when suddenly a crash bursts through the jungle; the moment has arrived for the ambushed charge, and the elephant is upon him.
What increases the danger is the uncertainty prevailing in all the movements of a 'rogue'. You may perhaps see him upon a plain or in a forest. As you advance, he retreats, or he may at once charge. Should he retreat, you follow him; but you may shortly discover that he is leading you to some favourite haunt of thick jungle or high grass, from which, when you least expect it, he will suddenly burst out in full charge upon you.
Next to a 'rogue' in ferocity, and even more persevering in the pursuit of her victim, is a female elephant when her young one has been killed. In such a case she will generally follow up her man until either he or she is killed. If any young elephants are in the herd, the mothers frequently prove awkward customers.
Elephant-shooting is doubtless the most dangerous of all sports if the game is invariably followed up; but there is a great difference between elephant-killing and elephant-hunting; the latter is sport, the former is slaughter.
Many persons who have killed elephants know literally nothing about the sport, and they may ever leave Ceylon with the idea that an elephant is not a dangerous animal. Their elephants are killed in this way, viz.:
The party of sportsmen, say two or three, arrive at a certain district. The headman is sent for from the village; he arrives. The enquiry respecting the vicinity of elephants is made; a herd is reported to be in the neighbourhood, and trackers and watchers are sent out to find them.
In the meantime the tent is pitched, our friends are employed in unpacking the guns, and, after some hours have elapsed, the trackers return: they have found the herd, and the watchers are left to observe them.
The guns are loaded and the party starts. The trackers run quickly on the track until they meet one of the watchers who has been sent back upon the track by the other watchers to give the requisite information of the movements of the herd since the trackers left. One tracker now leads the way, and they cautiously proceed. The boughs are heard slightly rustling as the unconscious elephants are fanning the flies from their bodies within a hundred yards of the guns.
The jungle is open and good, interspersed with plots of rank grass; and quietly following the head tracker, into whose hands our friends have committed themselves, they follow like hounds under the control of a huntsman. The tracker is a famous fellow, and he brings up his employers in a masterly manner within ten paces of the still unconscious elephants. He now retreats quietly behind the guns, and the sport begins. A cloud of smoke from a regular volley, a crash through the splintering branches as the panic-stricken herd rush from the scene of conflict, and it is all over. X. has killed two, Y. has killed one, and Z. knocked down one, but he got up again and got away; total, three bagged. Our friends now return to the tent, and, after perhaps a month of this kind of shooting, they arrive at their original headquarters, having bagged perhaps twenty elephants. They give their opinion upon elephant-shooting, and declare it to be capital sport, but there is no danger in it, as the elephants INVARIABLY RUN AWAY.
Let us imagine ourselves in the position of the half-asleep and unsuspecting herd. We are lying down in a doze during the heat of the day, and our senses are half benumbed by a sense of sleep. We are beneath the shade of a large tree, and we do not dream that danger is near us.
A frightful scream suddenly scatters our wandering senses. It is a rogue elephant upon us! It was the scream of his trumpet that we heard! and he is right among us. How we should bolt! How we should run at the first start until we could get a gun! But let him continue this pursuit, and how long would he be without a ball in his head?
It is precisely the same in attacking a herd of elephants or any other animals unawares; they are taken by surprise, and are for the moment panic-stricken. But let our friends X., Y., Z., who have just bagged three elephants so easily, continue the pursuit, hunt the remaining portion of the herd down till one by one they have nearly all fallen to the bullet--X., Y., Z. will have had enough of it; they will be blinded by perspiration, torn by countless thorns, as they have rushed through the jungles determined not to lose sight of their game, soaked to the skin as they have waded through intervening streams, and will entirely have altered their opinion as to elephants invariably running away, as they will very probably have seen one turn sharp round from the retreating herd, and charge straight into them when they least expected it. At any rate, after a hunt of this kind they can form some opinion of the excitement of the true sport.
The first attack upon a herd by a couple of first-rate elephant-shots frequently ends the contest in a few seconds by the death of every elephant. I have frequently seen a small herd of five or six elephants annihilated almost in as many seconds after a well-planned approach in thick jungle, when they have been discovered standing in a crowd and presenting favourable shots. In such an instance the sport is so soon concluded that the only excitement consists in the cautious advance to the attack through bad jungle.
As a rule, the pursuit of elephants through bad, thorny jungles should if possible be avoided: the danger is in many cases extreme, although the greater portion of the herd may at other times be perhaps easily killed. There is no certainty in a shot. An elephant may be discerned by the eye looming in an apparent mist formed by the countless intervening twigs and branches which veil him like a screen of network. To reach the fatal spot the ball must pass through perhaps fifty little twigs, one of which, if struck obliquely, turns the bullet, and there is no answering for the consequence. There are no rules, however, without exceptions, and in some instances the following of the game through the thickest jungle can hardly be avoided.
The character of the country in Ceylon is generally very unfavourable to sport of all kinds. The length of the island is about two hundred and eighty miles, by one hundred and fifty in width; the greater portion of this surface is covered with impenetrable jungles, which form secure coverts for countless animals.
The centre of the island is mountainous, torrents from which, form the sources of the numerous rivers by which Ceylon is so well watered. The low country is flat. The soil throughout the island is generally poor and sandy.
This being the character of the country, and vast forests rendered impenetrable by tangled underwood forming the principal features of the landscape, a person arriving at Ceylon for the purpose of enjoying its wild sports would feel an inexpressible disappointment.
Instead of mounting a good horse, as he might have fondly anticipated, and at once speeding over trackless plains till so far from human habitations that the territories of beasts commence, he finds himself walled in by jungle on either side of the highway. In vain he asks for information. He finds the neighbourhood of Galle, his first landing place, densely populated; he gets into the coach for Colombo. Seventy miles of close population and groves of cocoa-nut trees are passed, and he reaches the capital. This is worse and worse--he has seen no signs of wild country during his long journey, and Colombo appears to be the height of civilisation. He books his place for Kandy; he knows that is in the very centre of Ceylon--there surely must be sport there, he thinks.
The morning gun fires from the Colombo fort at 5 A.M. and the coach starts. Miles are passed, and still the country is thickly populated--paddy cultivation in all the flats and hollows, and even the sides of the hills are carefully terraced out in a laborious system of agriculture. There can be no shooting here!
Sixty miles are passed; the top of the Kaduganava Pass is reached, eighteen hundred feet above the sea level, the road walled with jungle on either side. From the summit of this pass our newly arrived sportsman gazes with despair. Far as the eye can reach over a vast extent of country, mountain and valley, hill and dale, without one open spot, are clothed alike in one dark screen of impervious forest.
He reaches Kandy, a civilised town surrounded by hills of jungle--that interminable jungle!--and at Kandy he may remain, or, better still, return again to England, unless he can get some well-known Ceylon sportsman to pilot him through the apparently pathless forests, and in fact to 'show him sport.' This is not easily effected. Men who understand the sport are not over fond of acting `chaperon' to a young hand, as a novice must always detract from the sport in some degree. In addition to this, many persons do not exactly know themselves; and, although the idea of shooting elephants appears very attractive at a distance, the pleasure somewhat abates when the sportsman is forced to seek for safety in a swift pair of heels.
I shall now proceed to give a description of the various sports in Ceylon--a task for which the constant practice of many years has afforded ample incident.
The game of Ceylon consists of elephants, buffaloes, elk, spotted deer, red or the paddy-field deer*(*A small species of deer found in the island), mouse deer, hogs, bears, leopards, hares, black partridge, red-legged partridge, pea-fowl, jungle-fowl, quail, snipe, ducks, widgeon, teal, golden and several kinds of plover, a great variety of pigeons, and among the class of reptiles are innumerable snakes, etc., and the crocodile.
The acknowledged sports of Ceylon are elephant-shooting, buffalo-shooting, deer-shooting, elk-hunting, and deer-coursing: the two latter can only be enjoyed by a resident in the island, as of course the sport is dependent upon a pack of fine hounds. Although the wild boar is constantly killed, I do not reckon him among the sports of the country, as he is never sought for; death and destruction to the hounds generally being attendant upon his capture. The bear and leopard also do not form separate sports; they are merely killed when met with.
In giving an account of each kind of sport I shall explain the habits of the animal and the features of the country wherein every incident occurs, Ceylon scenery being so diversified that no general description could give a correct idea of Ceylon sports.
The guns are the first consideration. After the first year of my experience I had four rifles made to order, which have proved themselves perfect weapons in all respects, and exactly adapted for heavy game. They are double-barrelled, No. 10 bores, and of such power in metal that they weigh fifteen pounds each. I consider them perfection; but should others consider them too heavy, a pound taken from the weight of the barrels would make a perceptible difference. I would in all cases strongly deprecate the two grooved rifle for wild sports, on account of the difficulty in loading quickly. A No. 10 twelve-grooved rifle will carry a conical ball of two ounces and a half, and can be loaded as quickly as a smooth-bore. Some persons prefer the latter to rifles for elephant-shooting, but I cannot myself understand why a decidedly imperfect weapon should be used when the rifle offers such superior advantages. At twenty and even thirty paces a good smooth-bore will carry a ball with nearly the same precision as a rifle; but in a country full of various large game there is no certainty, when the ball is rammed down, at what object it is to be aimed. A buffalo or deer may cross the path at a hundred yards, and the smooth-bore is useless; on the other hand, the rifle is always ready for whatever may appear.
My battery consists of one four-ounce rifle (a single barrel) weighing twenty-one pounds, one long two-ounce rifle (single barrel) weighing sixteen pounds, and four double-barrelled rifles, No. 10 weighing each fifteen pounds. Smooth-bores I count for nothing, although I have frequently used them.
So much for guns. It may therefore be summed up that the proper battery for Ceylon shooting would be four large-bored double-barrelled rifles, say from No. 10 to No. 12 in size, but all to be the same bore, so as to prevent confusion in loading. Persons may suit their own fancy as to the weight of their guns, bearing in mind that single barrels are very useless things.
Next to the `Rifle' in the order of description comes the 'Hound.'
The `elk' is his acknowledged game, and an account of this animal's size and strength will prove the necessity of a superior breed of hound.
The `elk' is a Ceylon blunder and a misnomer. The animal thus called is a `samber deer,' well known in India as the largest of all Asiatic deer.
A buck in his prime will stand fourteen hands high at the shoulder, and will weigh 600 pounds, live weight. He is in colour dark brown, with a fine mane of coarse bristly hair of six inches in length; the rest of his body is covered with the same coarse hair of about two inches in length. I have a pair of antlers in my possession that are thirteen inches round the burr, and the same size beneath the first branch, and three feet four inches in length; this, however, is a very unusual size.
The elk has seldom more than six points to his antlers. The low-country elk are much larger than those on the highlands; the latter are seldom more than from twelve to thirteen hands high; and of course their weight is proportionate, that of a buck in condition being about 400 pounds when gralloched. I have killed them much heavier than this on the mountains, but I have given about the average weight.
The habits of this animal are purely nocturnal. He commences his wanderings at sunset, and retires to the forest at break of day. He is seldom found in greater numbers than two or three together, and is generally alone. When brought to bay he fights to the last, and charges man and hound indiscriminately, a choice hound killed being often the price of victory.
The country in which he is hunted is in the mountainous districts of Ceylon. Situated at an elevation of 6,200 feet above the sea is Newera Ellia, the sanatorium of the island. Here I have kept a pack and hunted elk for some years, the delightful coolness of the temperature (seldom above 66 degrees Fahr.) rendering the sport doubly enjoyable. The principal features of this country being a series of wild marsh, plains, forests, torrents, mountains and precipices, a peculiar hound is required for the sport.
A pack of thoroughbred fox-hounds would never answer. They would pick up a cold scent and open upon it before they were within a mile of their game. Roused from his morning nap, the buck would snuff the breeze, and to the distant music give an attentive ear, then shake the dew from his rough hide, and away over rocks and torrents, down the steep mountain sides, through pathless forests; and woe then to the pack of thoroughbreds, whose persevering notes would soon be echoed by the rocky steeps, far, far away from any chance of return, lost in the trackless jungles and ravines many miles from kennel, a prey to leopards and starvation! I have proved this by experience, having brought a pack of splendid hounds from England, only one of which survived a few months' hunting.
The hound required for elk-hunting is a cross between the fox-hound and blood-hound, of great size and courage, with as powerful a voice as possible. He should be trained to this sport from a puppy, and his natural sagacity soon teaches him not to open unless upon a hot scent, or about two hundred yards from his game; thus the elk is not disturbed until the hound is at full speed upon his scent, and he seldom gets a long start. Fifteen couple of such hounds in full cry put him at his best pace, which is always tried to the uttermost by a couple or two of fast and pitiless lurchers who run ahead of the pack, the object being to press him at first starting, so as to blow him at the very commencement: this is easily effected, as he is full of food, and it is his nature always to take off straight UP the hill when first disturbed. When blown he strikes down hill, and makes at great speed for the largest and deepest stream; in this he turns to bay, and tries the mettle of the finest hounds.
The great enemy to a pack is the leopard. He pounces from the branch of a tree upon a stray hound, and soon finishes him, unless of great size and courage, in which case the cowardly brute is soon beaten off. This forms another reason for the choice of large hounds.
The next sport is 'deer-coursing.' This is one of the most delightful kinds of sport in Ceylon. The game is the axis or spotted deer, and the open plains in many parts of the low country afford splendid ground for both greyhound and horse.
The buck is about 250 pounds live weight, of wonderful speed and great courage, armed with long and graceful antlers as sharp as needles. He will suddenly turn to bay upon the hard ground, and charge his pursuers, and is more dangerous to the greyhounds than the elk, from his wonderful activity, and from the fact that he is coursed by only a pair of greyhounds, instead of being hunted by a pack.
Pure greyhounds of great size and courage are best adapted for this sport. They cannot afford to lose speed by a cross with slower hounds.