[Last] [Top] [Next]

The Rifle and Hound in Ceylon.

by Samuel White Baker


A Morning's Deer-coursing--Kondawataweny--Rogue at Kondawa taweny--A Close Shave--Preparations for Catching an Elephant--Catching an Elephant--Taming Him--Flying Shot at a Buck--Cave at Dimbooldene--Awkward Ground--A Charmed Life.

IT was in July, 1848, that I pitched my tent in the portion of Ceylon known as the 'Park,' for the purpose of deer-coursing. I had only three greyhounds, Killbuck, Bran and Lena, and these had been carried in a palanquin from Newera Ellia, a distance of one hundred miles. The grass had all been burnt about two months previously, and the whole country was perfectly fresh and green, the young shoots not being more than half a foot high. The deer were numerous but wild, which made the sport the more enjoyable. I cannot describe the country better than by comparing it to a rich English park, well watered by numerous streams and large rivers, but ornamented by many beautiful rocky mountains, which are seldom to be met with in England. If this part of the country had the advantage of the Newera Ellia climate, it would be a Paradise, but the intense heat destroys much of the pleasure in both shooting and coursing, especially in the latter sport, as the greyhounds must be home by 8 A. M., or they would soon die from the effects of the sun.

It was in the cool hour of sunrise, when the dew lay thickly upon the grass, and the foliage glistened with the first beams of morning, that we stalked over the extensive plains with Killbuck and Lena in the slips, in search of deer. Several herds winded us at a distance of half a mile, and immediately bounded away, rendering pursuit impossible; and we determined not to slip the dogs unless they had a fair start, as one run in this climate was quite work enough for a morning. After several disappointments in stalking, we at length discovered a noble buck standing alone by the edge of a narrow belt of jungle; the instant that he observed us, he stepped proudly into the cover. This being open forest, my brother took the greyhounds in at the spot where the deer had entered, while I ran round to the opposite side of the cover, and took my position upon an extensive lawn of fine grass about half a mile in width.

I had not remained a minute at my post before I heard a crash in the jungle, as though an elephant were charging through, and in another instant, a splendid buck burst upon the plain at full speed, and away he flew over the level lawn, with the brace of greyhounds laying out about fifty paces behind him. Here was a fair trial of speed over a perfect bowling-green, and away they flew, the buck exerting his utmost stride, and the greyhounds stretching out till their briskets nearly touched the ground; Killbuck leading with tremendous bounds, and Lena about a length behind him.

By degrees the beautiful spring of the greyhounds appeared to tell, and the distance between them and the buck gradually decreased, although both deer and dogs flew along with undiminished speed. The plain was nearly crossed, and the opposite jungle lay within 200 yards of them. To gain this, the buck redoubled his exertions; the greyhounds knew as well as he did, that it was his chance of escape, and with equal efforts they pressed upon him. Not fifty paces now separated the buck from the jungle, and with prodigious bounds he sped along; he neared it; he won it! the yielding branches crashed before him, but the dogs were at his haunches as the jungle closed over them and concealed the chase.

I was soon up; and upon entering the jungle, I could neither hear nor see anything of them, but, by following up the track, I found them about fifty yards from the entrance of the bush. The buck was standing on the sandy bed of a dry stream, endeavouring in vain to free himself, while the greyhounds pinned his nose to the ground, each hanging upon his ears. The knife finished him immediately. There never was a more exciting course; it had been nobly run by both the dogs, and well contested by the buck, who was a splendid fellow and in fine condition.

On my way to the tent I wounded a doe at full speed, which Lena followed singly and pulled down, thus securing our coolies a good supply of venison. The flesh of the spotted deer is more like mutton than English venison, and is excellent eating; it would be still better if the climate would allow of its being kept for a few days.

There is no sport in Ceylon, in my opinion, that is equal to deer-coursing, but the great difficulty attending it, is the lack of good greyhounds. The spotted buck (or axis) is an animal of immense power and courage; and although most greyhounds would course him, very few would have sufficient courage and strength to hold him, unless slipped two brace at a time, which would immediately spoil the sport. A brace of greyhounds to one buck is fair play, and a good strong horse will generally keep them in view. In two weeks' coursing in the Park, we killed seventeen deer with three greyhounds; at the expiration of which time, the dogs were so footsore and wounded by the hard burnt stubble of the old grass that they were obliged to be sent home.

When the greyhounds had left, I turned my attention to elephants. There were very few at this season in the Park, and I therefore left this part of the country, which was dried up, and proceeded to Kondawataweny, in the direction of Batticaloa.*(*The jungles have now been cleared away, and a plain of 25,000 acres of rice cultivation has usurped the old resort of elephants.) Kondawataweny is a small village, inhabited by Moormen, situated on the edge of a large lake or tank. Upon arrival, I found that the neighbourhood was alive with game of all kinds, and the Moormen were excellent hands at elephants. There was accordingly no difficulty in procuring good gun-bearers and trackers, and at 4 P.M. of the day of our arrival, we started to make a circuit of the tank in quest of the big game. At about 5 P.M. we observed several rogues scattered in various directions around the lake; one of these fellows, whose close acquaintance I made with the telescope, I prophesied would show some fight before we owned his tail. This elephant was standing some distance in the water, feeding and bathing. There were two elephants close to the water's edge between him and us, and we determined to have a shot at them en passant, and then try to bag the big fellow.

Although we stalked very cautiously along the edge of the jungle which surrounded the lake, divided from it by a strip of plain of about 200 yards in width, the elephants winded us, and retreated over the patina* (*Grassy plains) at full speed towards the jungle. Endeavouring to cut them off before they could reach the thick cover, we ran at our best pace along the edge of the jungle, so as to meet them at right angles. One reached the jungle before us, but a lucky shot at a distance of sixty paces floored the other, who lay struggling on the ground, and was soon extinguished. Having reloaded, we went in quest of the large rogue, who was bathing in the tank. This gentleman had decamped, having taken offence at the firing.

Close to the edge of the lake grew a patch of thick thorny jungle of about two acres, completely isolated, and separated from the main jungle by about eighty paces' length of fine turf. The Moormen knew the habits of this rogue, who was well known in the neighbourhood, and they at once said, "that he had concealed himself in the small patch of jungle." Upon examining the tracks from the tank, we found they were correct.

The question was, how to dislodge him; the jungle was so dense that it was impossible to enter, and driving was the only chance.

There was a small bush within a few paces of the main jungle, exactly opposite that in which the elephant was concealed, and we determined to hide behind this, while a few Moormen should endeavour to drive him from his retreat, in which case, he would be certain to make for the main forest, and would most probably pass near the bush, behind which we lay in wait for him. Giving the Moormen a gun, we took to our hiding-place. The men went round to the tank side of the patch of jungle, and immediately commenced shouting and firing; securing themselves from an attack by climbing into the highest trees. A short interval elapsed, and not a sound of the elephant could be heard. The firing and shouting ceased, and all was as still as death. Some of the Moormen returned from the jungle, and declared that the elephant was not there; but this was all nonsense; the fact was, they did not like the idea of driving him out. Knowing the character of these 'rogues', I felt convinced that he was one of the worst description, and that he was quietly waiting his time, until some one should advance within his reach. Having given the Moormen a supply of powder, I again despatched them to drive the jungle. Once more the firing and shouting commenced, and continued until their supply of powder was exhausted: no effects had been produced; it was getting late, and the rogue appeared determined not to move. A dead silence ensued, which was presently disturbed by the snapping of a bough; in another moment the jungle crashed, and forth stepped the object of our pursuit! He was a magnificent elephant, one of the most vicious in appearance that I have ever seen; he understood the whole affair as well as we did; and flourishing his trunk, he paced quickly backwards and forwards for a few turns before the jungle he had just quitted; suddenly making his resolution, he charged straight at the bush behind which we had imagined ourselves concealed. He was about eighty yards off when he commenced his onset; and seeing that we were discovered, I left the hiding-place, and stepped to the front of the bush to meet him with the four-ounce rifle. On he came at a great pace, carrying his head very high, and making me the sole object of his attack. I made certain of the shot, although his head was in a difficult position, and I accordingly waited for him till he was within fifteen paces. At this distance I took a steady shot and fired. A cloud of smoke, from the heavy charge of powder, obscured everything, but I felt so certain that he was down, that I looked under the smoke to see where he lay. Ye gods! He was just over me in full charge! I had not even checked him by the shot, and he was within three feet of me, going at a tremendous pace. Throwing my heavy rifle into the bush, I doubled quickly to one side, hoping that he would pass me and take to the main jungle, to which I ran parallel as fast as my legs could carry me. Instead of taking to the jungle, he turned short and quickly after me, and a fair race commenced. I had about three feet start of him, and I saw with delight that the ground was as level and smooth as a lawn; there was no fear of tripping up, and away I went at the fastest pace that I ever ran either before or since, taking a look behind me to see how the chase went on. I saw the bullet-mark in his forehead, which was covered with blood; his trunk was stretched to its full length to catch me, and was now within two feet of my back; he was gaining on me, although I was running at a tremendous pace. I could not screw an inch more speed out of my legs, and I kept on, with the brute gaining on me at every stride. He was within a foot of me, and I had not heard a shot fired, and not a soul had come to the rescue. The sudden thought struck me that my brother could not possibly overtake the elephant at the pace at which we were going, and I immediately doubled short to my left into the open plain, and back towards the guns. The rogue overshot me. I met my brother close to his tail, which position he had with difficulty maintained; but he could not get a shot, and the elephant turned into the jungle, and disappeared just as I escaped him by a sharp turn. This was a close shave; had not the ground been perfectly level I must have been caught to a certainty, and even as it was, he would have had me in another stride had I not turned from my straight course. It was nearly dark, and we returned to the tent, killing several peacocks and ducks on our way, with which the country swarmed.

We passed a miserable night, not being able to sleep on account of the mosquitoes, which were in swarms. I was delighted to see the first beam of morning, when our little winged enemies left us, and a 'chatty' bath was most enjoyable after the restless tossings of a sleepless night. The Moormen were out at dawn to look for elephants, the guns were cleaned, and I looked forward to the return of the trackers with peculiar interest, as we had determined to 'catch an elephant.' The Moormen were all full of excitement and preparation. These men were well practised in this sport, and they were soon busied in examining and coiling their hide ropes for the purpose.

At about mid-day the trackers returned, having found a herd about five miles from the village. We were all ready, and we set off without a moment's delay, our party consisting of my brother, myself, four gun-bearers, and about thirty Moormen, each of whom carried a coil of finely-twisted rope made of thongs of raw deer's hide; these ropes were each twenty yards in length, and about an inch in diameter.

Having skirted the borders of the tank for about three miles, we turned into the forest, and continued our route through alternate open and thick forest, until we at length reached a rough, open country, interspersed with low jungles. Here we met the watchers, who reported the herd to be a few hundred paces from us in some patches of thick jungle. Taking the wind, we carefully approached their position. The ground was very rough, being a complete city of anthills about two feet high; these were overgrown with grass, giving the open country an appearance of a vast churchyard of turf graves. Among these tumps grew numerous small clusters of bushes, above which, we shortly discovered the flapping ears of the elephants, they were slowly feeding towards the more open ground. It was a lovely afternoon, the sky was covered with a thin grey cloud, and the sun had little or no power. Hiding behind a bush, we watched the herd for some time, until they had all quitted the bushes and were well out in the open. There were two elephants facing us, and the herd, which consisted of seven, were tolerably close together, with the exception of one, who was about thirty yards apart from the main body; this fellow we determined to catch. We therefore arranged that our gun-bearers and four rope-carriers should accompany us, while the remaining portion of our party should lie in reserve to come to our assistance when required, as so large a body of men could not possibly stalk the herd without being discovered. Falling upon our hands and knees, we crept between the grassy ant-hills towards the two leading elephants, who were facing us. The wind was pretty brisk, and the ant-hills effectually concealed us till we were within seven paces of our game. The two leaders then both dropped dead to the front shot, and the fun began. The guns were so well handed up, that we knocked over the six elephants before they had given us a run of twenty yards, and we all closed up and ran under the tail of the retreating elephant that we had devoted to the ropes. He was going at about seven miles an hour; we therefore had no difficulty in keeping up with him, as we could run between the ant-hills much faster than he could. The ropes were in readiness, and with great dexterity, one of the Moormen slipped a noose over one of his hind feet, as he raised it from the ground; and drawing it tight, he dropped his coil. We all halted, and allowed the unconscious elephant to run out his length of line; this he soon did, and the rope trailed after him like a long snake, we all following at about the centre of the length of rope, or twenty paces behind him. He was making for the jungle, which was not far distant, and we were running him like a pack of hounds, but keeping a gun in readiness, lest he should turn and charge. He at length reached the wooded bank of a dry river, and thick rattan jungle bordered the opposite side; he thought he was safe, and he plunged down the crumbling bank. We were a little too quick for him, by taking a double turn round a tree with the slack end of the rope just as he descended the bank; the effect of this was to bring him to a sudden standstill, and the stretching of the hide rope threw him upon his knees. He recovered himself immediately, and used extraordinary efforts to break away; tightening the rope to its utmost length, he suddenly lifted up his tied leg and threw his whole weight forward. Any but a hide rope of that diameter must have given way, but this stretched like a harp-string, and at every effort to break it, the yielding elasticity of the hide threw him upon his head, and the sudden contraction after the fall, jerked his leg back to its full length.

After many vain, but tremendous efforts to free himself, he turned his rage upon his pursuers, and charged everyone right and left; but he was safely tied, and we took some little pleasure in teasing him. He had no more chance than a fly in a spider's web. As he charged in one direction, several nooses were thrown round his hind legs; then his trunk was caught in a slip-knot, then his fore legs, then his neck, and the ends of all these ropes being brought together and hauled tight, he was effectually hobbled.

This had taken some time to effect (about half an hour), and we now commenced a species of harness to enable us to drive him to the village.

The first thing was to secure his trunk by tying it to one of his fore legs; this leg was then fastened with a slack rope to one of his hind legs, which prevented him from taking a longer stride than about two feet; his neck was then tied to his other fore leg, and two ropes were made fast to both his fore and hind legs; the ends of these ropes being manned by thirty men.

Having completed these arrangements, he was released from the ties which hobbled him, and we commenced the arduous task of driving him towards the village, a distance of five miles. The only method of getting him along, was to keep two men to tease him in front, by shouting and waving cloths before his face; he immediately charged these fellows, who, of course, ran in the right direction for the village, and by this repeated manoeuvre we reached the borders of the tank by nightfall. We were still at least two miles from the village, and we were therefore obliged to tie him to a tree for the night. The next morning we succeeded in driving him to the village. He was a fine elephant, but not full grown, and for this reason he had been selected from the herd for capture, as they are more valuable at this particular period of their growth, being easily rendered docile. He was about sixteen years of age; and by starving for two days, and subsequent gentle treatment, the natives mounted and rode him on the third day of his capture, taking the precaution, however, of first securing his trunk. This elephant was then worth fifteen pounds to be sold to the Arabs for the Indian market.

After a stay of a few days in this neighbourhood, during which we had good sport in elephant-shooting, we returned to the Park country. The first evening of our return, we heard elephants roaring in the jungle within a short distance of the tent. At daybreak the next morning we were on their tracks, and after a walk of five miles we found them in thick thorny jungle, and only killed three. We had a long day's work, and we were returning home in the afternoon when we suddenly observed a herd of deer grazing in the beautiful park. The headman of this part of the country is a first-rate sportsman, and has always accompanied me in shooting through this district. This man, whose name is Banda, is the only Cingalese that I have ever seen who looks like a man of good birth in his nation. Strikingly handsome and beautifully proportioned, with the agility of a deer, he is in all respects the beau ideal of a native hunter. His skill in tracking is superb, and his thorough knowledge of the habits of all Ceylon animals, especially of elephants, renders him a valuable ally to a sportsman. He and I commenced a careful stalk, and after a long circuit I succeeded in getting within seventy paces of the herd of deer. The ground was undulating, and they were standing on the top of a low ridge of hills. I dropped a buck with my two-ounce rifle, and the herd immediately disappeared behind the top of the hill. Taking one of my double-barrelled rifles, which Banda gave me, I ran to the top of the hill as fast as I could, just in time to see the herd going at a flying speed along a small valley at a long distance. Another buck was separated from the herd by about forty paces, and putting up the second sight of my rifle, I took a shot at him; to my delight he plunged heavily upon the turf. I fired my remaining barrel at the herd, but I must have missed, as none fell. I immediately stepped the distance to the dead buck, 187 paces. I had fired a little too high, and missed his body, but the ball struck him in the neck and had broken his spine. A successful flying shot at this distance has a very pretty effect, and Banda was delighted.

There were very few elephants at this season at the Park, and the numberless 'ticks' which swarmed in the grass, spoilt all the pleasure of shooting. These little wretches, which are not larger than a small grain of gunpowder, find their way to every part of the body, and the irritation of their bites is indescribable. Scratching, is only adding fuel to fire; there is no certain prevention or relief from their attacks; the best thing that I know is cocoa-nut oil rubbed daily over the whole body, but the remedy is almost as unpleasant as the bite. Ceylon is, at all times, a frightful place for vermin: in the dry weather we have ticks; it the wet weather mosquitoes, and, what are still more disgusting, 'leeches,' which swarm in the grass, and upon the leaves of the jungle. These creatures insinuate themselves through all the openings in a person's dress--up the trousers, under the waistcoat, down the neck, up the wrists, and in fact everywhere, drawing blood with insatiable voracity, and leaving an unpleasant irritation for some days after.

All these annoyances form great drawbacks to the enjoyment of the low-country sports; although they are afterwards forgotten, and the bright moments of the sport are all that are looked back to, they are great discomforts at the time. When the day is over, and the man, fatigued by intense heat and a hard day's work, feels himself refreshed by a bath and a change of clothes, the incurable itching of a thousand tick-bites destroys all his pleasure; he finds himself streaming with blood from leech-bites, and for the time he feels disgusted with the country. First-rate sport can alone compensate for all these annoyances.

There is a portion of the Park country known as Dimbooldene. In this part there is a cave formed by a large overhanging rock, which is a much cooler residence than the tent. Here we accordingly bivouacked, the cave being sufficiently large to contain the horses in addition to ourselves and servants. After a delightfully cool night, free from mosquitoes, we made a day of it, but we walked from sunrise till 5 P.M. without seeing a sign of an elephant. At length, from the top of a high hill on the very confines of the Park country, we looked across a deep valley, and with the assistance of the telescope we plainly distinguished a large single elephant feeding on the grassy side of an opposite mountain. To cross the deep valley that separated us, and to ascend the mountain, would have taken several hours, and at this time of the day it was impracticable; we were thus compelled to turn our backs upon the game, and return towards our rocky home. Tired, more from our want of success than from the day's work, we strolled leisurely along, and we were talking of the best plan to be adopted for the next day's work, when I suddenly observed a herd of eight elephants going up the side of a small hill at their best pace within 200 yards of us. They had just quitted a small jungle at the bottom of a ravine, and they had been alarmed by our approach.

Off we started in pursuit, down the rugged side of the hill we were descending, and up the opposite hill, upon the elephants' tracks, as hard as we could run. Just as we reached the top of the hill, the elephants were entering a small jungle on the other side. My brother got a shot, and killed the last of the herd; in another moment they had disappeared. It had been a sharp burst up the steep hill, and we stopped to breathe, but we were almost immediately in pursuit again, as we saw the herd emerge from the jungle at the base of the hill, and plough their way through a vast field of high lemon grass.

Upon arriving on their tracks, they had fairly distanced us. The grass, which was as thick as a hedge, was trodden into lanes by the elephants, and upon either side it stood like a wall ten or twelve feet high. Upon these tracks we ran along for some time, until it became dusk. We halted, and were consulting as to the prudence of continuing the chase at this late hour, when we suddenly heard the cracking of the branches in a small jungle in a hollow close to our left, and upon taking a position upon some rising ground, we distinctly saw several elephants standing in the high grass about a hundred paces before us, close to the edge of the jungle in which the remaining portion of the herd was concealed. Two of the elephants were looking at us, and as there was no time to lose, we walked straight up to them. They stood quietly watching us till we were within twenty yards, when they came a few paces forward, one immediately fall ing dead to my shot, while the other was turned by a shot from my brother; the rest retreated to the jungle over the most difficult ground for both man and beast. Immense rocks lay scattered in heaps over the surface, forming chasms by the intervening crevices of five and six feet in depth; from these crevices the long lemon grass grew in dense tufts, completely hiding the numerous pitfalls, and making the retreat of the elephants and our pursuit equally difficult. I was close to the tail of a large elephant, who was picking his way carefully over the treacherous surface, and I was waiting for an opportunity for a shot should he turn his head, when I suddenly pitched head first into one of these rocky holes. Here I scrambled for some seconds before I could extricate myself, as I was carrying my heavy four-ounce rifle; and at length, upon recovering my footing, I found that all the elephants had gained the jungle, except the one that I had been following. He was about twenty yards from me, and was just entering the jungle, but I got a splendid shot at him behind the ear and rolled him over.

It was very nearly dark, and we could not of course follow the herd any farther; we therefore reloaded, and turned towards the direction of the cave; this was plainly shown by a distant blaze of light from the night-fires, which were already lit. We were walking slowly along parallel to the jungle, into which the elephants had retreated, when my man Wallace, who is a capital gun-bearer, halloed out, `Here comes an elephant!' and in the dim twilight I could see an elephant bowling at a great pace towards us, but close to the jungle. He was forty yards from me, but my brother fired at him and without effect. I took a quick shot with a double-barrelled rifle, and he dropped immediately. Hearing him roar as he lay in the high lemon grass by the edge of the jungle, I ran down the gentle slope to the spot, followed by my trusty gun-bearer Wallace, as I knew the elephant was only stunned and would soon recover. Upon arriving within a few feet of the spot, pushing my way with difficulty through the tangled lemon grass, I could not see where he lay, as daylight had now vanished. I was vainly looking about, when I suddenly heard a rush in the grass close to me, and I saw the head and cocked ears of the elephant within six feet, as he came at me. I had just time to fire my remaining barrel, and down he dropped to the shot! I jumped back a few paces to assure myself of the result, as the smoke hanging in the high grass, added to the darkness, completely blinded me. Wallace pushed the spare rifle into my hand, and to my astonishment I saw the head and cocked ears again coming at me! It was so dark that I could not take an aim, but I floored him once more by a front shot, and again I jumped back through the tangled grass, just in time to avoid him, as he, for the third time, recovered himself and charged. He was not five paces from me; I took a steady shot at him with my last barrel, and I immediately bolted as hard as I could run. This shot once more floored him, but he must have borne a charmed life, as he again recovered his legs, and to my great satisfaction he turned into the jungle and retreated. This all happened in a few seconds; had it been daylight I could of course have killed him, but as it happened I could not even dis tinguish the sights at the end of my rifle. In a few minutes afterwards, it became pitch dark, and we could only steer for the cave by the light of the fire, which was nearly two miles distant.

The next day, we found a herd of eight elephants in very favourable ground, and succeeded in killing seven; but this was the last herd in the Park, and after a few days spent in beating up the country without success, I returned to Newera Ellia, the bag being twenty-two elephants during a trip of three weeks, in addition to deer, hogs, buffalo, and small game, which had afforded excellent sport.

[Last] [Top] [Next]

The Project Gutenberg Etext prepared by Garry Gill (garrygill@hotmail.com)