Tennent's Natural History of Ceylon - 1861

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Elephant Shooting.

As the shooting of an elephant, whatever endurance and adroitness the sport may display in other respects, requires the smallest possible skill as a marksman, the numbers which are annually slain in this way may be regarded as evidence of the multitudes abounding in those parts of Ceylon to which they resort. One officer, Major ROGERS, killed upwards of 1400; another, Captain GALLWEY, has the credit of slaying more than half that number; Major SKINNER, the Commissioner of Roads, almost as many; and less persevering aspirants follow at humbler distances. 1

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But notwithstanding this prodigious destruction, a reward of a few shillings per head offered by the Government for taking elephants was claimed for 3500 destroyed in part of the northern province alone, in less than three years prior to 1848: and between 1851 and 1856, a similar reward was paid for 2000 in the southern province, between Galle and Hambangtotte.

Although there is little opportunity for the display of marksmanship in an elephant battue, there is one feature in the sport, as conducted in Ceylon, which contrasts favourably with the slaughterhouse details chronicled with revolting minuteness in some recent accounts of [pg 144] elephant shooting in South Africa. The practice in Ceylon is to aim invariably at the head, and the sportsman finds his safety to consist in boldly facing the animal, advancing to within fifteen paces, and lodging a bullet, either in the temple or in the hollow over the eye, or in a well-known spot immediately above the trunk, where the weaker structure of the skull affords an easy access to the brain. 2 The region of the ear is also a fatal spot, and often resorted to,—the places I have mentioned in the front of the head being only accessible when the animal is "charging." Professor HARRISON, in his communication to the Royal Irish Academy on the Anatomy of the Elephant, has rendered an intelligible explanation of this in the following passage descriptive of the cranium:—"it exhibits two remarkable facts: first, the small space occupied by the brain; and, secondly, the beautiful and curious structure of the bones of the head. The two tables of all these bones, except the occipital, are separated by rows of large cells, some from four to five inches in length, others only small, irregular, and honey-comb-like:—these all communicate with each other, and, through the frontal sinuses, with the cavity of the nose, and also with the tympanum or drum of each ear; consequently, as in some birds, these cells are filled with air, and thus while the skull attains a great size in order to afford an extensive surface [pg 145] for the attachment of muscles, and a mechanical support for the tusks, it is at the same time very light and buoyant in proportion to its bulk; a property the more valuable as the animal is fond of water and bathes in deep rivers."


Generally speaking, a single ball, planted in the forehead, ends the existence of the noble creature instantaneously: and expert sportsmen have been known to kill right and left, one with each barrel; but occasionally an elephant will not fall before several shots have been lodged in his head. 3

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Contrasted with this, one reads with a shudder the sickening details of the African huntsman approaching behind the retiring animal, and of the torture inflicted by the shower of bullets which tear up its flesh and lacerate its flank and shoulders. 4

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The shooting of elephants in Ceylon has been described with tiresome iteration in the successive journals of sporting gentlemen, but one who turns to their pages for traits of the animal and his instincts is disappointed to find little beyond graphic sketches of the daring and exploits of his pursuers, most of whom, having had no further opportunity of observation than is derived from a casual encounter with the outraged animal, have apparently tried to exalt their own prowess, by misrepresenting the ordinary character of the elephant, describing him as "savage, wary, and revengeful." 5

These epithets may undoubtedly apply to the outcasts from the herd, the "Rogues" or hora allia, but so small is the proportion of these that there is not probably one rogue to be found for every five hundred of those in herds; and it is a manifest error, arising from imperfect information, to extend this censure to them generally, or to suppose the elephant to be an animal "thirsting for blood, lying in wait in the jungle to rush on the unwary passer-by, and knowing no greater pleasure than the act of crushing his victim to a shapeless mass beneath his feet." 6 The cruelties practised by the hunters have no doubt taught these sagacious creatures to be cautious and alert, but their precautions are simply defensive; and beyond the alarm and apprehension which they [pg 148] evince on the approach of man, they exhibit no indication of hostility or thirst for blood.

An ordinary traveller seldom comes upon elephants unless after sunset or towards daybreak, as they go to or return from their nightly visits to the tanks: but when by accident a herd is disturbed by day, they evince, if unattacked, no disposition to become assailants; and if the attitude of defence which they instinctively assume prove sufficent to check the approach of the intruder, no further demonstration is to be apprehended.

Even the hunters who go in search of them find them in positions and occupations altogether inconsistent with the idea of their being savage, wary, or revengeful. Their demeanour when undisturbed is indicative of gentleness and timidity, and their actions bespeak lassitude and indolence, induced not alone by heat, but probably ascribable in some degree to the fact that the night has been spent in watchfulness and amusement. A few are generally browsing listlessly on the trees and plants within reach, others fanning themselves with leafy branches, and a few are asleep; whilst the young run playfully among the herd, the emblems of innocence, as the older ones are of peacefulness and gravity.

Almost every elephant may be observed to exhibit some peculiar action of the limbs when standing at rest; some move the head monotonously in a circle, or from right to left; some swing their feet back and forward; others flap their ears or sway themselves from side to side, or rise and sink by alternately bending and straightening the fore knees. As the opportunities of observing this custom have been almost confined to elephants in captivity, it has been conjectured to arise from some morbid [pg 149] habit contracted during the length of a voyage by sea 7 , or from an instinctive impulse to substitute a motion of this kind in lieu of their wonted exercise; but this supposition is erroneous; the propensity being equally displayed by those at liberty and those in captivity. When surprised by sportsmen in the depths of the jungle, individuals of a herd are always occupied in swinging their limbs in this manner; and in the several corrals which I have seen, where whole herds have been captured, the elephants in the midst of the utmost excitement, and even after the most vigorous charges, if they halted for a moment in stupor and exhaustion, manifested their wonted habit, and swung their limbs or swayed their bodies to and fro incessantly. So far from its being a substitute for exercise, those in the government employment in Ceylon are observed to practise their acquired motion, whatever it may be, with increased vigour when thoroughly fatigued after excessive work. Even the favourite practice of fanning themselves with a leafy branch seems less an enjoyment in itself than a resource when listless and at rest. The term "fidgetty" seems to describe appropriately the temperament of the elephant.

They evince the strongest love of retirement and a corresponding dislike to intrusion. The approach of a stranger is perceived less by the eye, the quickness of which is not remarkable (besides which its range is obscured by the foliage), than by sensitive smell and singular acuteness of hearing; and the whole herd is put in instant but noiseless motion towards some deeper and more secure retreat. The effectual manner in [pg 150] which an animal of the prodigious size of the elephant can conceal himself, and the motionless silence which he preserves, is quite surprising; whilst beaters pass and repass within a few yards of his hiding place, he will maintain his ground till the hunter, creeping almost close to his legs, sees his little eye peering out through the leaves, when, finding himself discovered, the elephant breaks away with a crash, levelling the brushwood in his headlong career.

If surprised in open ground, where stealthy retreat is impracticable, a herd will hesitate in indecision, and, after a few meaningless movements, stand huddled together in a group, whilst one or two, more adventurous than the rest, advance a few steps to reconnoitre. Elephants are generally observed to be bolder in open ground than in cover, but, if bold at all, far more dangerous in cover than in open ground.

In searching for them, sportsmen often avail themselves of the expertness of the native trackers; and notwithstanding the demonstration of Combe that the brain of the timid Singhalese is deficient in the organ of destructiveness 8 , he shows an instinct for hunting, and exhibits in the pursuit of the elephant a courage and adroitness far surpassing in interest the mere handling of the rifle, which is the principal share of the proceeding that falls to his European companions.

The beater on these occasions has the double task of finding the game and carrying the guns; and, in an animated communication to me, an experienced sportsman describes "this light and active creature, with his long glossy hair hanging down his shoulders, every [pg 151] muscle quivering with excitement; and his countenance lighting up with intense animation, leaping from rock to rock, as nimble as a deer, tracking the gigantic game like a blood-hound, falling behind as he comes up with it, and as the elephants, baffled and irritated, make the first stand, passing one rifle into your eager hand and holding the other ready whilst right and left each barrel performs its mission, and if fortune does not flag, and the second gun is as successful as the first, three or four huge carcases are piled one on another within a space equal to the area of a dining room." 9

It is curious that in these encounters the herd never rush forward in a body, as buffaloes or bisons do, but only one elephant at a time moves in advance of the rest to confront, or, as it is called, to "charge," the assailants. I have heard of but one instance in which two so advanced as champions of their companions. Sometimes, indeed, the whole herd will follow a leader, and manoeuvre in his rear like a body of cavalry; but so large a party are necessarily liable to panic; and, one of them having turned in alarm, the entire body retreat with terrified precipitation.

As regards boldness and courage, a strange variety of temperament is observable amongst elephants, but it may be affirmed that they are, much more generally timid than courageous. One herd may be as difficult to approach as deer, gliding away through the jungle so gently and quickly that scarcely a trace marks their passage; another, in apparent stupor, will huddle themselves together like swine, and allow their assailant to come within a few yards before they break away in [pg 152] terror; and a third will await his approach without motion, and then advance, with fury to the "charge."

In individuals the same differences are discernible; one flies on the first appearance of danger, whilst another, alone and unsupported, will face a whole host of enemies. When wounded and infuriated with pain, many of them become literally savage 10 ; but, so unaccustomed are they to act as assailants, and so awkward and inexpert in using their strength, that they rarely or ever exceed in killing a pursuer who falls into their power. Although the pressure of a foot, a blow with the trunk, or a thrust with the tusk, could scarcely fail to prove fatal, three-fourths of those who have fallen into their power have escaped without serious injury. So great is this chance of impunity, that the sportsman prefers to approach within about fifteen paces of the advancing elephant, a space which gives time for a second fire should the first shot prove ineffectual, and should both fail there is still opportunity for flight.

Amongst full-grown timber, a skilful runner can escape from an elephant by "dodging" round the trees, but in cleared land, and low brushwood, the difficulty is much increased, as the small growth of underwood which obstructs the movements of man presents no obstacle to those of an elephant. On the other hand, on level and open ground the chances are rather in favour of the elephant, as his pace in full flight exceeds that of man, although as a general rule, it is unequal to that of a horse, as has been sometimes asserted. 11

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The incessant slaughter of elephants by sportsmen in Ceylon, appears to be merely in subordination to the influence of the organ of destructiveness, since the carcase is never applied to any useful purpose, but left to decompose and to defile the air of the forest. The flesh is occasionally tasted as a matter of curiosity: as a steak it is coarse and tough; but the tongue is as delicate as that of an ox; and the foot is said to make palatable soup. The Caffres attached to the pioneer corps in the Kandyan province are in the habit of securing the heart of any elephant shot in their vicinity, and say it is their custom to eat it in Africa. The hide it has been found impracticable to tan in Ceylon, or to convert to any useful purpose, but the bones of those shot have of late years been collected and used for manuring coffee estates. The hair of the tail, which is extremely strong and horny, is mounted by the native goldsmith, and made into bracelets; and the teeth are sawn by the Moormen at Galle (as they used to be by the Romans during a scarcity of ivory) into plates, out of which they fashion numerous articles of ornament, knife-handles, card racks, and "presse-papiers."

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Amongst extraordinary recoveries from desperate wounds, I venture to record here an instance which occurred in Ceylon to a gentleman while engaged in the chase of elephants, and which, I apprehend, has few parallels in pathological experience. Lieutenant GERARD FRETZ, of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment, whilst firing at an elephant in the vicinity of Fort MacDonald, in Oovah, was wounded in the face by the bursting of his fowling-piece, on the 22nd January, 1828. He was then about thirty-two years of age. On raising him, it was found that part of the breech of the gun and about two inches of the barrel had been driven through the frontal sinus, at the junction of the nose and forehead. It had sunk almost perpendicularly till the iron-plate called "the tail-pin," by which the barrel is made fast to the stock by a screw, had descended through the palate, carrying with it the screw, one extremity of which had forced itself into the right nostril, where it was discernible externally, whilst the headed end lay in contact with his tongue. To extract the jagged mass of iron thus sunk in the ethmoidal and sphenoidal cells was found hopelessly impracticable; but, strange to tell, after the inflammation subsided, Mr. FRETZ recovered rapidly; his general health was unimpaired, and he returned to his regiment with this, singular appendage firmly embedded behind the bones of his face. He took his turn of duty as usual, attained the command of his company, participated in all the enjoyments of the mess-room, and died eight years afterwards, on the 1st of April, 1836, not from any consequences of this fearful wound, but from fever and inflammation brought on by other causes.

[pg 155] So little was he apparently inconvenienced by the presence of the strange body in his palate that he was accustomed with his finger partially to undo the screw, which but for its extreme length he might altogether have withdrawn. To enable this to be done, and possibly to assist by this means the extraction of the breech itself through the original orifice (which never entirely closed), an attempt was made in 1835 to take off a portion of the screw with a file; but, after having cut it three parts through the operation was interrupted, chiefly owing to the carelessness and indifference of Capt. FRETZ, whose death occurred before the attempt could be resumed. The piece of iron, on being removed after his decease, was found to measure 2-3/4 inches in length, and weighed two scruples more than two ounces and three quarters. A cast of the breech and screw now forms No. 2790 amongst the deposits in the Medical Museum of Chatham.

To persons like myself, who are not addicted to what is called "sport," the statement of these wholesale slaughters is calculated to excite surprise and curiosity as to the nature of a passion that impels men to self-exposure and privation, in a pursuit which presents nothing but the monotonous recurrence of scenes of blood and suffering. Mr. BAKER, who has recently published, under the title of "The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon" an account of his exploits in the forest, gives us the assurance that "all real sportsmen are tender-hearted men, who shun cruelty to an animal, and are easily moved by a tale of distress;" and that although man is naturally bloodthirsty, and a beast of prey by instinct, yet that the true sportsman is distinguished from the rest of the human race by his "love of nature, and of noble scenery." In support of this pretension to a gentler nature than the rest of mankind, the author proceeds to attest his own abhorrence of cruelty by narrating the sufferings of an old hound, which, although "toothless," he cheered on to assail a boar at bay, but the poor dog recoiled "covered with blood, cut nearly in half, with a wound fourteen inches in length, from the lower part of the belly, passing up the flank, completely severing the muscles of the hind leg, and extending up the spine; his hind leg having the appearance of being nearly off." In this state, forgetful of the character he had so lately given of the true sportsman, as a lover of nature and a hater of cruelty, he encouraged "the poor old dog," as he calls him, to resume the fight with the boar, which lasted for an hour, when he managed to call the dogs off; and perfectly exhausted, the mangled hound crawled out of the jungle with several additional wounds, including a severe gash in his throat. "He fell from exhaustion, and we made a litter with two poles and a horsecloth to carry him home."—P. 314. If such were the habitual enjoyments of this class of sportsmen, their motiveless massacres would admit of no manly justification. In comparison with them one is disposed to regard almost with favour the exploits of a hunter like Major ROGERS, who is said to have applied the value of the ivory obtained from his encounters towards the purchase of his successive regimental commissions, and had, therefore, an object, however disproportionate, in his slaughter of 1400 elephants.

One gentleman in Ceylon, not less distinguished for his genuine kindness of heart, than for his marvellous success in shooting elephants, avowed to me that the eagerness with which he found himself impelled to pursue them had often excited surprise in his own mind; and although he had never read the theory of Lord Kames, or the speculations of Vicesimus Knox, he had come to the conclusion that the passion thus excited within him was a remnant of the hunter's instinct, with which man was originally endowed, to enable him, by the chase, to support existence in a state of nature, and which, though rendered dormant by civilisation, had not been utterly eradicated.

This theory is at least more consistent and intelligible than the "love of nature and scenery," sentimentally propounded by the author quoted above.


The vulnerability of the elephant in this region of the head was known to the ancients, and PLINY, describing a combat of elephants in the amphitheatre at Rome, says, that one was slain by a single blow, "pilum sub oculo adactum, in vitalia capitis venerat" (Lib. viii. c. 7.) Notwithstanding the comparative facility of access to the brain afforded at this spot, an ordinary leaden bullet is not certain to penetrate, and frequently becomes flattened. The hunters, to counteract this, are accustomed to harden the ball, by the introduction of a small portion of type-metal along with the lead.


"There is a wide difference of opinion as to the most deadly shot. I think the temple the most certain, but authority in Ceylon says the 'fronter,' that is, above the trunk. Behind the ear is said to be deadly, but that is a shot which I never fired or saw fired that I remember. If the ball go true to its mark, all shots (in the head) are certain; but the bones on either side of the honey-comb passage to the brain are so thick that there is in all a 'glorious uncertainty' which keeps a man on the qui vive till he sees the elephant down."—From a paper on Elephant Shooting in Ceylon, by Major MACREADY, late Military Secretary at Colombo.


In Mr. GORDON CUMMING'S account of a Hunter's Life in South Africa, there is a narrative of his pursuit of a wounded elephant which he had lamed by lodging a ball in its shoulder-blade. It limped slowly towards a tree, against which it leaned itself in helpless agony, whilst its pursuer seated himself in front of it, in safety, to boil his coffee, and observe its sufferings. The story is continued as follows:—"Having admired him for a considerable time, I resolved to make experiments on vulnerable points; and approaching very near I fired several bullets at different parts of his enormous skull. He only acknowledged the shots by a salaam-like movement of his trunk, with the point of which he gently touched the wounds with a striking and peculiar action. Surprised and shocked at finding that I was only prolonging the sufferings of the noble beast, which bore its trials with such dignified composure, I resolved to finish the proceeding with all possible despatch, and accordingly opened fire upon him from the left side, aiming at the shoulder. I first fired six shots with the two-grooved rifle, which must have eventually proved mortal. After which I fired six shots at the same part with the Dutch six-pounder. Large tears now trickled from his eyes, which he slowly shut and opened, his colossal frame shivered convulsively, and falling on his side, he expired." (Vol. ii. p. 10.)

In another place, after detailing the manner in which he assailed a poor animal—he says, "I was loading and firing as fast as could be, sometimes at the head, sometimes behind the shoulder, until my elephant's fore-quarter was a mass of gore; notwithstanding which he continued to hold on, leaving the grass and branches of the forest scarlet in his wake. * * * Having fired thirty-five rounds with my two-grooved rifle, I opened upon him with the Dutch six-pounder, and when forty bullets had perforated his hide, he began for the first time, to evince signs of a dilapidated constitution." The disgusting description is closed thus: "Throughout the charge he repeatedly cooled his person with large quantities of water, which he ejected from his trunk over his sides and back, and just as the pangs of death came over him, he stood trembling violently beside a thorn tree, and kept pouring water into his bloody mouth until he died, when he pitched heavily forward with the whole weight of his fore-quarters resting on the points of his tusks. The strain was fair, and the tusks did not yield; but the portion of his head in which the tusks were embedded, extending a long way above the eye, yielded and burst with a muffled crash."—(Ib., vol. ii. pp. 4, 5.)


The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon; by S.W. BAKER, Esq., pp. 8, 9. "Next to a rogue," says Mr. BAKER, "in ferocity, and even more persevering in the pursuit of her victim, is a female elephant." But he appends the significant qualification, "when her young one has been killed."—Ibid., p. 13.




Menageries, &c., "The Elephant," ch. i. p. 21.


System of Phrenology, by GEO. COMBE, vol. i. p. 256.


Private letter from Capt. PHILIP PAYNE GALLWEY.


Some years ago an elephant which had been wounded by a native, near Hambangtotte, pursued the man into the town, followed him along the street, trampled him to death in the bazaar before a crowd of spectators, and succeeded in making good its retreat to the jungle.


SHAW, in his Zoology, asserts that an elephant can run as swiftly as a horse can gallop. London, 1800-6, vol. i. p. 216.

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