The Unspeakable in Pursuit of the Uneatable
” In the high grass Groben and I spot an elephant. I take a shot at him and having wounded him we give chase. He slows down and sways and looks around as if thinking; then, beating his ears about and throwing up his trunk he turns and emits an attacking signal Trr. Trr. He looks at us with an eye full of reproach and then turns on us. We wait for him motionless and I pull the trigger at the best distance fifteen to twenty paces away from him………”
This is an account from the diary of Prince Waldemar of Prussia between 1844 and 46, during the British occupation of the island. A time when elephant hunting was encouraged and rewarded and celebrated as a sport. Hunters from different countries were attracted to try their luck at this sport, and their travelogues and paintings made elephant hunting in Ceylon world famous.
Count Emanuel Andrasy, philosopher, Court Advisor, member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Member of Parliament also documented his adventures in elephant hunting in Ceylon around 1849, accompanied by exquisitely detailed paintings.
His travelogue describes the touching scene of an orphaned baby elephant;
“While all this uproar was being settled, the beaters assembled gradually and broke into a chant of celebration as they saw the rich booty pilled up, above all they endeavoured to cut off the tails from the recumbent bodies, and while they occupied themselves, joyful and singing, in this manner, our attention was caught by a truly moving scene. There emerged from a nearby bush a young elephant hardly two feet in height, he stepped up to the dead beast lying next to him which the deserted animal recognized as his mother and sought to suckle from her engorged breasts…”.
An excerpt from the same travelogue which captures the thrill of the stalk runs thus;
“The tracker asked us for a gun. He indicated that with a single shot he could, perhaps, draw out the entire herd. He took the single barrelled gun, disappeared in the thicket and soon we heard a report. In the same moment, it sounded as if an entire mountain had collapsed or Vulcan had pounded out a crater- such a frenzy and clamour erupted all around. This surprising occurrence banished my fears so completely it was as if they had never existed. I took aim, and awaited quite composed, the arrival of the elephants. At the same time I heard two shots one after the other, close to me, then a heavy fall, an indication that my friend had not wasted his shots in the air. Simultaneously three elephants burst out of the thicket directly towards me so that I had hardly any time to draw a bead on them…”.
The sad aftermath of the sport has also been described;
“As we came home, the young elephant was already there, the poor animal was standing opposite our hut, quite listless, tied to the trunk of a coconut tree. Round about stood almost the entire village, mostly women, children and young girls who in shifting, ever growing ever shrinking groups looked first at the little animal and then at us, as we sat on the airy verandah of the thatched house and ate our breakfast, the so called tiffin, with which the fresh beer went very well…..”.
The paintings that accompany his travelogue are masterpieces and are famous for their fine detail. Unfortunately if you are an animal lover you will no doubt feel the pain of the gentle giants in contrast to the sadistic joy of the hunter.
No doubt elephants were aplenty in old Ceylon. Major Skinner, during his assignment to build the Kandy road, mentions that the country is teeming with elephants. Forbes, in his book Eleven Years in Ceylon, dealing with the period from 1820 to 1830, speaks of elephants being encountered within twenty five miles of Colombo.
In 1830 the destruction of elephants was encouraged as they were found in great number. If this reason if justifiable is arguable. Colonial office papers record that rewards were offered in 1840 for the destruction of 5,500 elephants. Tennent (1859) in his book Natural History of Ceylon, confirms this situation, especially after the British opened coffee and, later, tea plantations in the central hills.
Forbes mentions a party of four European hunters who killed 106 elephants in three days.
British hunter, Sir Samuel Baker, better known as the discover of the source of the Nile, is said to have killed 11 elephants before breakfast one morning and 104 giants within three days. The colonial papers report that Sir Samuel complained when the colonial secretary reduced the reward.
It is recorded that 700 elephants each were killed by Major Skinner and Captain Gallwey . But they were outdone by Major Rogers who killed a record of 1300 elephants in the three years he was stationed in Ceylon.
It became the sport of the day for the colonial lords, who were encouraged by the large bounties, which, no doubt, made fox hunts of their own country seem like nothing.
What strikes the reader most today is that all the cruelty of this sport was carried out with the help of the natives of the country, without whose aid it would have been impossible.
What compelled these people, who associated the elephant with their most sacred festivals, to do this? They might have not known that ancient Lanka may well have been the first nation to make wildlife conservation a state law. The first recorded edict on conservation was made way back in the 12th century by King Nissankamalla who reigned from Polonnaruwa. A stone carving now preserved by the Archaelogical Department says, Thou shalt not kill any animals, be they in the wild state or belonging to my subjects, within 12 gawwas ( 58 kilometres) of this royal city. Or were the incentives offered to these natives by the Suddhas so irresistible?