THERE was a time, within the memory of men still living, when Ceylon was a perfect paradise of sport. Sixty or seventy years ago the Island was simply one huge forest from the summits of the central hills to the sea coast. The jungle came up to the backs of the small towns in the interior, the coffee estates were few and far between, the tanks and fields in the low-country were mostly overgrown and the scattered villages sunk in the sea of trees.
The higher ranges, above the elevation at which paddy will grow, about 3,500 feet, were almost uninhabited but were not pathless, for they were intersected by well beaten tracks made by those master road-makers, the elephants, zigzagging up the slopes, running along the ridges and through the gaps of the hills. These paths were used by the natives when crossing the country or going on pilgrimage to Adam's Peak. The pilgrims travelled in large parties, shouting " Sadhu!" every few minutes, partly from religious fervour, but more with the object of frightening away any wild animals in the forest ahead. Elephants roamed in hroad daylight over the patanas or upland grass-covered plains, and the valleys and swamps were full of sambhur feeding unmolested.
In the low-country the great unbroken forest, which stretched from Dondra Head to Palmyra Point, simply swarmed with game. Elephants were as numerous in this hot, dry country as in the cold, wet hills; great droves of wild buffaloes wallowed in the tanks ; thousands of leopards and bears infested the rocky hills and stony tracts; spotted deer grazed in the glades in herds of an hundred or more ; and wild pigs rooted about in countless numbers.
Almost the only check on the increase of these wild creatures was the periodical outbreaks of murrain. The last of these efforts of nature to prevent over-population of the forests, of which there is record, is one which killed numbers of elephants, deer and pigs in the Matale district in 1831. Great destruction was no doubt wrought by leopards, crocodiles and other predatory creatures ; but the number of animals shot by the natives, with the few antiquated guns they had, must have been very small.
Some idea of the numbers and boldness of the wild beasts which infested the Ceylon forests in the earlier part of the century may be obtained from the following facts:- Herds of elephants were to be met with in the immediate vicinity of the towns. It was not uncommon for boutiques on the outskirts of the Hambantota bazaar to be looted of fruit and grain by these creatures. One, in 1829, chased a man who had fired at it into the main street of that town and trampled him to death. On the tappal-roads places of refuge were built in trees into which the runners climbed when, as often happened, they met elephants which the beating of tom-toms and waving of torches failed to drive off. These huge beasts were little reduced in number by the great kraals organized every year in the Matara district, though two or three hundred head were sometimes caught at one drive. In 1831 Government began to offer rewards for their destruction, and for a good many years hundreds of them were killed annually and their tails and trunk-tips taken to the Kachcheris. Great numbers were shot by European sportsmen. The well-known Major Rogers is said to have killed over thirteen hundred ; also to have purchased his steps in the Ceylon Rifle Regiment by the proceeds of the sale of the ivory obtained from sixty tuskers he shot, a statement to be received with caution. A party of four guns in 1837 killed 104 elephants in three days. Elephant spearing was successfully practised by the natives in the earlier part of the century. A herd was surrounded at night by men carrying torches and tom-toms, and the terrified creatures were easily killed. A member of the Civil Service, writing about 1820, states that he saw at Kottadeniya six elephants, all lying within twenty yards of each other, which had been thus speared by the natives.
Leopards were extremely numerous, as the forests teemed with deer and pigs and other animals on which they preyed. As illustrating their boldness it may be related that, in 1826, the Government Agent of the Southern Province having announced his intention of visiting Wellewe, the headman went to get the rest-house ready for his occupation, but found it tenanted by a pair of leopards with cubs. He called together the villagers and they attacked and killed the leopards with guns and bows and arrows and secured the cubs. Bears were so numerous and mauled so many jungle people that Government offered rewards for their destruction, which are still paid. The wild buffaloes were much more dreaded then from their numbers and aggressiveness than at the present day. Sambhur were looked upon as useless creatures, " no part of him being eatable, but the marrow out of his marrow bones." There was no inducement to shoot spotted deer, except a few for food, as there was no sale for their hides or horns. An old writer asserts that a cart-load of shed horns could have been picked up in a day in the southern forests. It sometimes happened in those days that sportsmen became surfeited with sport, the game being so plentiful and easily killed that shooting became butchery rather than sport.
The change which has come over Ceylon, as a sporting country, during the last half century, is very marked. The immense forests which once covered the hills from Kandy upwards, have disappeared with the exception of some thousands of acres giving cover to perhaps a dozen elephants, a score or two of leopards and a few hundred sambhur. Tea estates now cover the hillsides and no traces remain of the ancient elephant paths, save in the highest regions, at the back of the Knuckles and West of Adam's Peak.
In the low-country the forest remains in appearance much as it was fifty years ago; but in place of the few tower muskets and flint-lock guns then treasured by the jungle people many thousands of guns of all kinds are now owned by them. A trade in horns and hides has sprung up, created chiefly by itinerant Moor hawkers who barter for them cloths and other commodities and provide the powder and bullets. The slaughter of game became so great, some twenty years ago, that Government was forced to make stringent laws to protect deer as part of the "food supply of the people." There is reason to fear that game is still being illicitly killed in excess of the natural increase, but when means have been found of properly enforcing the existing laws, game is sure to become in the course of time fairly plentiful, and Ceylon will again be what it once was, one of the best countries in the world for sport.