THE forests of the low-country of Ceylon stretch from the foot of the hills on the North, East and South to the sea coast and cover about 12,000 square miles. From the tops of the hills the low-country looks like a sea of primeval forest; but, as a matter of fact, the whole extent was at some time or other under cultivation. Thousands of old bunds of tanks of all sizes, overgrown with huge trees, may be found in it, about one to every square mile. The beds of these ancient tanks and the fields under them are now stretches of thorny scrub. The only real forest is to be found on the high ground between the tanks, and even this was probably all cleared and cultivated in years gone by. There are also great stretches of park-country and grass plains, and swamps formed by the overflow of the larger rivers. The whole country is intersected by torrents which run with violence during the rains, are strings of pools for some months afterwards and are dry from about July to November. There are also numerous ponds, rock-pools and springs, all of which are connected by game tracks made by wild animals going to water. The extent and variety of cover and the abundance of water and fodder make the forests of Ceylon an ideal home for wild animals.
AH parts of this wilderness are not, however, equally populated by forest denizens. There are large tracts where game is scarce, though the conditions appear to be precisely similar to those of adjoining districts where deer and other wild creatures abound. Comparatively few animals are to be found in the high forest, they apparently preferring open country interspersed with trees and bushes where they can feed about freely, can escape more easily from the attacks of carnivorous enemies and are less exposed to the stings of winged insects.
It is a curious fact that, in size and also in length and weight of tusks, antlers and horns, the wild animals of the Island are, as a whole, inferior to animals of the same species on the mainland of India. The explanation of this probably is that the whole of the low-country, having been formerly under cultivation, as is proved by the existence of hundreds of old tanks in the forest, game must then have been very scarce. The few hundred years during which this cultivated country has been gradually relapsing into wild forest has not been a sufficiently long time for the law of the "survival of the fittest" to take effect. This law, which brings about the perpetuation of the finest types in all classes of living things in a natural state, is believed to require ages to produce appreciable results.
Wild animals are usually regarded as creatures of the night; and it is undoubtedly true that they feed chiefly in the earlier part of the night and in the early morning. This habit they have acquired simply from their fear of human beings. In very wild districts, where there are no villages, elephants, deer and pigs may be seen feeding out in the open in the daytime much more frequently than in places where they are liable to see and smell men. Wild beasts are often supposed to have eyes which enable them to see in the dark, but they do not really differ from domesticated animals in that respect. On dark, cloudy nights grazing and browsing animals do not feed, but stand about waiting for the light. When there is a moon they feed all night without lying down for their usual midnight sleep.
Many people imagine that wild animals wander aimlessly about, and that a herd of deer, which at the beginning of the year roamed the southern forests, might possibly be found at the end of the year in the northern forests, a hundred miles away. No wild beast, however, wanders far from the place where it was born. The range of a herd of deer or a drove of pigs probably never exceeds a few miles, within which every path and pool is familiar to each member of it. Elephants having fewer enemies have wider ranges, but even they probably never go beyond a radius of ten miles. Animals will only leave their accustomed haunts when compelled by thirst in the dry weather to go and look for water. When a herd is stampeded by a gunshot or the rush of a leopard, they will scatter in all directions, but every member of it knows where the rest of the herd is likely to go and makes for the spot and they are all soon united. It is fear that makes wild animals keep to their own restricted ranges; for every beast is aware that if it ventures into unknown forest, it will be attacked by its fellow beasts whose domain it is. No herd will admit a stranger unless it be a big male which is able to hold its own by its fighting powers.
There is no doubt that all the animals of one species, in particular forest districts, have, owing to local conditions, some peculiarity in build, colour or other respect, which distinguishes them from similar animals of another district. The old head clerk of the Mannar Kachcheri, who had measured scores of elephants brought there for shipment to India, claimed, and with justice, that he could tell at a glance whether any elephant brought up, came from the Northern, Eastern or^Southern Province. Similarly all the members of a herd have often some inherited malformation or mark. This may especially be noticed in the case of elephants, and careful observation would no doubt prove that each herd of deer and buffaloes and drove of pigs had some distinctive peculiarity.
Most people suppose that all animals of any one species have the same disposition, that they all have the same degree of courage, ferocity, cunning, etc. The truth is that they vary greatly in character. In the same herd may be found bold and cowardly, ferocious and mild, stupid and cunning members. All who have had to do with elephants, recognise that they differ greatly in disposition, and such no doubt is the case, in a lesser degree, with all wild animals. Want of appreciation of this fact has led to very different estimates being formed by different sportsmen of the character of wild beasts. The man who has been hunted by a hard-headed, fighting bull-elephant will have a different opinion of elephants in general, from the man who has shot half-a-dozen mild, inoffensive, old "allians" without so much as a wag of the tail in protest.