OF all animals the elephant is undoubtedly one of the strangest. It seems to belong rather to antediluvian times than to the present age as it possesses many of the peculiarities of structure which distinguished the earth-monsters of those days, such as great size, column-like legs, flexible trunks and great flapping ears. In shape and habits it differs very much from almost all other existing mammals. It has no hocks, but knees on its hind legs ; its only pace is a walk and it can neither run nor leap; it conveys its food by means of a prehensile trunk to its mouth, into which it is drawn by a hooked tongue; it drinks as no other animal does by sucking up water into its trunk and injecting it into its stomach ; it squirts water o ver its body in the same way to cool itself ; its testes are in the abdominal cavity and it cannot therefore be castrated ; its fore-feet are round and its hind feet oval; it is said that its lungs adhere permanently to its ribs ; that from the position of its blood-vessels it cannot be bled, and that it has no fat in its composition.
Elephants are to be found in almost all the forests of Ceylon, but are not equally distributed. There are large jungle tracts where scarcely any are to be met with. There are very few in the hills, not more than a dozen or so, though it is probable that before the opening up of the coffee districts, they were rather more numerous there than in the low-country as they prefer a cool, moist climate to a hot, dry one. At the present day they are most numerous in the Wanni or forest district of the Northern Province, in the Tamankaduwa District of the North-Central Province, the interior of the Eastern Province and the Hamhantota Dis trict. It is probable that there are not more than two thousand wild elephants in Ceylon all told.
They may be met with in all kinds of cover but prefer high open forest in which they can move about freely, sheltered from the heat of the sun. Low lands liable to inundation are favourite haunts and are commonly pitted with their huge foot-prints. They usually come out into the open plains, tanks and fields at night, returning to the shelter of the forest when day breaks. At certain seasons of the year, when worried by flies, they often stay out in the open or on the outskirts of the forest for some hours every morning. The habits of each herd depend very much on whether they are liable to be disturbed or not. If not molested in any way, they will remain in the neighbourhood of some favourite drinking place for weeks. In out-of-the-way districts solitary elephants may be seen feeding in tanks and open places morning and evening.
The sizes of herds vary from families consisting of a cow elephant and one or more calves to twenty or thirty cows and young ones of both sexes. Each herd is in fact a family, all being related to each other. Consequently it often happens that every member of a herd has some physical peculiarity common to all. As many as sixty elephants have been said to have been seen together in recent years, but it is probable that they were made up of two or more herds which had congregated at some tank in some unusually dry season.
Solitary elephants are usually spoken of by people who know little about these animals, as "rogues"; but, as a matter of fact, all bull elephants, as soon as they arrive at full growth, wander off by themselves, only joining the herd, from time to time, to pay attentions to some particular cow ; and are ordinarily very inoffensive, timid creatures. Occasionaly solitary bull-elephants, only half-grown, are met with, which have in some way got separated from their own herds and have been refused admittance into others. It is common for two adult bulls, generally very old ones, to fraternize and to go wandering about together.
As is well known, the vast majority of male elephants in Ceylon haye no tusks, but only short tushes set vertically in the upper jaw. Females also have tushes, but they are very small. Tuskers are sometimes met with, but are extremely scarce. It is probable that there are not now more than fifty of all ages in the whole Island. That they were pretty numerous in former days is shewn by the fact, that, when Kandy was conquered in 1815, among the loot were 289 tusks weighing 5,951½ lb. Tuskers are usually not so big as the tuskless bulls, but are broader across the forehead and have bigger frontal bumps, while the hollow between the ear and eye is not so marked. Tusks are no doubt merely fighting weapons, for they do not appear to be used in any way in obtaining food. Very fine tusks, quite as big as the average size of Indian ones, have been got from tuskers shot in Ceylon. Occasionally " single tuskers" are met with, which have had the misfortune to lose, by accident, one of the pair they were born with. The heads of such are generally in a terrible state, the hollow of the broken tusk and its base being full of maggots and stinking horribly, with sometimes the eye on that side destroyed. Natives believe that there is undying enmity between tuskers and tuskless bulls, and that they never meet without fighting ; that the shape of a tusker's fore-feet is oval as well as the hind feet, and that it has a different trumpet from a tuskless male:- all of which beliefs have no foundation. In the Mannar District, where most of the tuskers are to be found, the villagers tell marvellous stories of a bull with tusks so long that it could only walk by holding its head back at an unnatural angle, and of another which had malformed, crossed tusks which prevented it using its trunk, so that it was slowly starving to death !
One reason which has been given for the rarity of tuskers in Ceylon, is the " scarcity of phosphates in the soil" which sounds learned, but is ncnsense. Such a theory would account for the total absence of tusks or for their universal imperfect development, but not for the fact that some elephants have perfectly developed tusks and others none at all, but tushes instead. There can be little doubt that tuskers and tuskless elephants are two distinct varieties, the latter being the one indigenous to the Island. The tuskers found in our forests are probably the descendants of imported Indian elephants which escaped and went wild. It is reasonable to suppose that if there are two breeds of elephants in Ceylon, crossbreeding would, in the course of time, produce a species of hybrid animal. Native elephant-catchers and traders assert the existence of such creatures and call them "makanians." There was an elephant belonging to the Rameswaram Temple a few years ago, which was said to be one of this class. It had tusks, but they were set vertically, almost touching the ground, and the whole shape of the animal was abnormal.