CEYLON is the only place in the world where wild elephants are caught by men on foot with nooses, without the assistance of tame elephants. It is somewhat surprising that so little should be known even in the Island about this remarkable profession, though it has been practised by natives for at least two hundred years. In the days of the Dutch the Pannikkans, as these elephant-catchers are called, were all enrolled by Government and worked under stringent regulations, some of which are voluntarily observed to this day. The English Government has never done anything to encourage or keep alive the profession, which is dying out and will be extinct in a few years. The elephant-catchers, now few in number, are mostly inefficient and tire all loaded with debt to traders for advances received to catch elephants which will never be caught.
The Pannikkans are all Moormen, and reside almost exclusively in the Samanturai and Eraviir Pattus of the Batticaloa District and the Musali Pattu of the Manaar District. They cultivate their fields and attend to then-ordinary business in the wet months of the year and only go elephant-catching in the dry season from June to October. Each Pannikkan takes a gang of about a dozen men with him to carry provisions and ropes and to assist in the tying up, removal and care of any elephants noosed. One of the men acts as mottakaren or general manager, and another as the annÄvi or performer of religious ceremonies. According to old custom the Pannikkan gets 20%, the mottakaren 20%, and the annavi 12⅛% of the proceeds of the sale of any elephants caught. In addition 5% is devoted to religious ceremonies and 5% to charity, and the balance is equally divided among all the gang including the leaders.
Though the Pannikkans call themselves Mohammedans and observe the precepts of the Koran, they are also devil-worshippers. No elephant-catching expedition is entered on, till the five forest demons, male and female, feared by all jungle villagers, have been duly propitiated by ceremonies and offerings. Every day while the expedition lasts, before the party starts to look for elephants, a coconut is broken by the annāvi at the edge of the forest and offered to the demons with supplications for success.
A Pannikkan will eat but little on the morning when he leaves the camp in search of elephants and his attire is of the scantiest, consisting merely of a narrow strip of cloth passing between his legs, with the ends tucked into a belt. Over his shoulder he will carry his noose-rope made of raw hide, half of deer and half of sambhur skin. It is always from 20 to 22 feet in length and about 3½ inches in girth, and has a noose at one end and a large knot at the other. The noose of a new, well-made rope when opened for use to a diameter of about two feet will stand out as stiff as a barrel-hoop. The eye is very carefully made to slip easily to the end, and is so fashioned that when a strong strain is put on it, it will lock on the rope so that the noose cannot be shaken off by the captured elephant. The men who follow the Pannikkan carry spare ropes, also one or more loaded guns to be used if any elephant charges.
The best place for elephant-catching is fairly open forest, through which men can run easily, and where there are numbers of young trees to which the captured animal can he made fast. No Pannikkan will attempt to noose in thick, thorny jungle, it being too dangerous and likely to result in failure.
On finding traces of elephants, the party follow the track till they come on the herd. The Pannikkan an*1 one or two staunch followers then creep forward to reconnoitre, and if they catch sight of a nice half-grown animal standing conveniently near, prepare for action. When all is ready a gun is fired and a shout raised, whereupon the whole herd will bolt headlong. With the noose of his rope open in his right hand and the slack in his left the Pannikkan springs out and is soon at the heels of the animal selected for capture. As the frightened heast strides along the elephant-catcher thrusts the noose between its hind legs so that the animal steps into it ' with its left foot, whereupon he jerks it tight and lets go the whole rope. He then follows hard looking ahead for some convenient tree to make the beast fast to. On seeing one he springs forward, catches up the trailing rope and passing the end round the tree slips the knot through the hitch. The next moment the elephant is brought up with a jerk that may throw it on its head. If the rope stands the strain the beast will pick itself up and pull with all its might. While it stands with its noosed leg straight out behind, the men following hurry up and deftly slip one or more additional ropes on to its leg and make them fast. Finding itself unable to hreak the ropes an elephant will often turn and charge, hut the men have usually very little difficulty in slipping out of its reach. A powerful elephant will sometimes break several ropes in succession till, cowed and exhausted, it is finally caught. Should one of the men following succeed in getting his noose on a running elephant's leg first, and it is afterwards caught, he is thenceforth entitled to call himself a " Pannikkan" and to add the word to his name.
In noosing elephants there are two sources of real danger. A Pannikkan dashing forward too eagerly may find, while following an elephant, that there is another close behind, when he must get out of its way and be quick about it too. Sometimes when a captured calf bellows its mother will turn and charge back viciously, when, if the men have no gun ready with which to drive her off, they must themselves bolt precipitately.
When the noosers see that an elephant with several ropes on its hind leg is fast and cannot escape they sit down to rest and get their breath, and also to give the captured beast time to smash down the jungle all round it, thus making a cleared space in which it may be more easily tied up. A noose is then laid on the ground and the animal is induced to step into it with one of its forefeet by being provoked to charge in that direction, after which it is soon moored fore and aft to two trees and cannot do more than swing its trunk furiously at its enemies.