THE Sambhur, cervus unicolor, which is the largest species of deer found in the Island, is almost universally called the "elk," the name given to it by the English officers who conquered and administered the country in the early part of the century. This misnomer will never die out until newspapers make a practice of calling the animal the sambhur, by which name it is known all through India. No sportsman should ever speak of it as the "elk." Its Sinhalese name is "góna" and its Tamil name "murrai."
Sambhur inhabit all the forests of the Island, from the tops of the highest hills to the coast. They are commonly found in high, open forest and are rarely seen in scrub jungle or in open plains. They are fond of the low-lying, damp jungle surrounding tanks and also frequent rocky hills where they lie during the day in the cool shade of overhanging rocks.
They are never seen in herds though sometimes three or four may be come upon feeding together, consisting of stag and hind and half-grown young ones, but they generally go about in pairs. When a hind has young fawns the stag leaves her and wanders about alone.
They grow to a larger size in the low-country than in the hills and ohe stags have finer antlers. A full-grown stag will stand from 12 to 11 hands at the shoulder, and an i»ch or two higher at the haunch, and will weigh from 40 to 50 stone. They are covered with coarse, stiff brown hair which is thick and long on the necks of the stags and bristles up like a mane when the animal is excited or alarmed. The antlers of the stag attain their complete form about the fourth year and after that go on increasing in size annually for several years. The earlier horns are probably shed annually, but later in life they are apparently retained for longer periods, for two years or even more. They are commonly supposed to be shed about April, but it is doubtful whether there is any particular season when this happens. In four or five months new antlers will have grown and the stags will then begin to look for mates. While their horns are "in velvet" they are very wary, keeping to the densest parts of the forest, it being painful to them to strike their tender sprouting horns against the underwood while moving about.
Being very shy creatures they are less seldom seen in the day time than cheetul and other deer, unless come upon lying down in the dark forest. Just after the rains, however, they are more often seen as they are driven out of the forest by the stinging flies and musquitoes which infest it.
Being probably the most hunted of all forest creatures their senses have become very highly developed. They have remarkable powers of smell, their large ears, from 7 to 8 inches long, enable them to hear sounds a long way off, and their eyesight is good.
When undisturbed they wander about browsing, slowly and silently, but when alarmed will bound away heavily and noisily. They are extremely sure-footed, and can swim well when forced to take to the water. When the tanks and pools are dry they are accustomed to dig for water with their fore feet in the sandy beds of rivers. The only ,sound they make is a loud brassy bellow which can be heard to a great distance, and might easily be mistaken by any one hearing it for the first time for the roar of some ferocious wild beast.
They have some habits which other species of deer have not. They are fond of wallowing in mud-holes in the forest, thus caking themselves with clay from head to foot, probably as a protection from the ticks and flies which worry them. They are accustomed to wander long distances along forest paths, a habit they share with their archenemies the leopards. They also nearly always return along the path by which they had gone to drink, instead of wandering on as most animals do.
It is doubtful whether there is any particular breeding season. The rutting-time is supposed to be about October and November, because the bellowing of the stags may be heard more frequently then than at other times. They fight a good deal while in a state of sexual excitement, using their brow-antlers chiefly in their combats. The hinds gestate about eight months and hardly ever have more than one fawn at a time.
Sambhur are a great nuisance where chenas and plantations have been made in the forest, as, being powerful and agile, they easily break down or jump over fences and will do great damage in one night.
They are the principal object of the native hunters night-shooting. The meat of a full-grown one, fresh or dried, is worth a considerable sum, from Rs.5 to Rs.25 according to whether it is shot in the vicinity of a town or not. Its horns and hide are of comparatively little value, the former, in the low-country, being worth only about 37 cents per lb. and the latter from 25 to 50 cents for the whole skin.
Their only forest enemy is the leopard, a very formidable one. There is little doubt that more sambhur than cheetul are killed by leopards, probably because they keep to the deep forest where they are easily stalked, while other animals frequenting the glades and open places have a better chance of escaping the enemy.
The fawns are often kept as pets but they are not very pretty, and if stags, will become dangerous when they grow up and get antlers.
Sambhur may not be fired at without a game license nor during the close season. No sportsman will, of course, care to shoot them in native fashion when coming to drink on moonlight nights, or will fire at hinds or at young stags without antlers. To find sambhur the best way is to stroll quietly along old timber-roads and game-tracks in high forest. It is of little use to attempt to walk without making a noise, as for the greater part of the year the jungle is so thickly strewn with dry fallen leaves and twigs that every step, however cautiously taken, is audible to a considerable distance in the still forest. It is better to imitate, to the best of one's ability, the movements of a sambhur, which, in common with other deer, also buffaloes and pigs, steps heavily with its fore feet and drags its hind feet. This may enable a sportsman to get nearer his game than he otherwise would, provided of course, that he is going up-wind.
In the heat of the day they will generally be come upon lying down. If a stag hears any suspicious sound it will stamp with its fore feet and then uttering a harsh short bellow, bolt crashing through the underwood. When brought to bay its size, sharp antlers and bristling mane give it rather a formidable appearance. If approached then it may charge head down and inflict fatal wounds with its sharp horns or may rise on its hind legs and strike at the hunter with its fore feet. It is said that a young European, who was trying to " stick " a sambhur at bay, holding his knife in front of him, blade downwards instead of upwards, was killed by the weapon being thrust into his own breast by a kick from the fore feet of the beast.
If any rocky hills are in the neighbourhood of the camp, the sportsman would do well to visit them and clamber quietly about looking for sambhur, paying due attention to the direction of the wind. They may often be found lying in cool damp recesses under overhanging rocks. Bears and leopards may also be met with in such places ; in fact most wild animals appear to have a liking for forest much cut up into ravines and water-courses and strewn with rocks and boulders.
Sambhur are not easily killed and will gallop off with a wound which would stretch almost any other animal on the ground. Scores of them must every year die lingering deaths, which have been fired at by natives at waterholes, but which have got away in spite of their wounds. Many of the stricken creatures also, no doubt, fall an easy prey to leopards.
Sambhur horns are small for the size of the animal. The longest pair, of which there is record, were those of a stag killed in India, which measured 48 inches, but were rather thin. Antlers reaching 36 inches are seldom seen in Ceylon, in fact any over 30 inches may be considered exceptionally good. They have seldom more than six points.
The meat is very poor, being dry and tasteless, but the leg bones are peculiarly rich in marrow, the bones being more hollow than those of most other animals. The hoofs are sometimes converted into jelly.