CROCODILES certainly cannot be considered "game," but they are so numerous and so much amusement may be obtained in shooting them or fishing for them that some account of them and of their habits and haunts will not be out of place here. They may be bracketed with snakes as creatures to be destroyed by any humane means wherever and whenever met with. Any person killing one has the satisfaction of feeling that he has rid the world of a noxious reptile.
The Sinhalese name for crocodiles is kimbula and the Tamil name, muthalai. They are sometimes, but erroneously spoken of by Europeans as alligators. It is a moot question whether there are two species in Ceylon, the tank and the river crocodile, but to the unscientific eye there is only one kind. They are not found in the hills, but are extremely common everywhere in the low-country where there is water. All the tanks, rivers and forest pools in the interior swarm with them, and they are also found in the lakes and estuaries along the coast, both in fresh and brackish water. They have often been seen swimming in the sea while making their way to fresh feeding grounds, or having been carried out into the salt water by floods. Travellers have frequently come on them migrating overland from some dried-up tank to some place where experience or instinct tells them there is likely to be water. There must be hundreds of thousands of these loathsome and dangerous brutes in the Island. Several scores of them may often be seen together basking in the sun on open ground at the edge of a tank.
The largest crocodile ever killed in Ceylon is believed to be a man-eater which was caught in the Matara district a good many years ago and measured a little over 22 feet. Any over 12 feet in length may be considered to be big ones. As is well known they are of a dark, dull green colour marked with irregular black blotches, with yellowish white bellies, are covered with slime and have a strong musky odour. They cannot remain under water like fishes, but are obliged to come to the surface every few minutes to breathe. Their droppings, often found on the bunds of tanks, are quite white and look like balls of lime. They are said to shed their teeth annually.
Contrary to the old idea that crocodiles have no joints in ther backs and cannot turn easily, they are extremely quick in their movements on land. When running they raise themselves on their bandy legs and scurry along on their webbed feet with their tails up, at a great pace, and they can turn and dodge with an agility few animals can equal.
During the day they lie on land basking in the sun, sleeping with their mouths wide open, or float motionless on the water with only the tops of their heads and the serrated edges of their backs above the surface. When disturbed in the water they often blow through their nostrils before sinking, spraying the water to the height of 18 inches, and on rising again will only protrude the tips of ther snouts to breathe. They are only lively at night, which is their feeding time, when they may be heard splashing about catching fish and slapping the water with their tails. At this time they often make a peculiar noise not easy to describe. When caught on dry land they generally utter a sort of growling hiss to intimidate the enemy. Many of the tank bunds in the low-country have what may be called "croc-slides," down which the creatures slip when taking to the water.
Crocodiles destroy numbers of deer, pigs, cattle, monkeys, and dogs. Their method of attack is to seize by the nose or leg animals coming to drink and to hold on like bull-dogs. The poor creatures, in spite of their desperate struggles, are gradually dragged into the deep water and drowned. The carcases are then pushed into holes in the banks under the surface and left to ripen. Crocodiles also feed on fish, water-birds, and tortoises, in fact on any living thing they can catch. They swarm at the bird-breeding places in the forest, which are always in trees overhanging the water, being attracted there by the numbers of fledglings which fall out of their nests into their maws. Being carrion-eaters by choice, they will come out of the water and go considerable distances to feed on dead buffaloes and cattle, and will readily eat the remains of individuals of their own kind which may have been shot.
The female crocodile lays from eighty to one hundred soft-shelled eggs and buries them under the sand to be hatched by the sun. The young ones are only a few inches long when they emerge from the shell, and are vicious little brutes, shewing their ferocious natures from the very commencement of their existence.
Jungle villagers shew less fear of ordinary crocodiles than might be expected, and may sometimes be seen bathing unconcernedly in a tank with the heads of half-a-dozen of these brutes shewing above the surface only a few yards from them. When a man-eater makes its appearance, not a soul will venture into the water which it infests. It is at all times unsafe to bathe in or even to wade into deep water in the low-country, and no European should go in or send a native after shot birds unless they have fallen in a shallow spot close in shore.
Every year a number of men, women, and children are killed by crocodiles, but it is probable that these casualties are often rather accidents than the result of deliberate attacks, the huge reptiles causing the deaths having mistaken their victims for animals wading or coming to drink, or having been alarmed by being come on suddenly among sedge and weeds. Man-eaters, which have killed more than one person, are extremely rare. Almost all animals, except elephants and buffaloes, are afraid of crocodiles. It is an amusing sight to see the precautions taken and the anxiety shewn by a thirsty pariah-dog coming to drink at a crocodile-infested tank.
Natives have several absurd ideas about these reptiles, that they have four eyes, that they have bezoars in their heads, that their meat has aphrodisiac properties, and their fat medicinal value, and that their bite produces leprosy.
Few animals are so hard to stalk as crocodiles in the open. The difficulty of crawling within shot of one, even Î when lying apparently asleep with widely-gaping jaws, is so great as to lead one to suppose that there is some truth in the native idea of the crocodile-bird which always hovers near it and performs the friendly offices of picking the leeches out of its throat and of giving warning of the approach of danger. When floating in the heat of the day on the surface of the water they seem to "sleep with one eye open." They may most easily be shot from ambushes put up near the carcases of cattle which have died near the water or from the bunds of tanks at the foot of which a young pariah dog or puppy has been tied, whose yelping will attract the brutes and bring them within easy range.
It is now well known that the old idea of the impenetrability of the crocodile's scaly hide is a fable, as a bullet from even a light smooth-bore will pierce it anywhere. When shot while basking on land crocodiles generally manage to get to the water, unless the ball has gone through the brain or broken the back. If mortally wounded in the water they usually struggle for a few minutes, raising their heads and tails above the surface or turn on their backs exposing their white bellies, and then sink. Wounded crocodiles often come ashore to die during the night, probably from fear of their fellows, but if they die in the water their putrid, half-eaten carcases will be found floating about two days afterwards. They are extraordinarily tenacious of life and will continue to struggle though their brain-pans have been emptied by an explosive bullet. Skinning a freshly-killed crocodile is gruesome work as the operation causes the legs and tail to move and twitch through muscular contraction as though the creature was alive.
Fishing for crocodiles is good fun. A common mistake is to make the hook too large. It should be made of good round ⅜ in. steel and the bend should be about 1½ in. across. The line should be a strong cord about fifty feet long and as thick as a man's little finger. About four feet of that part of it nearest the hook should be of loose strands which the creature cannot bite through. The bait may be meat of any kind, and not more should be put on than will cover the hook well with the point just shewing. If the hook and bait be made too large the crocodile will not gulp it down but will try and tear the meat off. The baited hook should be hung in the evening over a forked stick stuck into the bank so as to just dip into the water and the slack of the line neatly coiled on the bank. The end of the line should not be made fast to anything, but a palm leaf or piece of rotten wood or other float attached to it. If, on visiting the spot, in the morning, the hook and line be found gone, search should be made for the float which will be found not far off. On the line being taken in a crocodile will probably be found fast at the end of it. The brute may be sulking in a hole under a tree on the banks when there may be some trouble in getting him out. If it is a big brute dragging it ashore will be an exciting affair. Some one should stand ready with a rifle to shoot it as soon as seen. Care should be taken not to go near the creature, as it is said that a blow from the tail of a big crocodile may break a man's leg.
Instead of a hook natives successfully use a stick of hard wood about a span long, sharpened at both ends which, when gorged with the bait by a crocodile sticks cross-wise in its stomach and acts like a hook. Crocodiles have often been caught in strong steel traps set near the carcases of dead cattle lying near the water. The brutes sometimes get off, leaving a leg in the trap.
Dragging small tanks with nets has been attempted, but the cunning creatures generally escaped by crawling under the net. If it was done with a strong, properly constructed net, heavily weighted at the bottom, excellent sport might be looked for. A haul of lively crocodiles would be a thing to be remembered.
The skulls of unusually big crocodiles are worth keeping ; any over 26 inches in length may be considered above the average. Pieces of the belly skin are sometimes used for covering whist and other small tables. The teeth are from 2 in. to 2½ in. long and composed of extremely hard ivory or dentine.