THE causes of the great decrease in the game of the country during the last twenty years or so, in spite of laws which are so stringent as practically to prohibit natives from shooting, are easy to see. They are (a) the impossibility of exercising any effective control, by means of the headmen, over the actions of many thousands of villagers scattered throughout some twelve thousand square miles of wild forest ; (b) the demand that has arisen for deer hides and horns for export, and for fresh and dried meat for local consumption ; (c) the increase and improvement in the guns in the hands of natives ; and (d) the scarcity of water in the low-country during the dry season, from June to October.
As regards the impossibility of enforcing the present game laws, it is obviously too much to expect of the ignorant, unpaid headmen of jungle villages that they would disregard the advantages resulting to themselves and their people from the illicit shooting of deer, and that they would incur the hostility of their fellow-villagers and the enmity of the Moor traders who supply the powder and bullets and take the hides and horns, and to whom they are probably personally indebted-by prosecuting offenders, practically at their own expense, trudging to court, perhaps forty miles distant, and probably two or three times, owing to postponements of the case. The difficulty of proving the commission of the offences of "shooting of game after dark and before daylight," or of "spreading any net or snare for game" in wild forest districts is so obvious, as to scarcely need pointing out. Any villager, bringing deer meat to his village during the close season has only to say that it was that of an animal which he had found lying in the forest killed by a leopard, to be perfectly safe. No headman would take the trouble to verify his statement.
Twenty years ago the hides of sambhur were frequently left in the forest as not worth removal, only a few being taken for covering cots and for making ropes and sandals. There was not much demand for cheetul hides, except for export to Southern India, where they appear to be valued as sleeping mats and cot-coverlets. When Ordinance No. 11 of 1891 was passed imposing an enhanced export duty on deer hides and horns, the trade which had sprung up in these articles, received a heavy blow, from which, however, there is reason to believe, it is recovering through the establishment of local tanneries, where the raw hides are dressed to be exported as leather, so escaping the Customs duty.
The number of guns in the Island is very large ; far in excess of what is required by native cultivators for guarding their fields and gardens from wild beasts. According to the registers kept at the different Kachcheries, 175,484 guns have been licensed since the Firearms Ordinance No. 19 of 1869 came into force (see Appendix A.) As, however, some of these registers are incomplete, it is probable that the real number of guns which have registered approaches 200,000. Many of these guns have, of course, been broken up as useless, or have been taken out of the country by Europeans. But the fact that 72,422 guns have been licensed during the last twenty years shews that they are still very numerous. Of these, 37,725 were licensed in the hill districts, shewing that they were owned mainly by planters ; 18,301 were licensed in the Colombo, Galle, Matara, and Chilaw districts, in which little or no game is to be found ; and only 16,390 were licensed in the forest districts of the north, east and south cf the Island. It has been estimated that after making allowances for guns not licensed and guns out of order and useless or unfitted for shooting large game, there cannot be more than about 14,844 guns in the hands of jungle villagers, which number, however, may be safely asserted to be more than enough for the wants of the people, as it represents more than one gun for every square mile of forest.
Many sportsmen seem to think that every native who owns a gun is a slayer of deer, and that he is constantly shooting ; but such is not the case. Much of the destruction of game is done by well-to-do men from the towns who combine business and pleasure by making shooting-trips to the jungle three or four times a year. Some of these are very keen hunters, but everything is game which comes within range of their guns. The majority of the jungle villagers use their guns very seldom ; not being able to afford to buy powder and bullets, except in minute quantities. The Moor traders will only supply ammunition on credit to professional hunters. Single-barrelled cap-guns are almost universally in use, double-barrels being rare, while rifles and breechloaders are almost unknown. Many of these native-owned guns are excessively dangerous to fire, having barrels half-eaten through by the corrosive action of burnt powder never cleaned out, locks stiff with rust and nipples loose. Fortunately the danger is lessened by the inferior quality of the powder used, a good deal of which is said to be ground-down blasting powder. A very large number of guns are used in shooting small animals and birds, also in firing salutes at weddings and other festivities, and are never taken to the forest. The possession of a gun seems to be regarded by many natives mainly as a sort of certificate of being well-to-do and respectable. Twenty years ago ancient gingalls, fired from rests, match-locks which had been converted into flint-locks, old Tower muskets and other fearsome weapons were common, but are now seldom seen. Should the proposed annual tax on guns be imposed, it is probable that many of these dangerous old fire-arms will be destroyed as not being worth paying for-a result much to be desired.
An important point to be borne in mind when considering the destruction of game by natives is the very few opportunities they have of shooting. As everybody knows, almost their only method of shooting is by moonlight, at water-holes, during the dry season. The dry months being usually only five, from June to October, and as there is only sufficient light on about six nights during each month to be worth shooting by, it follows that natives have only about thirty days in each year during which they can kill game. They do sometimes shoot by daylight at drinking-places in exceptionally dry seasons, but the deer thus killed are only a small fraction of the number killed at night.