The average height of full-grown male elephants is about eight feet, and of female elephants about seven feet. Bulls of much greater height are, of course, sometimes found. The late Mr. Varian, of the Forest Department, shot one in 1871 in the Trmcomalee District, which measured by the tape as it lay 11 ft. 10 in., its fore-foot measuring 60 inches in girth. Giant bulls, over ten feet high, have been shot by other sportsmen, also cows over nine feet. A bull over nine feet at the shoulder is an exceptionally big beast. It is recorded that, out of severa hundred elephants caught in kraals in the south of the Island in one year at the beginning of the century, only three were over nine feet. Dwarf elephants are occasionally found. A full-grown cow was caught for Government in 1880, which measured only 4 ft. 10 in. at the shoulder, the size of a two-year old calf. Albinos are sometimes met with. There is no record of a "white elephant," so called, having been caught or killed ; but animals with large flesh-coloured marks, especially on the head and ears, and with white eyes and toe-nails are not very rare.
In their wild state elephants are extremely inoffensive and unsuspicious. The members of a herd are strongly attached to each other and they have good memories. Elephants caught by the Pannikkans and taken to camp, have instantly recognized others tethered there, which had been caught out of their herd months before, testifying their pleasure by fondling them with their trunks and uttering deep rumbling sounds. They are conservative and will not easily give up their habits, such as going along some particular path or drinking at some favourite pool, though driven away repeatedly. They are also full of curiosity and will always investigate anything strange to them which they come across. This trait is not approved of by Government officers when it takes the form of destroying foot-bridges, breaking down boundary posts and pulling up survey pegs. Boulders which they had obviously been trundling about with their feet and trunks for amusement may sometimes be seen in the dry beds of rivers.
Elephants have only one sense which is really highly developed, viz., smell. They can detect the approach o a man down-wind a long way off. When they observe a taint in the air they will extend their trunks in the direction from which danger is suspected, and one or tw o strong inhalations will reveal to them the nature of the danger. Their hearing is good enough, but as a rule they make so much noise among themselves, feeding, rubbing against trees, flapping their ears, and blowing over themselves that they may easily be approached up-wind undiscovered. Their sight, compared to that of other wild creatures, is very feeble. It is quite possible to stand in the forest, apparently in full view of an elephant, without detection, provided one does not move. Many elephants have broken tushes and the probability is that this results from their striking them against trees while bolting blindly through the forest from some supposed danger. While wandering about at night in the jungle they are probably more guided by their senses of touch and smell than of sight. They apparently can see things above them only to a very limited height.
In spite of their bulk they can move quickly enough. Ordinarily they saunter about with a kind of stately ease, their great flexible-soled feet making no sound, but if alarmed they hurry off with a sort of swift shuffle. When going their best they throw out their legs with long strides swinging their heads from side to side. Big bulls can go about ten miles an hour on the level in the open, but cannot keep up such a pace for more than a few minutes. They are very cautious in all their movements and will not venture on bridges or on swampy land if they can help it. A deep ditch which cannot be stepped across is impassable to them. They are good climbers, as the elephant-paths which in old days zig-zagged all over the hills, testified. Traces of them may sometimes be found on the top of precipitous solitary rocks in the low-country. They descend steep places by sliding down on their hind knees with their fore-legs extended. So far from there being any truth in Shakespeare's statement that "the elephant hath .... legs for necessity, not for flexure," they can twist their apparently unwieldy bodies into all sorts of postures and can turn with great quickness. They are first-rate swimmers, being able to swim for miles without rest, though they have not many opportunities of practising this accomplishment in Ceylon. In abnormally rainless seasons when all the tanks and pools are dry they will dig with their feet and trunks great holes for water in the sandy beds of the low-country rivers.
They may be said to be on the whole silent animals. The trumpeting heard in jungle districts at night is often caused by calves quarrelling, though it sounds loud enough to be the angry roars of some nine-foot bull. The shrill blast or roar from the throat uttered by a charging elephant is a distinctly terrifying sound, and the squealing of one engaged in hunting the hunter, which sometimes happens, is not pleasant to hear.
Elephants are most wasteful feeders, and the amount of destruction which a small herd will accomplish in one night is astonishing. They break down with their heads and feet numbers of young trees, twisting off from each a few trunkfuls of tender leaves. Trees of the fig tribe abounding in milky sap are their favourite fodder. They eat quantities of grass, kicking it up with their horny toes and knocking the earth off the roots against their legs with their trunks. They eat more or less all day and night except when sleeping or on the way to their drinking places.
In hot weather they go to drink as a rule at sunset, making their way to the nearest tank or river-pool. They go generally in Indian file following well-worn paths. No particular animal leads the way; sometimes a young calf goes first. They prefer deep water with a hard bottom, into which they can safely wade and roll about. If the water is shallow they will, after drinking, bathe by throwing water over themselves with their trunks. They will not drink very muddy watex except in extremity.