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‘A Jaffna-man, an eminent surgeon with an European reputation’

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Dr. W. G. Rockwood

180th Birth Anniversary of Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood

March 13, 2023 marks the 180th Birth Anniversary of the late Hon. Dr. William Gabriel Rockwood, MLC, MD, MRCP, MRCS. Born on March 13, 1843 in Alaveddy, a small agricultural town in Jaffna; was the second of four children born to Elisha and Ms. Jane Backup, based on Alaveddy Church Records in the custody of Rt. Rev. Dr. Velupillai Pathmathayalan, Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI), formerly the American Ceylon Mission. Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood died on March 27, 1909 at the ‘Emms’, Horton Place, Colombo 7.

His father, Elisha born Sinnatambi on April 06, 1820, was one of six children born to a Saivite Hindu, Perumalpillai who migrated from Karaikal, South India to Sri Lanka and married a land-owner’s daughter Ms. Vairavi of Alaveddy. He was baptised ‘Elisha Rockwood’ in 1831 in Tellipallai and was given US $ 200 to complete his education at the Batticotta Seminary, known today as the Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, by the American Congregational Movement, which later became known as the American Ceylon Mission. Elisha completed his education and taught mathematics at the same school. He later joined the Customs Department as a Sub-Collector.

Dr. W. G. Rockwood married Ms. Salome Muthamma Muttucumaru, daughter of Mr. Adam Cathiravel Muttucumaru on November 1, 1871. Mrs. W. G. Rockwood was born in Kalpitiya in the Puttalam District on March 15, 1857 and died at “Pembroke,” Horton Place, Colombo 7 on Saturday, August 29, 1925.

Thus born to humble beginnings, ‘Dr. W. G. Rockwood was a most skilful and distinguished physician and had by rare ability proved himself ‘the greatest surgeon in the East. His reputation was not confined to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) or the adjacent continent, but had extended far beyond the seas to Great Britain, where he won the esteem of such eminent members of the medical profession as Dr. Marcus Beck, Dr. Charles Stoiiham, Dr. J. Bland Sutton. Sir Thomas Barlow, Lord Lister, and Sir Frederick Treves’. Dr. Rockwood was also president of the Ceylon Branch of the British Medical Association (BMA).

Early life

Dr. W. G. Rockwood, in 1851 aged 08 years, had his early education at the Vembadi Boys’ School and later at Central College, Jaffna, which was founded by the Methodist Missionaries. In 1855, aged 12 years, he went with his father to Batticaloa and joined Central College, Batticaloa which was also run by the Wesleyan Mission.

Dr. W. G. Rockwood in 1862 was in the last year of his teens, when a maternal uncle, Mr. E. R. Chelliah Pillai told him to come to Madras University for a “good education.” Mr. E. R. Chelliah Pillai died on March 19, 1900 at the “Emm’s,” Regent Street, Colombo 7.

In January 1866, aged 23 years, Dr. W. G. Rockwood passed the Calcutta University Matriculation Examination in Madras and applied for the arts course. His father prevailed on young Rockwood to follow medicine which he did with many misgiving and much reluctance. His disinclination soon disappeared for Rockwood took to anatomy with such interest. In July 1866, he joined the Madras Medical College and received the scholarship of Rs.20 allowed for those who pass the London matriculation Examination.

‘On his obtaining the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Madras, a member of the Board of examiners paid him the following rare compliment, “I have lately had, on behalf of the Madras University to examine a man of the name of Rockwood from Ceylon, for the Degree of Doctor of Medicine, and certainly was quite unprepared to meet a candidate for medical honours of this country so remarkably proficient. I fully believe that in any English or Scotch University he would have carried the highest honours” ’. (Source: Jaffna Catholic Guardian April 03, 1909).

Dr. W. G. Rockwood while he was serving in Puttalam skilfully handled an outbreak of cholera and because of his experience in handling it, he was sent to Jaffna in1868 to control the outbreak of cholera. He returned to Puttalam and then was transferred to Hambantota (June 1875) and later to Gampola (1878). It was while he was in Gampola that the vacancy for the post of Surgeon in the Medical Department of the General Hospital in Colombo arose.

Dr. W. G. Rockwood in 1878 aged 35 years held the post of Principal Surgeon at the General Hospital Colombo now known as the National Hospital, Colombo for a period of 20 years. He was the sole surgeon of the hospital and at the same time he was Lecturer in Clinical Systematic and Operative Surgery in the Ceylon Medical College. Besides this what leisure he could snatch from his official duties was given up to the demands of a large and growing practice.

He travelled to London in 1884 when he was admitted as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) and Member of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP).

Dr. W. G. Rockwood retired from active service from the Medical Department after 31 years on March 13, 1898 at the age of 55 years. Upon his retirement and in recognition of his long-standing service he was immediately appointed Consultant Surgeon to the General Hospital in Colombo.

It is said of his authority on handling tropical diseases that there was an instance when a colour conscious Englishman who had an ailment was asked to consult Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood of Ceylon while on his way to Australia from England. The Englishman thinking from the name – Rockwood – was an Englishman made an appointment to see him at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo when the ship docked at the Colombo harbour.

On that day Dr. Rockwood was at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo waiting to see his patient. The patient was informed that Dr. Rockwood had arrived, came to the lobby and was pacing up and down the lobby impatiently when the management of the Hotel who were well acquainted with Dr. Rockwood had to draw his attention to the coloured man in the room. Seeing that Dr. Rockwood was coloured he had returned to his room. A year later the patient was back with his pride in his pocket to consult Dr. Rockwood.

Another story is related where a passenger ship had docked in the Port of Colombo and an SOS was sent out for a surgeon to attend to a German National. It turned out that the German National was the German Consul Freudenberg who was treated and cured of his ailment and later became a very close friend of the family. Dr. Rockwood was also physician to the Governor of Ceylon Sir West Ridgeway.

A combination of medicine and politics

The Governor of Ceylon Sir West Ridgeway appointed Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood to the Legislative Council representing the Tamil community for a period of five years from March 14, 1898 to March 12, 1903. Dr. Rockwood succeeded Mudaliyar Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy who was the eldest brother of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who served as the first Tamil representative in the Legislative Council for a single term. Governor Sir West Ridgeway in a private letter to Dr. Rockwood inviting him to join the Legislative Council as the Tamil representative said: ‘The Tamil community could think of no one who has earned the esteem and the admiration not of one community or of two, but of every community, of all men, of all races, as Dr. Rockwood’.

Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood was presented to His Majesty the King of England, Edward VII at St. James’ Palace on June 01, 1902 while he was serving as a Member of the Legislative Council. He was appointed to the Legislative Council for a second term on July 09, 1903. Due to continuing failing health, Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood in1906 laid off from all public activity.

The Legislative Council was the first Assembly set up under the Colebrook Reforms with 15 members in 1833 by the British under Governor Sir Fredrick North. There were two categories of members. Officials numbered nine and unofficial members numbered six. The official members were appointed directly by the Governor and their communities nominated the unofficial members. The six unofficial members comprised one each Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher and three Europeans.

The Legislative Council was altered in 1931 under the Donoughmore Commission and lasted until 1947. Ceylon gained Independence from the British on February 04, 1948. Ceylon changed her name to Sri Lanka on May 22, 1972 when she became a Republic. The second Constitution was enacted in 1972 when Hon. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister. Today we have the third Constitution enacted in 1978 when Hon. Junius Richard Jayewardene became the first Executive President under that Constitution.

‘Dr. Daniel Anthonisz, of Galle had demonstrated the advantage of breaking the monopoly of the legal profession over the unofficial seats in the Legislative Council. Dr. Rockwood’s tenure of the seat emphasised that advantage. Dr. Rockwood illustrated his preferences for his principles at the sacrifice of popularity when he proposed a motion in the Legislative Council on October 18, 1899, asking the salary of the judges of the Supreme Court to be raised high enough to make it possible to secure English barristers for the bench’.

On that occasion Dr. Rockwood said: ‘To have the certainty of even-handed justice is the greatest blessing a community can enjoy and the purity of that administration must be above suspicion. In a small place like Ceylon, where every man is known to every other man, it is necessary in the interests of the public that the Supreme Court Judges, who administer justice between man and man, must be men who have no local or permanent interests or connections. By, these remarks I do not mean to shut out local talent. Those who have established a reputation for efficiency and who have claims for meritorious service are possibly eligible for a higher post and these may be sent to other parts of the Empire where they have no personal interests to serve and no connections’. (Source: The Ceylon Morning Leader: Sunday, March 28, 1909).

Dr. W. G. Rockwood is described as one of Asia’s greatest surgeons who could operate with the use of both his hands (ambidextrous). He also promoted the choice of opium in the treatment of certain ailments. He was a member of the commission appointed by the then Governor of Ceylon to oversee the planning and construction of the Colombo-Chilaw railway line from Negombo. It was later extended to Puttalam. While serving on the commission he also suggested the construction of a railway line to Jaffna.

Philanthropy

Six years after his death in 1915, Mrs. W. G. Rockwood donated Rs.20,000 to be utilised towards the construction of a 38 X 26 feet ‘Waiting Hall’ called ‘Rockwood Memorial Hall’ for patients who come to the General Hospital, Colombo now known as the National Hospital, Colombo for treatment. The foundation stone was laid in 1909 and the construction began in the same year. On April 16, 1912, ‘The Rockwood Hall’ was opened by His Excellency the Governor Sir Henry Edward McCallum (1907-1913). The plaque was unveiled in three languages – Sinhalese, Tamil and English to mark the donation: ‘The Rockwood Memorial Hall erected to the memory of Dr. William Gabriel Rockwood MD, MRCS, MRCP, Chief Surgeon of this hospital 1878 to 1898, Consulting Surgeon from 1898 until his death. Tamil Representative to Legislative Council from 1898 – 1905’. It is unfortunate that during the structural alterations made to the original building the three plaques and his photograph have been lost.

His character can be judged by his teaching. Once it is said that he rebuked a somewhat light-minded student and the latter, now an elderly man himself occupying a responsible position, remembers the rebuke. ‘Never make differences in your patients’, said Dr. Rockwood. ‘Every time a surgeon has a life depending upon his knife, it takes a fortnight off his own life, and the sense of responsibility is perhaps the greater when the man is a pauper than when he is a great and wealthy patient. The surgeon dare not take risks with the great man, for the world is watching him; but he fears still more to do so with the pauper, for then it is God who watches’.

He emphasised to his students that the surgeon must regard his treatise on anatomy as second only to the Bible. The words are characteristic of the man whose religion was always a predominant factor in his every thought and deed.

The ‘Rockwood Surgery Medal is awarded to the student who shows the greatest aptitude for surgery by the Medical Faculty of the University of Colombo, Peradeniya and Jaffna in memory of Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood.

‘A dutiful son, a faithful husband, an affectionate father, a loyal friend, a skilful surgeon, a good man, not slothful in business, fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.’ – Romans Ch 12; Vs 11-13

(Source: The Ceylon Morning Leader – Extraordinary Edition of Sunday, March 28, 1909).

(Excerpts from the book ‘From Williamstown to Vaddukoddai: The history of the Rockwood family’, published by the author William Sukumar Rockwood, MCPS, PgD. IHL, BA, JP, great grandson on August 21, 2011) -/end – 2280 words



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Provincialising universities: Risks and dangerous precedent of NEPF

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by Nalaka Samaraweera

The new National Education Policy Framework (NEPF), currently being implemented by the government, has begun to be noticed by the public. However, there is a noticeable absence of an in-depth discussion on the implications of the policies it proposes. So far critics have quite convincingly pointed out the neoliberal motives behind the proposals and the threat that it poses to the longstanding tradition of free education in Sri Lanka. These criticisms hold merit, as the compilers of the framework have failed to present any moral stance, such as a commitment to social justice and equity, within the document.

An equally critical yet less emphasised aspect is the devolution agenda of the policy framers, who have aggressively pursued the decentralisation of educational powers beyond the provisions of the current Constitution. It is evident that their efforts are deliberate and explicit; they have unequivocally embraced the ‘Principle of Subsidiarity,’ challenging the unitary status of Sri Lanka. This principle was first introduced in Sri Lankan constitutional history during the attempted drafting of a new Constitution by the ‘Yahapalana‘ government in 2016 receiving severe criticism for undermining the country’s unitary status.

Strangely, the NEPF framers have adopted the same principle despite the nation’s continuing adherence to the unitary status. It appears that the NEPF framers disregard the necessity for policies to align with the Constitution, as evident from the multiple recommendations that violate the provisions of the 13th Amendment. For instance, the NEPF recommends stripping the government of the right to establish universities, conferring that authority exclusively upon provincial administrations.

Additionally, it suggests categorising existing universities as “provincial universities.” This recommendation contradicts the Constitution, which defines the establishment of universities as a concurrent task shared by both the central and provincial governments. Moreover, it has been recommended that the Provincial Boards of Education, entrusted with the advisory function by the Constitution, be granted autonomy by the NEPF.

It is further recommended to replace the University Grant Commission (UGC), the apex body of higher education, with a new entity called the National Higher Education Commission, whose role is to be limited to maintaining academic standards adhering to the national policies. As a result, the Provincial Boards of Education take on the roles of establishing, coordinating, and maintaining universities, thereby challenging the existing centralised authority over these responsibilities.

The framers are doubtlessly intent on fully devolving higher education in the country to a degree that surpasses even India’s model, where the Union Government shares the powers with states to establish, coordinate and maintain universities. What’s actually concerning is their daring attempt to decentralise higher education not by directly amending the Constitution, but by manipulating education policy decisions, which is both unconstitutional and unethical.

What could be the consequences of this attempt with regard to universities? So far, universities have featured in national political mandates with promises to increase the number of institutions and student enrollment, driven by a sense of national interest beyond regional and ethnic considerations. However, if universities are transformed into “Provincial Universities” and become focal points in provincial election campaigns, these campaigns may emphasise regional sentiments. When local politicians view universities primarily as tools to serve their regional constituencies, they are likely to undermine the national significance of these vital institutions. This shift challenges the current equitable approach, which strives to serve the national interest without regard to regional or ethnic differences.

The NEPF aims to replace the UGC and transfer the responsibility of funding universities to respective provinces, posing a significant threat to university autonomy. If provincial bodies gain authority to fund universities while heavily relying on government funding, we can expect increased corruption and deficiencies. Local politicians are likely to prioritise regional sentiments. Additionally, there is no assurance that all universities will receive equitable treatment, as their affiliations with different provinces may lead to disparities.

It was not long ago that there was a media report of a politician sending a letter to the top authority of a university, advocating for the recruitment of a specific individual as a lecturer. If this is happening even when universities are buffered by the UGC from direct political interference, the situation could worsen if they fall under the oversight of the proposed autonomous Provincial Educational Board. There is no doubt that this board would be influenced by provincial political dynamics. Imagine a scenario where the Provincial Chief Minister appoints the Vice Chancellor of the “Provincial University.” In this scenario, provincial politicians might view universities as potential employment hubs for their constituents.

It is no secret that there is an infamous demand for the further division of existing provinces along ethnic lines in this country. In this context, if ethnicity-focused groups see universities as instruments for promoting ethnic and religious interests rather than fostering a cohesive national identity, the country will lose its ability to create a unified national ethos. It is inevitable that universities will become victims of regional and ethnic political maneuvering.

Why are the framers of the NEPF persisting in this unconstitutional endeavour? Why haven’t they opted to pursue amendments to the Constitution for their intended devolution through proper channels? Perhaps, they are leveraging this for future constitutional amendments when the political climate is favourable to such endeavours. The public is strongly urged to remain vigilant regarding potential future constitutional changes, as the irreversible damage they may cause has been well documented.

It is important to note that Sri Lanka, unlike India, does not accept provincial autonomy in principle due to its unitary status. If there is a need to delegate certain powers, be it legislative, administrative, or financial, it must be approved by Parliament. In this context, I would like to pose a fundamental question: What is the rationale behind provincialising universities? Put differently, do specific provincial needs and conditions warrant such a recommendation in the Sri Lankan context? Is there any need for distinct higher educational programmes to cater to unique requirements in provinces? If it is posed more concretely, do provinces have unique industrial and manufacturing activities that demand tailored engineering and managerial degree programmes specific to the province for example? To the best of our knowledge, no one has been able to demonstrate such distinct requirements. Authorities need to remember that the rationale behind devolving power should stem from logical arguments rather than merely pleasing certain groups for future political gains.

Let the people be urged to unite in opposing the NEPF, which will set a dangerous precedent by surpassing the provisions outlined in the Sri Lankan Constitution. Failure to do so would lead to a precedent of devolving power through policy manipulations, without amending the Constitution.

(The writer is a Senior Lecturer, University of Moratuwa. Views expressed in this article are personal.)

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AI, climate control,and Buddhism

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By Rohana R. Wasala

Addressing a gathering as chief guest at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Society Moratuwa held at the Moratuwa Buddhist Society Hall on May 11, 2024, President Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged Rs. 1 billion for research to ‘explore the connection between Buddha’s teachings and AI’ starting next year as The Island (Online) reported 13 May, 2024. He revealed that though the project was scheduled to start this year, it had to be deferred for lack of legal provisions for the regulation of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The programme will go ahead once new laws are adopted by parliament, he assured. The President also said that the government would provide the funds required for the restoration of the Moratuwa Buddhist Society Hall ahead of its own first centenary in 2029 (The construction of the building was completed in 1929).

The president’s determination to exploit AI for the global promotion of Theravada Buddhism was first mooted in a statement he made as guest of honour at the inaugural function held at the Edward Stadium in Matale, a day ahead of the 73rd National Upasampada Maha Vinaya Karma of the Ramanna Nikaya, which was to be conducted at a venue in Bandarapola, Matale from July 20 to 27, 2023. Video. Before commenting on this ludicrous subject of a costly programme of research on a hypothetical relationship between Buddhism and AI, an obvious case of comparing apples and oranges, let me turn to what else the president said at Moratuwa.

President Wickremasinghe laid similar emphasis on the global issue/s of climate change involving atmospheric warming and worsening water scarcity, both currently experienced in Sri Lanka. He thought that these challenges are to be met in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha. His arbitrary assertion in this connection is that, in terms of the Buddha’s teachings, ‘this issue’ (of climate change) ‘stems from civilisation’s greed for rapid progress’. The president would have been more convincing in making this claim (if he actually did so, as reported) had he mentioned the particular discourse or context where the Buddha allegedly talked about climate change. Since the president didn’t do so, his audience probably took him at face value. I, for one, don’t think that Buddhism offers any answers to climate change issues. The Buddha never claimed omniscience regarding the physical world, world-systems, or universes (cakkavala/chakravata in Pali and Sanskrit respectively, and sakvala in Sinha), which he said is achintya, meaning surpassing human thought, inconceivable, an idea modern physicists accept).

The subject of ‘loka’ or the world (there’s a special definition of the word ‘loka’ in Buddhism) is beyond thought (Sin. loka vishaya achintyayi). Gautama Buddha was the world’s first exponent of what is today known as the scientific method, which is important in any field where identifying and solving problems are involved, including climate control. He used it for discovering the Four Noble Truths about human existence: the reality of the unsatisfactoriness of samsaric journeying, its causes, the possibility of stopping that aimless wandering, and the way to achieve the cessation of the endless cycle of repeated reincarnations that is full of ‘dukkha’ or suffering. This goal has to be reached through wisdom while practicing universal love and compassion (lovingkindness) over all sentient beings.

 ‘Buddhism integrates our spiritual understanding with our experience of the natural world’ a Western scholar speaking about Albert Einstein’s view of Buddhism says (Source: ‘Dream Sparks’ YouTube channel). Albert Einstein is celebrated as the 20th century’s greatest scientist. Einstein stated that the Buddha had found what he was searching for. The following is a popular quote from Einstein: ‘If there were any religion capable of aligning with the demands of discoveries of modern science it would indeed be Buddhism’. So, there is no need to make false claims involving AI or climate control on behalf of Buddhism to extol it in order to raise its image in the world.

Incidentally, The Island (Online) report (May 13) which is my source here doesn’t say whether, in his speech, the President made any grateful mention of Arthur V. Dias (1886-1960) under whose leadership the Moratuwa Buddhist Society was established.  The Moratuwa Buddhist Society Hall was built under his sponsorship, too. Most probably, being a sort of history buff, the President did talk about Arthur V. Dias, though the newspaper report makes no mention of it. If he didn’t, by any chance, (which is unlikely), it would be a regrettable lapse on his part.  This patriotic Sri Lankan used to be one of the national heroes annually honoured in our school days from the early 1950s to mid1960s. He is still fondly remembered by at least a few grateful Sri Lankans, as kos mama, who was a successful planter, philanthropist, temperance movement member, and freedom activist. If he were living today, he would definitely have said and done something to tackle these problems.

To resume the subject of a hypothetical relevance of Buddhist teachings to climate control, the issue of harmful effects of uncontrolled human activities on climate was most unlikely to have been encountered in India in the time of the Buddha two thousand five hundred years ago, nor anywhere else in the rest of the world for that matter. Nowadays, however, it is a huge problem that impacts life on the Earth generally, and that seriously impairs the quality of human life and humanity’s physical and mental wellbeing. It could be even worse than that unless remedied. Renowned British broadcaster, TV presenter, film-maker, biologist, natural historian and popular author David Attenborough (b. 1926) mentions changing climate among the factors that make him conclude that “we are finally fast approaching the Earth’s carrying capacity for humanity” (A Life on Our Planet/2020), that is, its ability to support human life in terms of a healthy environment, good climate, clean water, food, fuel for factory engines and transport vehicles, electricity  power for lighting homes and cities and running industries, and so on.

The President was reported to have blamed climate change on what he called humanity’s ‘greed for progress’. Probably he had in mind the same sort of problems that David Attenborough suggests ways to deal with in the book mentioned. But material progress is a good thing that should be desired. Only unconscionable greed for material wealth in a poor country like Sri Lanka where the majority of the people live in poverty is bad.

The survival of traditional institutions such as religions depends on their perceived relevance to the day to day life of a community. The president is aware of this fact. That must be why he appears to be taking a special interest in serving the cause of Buddhism by researching a possible relationship between AI and Buddhism, and also by trying to establish a source of intellectual support in Buddhism in the matter of climate control.

However, instead of turning to Buddhism for solving this mundane problem, we could listen to Bill Gates, former CEO of software giant Microsoft and its principal co-founder, technologist, businessman, investor, and philanthropist, who spent a decade investigating the causes and effects of climate change with the help of experts in diverse fields including physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, political science, and so on. He found three broad areas that should receive vital attention if certain climate disaster is to be avoided. These he lists on page 8 of his book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ (2021): To paraphrase, these include 1) bringing the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases that the industrial world typically releases to the atmosphere every year down to zero, 2) deploying the tools that we already have like solar and wind power faster and smarter, and 3) creating and rolling out breakthrough technologies. The whole book is a carefully integrated elaboration of these basic themes in twelve chapters, that discuss problems connected with, for instance, use of fossil fuels, generation and consumption of electricity, agronomy (soil management and crop production), safe use of fertilisers, management of water resources, etc., and the crucial issue of the importance of conducive government policies. I mention these things to show that we need to consult local counterparts of specialists from diverse fields whose expertise that Bill Gates drew upon. Sri Lanka already has a lot of qualified young scientists to play that role without having to depend on Buddhism in lazy complacency, except perhaps as a source of moral inspiration.

 Incidentally, Bill Gates claimed in his website ‘GatesNotes’ in 2018 that he and his wife Melinda took to meditation as a way to ‘exercise’ their minds, following, as evident in the context, the guidance of former Buddhist monk Andy, who seems to combine both the Burmese (Theravada) and the Tibetan (Vajrayana, a form of Mahayana) traditions. But this doesn’t mean that Gates adopted Buddhism as a religion.

He was originally reluctant to practice meditation because of the connection he thought it had with the concept of reincarnation, which, obviously, he didn’t accept. Nevertheless, Buddhist teachings can after all be said to have been indirectly relevant to the Gateses’ climate control activism. When Gates says he took to meditation to ‘exercise’ his mind, he most likely means the same as what we normally mean when we say that we meditate at least as a minimal goal, to gain control over our thought process in order to ‘calm’ our minds, gradually achieving a state of mental tranquility, peace and balance, that enables us to use our mental and physical energies for best effect in our intellectual and physical exertions. I added this information to suggest that the moral ethical teachings of Buddhism help Buddhists and others who choose to follow them to focus their mental as well as physical energies on the performance of the required tasks to achieve any desired goal. (To be continued)

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The way of the jackal

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By Ifham Nizam

Sri Lanka’s jackal is the only subspecies of the Eurasian Golden Jackal across its range. Historically, it was even considered a species endemic to Sri Lanka.Being the solitary wild dog inhabiting the island, it ranks as the third-largest carnivore in the area, surpassed only by the majestic Leopard and the leisurely Sloth Bear. Despite these remarkable attributes, this creature remains largely unnoticed.

Its grace eludes photographers, its beauty escapes artists’ canvases, tourists seldom seek glimpses of it, and scientists have overlooked its study. Instead, the tale of our Nariya fades into folklore—a misunderstood being, relegated to the shadows of indifference.

 Presented in clear language across 152 pages and adorned with over 100 captivating colour photographs, “The Way of the Jackal” offers a thorough exploration of this species, catering to wildlife enthusiasts, biologists, and students alike. Delving into the Jackal’s physical traits, behaviours, social dynamics, and vocalizations, this comprehensive work also equips readers with field-tested techniques for studying the species, strategies for mitigating conflicts, and insights into its potential as a key attraction in wildlife tourism.

 By shining a spotlight on the Nariya of rural lore, this book aims to ignite interest, spur research efforts, foster conservation initiatives, and tap into the untapped economic opportunities presented by Sri Lanka’s wild dog population.

 Authors:

Uthpalawarna Jayaweera is a Science graduate majoring in Zoology at the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences, University of Colombo. She is a keen researcher who studies carnivore ecology and evolution.

 Prof. Sampath Seneviratne is a professor attached to the University of Colombo. He also is a research scientist, a forester, a conservationist, and a public communicator. Sampath spends time in forests across the globe, mostly away from popular places. He loves birding, tracking wildlife and planting.

 Chandika Jayaratne is a graduate from the University of Staffordshire in the UK. He pursued a career within the field of hospitality and environmental stewardship. He also has a research background where he studies the ecology of Rusty-spotted Cat and Jackal.

The Island interviewed the three authors regarding their most recent research on Sri Lankan jackals.

 Briefly, whose brainchild and how did it kick start?

 In Africa, the jackal species found in the northern regions, once considered an African subspecies of the golden jackal, was reclassified as a distinct species of wolf in 2015, following a molecular phylogenetic study conducted by a team of scientists. This discovery served as the catalyst for initiating a project focused on the Sri Lankan jackal.

 Our jackal holds a unique position as the sole wild canine species in Sri Lanka and stands as the only island subspecies within the range of the Golden Jackal. The confusion related to its taxonomic status, lack of proper scientific studies on its ecology, and neglect of its potential as a high-value species in Sri Lankan tourism have prompted the need for comprehensive research on this amazing species

 Recognizing the Sri Lankan jackal as a promising research model and a valuable asset in Sri Lankan tourism, the project commenced with an investigation into various aspects of the species’ ecology. This included studies on diet, vocalization, taxonomy, geographical distribution, the nature of human-jackal interactions, and the current status of the population. After three years of dedicated work, the culmination of our efforts resulted in the publication of a comprehensive book on the subject.

 What are the main species of jackals discussed in the book, and what are their distinguishing characteristics? I understand the species differ from the species stated by W W A Phillips.

 There are mainly three species of jackals in the world; Black-backed Jackal, Side-striped Jackal, and Golden Jackal.

 The Black-backed jackal (Lupulella mesomelas) is a medium-sized canid native to eastern and southern Africa. The characteristic features of this animal is the dark saddle that extends from the base of the tail to the neck. In addition, they have a long, pointed snout and an overall rufous brown body colour.

 The Side-striped Jackal (Lupulella adustus) is a canid native to central and southern Africa. There are two distinguishing characteristics that aid in identifying this animal: a prominent white tip on the tail, and white or off-white sides stripes on the sides

 The Golden Jackal (Canis aureus) has the widest range of all jackals. It has a mixture of black, brown, and white hairs in its back fur, giving the impression of a dark saddle, though not as prominent as in black-backed jackals. They range from Europe to the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka. So the jackal species that lives in Sri Lanka is the golden jackal and there are 13 subspecies of golden jackals in the world. It is widely believed that the same subspecies is found in the southern parts of India and in Sri Lanka, named Canis aureus nariya.

 However, when reviewing the Sri Lankan jackal’s taxonomic history, using published scientific literature and specimens in major museums, such as the Natural History Museum of Colombo, the Museum of the Bombay Natural History Society, and the Natural History Museum of London, we found that:

According to some authors, our jackal is considered a subspecies native to both southern India and Sri Lanka, named Canis aureus nariya. Others see it as a subspecies endemic to Sri Lanka, named Canis aureus Lanka. Also, our jackal has even been considered a unique species, endemic to Sri Lanka, by Wroughton (1916), and Phillips (1935), named Canis Lanka.

 As you can see, there is clear confusion regarding its taxonomic status. However, all these classifications have been made, based solely on morphometrics. Therefore, we stress the importance of molecular phylogenetic studies to clarify this taxonomic ambiguity.

 How do jackals interact with their environment, and what roles do they play in their ecosystems?

 Jackals are considered essential ecosystem service providers due to their pivotal role in pest control within agro-ecosystems. Their diet primarily consists of significant pests, such as rodents, wild boars, peacocks, and granivorous birds like munias. By preying on these pests, jackals help maintain the balance in agricultural environments and reduce crop damage.

 In addition to pest control, jackals also serve as nature’s cleaners and health care providers. They scavenge on carcasses and hunt diseased and weak animals, thereby preventing the spread of diseases within the wild and beyond. This scavenging behaviour helps maintain the overall health of the ecosystems they inhabit by removing potential sources of disease. In a country like Sri Lanka, where vultures are absent, the role of jackals, as scavengers, is particularly crucial.

What are some unique adaptations that jackals possess for survival in their habitats?

 Jackals are highly adaptable creatures, known for their generalist and opportunistic feeding behaviours. As omnivores, they consume a diverse range of food, including small mammals, birds, reptiles, fruits, carcasses (such as ungulates), insects, and even human food. This high degree of dietary versatility allows them to switch food sources when a particular prey becomes scarce.

 Jackals are also capable of thriving in a wide array of habitats, including grasslands, wetlands, forests, valleys, seashores, and areas near human settlements. Their adaptability extends to extreme environmental conditions as well. In Europe, for example, they can inhabit elevations ranging from 1,200 to 2,350 meters and can withstand temperatures as low as -35°C. This remarkable flexibility in both diet and habitat allows jackals to occupy diverse ecological niches and play a crucial role in various ecosystems.

 How do jackals communicate with each other, and what social structures do they exhibit?

 Like all other canids, jackals exhibit three primary modes of communication: vocal, olfactory, and visual. Jackals use their urine and feces to leave scent marks, which serve as messages to others, especially for marking territory.

 Regarding their social structure, the basic social unit of jackals is the breeding pair. It is widely believed that in Golden jackals, the breeding pair mates for life.

What is the hunting behaviour of jackals like, and how do they procure their food?

 Our questionnaire survey on the jackal diet showed several interesting behaviours. Jackals are known to visit paddy fields in search of prey, like crabs and rodents. They are also notorious for raiding chicken coops, especially those located near the borders of villages. In certain areas, villagers have observed that jackals howl when they find food. In other regions, it is believed that their howls help to flush out prey, such as Black-naped Hares, from their hiding spots.

 Additionally, scavenging is a common behaviour among jackals. Their food may consist of cattle, deer, wild boar, and even elephants that have been killed by predators like leopards, struck by vehicles, or have died from disease or natural causes.

In what ways do jackals interact with human communities, both positively and negatively?

 Jackals may be drawn to areas where food is readily available, such as garbage dumps, livestock holdings (including chickens, rabbits, and goats), and paddy fields. Additionally, rabid jackals might enter human settlements due to their increased aggressiveness, fearlessness, and other behavioural changes caused by the disease.

 Are there any myths, folklore, or cultural representations of jackals discussed in the book?

Jackals are deeply embedded in folklore, cultural representations, and myths, possibly being the animal most frequently mentioned in our culture, including art, literature, and folklore.

 In our folklore and literature, such as “Magul Kema” and stage plays. like “Nari Beana,” the jackal is predominantly depicted as an opportunistic trickster. Art from the Kandyan period often features the jackal in religious contexts, such as in the “Sasa Jathakaya,” which depicts the earlier lives of Gautama Buddha in animal form.

 Several famous myths are associated with the jackal. One prominent belief among rural folk is that occasionally a jackal can develop a horn, known as a ‘Jackal Horn,’ ‘Nari-comboo,’ or ‘Nari-anga,’ which is thought to possess magical powers.

 What scientific research methods are used to study jackals, and what have these studies revealed about their biology and behaviour?

 There are various methods to assess different aspects of jackal ecology. For example, camera traps, thermal imaging cameras, and radio tagging are commonly used to study their behaviour and interactions with other carnivore species.

 In our study, we conducted the first-ever dietary analysis of jackals using their scat and stomach contents of road-killed jackals. We found that their diet mainly comprises four types of food: small mammals, birds, invertebrates, and plant-based foods. The presence of a wide variety of items, including rodents, like the black rat (Rattus rattus), grassland birds such as the Tricoloured Munia (Lonchura malacca), invertebrates like beetles and maggots, and plant materials such as jackfruit, bananas, grasses, seasonal berries, and even human food (e.g., cooked rice, scraped coconut, and onion), indicates that our jackal is an opportunistic omnivore rather than a specialist predator.

 Even near visitor bungalows, deep inside wildlife parks, surrounded by pristine wilderness, we found jackal scat containing human food remains, such as rice and onion peels. This suggests that jackals prefer easily obtainable food over expending energy on hunting. Therefore, they might frequently visit human habitations in search of such food.

 Additionally, we characterized jackal vocalizations for the first time using the playback acoustic method. Through this, we identified different syllables that form five distinct vocal types: the bark, whine, whimper, short-lone howl, and group yip howl. Our findings indicate that the group yip howl is the main vocalization and major group vocal display, primarily associated with reunion and territorial defence.

 How do jackals adapt to changing environmental conditions, such as climate change or human-induced alterations to their habitats?

 Due to their higher dietary flexibility, jackals can switch to alternative food sources if one type becomes scarce because of climatic changes or human-induced alterations. They generally prefer shrub jungles with higher visibility, as these habitats provide abundant and easily accessible small mammals, like rodents. This preference allows jackals to thrive even in small, isolated patches of jungle, as well as in monocrop plantations, such as coconut, oil palm, rubber, and paddy fields.

 However, despite their adaptability, jackals still require certain minimum habitat conditions to survive. If these conditions are not met, they may eventually disappear due to the loss of feeding and breeding grounds to support their survival.

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