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Encounter with leopardsmand a bear

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by Ravi Samarasinha

(Continued from last week)

During the latter part of 1999, my friend Jehan and I joined Mike Birkhead, wildlife film producer, as consultants to advise and assist in the production of a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary about leopards at Yala National Park. Mike, co-producer of the recent award winning BBC wildlife series, “Land of the tiger”, acquired the services of cameraman Gordon Buchanan who had experience filming jaguar in South America and lion in Africa, for the challenging task of filming leopard in Sri Lanka.

Leopards are most active at night, and in Sri Lanka little is known of their nocturnal activities. To reveal this unknown feature, we obtained special permission to film at night using infra-red lighting, which is invisible to man and most animals. The use of an infra-red sensitive camera enabled us to observe and record the nocturnal behaviour of leopards with minimal disturbance to them.

After several months of preparation, Mike and Gordon arrived in Sri Lanka in March 2000. A jeep belonging to a game guard at Yala was selected and suitably modified to enable filming from either side. Filming began in mid-March. During the subsequent one and a half years, Gordon spent more than 200 days filming at Yala. Jehan and I, who were present most of the time, gained an intriguing insight to wildlife film making, and shared many memorable wildlife experiences with Gordon.

Dead wild boar

One such unforgettable experience occurred during the third month of filming. After a week in Colombo I returned eager to join Gordon who had remained filming at Yala. As I drove up to the park office the game guards had thrilling news for me. During the early hours of the morning a large wild boar with severe facial injuries had been seen struggling feebly below the Buttuwa tank bund, while a few metres away a concealed leopard had been watching patiently!

A short while later game guard Sunil and I approached Buttuwa tank with intense anticipation. A mongoose, startled by our approach, scurried away from the dead pig, which lay 10 metres to our right. A gust of wind aroused the dormant flies, and brought the overpowering smell of rotten flesh to us. The pig lay in a small clearing in the jungle with the three-metre high tank bund to its left. Beyond, and to the right of it, the ground sloped upward to a rocky ledge, which was partially covered by thick, thorny acacia bushes. Using the binoculars I carefully scrutinized the surrounding thorny scrub for any sign of the leopard seen that morning. If present it was well concealed. Disappointed, I focused the binoculars on to the pig. The pig’s extensive injuries to its now partially decomposed snout, was suggestive of a failed crocodile attack at the nearby tank.

Leopard versus crocodile

After a brief period of observation, I decided to move on hoping to locate Gordon. When we returned close to 6 pm, I was thrilled to see Gordon’s vehicle ahead, with his camera aimed towards the pig’s carcass. As I cautiously drove nearer, my swiftly beating heart received a jolt when Sunil touched my arm, and whispered kotiya (leopard). I quickly turned around and could not believe my eyes, for not one, but three leopards were seated on a mound in the gravel pit on our left! Hoping that Gordon would be able to record this unique sighting, I quickly drove up alongside. As Gordon, a true professional, continued filming, I shifted my attention to the carcass where his camera was aimed. I saw an incredible sight! A snarling leopard, its withdrawn lips exposing its canines embedded in the pig’s neck, was attempting to drag the latter away from a massive 10-foot crocodile, who lunged forward with jaws agape and hissing loudly.

The leopard, releasing its grip on the pig, reared back snarling. Then she sprang forward with a ferocious growl, her paw with unsheathed claws raised to strike. The combatants, each unwilling to give in, stood face to face, snarling and hissing at each other. This spellbound moment was shattered by the high-speed arrival of a rattling tourist jeep, whose driver, on seeing us, brought it to a screeching halt. As its occupants pointed and cried out in excitement, the startled leopard fled into the nearby scrub, while the crocodile with surprising speed disappeared under a korakaha bush.

Infra-red photography

As dusk approached only Gordon and I finally remained. Since it was a moonless night, it became dark rapidly and soon the light was inadequate to see the carcass. Suddenly a sambhur called urgently from our right, while Gordon hastily set up his infra-red equipment. Then the langurs began calling and jumping from branch to branch in the tall pallu trees just beyond. The leopard’s day had only just begun!

I soon knew Gordon had his infra-red system on, as the light from his video monitor dimly lit the rear of the jeep as he panned the lights in search of the leopards. I switched my video to the infra-red mode and peered in hopefully. Immediately, the twin beams of searching light invisible to the unaided eye sprang into view. A few seconds later the light illuminated four leopards seated at the edge of the clearing. The big female got up and walked to the carcass while the three large cubs sat watching. As the leopard seized the pig a swarm of buzzing flies took wing forcing her temporarily to let go the carcass.

She shook her head irritably, and then grasping the pig dragged it into the open while the disturbed flies settled on the surrounding shrubs. Having got rid of most of the flies she now began to feed hungrily, tearing and pulling at the carcass while the three cubs watched impatiently. The biggest cub unable to restrain itself, crept up to the carcass, and submissively attempted a tentative lick. With a terrifying growl the mother leopard sprang onto the cub and dealt it a swift blow with her paw! As the subdued cub slunk away she continued feeding. When she was replete she sat nearby licking her paws, and then rolled over contentedly. The cubs ran up to the carcass and growled at each other as they tore into it.

Suddenly, there was a rustling of leaves and instantly all the leopards were alert staring keenly towards the tank bund. The mother leopard stood up snarling and growling, tail raised, while the three cubs backed away from the half eaten carcass. Gordon slowly panned the light towards the bund to reveal a wave of crocodiles descending down the bund! The outnumbered leopards could only watch as the carcass disappeared into the writhing mass of hissing crocodiles.

A near skirmish with a bear

A different and potentially dangerous episode occurred a few months later. Whenever we could, Gordon and I would explore the numerous rocky outcrops scattered throughout the park, hoping to find and film a new scene, which would show future viewers the great beauty of the landscape.

That morning Gordon and I accompanied by trackers Kusumpala and Dalpay, set off shortly before noon to explore a 30-metre high rock situated about a kilometre away. The first part of the journey was through scrub forest consisting of andara, katupila, and korakaha with its electric blue flowers. Further on, the track narrowed with lantana encroaching and partially obliterating the pathways in sections. As we forced our way through, scratching our bare arms and legs in the process, I failed to notice the eraminiya creeper until its curved thorns hooked my earlobe, bringing me to a painful halt. Kusumpala, who obligingly rescued me, continued to lead the way, with a solid stick held firmly in his right hand. Once we arrived at the rock, we walked around it looking for a way to the summit.

Bear in a cave

On the western aspect we found a cave made by a 14-metre high boulder, which rested against the main rock. Within this enclosure, old whitened bones and antlers were plentiful, while numerous animal tracks criss-crossed in the fine sand lining the floor. Just beyond, a huge pile of fallen boulders provided a difficult path to the summit. As I was recording the scene with my video camera, Gordon, Kusumpala and Dalpay went ahead. Kusumpala climbed halfway and waited as I made my way towards him. As I came up to him I saw below me, an opening in a cave situated between the main rock and the boulder I was climbing. Naturally curious, I peered in, only to recoil in horror as a black shape came at me with a bloodcurdling roar. I stood there petrified, as Kusumpala shouted and lashed out with his stick. The sound of its claws raking the boulder below came to me as the bear fell back, unable to reach me. It then rapidly descended and disappeared into the jungle. Laughing in relief, we joined the others at the summit.

(Excerpted from Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka – Experiences and encounters, compiled by CG Uragoda)



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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