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More on jungle treks: Lahugala and bold leopards

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BY H A I Katugaha

(Continued from last week)

One morning in the 1950’s we had gone across into Yala Block 2 and our destination was Walaskema in search of the famous crossed tusker, so named because of the crossing of the tusks in front. We had Block 2 all to ourselves. Parking the jeep, we began our walk to Walaskema. There were four of us in the party, namely Uncle Sam, Upali, our tracker and myself.

We saw a leopard sitting under a tree. He got up and started walking towards us. This was most unusual. We shouted at him but he took no notice at all. He growled at us and kept getting closer. Shouting at him we walked backwards and even threw stones at him. One thrown by the tracker hit him on his head, but he kept on coming.

Having reached the jeep, Upali raced the engine and sped towards him. The leopard then ran off into the jungle. Leopards usually run off at the sight of man, and the difficulty is to get close to one. Uncle Sam was of the opinion that this one may well have been used to humans since the Kataragama pilgrims passed this way every year. Maybe he even had a taste of human flesh by eating the corpse of a pilgrim that had died during the walk across Kumbukkan Oya to Menik Ganga. It was a large male animal in the prime of his life.

We reached Walaskema, which was a water-hole, and though we waited till evening the famous tusker did not come to drink water. On our way back we did see a herd of elephants across the Pilinnawa plains.

Years later while camping out at Kosgasmankada in Yala Block 1, one night I noticed some movement under one of the lanterns that we had hung around the camp to keep animals away. Using my torch I discovered that it was a leopard that sat right under the lantern and watched our camp. Soon several torches were focused on it and we had a good look at this fine male leopard. One member of our party then turned the vehicle and put on the headlights. There he was in all his glory watching us with apparent delight.

Next morning we reported this unusual behavior to the park office and were told that this was a bold leopard that had even attacked a labourer attached to the department while walking along at the campsite. The rule is that a leopard will run off at the sight of man unless man has wounded him. It is always best to remember that there are exceptions to every rule.

Land of the gentle giants

At dawn, in the early 1960’s, I lay stretched out on a mat in the verandah of the old Irrigation Department bungalow at Lahugala. A regular swish-swish close by informed me that an elephant, perhaps two, were feeding on the luscious beru grass close to the sluice. It was still very dark. The first vocalists for the morning were a pair of magpies. Their whistling calls were welcome indeed. Next a shama gave vent to his repertoire of vocal renderings. Then the pair of brown fish owls that was always to be found near the sluice finished their serenade with a short burst of hoo hoo.

As darkness gave way to light that misty morning, I watched the dark shape of an elephant slowly moving up to the rock in front of the bungalow. He stood still, probably enjoying the cool breeze that was blowing across the tank. After about 15 minutes he came down and walked towards the well.

Sammy, the Department’s watcher at the bungalow, kindly brought me a hot cup of tea and whispered, “Sir, be careful when you go for a wash, there is an elephant by the well.” I thanked him for his concern.

By the time my friends and I finished our tea, the elephant left the well and moved off into the jungle to our right. We could now see that there were two elephants feeding by the sluice. About 7 am they slowly walked up the bend of the tank and faded away to the left of us.

Across the tank, felled logs of the majestic trees that they once were, stood out in the early morning sun. It happened to be the depot of the State Timber Corporation and quite an eyesore in such a wonderful setting. Birds that were resting by the tank, such as painted storks, pelicans, teal, open-billed storks and a few white-necked storks, took off to look for breakfast. Four adjutant storks began their stately walk in search of food.

It was a typical morning at Lahugala. As we walked up to the rock a solitary pied kingfisher hovered momentarily, dived and came up with a fish. He flew to his perch, flicked the fish up and expertly swallowed it head first. The purple herons and the coots were active in the grass, while the beautiful jacanas were flitting over the lotus leaves looking for food.

Lahugala was then only a forest reserve and not a national park. The tank was managed by the Irrigation Department and Sammy was its watcher that looked after the sluice. Later Lahugala became an elephant reserve. Elephants were the chief attraction and they were to be seen throughout the year, but during the dry season from July to September, they congregated in large numbers. During this period, the herds gathered here for water and for the beru grass that they loved so much. There was always a resident population of elephants numbering about twenty. It was not till the 1970’s that it finally became a national park. Though it was only five square miles in extent it was a haven for elephants.

That morning we got on our scooters and went to the village for breakfast. Coming back for a bath in the tank was always refreshing. Our lunch over we did have a short snooze, leaving Sammy on the lookout for elephants, It was not till 2 pm that the elephants began to come to the tank. The first to arrive were solitary bulls, six of whom arrived from different spots and waded into the tank. That evening the herds came late, and by 5.30 pm there were over 50 elephants out in the tank. Depending on where the herds were, we walked up to the nearest tree and observed them, feeling quite safe. (Walking in the park was allowed in those days.)

One afternoon, Mr.Peter Jayawardena, who was the Wildlife Department’s ranger stationed at Lahugala, took us for a walk along the bund. Hearing a noise he led us into the jungle. There in a clearing were three elephants lying flat and sleeping. The noise that we heard was their snoring. They were soon joined by another that came up to them, laid himself down and then slept. After a while Mr. Jayawardena clapped. The four elephants were up instantly and crashed away into the jungle. It was amazing to see such large animals get up and run so quickly. The jungle was soon silent.

At the time Lahugala was an elephant reserve, and the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society took the Irrigation Department’s old Bungalow on lease. It was renovated and made comfortable. The late Mr. Noel de Costa was responsible for getting the place into a satisfactory condition. Thereafter we were able to book the bungalow and stay in it in comfort. We had only to take our food and bedding with us.

During those days it was a common sight to see people walk into the jungle with guns and many dogs at their heel. Gunshots were heard every night. Venison was freely available at the bazaar. Poaching was rampant.

It has been my good fortune to see two leopards at Lahugala. One was on the road leading to the bungalow late one evening when we were returning from Kithulana. The other walked past the bungalow one night just as we were about to retire for the night, A bear came along the road one night and hooted, and we watched him by moonlight. Had he not made a sound we would never have seen him. Deer and wild boar were not seen in those early days, and no doubt poaching was responsible for this scarcity. Every night we heard gunshots..

Lahugala has always been a bird watcher’s paradise. The tank is a fine rendezvous for storks, herons, waders, and other water birds. The surrounding jungle abounds with birds. A pair of grey-headed fishing eagles had a nest on a tall tree close to the sluice. They carefully tended their nest every year. A pair of brown fish owls nested close by. Many raptorials were seen over the tank at all times. I have seen one black-necked stork in the 1970’s and several adjutant storks. The thrill was to spot the beautiful red-faced malkoha or the racquet-tailed drongo. On a short walk along the track leading to Heda Oya, one would invariably see the red-faced malkoha. In fact we named it Malkoha Lane. It was not uncommon to see them in groups of four to six.

It was during the time I was at Badulla that I was able to really explore Lahugala and its surroundings. One afternoon there were two bull elephants feeding by the sluice. Getting close to them, keeping behind the bund, I took photographs, but one of them suddenly charged. He could not have seen me and the wind was in my favour. I ducked down on the blind side of the bund and lay flat among some large granite blocks that were thankfully there. The bull elephant came up the bund and to my relief ran along it. Had I run in panic on that day I would not be writing this article.

I picked up my field glasses and went back to see what his problem was, this time from a very safe distance. He had suppurating gunshot wounds on both his hind legs, and his left ear was torn. Many other swellings on his body and head only proved how many times he had been shot at. Naturally he hated man. I informed the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of this troublesome bull elephant, so that they could inform other occupants who came to this place to be careful of this animal.

Several months later I was at Lahugala with my family. Late one evening we met the elephant on the main road. A herd was feeding below the culvert and he was coming along to join the group. I was able to take a picture of him as he was crossing the culvert. While we were watching the herd I noticed that he was quickly moving parallel to us. and was trying to come in front of us. We moved ahead and waited for him. Sure enough he came to the road and immediately charged us. This time we were in a jeep and had no difficulty in avoiding his aggressive behaviour. He charged us three times on that day.

This bull elephant became quite a menace. He would wait quietly by the road and suddenly charge at any passing vehicle. Buses were his favourite targets. Three months later I was informed that he was shot. I drove down to verify if it was the same animal. It was truly the same troublesome bull, which was shot and had fallen in a chena close to Kithulana Tank. Birds were picking up dead maggots from his wounds. He had 23 wounds on the left side of his body and eight on his head. Finally he was at rest.

Lahugala was next declared a national park. The area began to be patrolled and it was at last getting the protection that it so richly deserved. It was in the late 1970’s that I saw the first herd of deer come out to feed. Wild boar soon made their presence felt.

One morning while I was seated on the rock, I met Appuhamy who came with a katty (a cutting blade with a long handle) on his ample shoulder. Having heard that I had come all the way to watch elephants, he took me to his chena, which was close to the Sengamuwa tank. To my horror I saw that his entire chena was devastated, having been trampled by a large number of elephants that had passed through. All his labour was lost in one night.

“You will see them at Lahugala today.” he said sadly. I gave him most of the cash I had with me and asked him about compensation. “Sir, I will get my money but I will have to give bribes in return; otherwise it will take months, perhaps even a year.” It is one thing for us to talk of conservation of the elephant from our homes and offices; while it is quite another matter for the poor cultivator. I told him it was a known fact that elephants come to Lahugala during that time of the year.

“True Sir, I would have harvested my crop by now, but the rains were delayed and so I planted late.” As I sat on the rock that evening and watched elephants pouring out of the jungle to my right, Appuhamy’s saying that I would see elephants at Lahugala that day kept ringing in my ears. As many as 186 elephants with four tuskers came to the tank. A herd of over a hundred elephants would have walked across his cultivation.

The conditions at the park improved rapidly, thanks to a dedicated staff that was stationed there. Being a small park it was easy to patrol. Poaching decreased. We began to see small herds of deer grazing close to the tank. I even saw a few sambhur.

There are many places of historical interest that one could visit while staying at Lahugala. One such place is Habutagala, where many ancient ruins, which include a forty-foot reclining statue of Lord Buddha in a cave, are found. Treasure hunters have dug into the statue. There is a small dagoba and several pillars to be seen. The most interesting features are Lord Buddha’s footprint carved in stone and an ancient stone inscription. These ruins belong to the Ruhunu period. Northern terrorists have attacked the village of Hulanuge twice.

Magul Maha Viharaya too is worthy of a visit. Situated close to Lahugala bazaar, it has several stone pillars and foundations. During the 1970’s, a unique moonstone was unearthed at this spot. It was in a fine state of preservation. Four of the elephants in the row of these animals carved on stone were dressed and had a rider on each. No other moonstone yet discovered anywhere in the country had this feature. Here again we find a small dagoba, a shrine room and a foundation of some structure with beautifully carved lions round its base.

More on jungle treks:…

Ancient stone inscriptions can also be seen. When conservation is completed some more interesting finds are likely to be found at this place.

Nilagiri Maha Seya is still covered in jungle. One has to cross Heda Oya and travel south along a jungle path to get there. We were warned to be extra careful and to make a loud noise when walking along, as there was a reputation for the presence of bears, in addition to the ever-present elephants. The walk was rewarding. The jungle was cool and had plenty of bird life to keep us occupied. My late brother, Upali, and Dr. Mahi Kottegoda accompanied me on all archaeological and nature-watching trips to the area. Kotte, as we called him, was an ardent bird watcher.

Nilagiri Maha Seya was in complete ruin. It was huge, with massive trees growing even at the summit. We were told that it was much bigger than the famous Tissamaharama dagoba. A large cylindrical stone kotha (crown of a Buddhist dagoba) was seen fallen at the very top of the dagoba, which resembled a hill covered in jungle.

A beautifully carved Bodhisatva statue is found at Mudu Maha Viharaya at Panama. This carving is in crystalline limestone and is really well done.

Lahugala became more and more popular. The Society bungalow was almost always occupied. Deer and wild boar were seen every day. Elephants were the main draw. One could see them every day of the year. A resident population of about 12 to 20 elephants never failed to appear. During the drought the numbers increased to about a hundred to 200 elephants. If we did not see them at Lahugala, we found them at Kithulana or Sengamuwa tanks.

Arugam Bay is only 12 miles away. It was a common practice to go there for the morning sea bath and bring back seafood for lunch. Then, followed by a well-earned siesta, we would wait for the elephants in the evening.

At ten past five, trumpeting announced the arrival of the herds as 32 elephants of different sizes ran to the water. They spread out in a line, had their drink and ran back to the jungle. They did not feed. It was obvious to us that they had arrived after a long walk. While we were wondering what had disturbed them, a large female, obviously the matriarch, led the 32 back to water. They were followed by over 80 more, who came out nearly in single file and waded into the tank. We counted them as they came out. We were seated on the rock in front of the bungalow.

Our friend Sammy whispered in my ear that more were coming. Sure enough another group came out to our left and walked over the bund to get into the tank. There were over 40 in this group. The two groups mingled freely and we saw a line of elephants across the Lahugala tank, a fabulous sight indeed. The bull elephants kept moving from one group to another testing the females for receptivity. One young female squealed and ran away from a bull. A larger one, probably the mother, came running to the bull and began stroking him around his ears. The bull immediately turned and began testing her.

We next noticed a huge bull elephant, which was the biggest in the gathering, coming along the bund. He made straight to the herds. Two smaller bulls took to their heels and left the herd to the big bull. Later in the evening when the elephants were leaving the tank, he was there by our rock with two female elephants. Yes, he was ready for a night of love.

It has been my good fortune to see six different tuskers at Lahugala. Two were really big ones, but sadly this gathering of over a 100 had none. I have observed mating of elephants at Lahugala on three occasions, too far for effective photography.

Up to about 1985 there was peace and tranquillity, then the terrorists began to attack the humble jungle villages. Soon the bungalow, the office of the Wildlife Department and the staff quarters were torched. The army soon moved in. One could still go past Lahugala on the way to the east coast at one’s own risk. The area was considered risky, and no one would dare to stay in the area.

The army is there and elephants still come to the tank. The small national park remains in mute silence. The deer and wild boar are no longer seen in daylight. Even elephants have been shot at. We can only hope that the interim cessation of hostilities will lead to permanent peace once again and we would be able to visit these places to enjoy what nature has bestowed so generously.

Reference: Trimen, Henry (1898). A hand-book to the flora of Ceylon, vol 3, p 216, Dulau & Co, London.

(Concluded)

(Excerpted from Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka edited by CG Uragoda)



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Responding to our energy addiction

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by Ranil Senanayake

Sri Lanka today is in the throes of addiction withdrawal. Reliant on fossil fuels to maintain the economy and basic living comforts, the sudden withdrawal of oil, coal and gas deliveries has exposed the weakness and the danger of this path of ‘development’ driven by fossil energy. This was a result of some poorly educated aspirants to political power who became dazzled by the advancement of western industrial technology and equated it with ‘Development’. They continue with this blind faith even today.

Thus, on December 20th 1979, an official communiqué was issued by the Government and displayed in the nation’s newspapers stating, “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”. This defined with clarity what was to be considered development by the policy-makers of that time. This fateful decision cast a deadly policy framework for the nation. The energy source that was to drive the national economy would be fossil-based. Even today, that same policy framework and its adherents continue. Everything, from electricity to cooking fuel, was based on fossil energy.

The economics of development, allows externalizing all the negative effects of ‘development’ into the environment, this being justified because, “industrialisation alleviates poverty”. The argument, is that economies need to industrialise in order to reduce poverty; but industrialisation leads to ‘unavoidable emissions. Statements like, ‘reduction in poverty leads to an increase in emissions’ is often trotted out as dogma. Tragically, these views preclude a vision of development based on high tech, non-fossil fuel driven, low consumptive lifestyles. Indeed, one indicator of current ‘development’ is the per capita consumption of power, without addressing the source of that power.

A nation dependent on fossil fuel is very much like an addict dependent on drugs. The demand is small, at first, but grows swiftly, until all available resources are given. In the end, when there is nothing else left to pawn, even the future of their children will be pawned and finally the children themselves! Today, with power cuts and fuel shortages, the pain of addiction begins to manifest.

The creation of desire

This perspective of ‘development’, the extension of so-called ‘civilised living’ is not new to us in Sri Lanka, Farrer, writing in 1920, had this to say when visiting Colombo:

“Modern, indeed, is all this, civilised and refined to a notable degree. All the resources of modern culture are thick about you, and you feel that the world was only born yesterday, so far as right-thinking people are concerned.

And, up and down in the shade of glare, runs furiously the unresting tide of life. The main street is walled in by high, barrack like structures, fiercely western in the heart of the holy East, and the big hotels upon its frontage extend their uncompromising European facades. Within them there is a perpetual twilight, and meek puss-faced Sinhalese take perpetually the drink orders of prosperous planters and white-whiskered old fat gentlemen in sun hats lined with green. At night these places are visible realisation of earthly pleasure to the poor toiling souls from the farthest lonely heights of the mountains and the jungle.” The process goes on still …

Develop we must, but cautiously – with the full awareness of the long-term consequences of each process. Development must be determined by empowering the fundamental rights of the people and of the future generations. Clean air, clean water, access to food and freedom from intoxication, are some of these fundamental rights. Any process that claims to be part of a development process must address these, among other social and legal fundamental rights.

One problem has been that, the movement of a country with traditional non-consumptive values, into a consumerist society based on fossil energy tends to erode these values rapidly. Often, we are told that this is a necessary prerequisite to become a ‘developed country’, but this need not be so. We need to address that fundamental flaw stated in 1979. We need to wean ourselves away from the hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. Which means moving from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy.

Fossil Fuels or fossil hydrocarbons are the repository of excess carbon dioxide that is constantly being injected into the atmosphere by volcanic action for over the last 200 million years. Hydrocarbons are substances that were created to lock up that excess Carbon Dioxide, sustaining the stable, Oxygen rich atmosphere we enjoy today. Burning this fossil stock of hydrocarbons is the principal driver of modern society as well as climate change. It is now very clear that the stability of planetary climate cycles is in jeopardy and a very large contributory factor to this crisis are the profligate activities of modern human society.

As a response to the growing public concern that fossil fuels are destroying our future, the fossil industry developed a ‘placating’ strategy. Plant a tree, they say, the tree will absorb the carbon we emit and take it out of the atmosphere, through this action we become Carbon neutral. When one considers that the Carbon which lay dormant for 200 million years was put into the atmosphere today, can never be locked up for an equal amount of time by planting a tree. A tree can hold the Carbon for 500 years at best and when it dies its Carbon will be released into the atmosphere again as Carbon Dioxide.

Carbon Dioxide is extracted from the atmosphere by plants and converted into a solid form through the action of photosynthesis. Photosynthetic biomass performs the act of primary production, the initial step in the manifestation of life. This material has the ability to increase in mass by the absorption of solar or other electromagnetic radiation, while releasing oxygen and water vapor into the atmosphere. It is only photosynthetic biomass that powers carbon sequestration, carbohydrate production, oxygen generation and water transformation, i.e., all actions essential for the sustainability of the life support system of the planet.

Yet currently, it is only one product of this photosynthetic biomass, sequestered carbon, usually represented by wood/timber, that is recognized as having commercial value in the market for mitigating climate change. The ephemeral part, the leaves, are generally ignored, yet the photosynthetic biomass in terrestrial ecosystems are largely composed of leaves, this component needs a value placed on it for its critical ‘environmental services’

With growth in photosynthetic biomass, we will see more Oxygen, Carbon sequestering and water cleansing, throughout the planet. As much of the biomass to be gained is in degraded ecosystems around the planet and as these areas are also home to the world’s rural poor, these degraded ecosystems have great growth potential for generating photosynthetic biomass of high value. If the restoration of these degraded ecosystems to achieve optimal photosynthetic biomass cover becomes a global goal, the amazing magic of photosynthesis could indeed help change our current dire course, create a new paradigm of growth and make the planet more benign for our children.

Instead of flogging the dead horse of fossil energy-based growth as ‘Economic Development’, instead of getting the population addicted to fossil energy, will we have the commonsense to appreciate the value of photosynthetic biomass and encourage businesses that obtain value for the nations Primary Ecosystem Services (PES)? The realization of which, will enrich not only our rural population but rural people the world over!

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Australia-Sri Lanka project in the news…Down Under

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The McNaMarr Project is the collaboration between Australian vocalist and blues guitarist, John McNamara, and Andrea Marr, who is a Sri Lankan-born blues and soul singer, songwriter and vocal coach.

Her family migrated to Australia when she was 14 and, today, Andrea is big news, Down Under.

For the record, Andrea has represented Australia, at the International Blues Challenge, in Memphis, Tennessee, three times, while John McNamara has also been there twice, representing Australia.

Between them, they have 10 albums and multiple Australian Blues awards.

Their second album, ‘Run With Me,’ as The McNaMarr Project, now available on all platforms, worldwide, has gone to No. 1 on the Australian Blues and Roots Sirplay charts, and No. 12 on the UK Blues charts.

Their debut album, ‘Holla And Moan,’ released in 2019, charted in Australia and the US Blues and Soul charts and received rave reviews from around the world.

Many referred to their style as “the true sound of soulful blues.”

= The Rocker (UK): “They’ve made a glorious album of blues-based soul. And when I say glorious, I really mean it. I’ve tried to pick out highlights, but as it’s one of the records of this year – 2019 – (or any other for that matter) it’s tricky. You have to own this.”

= Reflections in Blue (USA): “Ten original tunes that absolutely nail the sound and spirit of Memphis soul. Marr has been compared to Betty Lavette and Tina Turner and with good reason. She delivers vocals with power and soul and has a compelling stage presence. McNamara’s vocals are reminiscent of the likes of Sam & Dave or even Otis Redding. This is quality work that would be every bit as well received, in the late 1950s, as it is today. It is truly timeless.”

= La Hora Del Blues (Spain): “Andrea Marr’s voice gives us the same feeling as artistes, like Betty Lavette, Tina Turner or Sharon Jones, perfectly supported by John McNamara’s work, on vocals and guitar…in short words, GREAT!”

Yes, John McNamara has been described as an exceptional vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, whose voice has been compared to the late great Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, while Andrea Marr often gets compared to the likes of Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and Sharon Jones.

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Manju Robinson’s scene…

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Entertainer and frontline singer, Manju Robinson, is back, after performing at a leading tourist resort, in the Maldives, entertaining guests from many parts of the world, especially from Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany, Poland…and Maldivians, as well.

His playlist is made up of the golden oldies and the modern sounds, but done in different styles and versions.

While preparing for his next foreign assignment…in the Maldives again, and also Dubai, Manju says he has plans to do his thing in Colombo.

Manju has performed with several local bands, including 3Sixty, Shiksha (Derena Dreamstar band), Naaada, Eminents, Yaathra, Robinson Brothers, Odyssey, Hard Black and Mark.

He was the winner – Best Vocalist and the Best Duo performer – at the Battle of the Bands competition, in 2014, held at the Galadari Hotel.

In 2012, he won the LION’s International Best Vocalist 2012 award.

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