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Phantoms of the Night: Wildcats of Sri Lanka

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By Uditha Devapriya

Review of Phantoms of the Night: Wildcats of Sri Lanka

Thilak Jayaratne, Janaka Gallangoda, Nadika Hapuarachchi, and Madura de Silva

Chaya Publishers, 2022, pp. 160, Rs. 5,000

The leopard is perhaps the most photographed animal in Sri Lanka. Slinking through grassy terrains and up sprawling trees, it has acquired a life of its own. Elusive and enigmatic, it tends to avoid human contact, preferring to lay low. This only belies its reputation as one the country’s most fearsome hunters, the undisputed elite among its predators. Indeed, the number of photographs and exhibitions organised every other year attest to its place in our collective consciousness. Although the lion has become the definitive symbol of the country, it is the leopard which has come to epitomise our forests and our parks.

Yet, so far, we have only viewed it in isolation from its surroundings. To fully appreciate its reputation, we need to understand where it stands in the wild, what family it belongs to, and what drives its instincts, habits, and routines. Limited for so long to glossy books and lavish exhibitions, it needs to be placed in its proper context.

Phantoms of the Night is a book, and an exhibition, that tries to put the wild cats of Sri Lanka in their perspective. Beautifully written and elegantly designed, it delves into the origins, stories, and myths regarding the more elusive felines of the country. The leopard figures in as the most fearsome among them, but the authors desist from spotlighting only it. As they make it clear from the beginning, while we have photographed and written about countless animals, birds, and butterflies, our wild cats have managed to escape the radar. It is that gap which this fascinating, and much awaited, study endeavours to fill.

Though for long the object of myths and popular culture, wild cats have never really been considered an object of serious study in this country. What the four authors do, in the book, is not only to chart their relationship with their natural and suburban habitats, but also trace their origins from the beginning of time. This is no mean feat. The wildest dog presents less of an enigma than the tamest cat. As the authors of the book note, at the beginning, tracing their evolution has become “a fascinating but frustrating process.”

Not surprisingly, the elusiveness of their subject makes their task a difficult one. They do their best to unravel that subject, but even if they can’t give us all the answers, it’s because no one can. This is an effort that needs to be followed by other forays.

Their study conforms to a straightforward, simple enough structure. Phantoms of the Night begins by historicising its subjects, tracing their ancestry and deconstructing their anatomy. This is the first part of the book. In the second, the writers explore, in detail, and in depth, the physiques, habits, routines, and taxonomies of four wildcats found in the country: the rusty spotted cat, the jungle cat, the fishing cat, and the leopard.

Before coming to Sri Lanka, the authors place these animals in a more global context. This helps us appreciate the enormous significance of the subjects they are tackling. The central dilemma, they note at the beginning, is that fossils and differences in the physical structure of animals have not really helped palaeontologists in their attempts at tracing the evolution of cats. In the absence of proper evidence, these scientists have come to rely on incomplete and sparse fossils to piece together what little we know.

Though many of the pieces remain missing, the few they have put together give us some clues as to their genesis.

What we know is that felines are perhaps the most carnivorous animals in the planet, even more so than dogs and certainly more so than humans. The ultimate ancestor of the cat, the miacid, evolved around 50 million years ago. Adept at climbing trees, they preferred a life in isolation, much like their descendants today. Evolution and adaptation helped them hone in on their carnivorous instincts, sharpening their teeth and their hunting skills.

Over time their physique developed, transforming into “spectacularly breathtaking genera and species.” That led to a rather intriguing anomaly: while diversifying rapidly into several subspecies around three to five million years ago, they came to share the same features. In other words, though different, they also became quite similar. The most recognisable traits of the domesticated cat, including their lithe, muscular bodies, luminous eyes, pointy teeth, and retractable claws, are common to their counterparts in the wild too.

Given their rather elusive history, it is not surprising that, as the authors observe, “some feline behaviour seems baffling to us.” That may be because cats react differently to what surrounds them, or because they are aware of things we are oblivious to.

Perhaps to emphasise these points, Phantoms of the Night is filled with photographs of cats in day and at night, highlighting the double lives they lead. Mostly in colour, with only two in monochrome, the images are crucial to the book’s narrative and aims, focusing on the eyes, ears, whiskers, and bodies of several wild cats while catching them in action. The image of a fishing cat on page 20 stands out in particular: it captures the predator about to pounce on its prey, though we cannot see what it’s aiming at. Almost poised in mid-air, its teeth bared, its hind legs bent and ready to extend, it is oblivious to everything else around it.

From tracing their ancestry, the authors move on to full length descriptions of their habits, routines, and physiques. Veritable killing machine as they are, cats require a great deal of energy. Since meat is notoriously hard to get in the wild, they also need much hibernation and rest, as well as carefully demarcated territories they can return to and call their own. In this they are helped by one of the most sophisticated surveillance systems endowed on an animal or bird, which enables them to track their prey, identify their territories, know when they are trespassing on others’ territory, and even trace prospective partners.

While Phantoms of the Night desists from romanticising their lives, it evokes a rather poetic view of their routines. At times these descriptions humanise their subjects. Indeed, one of the themes of the book is how closely human beings resemble their feline counterparts. This is a striking observation, since for so long it is the dog which has been considered man’s best friend. By resorting to a language and a style suited for human beings, the writers show that we share as much with our feline as with our canine counterparts: while describing the land foraging habits of wild cats, to give one example, they liken them to a system of land tenure, no different to the sense of home which guides the most ordinary among us.

In these sections the authors reveal their fascination with their subjects, calling them one of few animals “in which beauty and utility, artistic and technical perfection, combine in some incomprehensible way.” The observation immediately recalls the famous lines from Ananda Coomaraswamy’s landmark essay Why Exhibit Works of Art?, in which the reputed scholar, philosopher, and orientalist describes how traditional cultures fused aesthetic and utilitarian aspects within works of art. The conclusion is clear enough: though elegant and beautiful to behold, the wild cat is an efficient killing machine. This ties in well with the writers’ attempt to “imagine” and “construct” a machine built on the capabilities, strengths, and functions of the leopard, the most formidable of the four wildcats featured in these pages.

This is at once a historical account, scientific exploration, and photographic collection, as much a scholarly effort as a coffee table book. It brings together a team of specialists and amateurs who have collaborated more than once, whose interests span from conservation and photography to less mundane pursuits like golf and scuba diving.

Given the significance of their work, it is heartening to observe that the prose reads well, entrancing scholars and general readers alike. Less heartening, however, is the absence of references, an index, and most crucially, a bibliography. Even when quoting verbatim from colonial accounts of Sri Lanka’s wild cats, the authors fail to properly source what they are citing, and from where. For such an absorbing and intrepid study, such omissions are rather unfortunate, indeed at odds with the professional ambitions of the text.

Despite these shortcomings, Phantoms of the Night comes out as a labour of love. It brings together a group of writers, photographers, and naturalists who have a feel for what they are doing. Fittingly enough, they end it on a sober note, with the point that merely studying cats is not enough, that we must endeavour to protect and to preserve.

In the world out there and around us, what we do has an impact on everything else. Be it expanding habitation, increased poaching, or intrusive curiosity, our actions have exposed these creatures to the possibility of extinction. In that sense the authors’ plea, that the book “not be a memorial to the last of the wild cats“, remains relevant. It is a plea which needs to be put into action, a plea we would do well to listen to and heed.

The exhibition for “Phantoms of the Night” will be open to the public on the 18th and 19th of December 2021, from 9 am to 7 pm, at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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