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Samantha, a labour of love

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First artificially inseminated foal in Sri Lankan

By Sajitha Prematunge and Lalantha Wanniarachchi

Tall and stout by Sri Lankan standards, Samantha, was quite oblivious to her historical significance. She is the first artificially inseminated foal in Sri Lanka. From the former Director of Forestry and Environment Division, Mahaweli Authority turned breeder, Palitha Samarakoon, who tried to get mare Thulvaan to conceive but in vain, to the veterinary team at Peradeniya University, Veterinary Science Faculty, the coming of the now happy and healthy filly was something akin to childbirth. Samantha was the culmination of years of hard work and months of anxious anticipation.

A casual conversation with Peradeniya University, Veterinary Science Faculty, Senior Lecturer Prof Basil Alexander convinced Samarakoon that artificially inseminating a mare was not altogether impossible. Ten doses of semen, of Arabian pedigree, were brought from a stud farm in California at Rs 100,000 each. Thulvaan of the seventh generation from Upali Wijewardene’s stock was the ideal candidate.

 

Veterinary marvel

The insemination was professionally carried out by Senior Lecturer Dr Dammika Perera together with Alexander and Anil Pushpakumara of the Veterinary Science Faculty. Of course, a straightforward artificial insemination, as that of Samantha’s, was probably a cake-walk for a Department that introduced to Sri Lanka, technologies such as embryo transplantation to create high standard cattle over a decade ago. While a cow gives birth to an average of eight to 10 calves during her lifetime, they have thousands of eggs in their ovaries. In a bid to utilise the maximum reproductive potential of genetically superior female animals with high milk production capacity, multiple embryos harvested from such cows were transferred to recipient cows to complete gestation.

“The technology allows us to get up to 200 calves from a cow that would have had only eight in its lifetime, under natural circumstances,” said Dr Dammika Perera. He explained that artificial insemination allowed the selection of superior paternal genetic material, but the embryo transfer technique facilitates selection of both superior maternal and paternal genetic material. “The technology can be further developed by splitting an embryo to get two calves,” said Perera. The faculty also devised a method with which live embryos could be stored in liquid nitrogen. “Having a ready supply of embryos allows farmers to time the births according to their milk production requirements and availability of resources such as grazing grounds.”

However, Dr. Perera explained that artificially inseminating a mare was a novel experience. “The mare has to be in heat for the egg to be fertilised. We had to prime the womb with hormone treatment for maximum effect,” Perera explained the process. “Then we had to make sure she was in fact in heat by looking for signs such as changes in the vaginal opening and passage.” According to Perera, cervical tone has to be monitored and hormone treatment continued till desired tone is achieved. Ultrasound scans of the uterus, examination of ovaries, regular scans to monitor egg diameter and further hormone treatment to bring eggs to the desired size are all a part of the artificial insemination process.

“It is only after ensuring that everything is satisfactory that we take the sperm out of cold storage, bring it down to room temperature and inseminate the mare.” This is followed by further hormone treatment and scans at 12-hour periods. “By the 15th day we can determine whether the mare has successfully conceived. Scans are done at the end of the first and second trimesters to monitor the growth of the foetus, identify any abnormalities and interventions to rectify such abnormalities, carried out.”

Dr. Perera is treading unfamiliar territory. Consequently, his job requires critical thinking and a certain amount of derring-do, as it were. He admitted that although veterinarians must be aware of all the state-of-the-art research in the field, foreign research was not directly applicable to a country like Sri Lanka due to geographical and climactic differences. “Some are economically not viable. Research can’t be undertaken lightly because that would lead to waste of valuable resources. It has to be targeted at finding what works for our country.”

The gestation period of a mare is 11 months and 15 days, give or take 15 days more, said Samarakoon. But Samantha, being of good pedigree, consequently quite well-developed, was a feisty one and Thulvaan was forced to deliver 15 days ahead of schedule.

 

Animal lover

Samarakoon became the proud owner of a cow on his seventh birthday, when his mother bought it for him from an auction at the Kundasale farm for Rs. 80. Thus began his love for animals. He later graduated to elephants and crocodiles, but it goes without saying that he had a soft spot for horses. Samarakoon joined the Mahaweli Authority in 1979. He believed that having hands on experience was vital for him to perform his duties as the Director of Forestry and Environment Division. Samarakoon was responsible for successfully completing a 12 million tree planting project, a feat not achieved by any department since. “But to this day no one has expressed interest in acquiring that knowledge,” said Samarakoon, ruefully.

After Upali Wijewardena disappeared his stables were up for offer. Seeing Samarakoon was a true animal lover, Chairman of the Upali Group, Dr. Seevali Ratwatte gifted all 12 horses to Samarakoon in 1983. The late Gamini Dissanayake extended Samarakoon the support necessary to make it an official breeding programme under the Mahaweli Authority banner.

Breeding a stock that were originally groomed for racing proved difficult as no records on their breeding capacity existed and there was a shortage of bloodlines. Samarakoon explained that it’s difficult to find studs of higher pedigree in the country. To make matters worse, the only stud was put down after it broke a leg. To date there are no studs in stables, only male foals. “It’s difficult to maintain studs because they tend to inbreed and impregnate mares that are too young,” explained Samarakoon, leading to a degenerate progeny. “You could lose control of the breeding programme.”

When a horse was killed in his stables, by insurgents who didn’t approve of his stern administration at the Authority, Samarakoon became disillusioned. He was forced to quit after 25 years in the Mahaweli Authority. Fortunately, in 1999, Rifle Corps Commanding Officer at the time, Colonel Ranjith Ellegala invited Samarakoon to continue his work at the Rifle Corps Headquarters premises, Pallekele. Samarakoon made sure to improve the bloodline of horses every new generation. Samarakoon believes that the progeny of the horses that he has bred can be improved to international standards.

Costs

Samarakoon explained that a horse of good breeding in Sri Lanka was priced somewhere between one million to 1.5 million rupees. For comparison, the world’s most expensive race horse, the Irish thoroughbred Galileo, is estimated at 180 million Euros, a staggering USD 215 million. The costs are just as exorbitant, according to Samarakoon. It costs Rs 500,000 to 600,000 per annum to raise a horse and he says there are no monetary benefits for him in horse breeding. His only reward is the foal he gets once a year. Samarakoon sells the male foals to those who are willing to provide a good home.

But he has donated a choice few to various establishments. He has offered 13 of the choicest studs to Sri Lanka Army and some to Sri Lanka Police. The last one, approximately Rs 400,000 in value, was gifted to the Gajaba Regiment Headquarters, Anuradhapura, three months ago. Three horses were offered to Sri Lanka Military Academy at Diyatalawa. Several more horses worth four million rupees were gifted to Sri Lanka Rifle Corps Headquarters, in reciprocation of allowing him to use the land for his breeding programme. Samarakoon still maintains these horses.

His free ranging horses at Pallekele are shampooed, groomed and examined for ticks regularly. He is of the opinion that horses raised for breeding purposes should not be ridden. “The animal’s mentality changes when it’s ridden,” said Samarakoon. “The bit alone weighs 750 to 800 grammes.

The high feed cost was another major concern at the inception of the programme. Most of the money allocated for the project was used up for horse feed. Armed with 40 years of experience in livestock breeding and farming, Samarakoon set about finding local alternatives. He substituted the feed with a locally concocted diet of energy and protein rich grains. The six locally sourced ingredients are mixed according to the ratio specified by Samarakoon, based on years of experience, depending on the nutritional requirements of individual horses. “For example, the diet of a weak animal is adjusted to provide more protein.” The horses are fed four to five kilos each twice a day in addition to being allowed to graze to their heart’s content in the 80 acre land belonging to the Rifle Corps Headquarters.

Samarakoon said calcium was vital to maintaining the bone strength, especially those of horses’ legs. Theirs is a curious diet of a calcium rich mixture, eggs, carrot and even banana. “Eggs are the most cost effective protein rich substance in Sri Lanka,” said Samarakoon. “And banana is a great laxative.” But, true to the idiom about the carrot and the stick, horses and donkeys, love carrot. Samarakoon said imported horses were fed on imported grain such as oats, bran and barley, supplemented by special imported vitamins.

“My horses are local and don’t need that. My objective is to breed truly local horses fed on a local diet.” About 70 percent of their diet consists of grass. Race horses require a specialised high protein diet. Samarakoon, who has reared Australian and Pakistani horses is of the view that even imported horses can be trained to consume local feed. “In fact, they come to like the variety of the local diet.” The diet introduced by Samarakoon costs only Rs 15,000 to 20,000, whereas maintaining them on imported feed would cost Rs 125,000 to 150,000 a month. The mash proved ideal for weight and height gain and blood tests proved that his diet plan was far better balanced than the imported variety.

 

Naturalised

The original objective of the breeding programme was to cross the Delft stock of ponies with horse or thoroughbred to produce a half-breed, a Sri Lankan horse, ideal in height, size and spirit. “You can turn a horse into a pony and a pony into a horse. In fact, the Delft ponies were once full-sized horses. But after their caretaker died, with nobody to care for them, they naturalised,” explained Samarakoon. He opined that instead of spending millions on importing stud sperm from abroad, horses could be cross-bred with Delft ponies to create a richer gene pool. “But not in the natural element of the ponies. They have evolved to the tough living conditions, drinking salt water and eating whatever little plant life is left during the dry season. A few could be taken out and introduced to the breeding programme.” Of course, if any government authority were to initiate such a programme, Samarakoon would be more than willing to give it a go.

With a lifespan 25 years, a horse is fit for riding for 20 years. “Speed is the benchmark of a pedigree and all the breeding in the world would do no good if they are not used in racing,” said Samarakoon. He pointed out that both Boossa and Colombo race courses had been closed down long back, and the only remaining horse racing venue, the Nuwara-Eliya racecourse, was in danger of closure. If there are no races, what will breeders like Samarakoon do? “This is a passion, not a business,” said Samarakoon. He is willing to take on a not so business-minded partner, who would take the reins, after he retires. He is ready to impart knowledge gathered over five decades on raising and breeding horses, to anyone interested in experimenting with horse breeding.



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Features

Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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Features

The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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Better use of vanity projects; Cass apologises, and New Year graciousness

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A wise one, with the interests of the country at heart, calling himself ‘A Member of the Silent Majority’, wrote in The Island of Friday, April 9, offering an excellent solution for the better and genuine use of the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport which was built at a stupendous cost to both the Treasury, and wildlife abundant in the area, to satisfy an ego and sycophants’ cries of Hail to the King. Even sans Covid and lockdowns and shut downs of airports, the Mattala Airport was a white elephant, endangering and displacing the black elephants, roaming along their familiar corridors; receiving such few airplanes. Thus, as the writer Cass mentions says, convert the airport to a super hotel with excellent and sure-fire access to wildlife watching, like referred to hotels in Kenya and elsewhere. Yes, it will definitely be a bigger money earner than an airport waiting for a plane to land. Expensive equipment going rusty could be transferred to smaller airports being developed all over the island. There was such a hue and cry when storerooms, within the deserted airport, were used for paddy storage, but not even a whimper of concerted protest when the vanity projects were being built. We also heard that on the rare occasions a plane was to land/take off, peacocks in the area were shot at to prevent them flying into the planes. Aney, what a sin, just to have a name on a nameboard! Use the Suriyawewa Cricket Stadium too for a better purpose and less costly to water and maintain green in near desert climate conditions. What about a residential training institute for youth, perhaps in small industries? If the king-sized ego demands the name be present, OK, leave it. What’s in a name?

Any matter, financial or economic, with benefit to country buttressing it – refer to Dr Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne. Likewise, anything pertaining to fauna, flora and preservation of natural habitats ask Devani Jayathilake. Cassandra would give two years of her life (she does not have 10 left, she suspects) to know what the answers of the three wise and sincere ones mentioned would be to the proposal to convert the Mattala Airport, oops sorry – Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport – to a 7 star hotel for wildlife watching and then tourists proceeding to Yala and other places that were touted to be reached easier if planes brimful of tourists, landed in Mattala. Pipe dream even sans Covid-19.

The thought of the millions, nay billions, our country was indebted to China to construct these vanity projects aka white elephants of the Rajapaksa fiefdom sends Cass’s blood racing in her contracting veins. And now another hair-brained scheme is being exposed, not new but re-exposed: that of the stupendous amount sent direct from the Central Bank with no nod, as reported, from the then Cabinet or Parliament, to an American-resident con-man to improve our appearance on the world stage or at least American stage. My word!! Cosmetics of creams and colours and such like can improve the face of an already beautiful woman. But a country that was once beautiful, glorified, accepted internationally and then politician-spoilt, cannot be redeemed by PR work, however expensively. Nivard Cabraal was the then Govenor of the CB. Of course, as every Banda, Singho and their women say, nothing will come of this. Powerful political sweeping under the carpet in the presence of cardboard administrators and sycophantic hosanna singers, makes the matter disappear and not merely hides it. Unless of course there are enough intrepid outers-of-truths and persistent protestors, brave and national minded enough to continuously tease the matter like a cat its caught rat. Ranjan is locked away in hard labour for four solid years, losing his Parliamentary seat for misusing the gift of his gab, while convicted murderers of the right colour attend Parliament, escorted and all.

Cass apologises

To the reigning Mrs World, Mrs Caroline Jurie, for crowning, uncrowning and recrowning of the winner of the recent Mrs Sri Lanka contest. Caroline Jurie took this stride because the winning contestant was four years on the way to being a divorcee, which status forbids a woman from attempting to wear the crown of Mrs…. (country) with a view to becoming Mrs World. This title and honour is bestowed on a woman who promotes, holds sacred the institution of marriage and is a married woman. Cass castigated Caroline Jurie without knowing then the fact that Jurie had protested about this candidate being considered due to her impending divorce; and allowed to contest. She said she withdrew from the panel of judges since her point was not taken by the others. WHY is the Q. Easy to answer. The new beauty queen of shaky married status was a loud speaker in favour of Presidential Candidate Gotabaya R in Polonnaruwa (captured on social media) and probably spoke on stages for SLPP Parliamentary candidates. So of course she was slated to win; vision impaired over rules and future probabilities, She has her height – one advantage. Beauty can always be dexterously rubbed and painted in. But honesty is important and cannot be cloned or grafted in.

Cass now definitely faults the new Mrs Sri Lanka. She should not have contested, having her papers sent in for divorce and not retracted. What happens when she wins the divorce (or her husband wins it, however the divorce was first mooted). Another local contest? And if the divorce was still pending and she went overseas at great expense and won THE crown or a lesser one. To be returned forthwith when she has to remove the present gold band from her third finger, which probably she has already removed but hastily wore for the contest and when preparing for it? This is why Cass avows that many young women particularly, are so very selfish and forward and uppity and even dishonest now. In Cass’ time and even a decade or two later, a girl would never do what this new beauty has done, flipped aside a core rule and necessity of the contest, just to win by honest means or foul. Way the country’s going, my friend.

Post – Aluth Avurudhu

Cassandra is stuffed gill-high with kavun, aluwa and crunchy kokis, preceded by kiributh and lunumiris. She is fending for herself because a dip in Covid numbers and having had the jab, her domestic wished to enjoy a family new year having missed the last one, locked down as we were. Cass made her own kiributh – tasting somewhat like it should, but the sweets were all gifted her. So, also the offers of help, sleep-ins at others’ homes and solicitous frequent inquiries of ‘how are you?’ Kind and gracious relatives and friends, acquaintances too are thanked; and the most appreciated being neighbouring kitchen helps and care givers. Three-wheeler drivers who spin Cass around on errands too make enquiries. And thus her thoughts when resuming work at the nekath time and word processing this article. Sri Lankans are such good people: kind, caring, willing to share and genuine. And then specters themselves on this very sunny landscape: the dishonest, selfish, revengeful and disgraceful. Shrug them off, clear the mental picture and pronounce thank goodness for goodness around.

May all of us (decent people) have a very good year to follow today –Subha Aluth Avuruddhak!

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