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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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Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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