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SRI LANKA AT CROSS-ROADS AND THE NEW DEVELOPMENT PARADIGM

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by Dr. Dayanath Jayasuriya

President’s Counsel

Compared with most other erstwhile British colonies, independence was granted to Ceylon virtually on a silver platter. This statement is not meant to undermine the efforts of our own freedom fighters who without bloodshed managed to convince the colonial ruler that the country was gradually getting ready for independence. The Donoughmore system of government was a precursor to the decision for self-rule. When the first independence constitution was drafted, with the able assistance of Sir Ivor Jennings, there were simmering issues that the draftsmen took into consideration. Rights of minorities and stateless persons, religion, language of instruction, parity of status and land rights were among the many issues which multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual issues that typically encounter when power is to be transferred from a colonial ruler to a self-elected body of representatives. The British approach varied from country to country; in India, for instance, the issue of the division of India and East and West Pakistan was left to be resolved after independence was granted.

In 1972, the first constitution was replaced with the country becoming a Republic and changing the name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. Prior to the enactment of the Constitution, which followed an ad hoc method of working through a Constituent Assembly, the right of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was abolished. Her Majesty the Queen ceased to appoint her representative as Governor. During the period 1971 to 1977 the country witnessed many issues; an insurrection by a large number of youth was quelled within a short-time by then then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and the rise in global petroleum prices had a severe impact on the country. Import restrictions, ceiling on ownership of houses and land, nationalization of foreign industries etc. took place but with mixed results.

In 1977 a new Constitution was enacted. The Executive President, J. R. Jayewardene, led the initiative to liberalize the economy. With free trade and various expensive developmental projects, corruption began to erode the system slowly but surely. Even though the early signs of Sri Lanka becoming a transit centre for international drug smuggling, arms smuggling, illegal gambling, casino and sex establishments became evident but these were largely ignored by law enforcement agencies. This Constitution still remains in place, notwithstanding a record of 19 amendments. The 19th amendment was meant to curb the powers of the Executive President and to empower the Prime Minister. But on two occasions a President and a Prime Minister belonging to two different political parties led to disastrous results.

At the Presidential elections of 2019 and at the general elections of 2020, a major issue was the amendment or repeal of the 19th amendment and/or the adoption of a new constitution. The Government has opted to amend the 19th amendment through a 20th amendment as the first step.

The case for a strong Executive President is based on the assumption that the country can make rapid development under such a regime. In several speeches broadcast over the media the current President has requested that he be provided with the freedom to accomplish his developmental agenda without undue hindrance. Over the 72 years since independence the country has made only marginal gains in relation to many widely accepted socio-economic and related indicators. In the early 60s, the Sri Lankan model of development was studied by countries like Singapore and Malaysia but today Sri Lanka lags behind these and most other developing countries. Gains in the health and education spheres have had a major set back, caused partly by the 30-year long separatist war which exacted a heavy toll. Issues of internationally orchestrated calls for accountability for war crimes, justice for displaced minority groups, the rise in Islamic militancy as was evident by the brutal attack on churches and hotels in April 2019, the large numbers unemployed or underemployed due to COVID-19 are among a few of the major issues that loom large.

It is in this background that the Government is poised to push ahead with a new constitutional amendment. Only time will tell whether this was timely or not, as the country has had a major setback due to COVID-19 and the closure of the airports and the economy is barely recovering. The economy also took a major beating a few years ago when an expatriate Singaporean friend of the then Prime Minister possibly caused what is now regarded as the biggest Central Bank robbery.

This article looks at the enabling environment required for selected priority national development to gain speed under the enhanced powers of an executive President.

a) People-centred Development

The exact size of the wealthy class cannot be estimated. Operations against drug traffickers with large quantities of drugs, arms and currency notes and multiple bank accounts raise credibility issues with regard to our banking system and customs controls. The Financial Intelligence Unit has remained silent as to how banks would have done a genuinely serious job with regard to due diligence and ‘Know your Customer’ requirements; otherwise one cannot explain the large deposits in accounts of people who cannot possibly provide any legitimate sources of income. Political patronage and corrupt officials within the law enforcement agencies would have provided their blessings for crimes of such great magnitude to take place. Over the decades the poor classes have become poorer and a new class (nouveau riche) has emerged vying with the traditionally rich upper class. Large numbers have gone to the Middle-East for employment and have been remitting part of their relatively modest salary but this alone has not been sufficient to raise their standard of living.

Unlike India, Sri Lanka lacked a permanent National Planning Council. Several governments did set up small national planning cells but without any real impact. A national poverty alleviation plan requires precise information of unmet needs at the micro-level of villages and in the fringes of urban centres. Media coverage often shows how the impoverished classes live. Basic facilities such as safe drinking water are lacking in many parts of the country. Empirical evidence suggests that well nourished children live healthier lives and perform better at examinations but large numbers find it difficult to have even a square meal.

We have recently seen the current President visiting selected villages and ascertaining problems and immediately suggesting to officers a solution. This is reminiscent of late President Premadasa’s taking the “Kachcheri to the villages and towns” concept where a one-stop improvised centre promptly attended to unmet needs, particularly documentation such as national identity cards, birth certificates etc. This is what should be done by Provincial Councils and other local authorities and respective ministers. It is to be hoped that the example that is now being set will trickle down to ministers, state ministers and heads of departments. For each village or cluster of villages there should be a mapping exercise done of unmet needs and the resources required for timely action. Bottle-necks should be identified and brought to the notice of the relevant authorities who should not hesitate to give directions for prompt action. Accountability mechanisms are grossly lacking or even if they do exist they are largely ineffective. ‘Passing the buck’ is a skill many public servants have effectively mastered.

The State alone cannot uplift the status or influence the life-styles of millions living in under-served villages and towns. The private sector should be assigned the responsibility of assisting selected villages for developmental activities as part of the CSR agenda or otherwise. This might result in a new paradigm shift in poverty alleviation through public sector-private sector joint endeavors. We have witnessed foundation stones being laid for so many important projects such as new hospitals and medical centres, schools etc. but follow-up action is often lacking due to bureaucratic indifference or lack of funds.

Bureaucratic indifference or sabotage is not a problem confined only to small developing nations. It is significant that a few weeks ago the Presidents of the US National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine issued a strongly worded message condemning ad hoc policy-making in relation to US health policy:

“As advisers to the nation on all matters of science, medicine, and public health, we are compelled to underscore the value of science-based decision-making at all levels of government. Our nation is at a critical time in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic with important decisions ahead of us, especially concerning the efficacy and safety of vaccines. Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately miscommunicated. We find ongoing reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming. It undermines the credibility of public health agencies and the public’s confidence in them when we need it most. Ending the pandemic will require decision-making that is not only based on science but also sufficiently transparent to ensure public trust in, and adherence to, sound public-health instructions. Any efforts to discredit the best science and scientists threaten the health and welfare of us all.”

An Executive President should be able to periodically monitor what happens in the field by getting regular feedback from responsible ministers, state ministers, departmental heads and so on and play the role of a trouble-shooter when necessary without fear or favour.

b) Good Governance, Law and Order

When the first post-independent constitution was being drafted Sir Ivor Jennings was against the idea of providing for the justiciability of human rights stating that this would hinder administration and will become a gold-mine for lawyers. The 1977 Constitution empowered citizens to invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court if their fundamental rights are violated. Though an important development per se, it comes at a cost

Reluctance by some heads of department to institute disciplinary action is impeded by several reasons, two such reasons being the possibility of the action being challenged in a court of law or due to the interference by a Minister or other powerful politician. The tradition of appointing commissions or committees to look into each and every major problem issue is a costly and often meaningless exercise. After a period of time public and media attention is diverted to new public issues.

There needs to be a robust system of accountability at every level for any issue that is subjected to investigation. On certain important national matters, the Cabinet itself or the Minister in charge of the relevant ministry, department or agency, as the case may be, must be accountable for ensuring that due process is followed and consult the Executive President where his or her guidance is required.

In matters of international relations, the country has to delicately balance competing vested interests and demands and speak with one voice. The country has to be sensitive to international commitments offered in the past. Rating agencies have given a low rating which is a red flag to possible foreign investors.

Recent media reports on the smuggling of drugs, liquor, arms, cigarettes and other contraband suggest the degree to which law and order had deteriorated within many law enforcement agencies and how certain officials have facilitated or participated in these illegal activities. The April 2019 bomb blasts could have been possibly avoided if relevant officials had done what they ought to have done with regard to such a serious matter and the officials monitoring national security had acted more sensibly in a timely fashion.

A major task ahead of an Executive President is to take stock of institutional strengths and weaknesses, identity bottlenecks and improve governance systems leaving little or no room for deviations from accepted procedures. It is when those at the top are indifferent or lack moral courage to take on problems as and when they arise, that the rot begins to percolate down the entire system and a sense of complacency arises. A proper system of checks and balances will ensure better productivity, efficiency and a better outcome. Nepotism, bribery or corruption and undue interference will gradually phase-out when a better and just governance system is in place.

Lord Acton once remarked that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Sri Lanka now has a chance to prove that even with almost absolute power there can be great and good men. As I conclude this article I hear someone playing one of Elvis Presley’s classics: “It’s now or never,… tomorrow will be too late.”

[The author is the former Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka. He has previously served as UNDP Regional Adviser on HIV and Development and Community Development Adviser for Asia and the Pacific and as Head, UNAIDS Secretariat and Senior Policy Adviser to the Government of Pakistan. He could be contacted at (ichpl@hotmail.com)]

 

Dr Dayanath Jayasuriya

Tel. 0777 384047



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Provincialising universities: Risks and dangerous precedent of NEPF

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by Nalaka Samaraweera

The new National Education Policy Framework (NEPF), currently being implemented by the government, has begun to be noticed by the public. However, there is a noticeable absence of an in-depth discussion on the implications of the policies it proposes. So far critics have quite convincingly pointed out the neoliberal motives behind the proposals and the threat that it poses to the longstanding tradition of free education in Sri Lanka. These criticisms hold merit, as the compilers of the framework have failed to present any moral stance, such as a commitment to social justice and equity, within the document.

An equally critical yet less emphasised aspect is the devolution agenda of the policy framers, who have aggressively pursued the decentralisation of educational powers beyond the provisions of the current Constitution. It is evident that their efforts are deliberate and explicit; they have unequivocally embraced the ‘Principle of Subsidiarity,’ challenging the unitary status of Sri Lanka. This principle was first introduced in Sri Lankan constitutional history during the attempted drafting of a new Constitution by the ‘Yahapalana‘ government in 2016 receiving severe criticism for undermining the country’s unitary status.

Strangely, the NEPF framers have adopted the same principle despite the nation’s continuing adherence to the unitary status. It appears that the NEPF framers disregard the necessity for policies to align with the Constitution, as evident from the multiple recommendations that violate the provisions of the 13th Amendment. For instance, the NEPF recommends stripping the government of the right to establish universities, conferring that authority exclusively upon provincial administrations.

Additionally, it suggests categorising existing universities as “provincial universities.” This recommendation contradicts the Constitution, which defines the establishment of universities as a concurrent task shared by both the central and provincial governments. Moreover, it has been recommended that the Provincial Boards of Education, entrusted with the advisory function by the Constitution, be granted autonomy by the NEPF.

It is further recommended to replace the University Grant Commission (UGC), the apex body of higher education, with a new entity called the National Higher Education Commission, whose role is to be limited to maintaining academic standards adhering to the national policies. As a result, the Provincial Boards of Education take on the roles of establishing, coordinating, and maintaining universities, thereby challenging the existing centralised authority over these responsibilities.

The framers are doubtlessly intent on fully devolving higher education in the country to a degree that surpasses even India’s model, where the Union Government shares the powers with states to establish, coordinate and maintain universities. What’s actually concerning is their daring attempt to decentralise higher education not by directly amending the Constitution, but by manipulating education policy decisions, which is both unconstitutional and unethical.

What could be the consequences of this attempt with regard to universities? So far, universities have featured in national political mandates with promises to increase the number of institutions and student enrollment, driven by a sense of national interest beyond regional and ethnic considerations. However, if universities are transformed into “Provincial Universities” and become focal points in provincial election campaigns, these campaigns may emphasise regional sentiments. When local politicians view universities primarily as tools to serve their regional constituencies, they are likely to undermine the national significance of these vital institutions. This shift challenges the current equitable approach, which strives to serve the national interest without regard to regional or ethnic differences.

The NEPF aims to replace the UGC and transfer the responsibility of funding universities to respective provinces, posing a significant threat to university autonomy. If provincial bodies gain authority to fund universities while heavily relying on government funding, we can expect increased corruption and deficiencies. Local politicians are likely to prioritise regional sentiments. Additionally, there is no assurance that all universities will receive equitable treatment, as their affiliations with different provinces may lead to disparities.

It was not long ago that there was a media report of a politician sending a letter to the top authority of a university, advocating for the recruitment of a specific individual as a lecturer. If this is happening even when universities are buffered by the UGC from direct political interference, the situation could worsen if they fall under the oversight of the proposed autonomous Provincial Educational Board. There is no doubt that this board would be influenced by provincial political dynamics. Imagine a scenario where the Provincial Chief Minister appoints the Vice Chancellor of the “Provincial University.” In this scenario, provincial politicians might view universities as potential employment hubs for their constituents.

It is no secret that there is an infamous demand for the further division of existing provinces along ethnic lines in this country. In this context, if ethnicity-focused groups see universities as instruments for promoting ethnic and religious interests rather than fostering a cohesive national identity, the country will lose its ability to create a unified national ethos. It is inevitable that universities will become victims of regional and ethnic political maneuvering.

Why are the framers of the NEPF persisting in this unconstitutional endeavour? Why haven’t they opted to pursue amendments to the Constitution for their intended devolution through proper channels? Perhaps, they are leveraging this for future constitutional amendments when the political climate is favourable to such endeavours. The public is strongly urged to remain vigilant regarding potential future constitutional changes, as the irreversible damage they may cause has been well documented.

It is important to note that Sri Lanka, unlike India, does not accept provincial autonomy in principle due to its unitary status. If there is a need to delegate certain powers, be it legislative, administrative, or financial, it must be approved by Parliament. In this context, I would like to pose a fundamental question: What is the rationale behind provincialising universities? Put differently, do specific provincial needs and conditions warrant such a recommendation in the Sri Lankan context? Is there any need for distinct higher educational programmes to cater to unique requirements in provinces? If it is posed more concretely, do provinces have unique industrial and manufacturing activities that demand tailored engineering and managerial degree programmes specific to the province for example? To the best of our knowledge, no one has been able to demonstrate such distinct requirements. Authorities need to remember that the rationale behind devolving power should stem from logical arguments rather than merely pleasing certain groups for future political gains.

Let the people be urged to unite in opposing the NEPF, which will set a dangerous precedent by surpassing the provisions outlined in the Sri Lankan Constitution. Failure to do so would lead to a precedent of devolving power through policy manipulations, without amending the Constitution.

(The writer is a Senior Lecturer, University of Moratuwa. Views expressed in this article are personal.)

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AI, climate control,and Buddhism

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By Rohana R. Wasala

Addressing a gathering as chief guest at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Society Moratuwa held at the Moratuwa Buddhist Society Hall on May 11, 2024, President Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged Rs. 1 billion for research to ‘explore the connection between Buddha’s teachings and AI’ starting next year as The Island (Online) reported 13 May, 2024. He revealed that though the project was scheduled to start this year, it had to be deferred for lack of legal provisions for the regulation of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The programme will go ahead once new laws are adopted by parliament, he assured. The President also said that the government would provide the funds required for the restoration of the Moratuwa Buddhist Society Hall ahead of its own first centenary in 2029 (The construction of the building was completed in 1929).

The president’s determination to exploit AI for the global promotion of Theravada Buddhism was first mooted in a statement he made as guest of honour at the inaugural function held at the Edward Stadium in Matale, a day ahead of the 73rd National Upasampada Maha Vinaya Karma of the Ramanna Nikaya, which was to be conducted at a venue in Bandarapola, Matale from July 20 to 27, 2023. Video. Before commenting on this ludicrous subject of a costly programme of research on a hypothetical relationship between Buddhism and AI, an obvious case of comparing apples and oranges, let me turn to what else the president said at Moratuwa.

President Wickremasinghe laid similar emphasis on the global issue/s of climate change involving atmospheric warming and worsening water scarcity, both currently experienced in Sri Lanka. He thought that these challenges are to be met in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha. His arbitrary assertion in this connection is that, in terms of the Buddha’s teachings, ‘this issue’ (of climate change) ‘stems from civilisation’s greed for rapid progress’. The president would have been more convincing in making this claim (if he actually did so, as reported) had he mentioned the particular discourse or context where the Buddha allegedly talked about climate change. Since the president didn’t do so, his audience probably took him at face value. I, for one, don’t think that Buddhism offers any answers to climate change issues. The Buddha never claimed omniscience regarding the physical world, world-systems, or universes (cakkavala/chakravata in Pali and Sanskrit respectively, and sakvala in Sinha), which he said is achintya, meaning surpassing human thought, inconceivable, an idea modern physicists accept).

The subject of ‘loka’ or the world (there’s a special definition of the word ‘loka’ in Buddhism) is beyond thought (Sin. loka vishaya achintyayi). Gautama Buddha was the world’s first exponent of what is today known as the scientific method, which is important in any field where identifying and solving problems are involved, including climate control. He used it for discovering the Four Noble Truths about human existence: the reality of the unsatisfactoriness of samsaric journeying, its causes, the possibility of stopping that aimless wandering, and the way to achieve the cessation of the endless cycle of repeated reincarnations that is full of ‘dukkha’ or suffering. This goal has to be reached through wisdom while practicing universal love and compassion (lovingkindness) over all sentient beings.

 ‘Buddhism integrates our spiritual understanding with our experience of the natural world’ a Western scholar speaking about Albert Einstein’s view of Buddhism says (Source: ‘Dream Sparks’ YouTube channel). Albert Einstein is celebrated as the 20th century’s greatest scientist. Einstein stated that the Buddha had found what he was searching for. The following is a popular quote from Einstein: ‘If there were any religion capable of aligning with the demands of discoveries of modern science it would indeed be Buddhism’. So, there is no need to make false claims involving AI or climate control on behalf of Buddhism to extol it in order to raise its image in the world.

Incidentally, The Island (Online) report (May 13) which is my source here doesn’t say whether, in his speech, the President made any grateful mention of Arthur V. Dias (1886-1960) under whose leadership the Moratuwa Buddhist Society was established.  The Moratuwa Buddhist Society Hall was built under his sponsorship, too. Most probably, being a sort of history buff, the President did talk about Arthur V. Dias, though the newspaper report makes no mention of it. If he didn’t, by any chance, (which is unlikely), it would be a regrettable lapse on his part.  This patriotic Sri Lankan used to be one of the national heroes annually honoured in our school days from the early 1950s to mid1960s. He is still fondly remembered by at least a few grateful Sri Lankans, as kos mama, who was a successful planter, philanthropist, temperance movement member, and freedom activist. If he were living today, he would definitely have said and done something to tackle these problems.

To resume the subject of a hypothetical relevance of Buddhist teachings to climate control, the issue of harmful effects of uncontrolled human activities on climate was most unlikely to have been encountered in India in the time of the Buddha two thousand five hundred years ago, nor anywhere else in the rest of the world for that matter. Nowadays, however, it is a huge problem that impacts life on the Earth generally, and that seriously impairs the quality of human life and humanity’s physical and mental wellbeing. It could be even worse than that unless remedied. Renowned British broadcaster, TV presenter, film-maker, biologist, natural historian and popular author David Attenborough (b. 1926) mentions changing climate among the factors that make him conclude that “we are finally fast approaching the Earth’s carrying capacity for humanity” (A Life on Our Planet/2020), that is, its ability to support human life in terms of a healthy environment, good climate, clean water, food, fuel for factory engines and transport vehicles, electricity  power for lighting homes and cities and running industries, and so on.

The President was reported to have blamed climate change on what he called humanity’s ‘greed for progress’. Probably he had in mind the same sort of problems that David Attenborough suggests ways to deal with in the book mentioned. But material progress is a good thing that should be desired. Only unconscionable greed for material wealth in a poor country like Sri Lanka where the majority of the people live in poverty is bad.

The survival of traditional institutions such as religions depends on their perceived relevance to the day to day life of a community. The president is aware of this fact. That must be why he appears to be taking a special interest in serving the cause of Buddhism by researching a possible relationship between AI and Buddhism, and also by trying to establish a source of intellectual support in Buddhism in the matter of climate control.

However, instead of turning to Buddhism for solving this mundane problem, we could listen to Bill Gates, former CEO of software giant Microsoft and its principal co-founder, technologist, businessman, investor, and philanthropist, who spent a decade investigating the causes and effects of climate change with the help of experts in diverse fields including physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, political science, and so on. He found three broad areas that should receive vital attention if certain climate disaster is to be avoided. These he lists on page 8 of his book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ (2021): To paraphrase, these include 1) bringing the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases that the industrial world typically releases to the atmosphere every year down to zero, 2) deploying the tools that we already have like solar and wind power faster and smarter, and 3) creating and rolling out breakthrough technologies. The whole book is a carefully integrated elaboration of these basic themes in twelve chapters, that discuss problems connected with, for instance, use of fossil fuels, generation and consumption of electricity, agronomy (soil management and crop production), safe use of fertilisers, management of water resources, etc., and the crucial issue of the importance of conducive government policies. I mention these things to show that we need to consult local counterparts of specialists from diverse fields whose expertise that Bill Gates drew upon. Sri Lanka already has a lot of qualified young scientists to play that role without having to depend on Buddhism in lazy complacency, except perhaps as a source of moral inspiration.

 Incidentally, Bill Gates claimed in his website ‘GatesNotes’ in 2018 that he and his wife Melinda took to meditation as a way to ‘exercise’ their minds, following, as evident in the context, the guidance of former Buddhist monk Andy, who seems to combine both the Burmese (Theravada) and the Tibetan (Vajrayana, a form of Mahayana) traditions. But this doesn’t mean that Gates adopted Buddhism as a religion.

He was originally reluctant to practice meditation because of the connection he thought it had with the concept of reincarnation, which, obviously, he didn’t accept. Nevertheless, Buddhist teachings can after all be said to have been indirectly relevant to the Gateses’ climate control activism. When Gates says he took to meditation to ‘exercise’ his mind, he most likely means the same as what we normally mean when we say that we meditate at least as a minimal goal, to gain control over our thought process in order to ‘calm’ our minds, gradually achieving a state of mental tranquility, peace and balance, that enables us to use our mental and physical energies for best effect in our intellectual and physical exertions. I added this information to suggest that the moral ethical teachings of Buddhism help Buddhists and others who choose to follow them to focus their mental as well as physical energies on the performance of the required tasks to achieve any desired goal. (To be continued)

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The way of the jackal

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By Ifham Nizam

Sri Lanka’s jackal is the only subspecies of the Eurasian Golden Jackal across its range. Historically, it was even considered a species endemic to Sri Lanka.Being the solitary wild dog inhabiting the island, it ranks as the third-largest carnivore in the area, surpassed only by the majestic Leopard and the leisurely Sloth Bear. Despite these remarkable attributes, this creature remains largely unnoticed.

Its grace eludes photographers, its beauty escapes artists’ canvases, tourists seldom seek glimpses of it, and scientists have overlooked its study. Instead, the tale of our Nariya fades into folklore—a misunderstood being, relegated to the shadows of indifference.

 Presented in clear language across 152 pages and adorned with over 100 captivating colour photographs, “The Way of the Jackal” offers a thorough exploration of this species, catering to wildlife enthusiasts, biologists, and students alike. Delving into the Jackal’s physical traits, behaviours, social dynamics, and vocalizations, this comprehensive work also equips readers with field-tested techniques for studying the species, strategies for mitigating conflicts, and insights into its potential as a key attraction in wildlife tourism.

 By shining a spotlight on the Nariya of rural lore, this book aims to ignite interest, spur research efforts, foster conservation initiatives, and tap into the untapped economic opportunities presented by Sri Lanka’s wild dog population.

 Authors:

Uthpalawarna Jayaweera is a Science graduate majoring in Zoology at the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences, University of Colombo. She is a keen researcher who studies carnivore ecology and evolution.

 Prof. Sampath Seneviratne is a professor attached to the University of Colombo. He also is a research scientist, a forester, a conservationist, and a public communicator. Sampath spends time in forests across the globe, mostly away from popular places. He loves birding, tracking wildlife and planting.

 Chandika Jayaratne is a graduate from the University of Staffordshire in the UK. He pursued a career within the field of hospitality and environmental stewardship. He also has a research background where he studies the ecology of Rusty-spotted Cat and Jackal.

The Island interviewed the three authors regarding their most recent research on Sri Lankan jackals.

 Briefly, whose brainchild and how did it kick start?

 In Africa, the jackal species found in the northern regions, once considered an African subspecies of the golden jackal, was reclassified as a distinct species of wolf in 2015, following a molecular phylogenetic study conducted by a team of scientists. This discovery served as the catalyst for initiating a project focused on the Sri Lankan jackal.

 Our jackal holds a unique position as the sole wild canine species in Sri Lanka and stands as the only island subspecies within the range of the Golden Jackal. The confusion related to its taxonomic status, lack of proper scientific studies on its ecology, and neglect of its potential as a high-value species in Sri Lankan tourism have prompted the need for comprehensive research on this amazing species

 Recognizing the Sri Lankan jackal as a promising research model and a valuable asset in Sri Lankan tourism, the project commenced with an investigation into various aspects of the species’ ecology. This included studies on diet, vocalization, taxonomy, geographical distribution, the nature of human-jackal interactions, and the current status of the population. After three years of dedicated work, the culmination of our efforts resulted in the publication of a comprehensive book on the subject.

 What are the main species of jackals discussed in the book, and what are their distinguishing characteristics? I understand the species differ from the species stated by W W A Phillips.

 There are mainly three species of jackals in the world; Black-backed Jackal, Side-striped Jackal, and Golden Jackal.

 The Black-backed jackal (Lupulella mesomelas) is a medium-sized canid native to eastern and southern Africa. The characteristic features of this animal is the dark saddle that extends from the base of the tail to the neck. In addition, they have a long, pointed snout and an overall rufous brown body colour.

 The Side-striped Jackal (Lupulella adustus) is a canid native to central and southern Africa. There are two distinguishing characteristics that aid in identifying this animal: a prominent white tip on the tail, and white or off-white sides stripes on the sides

 The Golden Jackal (Canis aureus) has the widest range of all jackals. It has a mixture of black, brown, and white hairs in its back fur, giving the impression of a dark saddle, though not as prominent as in black-backed jackals. They range from Europe to the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka. So the jackal species that lives in Sri Lanka is the golden jackal and there are 13 subspecies of golden jackals in the world. It is widely believed that the same subspecies is found in the southern parts of India and in Sri Lanka, named Canis aureus nariya.

 However, when reviewing the Sri Lankan jackal’s taxonomic history, using published scientific literature and specimens in major museums, such as the Natural History Museum of Colombo, the Museum of the Bombay Natural History Society, and the Natural History Museum of London, we found that:

According to some authors, our jackal is considered a subspecies native to both southern India and Sri Lanka, named Canis aureus nariya. Others see it as a subspecies endemic to Sri Lanka, named Canis aureus Lanka. Also, our jackal has even been considered a unique species, endemic to Sri Lanka, by Wroughton (1916), and Phillips (1935), named Canis Lanka.

 As you can see, there is clear confusion regarding its taxonomic status. However, all these classifications have been made, based solely on morphometrics. Therefore, we stress the importance of molecular phylogenetic studies to clarify this taxonomic ambiguity.

 How do jackals interact with their environment, and what roles do they play in their ecosystems?

 Jackals are considered essential ecosystem service providers due to their pivotal role in pest control within agro-ecosystems. Their diet primarily consists of significant pests, such as rodents, wild boars, peacocks, and granivorous birds like munias. By preying on these pests, jackals help maintain the balance in agricultural environments and reduce crop damage.

 In addition to pest control, jackals also serve as nature’s cleaners and health care providers. They scavenge on carcasses and hunt diseased and weak animals, thereby preventing the spread of diseases within the wild and beyond. This scavenging behaviour helps maintain the overall health of the ecosystems they inhabit by removing potential sources of disease. In a country like Sri Lanka, where vultures are absent, the role of jackals, as scavengers, is particularly crucial.

What are some unique adaptations that jackals possess for survival in their habitats?

 Jackals are highly adaptable creatures, known for their generalist and opportunistic feeding behaviours. As omnivores, they consume a diverse range of food, including small mammals, birds, reptiles, fruits, carcasses (such as ungulates), insects, and even human food. This high degree of dietary versatility allows them to switch food sources when a particular prey becomes scarce.

 Jackals are also capable of thriving in a wide array of habitats, including grasslands, wetlands, forests, valleys, seashores, and areas near human settlements. Their adaptability extends to extreme environmental conditions as well. In Europe, for example, they can inhabit elevations ranging from 1,200 to 2,350 meters and can withstand temperatures as low as -35°C. This remarkable flexibility in both diet and habitat allows jackals to occupy diverse ecological niches and play a crucial role in various ecosystems.

 How do jackals communicate with each other, and what social structures do they exhibit?

 Like all other canids, jackals exhibit three primary modes of communication: vocal, olfactory, and visual. Jackals use their urine and feces to leave scent marks, which serve as messages to others, especially for marking territory.

 Regarding their social structure, the basic social unit of jackals is the breeding pair. It is widely believed that in Golden jackals, the breeding pair mates for life.

What is the hunting behaviour of jackals like, and how do they procure their food?

 Our questionnaire survey on the jackal diet showed several interesting behaviours. Jackals are known to visit paddy fields in search of prey, like crabs and rodents. They are also notorious for raiding chicken coops, especially those located near the borders of villages. In certain areas, villagers have observed that jackals howl when they find food. In other regions, it is believed that their howls help to flush out prey, such as Black-naped Hares, from their hiding spots.

 Additionally, scavenging is a common behaviour among jackals. Their food may consist of cattle, deer, wild boar, and even elephants that have been killed by predators like leopards, struck by vehicles, or have died from disease or natural causes.

In what ways do jackals interact with human communities, both positively and negatively?

 Jackals may be drawn to areas where food is readily available, such as garbage dumps, livestock holdings (including chickens, rabbits, and goats), and paddy fields. Additionally, rabid jackals might enter human settlements due to their increased aggressiveness, fearlessness, and other behavioural changes caused by the disease.

 Are there any myths, folklore, or cultural representations of jackals discussed in the book?

Jackals are deeply embedded in folklore, cultural representations, and myths, possibly being the animal most frequently mentioned in our culture, including art, literature, and folklore.

 In our folklore and literature, such as “Magul Kema” and stage plays. like “Nari Beana,” the jackal is predominantly depicted as an opportunistic trickster. Art from the Kandyan period often features the jackal in religious contexts, such as in the “Sasa Jathakaya,” which depicts the earlier lives of Gautama Buddha in animal form.

 Several famous myths are associated with the jackal. One prominent belief among rural folk is that occasionally a jackal can develop a horn, known as a ‘Jackal Horn,’ ‘Nari-comboo,’ or ‘Nari-anga,’ which is thought to possess magical powers.

 What scientific research methods are used to study jackals, and what have these studies revealed about their biology and behaviour?

 There are various methods to assess different aspects of jackal ecology. For example, camera traps, thermal imaging cameras, and radio tagging are commonly used to study their behaviour and interactions with other carnivore species.

 In our study, we conducted the first-ever dietary analysis of jackals using their scat and stomach contents of road-killed jackals. We found that their diet mainly comprises four types of food: small mammals, birds, invertebrates, and plant-based foods. The presence of a wide variety of items, including rodents, like the black rat (Rattus rattus), grassland birds such as the Tricoloured Munia (Lonchura malacca), invertebrates like beetles and maggots, and plant materials such as jackfruit, bananas, grasses, seasonal berries, and even human food (e.g., cooked rice, scraped coconut, and onion), indicates that our jackal is an opportunistic omnivore rather than a specialist predator.

 Even near visitor bungalows, deep inside wildlife parks, surrounded by pristine wilderness, we found jackal scat containing human food remains, such as rice and onion peels. This suggests that jackals prefer easily obtainable food over expending energy on hunting. Therefore, they might frequently visit human habitations in search of such food.

 Additionally, we characterized jackal vocalizations for the first time using the playback acoustic method. Through this, we identified different syllables that form five distinct vocal types: the bark, whine, whimper, short-lone howl, and group yip howl. Our findings indicate that the group yip howl is the main vocalization and major group vocal display, primarily associated with reunion and territorial defence.

 How do jackals adapt to changing environmental conditions, such as climate change or human-induced alterations to their habitats?

 Due to their higher dietary flexibility, jackals can switch to alternative food sources if one type becomes scarce because of climatic changes or human-induced alterations. They generally prefer shrub jungles with higher visibility, as these habitats provide abundant and easily accessible small mammals, like rodents. This preference allows jackals to thrive even in small, isolated patches of jungle, as well as in monocrop plantations, such as coconut, oil palm, rubber, and paddy fields.

 However, despite their adaptability, jackals still require certain minimum habitat conditions to survive. If these conditions are not met, they may eventually disappear due to the loss of feeding and breeding grounds to support their survival.

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