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The lure and the lore of our jungles

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by Jayantha Jayewardene

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, and even before that as Serendib and Taprobane, has different types of jungle that are of great interest to naturalists. The island has montane cloud forests, wet and dry zone forests – some of which are secondary forests – and savannahs. The coastal areas have a variety of mangroves. The extent of forest-land in the country has of late reduced to a large extent, mainly due to the demands for land from a rapidly increasing population. With three climatic zones in the island, the jungles have different types of vegetation.

Many early writers, who described these jungles or wilds, gave us an idea of what the country was like then compared with what we see today. My father, having been in government service, saw duty in many far-off places. By the time I was 12-years old we had lived in turn in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Maho, Vavuniya, Kurunegala, Puttalam and Bandarawela. This service began just after the Second World War and most of these areas were still quite wild. Our recreation was to visit these wild areas, sometimes on an evening drive or a longer trip over a weekend. Open patches in the forests, abandoned tanks and beds of streams and rivers were the favourite spots that we would visit.

My father’s escapade

One of the first jungle stories I heard was about my father. Soon after the war, in the late 1940s, he was stationed at Anuradhapura. A group of his friends, who had come from Colombo, had wanted to go on a hunting trip. My father, like me, was a reluctant hunter. He was a very keen wildlife enthusiast, and not bent on shooting an animal for sport. However, on this occasion he did not want to disappoint his friends, and therefore he went along with them.

In the form of shooting they undertook, the animals that were to be shot at were flushed out of a patch of jungle or thicket by beaters, who were employed to make a loud noise. Each member of the group was given a strategic position where the prey was likely to break cover when chased by the beaters. My father, who had with him a 12 bore shot-gun loaded with an SG cartridge, was given one such spot.

After a while, since he was not too interested in the proceedings, he lost concentration and began to look around and think of other things.

At one point he heard what he thought was a distant sound of a gun being fired. For a moment he wondered where the shot had come from. Soon one of his friends, hearing the shot, came running up to him to see what animal had been bagged. It was only then that my father realized that the gun in his hand, with the end of the barrel resting on his foot, had gone off. My father had felt no pain but found that he had shot off his second toe, which was literally hanging by its skin. The hospital at Anuradhapura dressed the wound and my father lived the rest of his life with only four toes on his right foot.

Animals at home

From the time I was very small, I was acquainted with animals at my home, which at different times was in various parts of the country. My first recollection is of a female sambhur looking through the kitchen window daily at breakfast time. This was in Polonnaruwa, where we had a house near the bund of Parakrama Samudra. She was brought to my father as a small baby and lived with us for many years.

I also have a vague recollection of a pangolin (Manic crassicaudata) being brought to my father. However, it did not last long. In captivity the diet, which consisted of ants sucked with the tongue, could not be provided easily to sustain the animal.

One night when we were at Anuradhapura, the domestic aide had heard a noise in the room where I was sleeping. She switched on the light, when she discovered a very large cobra in the corner of the room. My father had a gun but did not have a cartridge to shoot the snake. He had to send a message to a neighbour, Dr. P.C. Wickremasinghe, for a cartridge. The cobra, which waited all this time, was ultimately shot. It was an exceptionally large snake.

Giant squirrels were always favourite pets of my father. He has had as pets all three subspecies (the highland, western and common) at various times. He also had a Malabar giant squirrel brought from South India by his friend, Bunny Jonklaas.

My father has had all species of wild cats, except the leopard, at home. He bred a pair of fishing cats when he was in Kandy. However, a pair of jungle cats, that he again had in Kandy, did not breed. He brought them up from the time they were small babies. He had one female of the third species, the rusty spotted cat, which I obtained when I was on an estate in Kandapola. This is the most beautiful of Sri Lanka’s cats.

He also had a pair of jackals in his back garden in the heart of Ja-ela where he lived. He was able to breed them. In Puttalam he also had an outdoor aviary of birds, consisting of purple herons, egrets, water hens, blue coot, gargeny, whistling teal and a little grebe, which initially was kept in an aquarium. These birds necessitated a visit to the fish market each morning. Fortunately, Puttalam is on the coast, and fish was cheap and easily available.

When my father was in Kandy, he had a number of birds, some of which bred. These, except for a pair each of peafowl and jungle fowl, were exotic birds, which he imported from Singapore. In those days, it was very easy to import birds into the country.

I still travel to many of these areas and wherever I go, be it Mundel, Mullativu, Mankerni, Magama or Middeniya, I have seen many changes over the years. Some of these places do not even exist now. I have come across many legends and superstitions that have had their origins in these wild places.

Camping

I found that camping in the dry zone forests was much more interesting than in the wet and cold wilds of the hill country. In the dry zone, apart from the tolerable weather, there were more animals to observe and, for some of my friends, to shoot. The dry zone villagers were very hospitable people and that part of the country was full of legend and lore. On the other hand, there were fewer villages in the wet zone with comparatively less interesting animal species and an unpleasant climate for camping.

During all our trips -to the wilds we did not necessarily camp out. We stayed in rest-houses, schools and in any convenient building that was available.

Traditions

One of the earliest writers on Ceylon, Knox (1681) strangely makes little reference to the jungles though he was captured in Trincomalee and brought to Kandy, where he was kept prisoner for ‘19 years, six months and 14 days’. Even though he was a prisoner, he had a great deal of freedom to move about within the kingdom.

Robert Knox mentions that the Sinhalese in the Kandyan kingdom used to ‘take great notice in a Morning at their going out, who first appears in their sight: and if they see a White Man, or a big-bellied Woman, they hold it fortunate: and to see any decrepit or deformed People, as unfortunate’. There were many who on hearing the sound made by a gecko at the start of a journey, will stop and wait for a little while or not undertake the journey at all.

A past practice for those who were to undertake a journey through the jungles or embark on a hunting expedition was to invoke the blessings of the spirits of the jungle. This was generally done by merely breaking a small twig and suspending it on a low branch of another tree. Another method was to suspend the broken branch or branches on a string or rope strung across two trees at a point where the traveler or hunter would enter and leave the jungle.

When I first started my trips to the jungles many years ago as a schoolboy, I noticed that our guides from the adjacent villages followed this tradition. However, in the course of time, these practices have been abandoned. In more recent times I found that some who accompanied us still carried out this practice but were secretive about it.

Purana villages

In earlier times many of the villages were in the middle of thick jungle and the inhabitants used to live in harmony with the jungles around them and its denizens. These were called purana (old) villages. Most of the inhabitants of these villages had extended families. They lived in mud huts, which were generally crude and simple in their construction. The roofs were thatched and the walls were built of wattle and daub.

There was a large open space between the jungle and the edge of the village, which was always kept cleared of trees. It was called tis bamba (thirty chains) and denoted the area which was a communal preserve. This cleared space also helped to act as a deterrent to many animals entering the village from the jungle.

The inhabitants of most of these purana villages were constantly fighting for survival. They had to depend on the rains for their cultivation. They also had to be on constant guard against a demanding jungle and its denizens, some of which were dangerous. Apart from the elephants, the villagers had to be constantly vigilant against animals such as the leopard, bear, cobra, viper, tarantula and hornet.

The villagers cleared patches of the forest and cultivated grain, such as rice, kurakkan or millet, corn, chillies and vegetables. However, it was a constant battle to tend these cultivations to fruition. They were dependent on the rains and if these failed, so did their crops. This meant that they would have nothing to eat till the next season except what they had stored after the last harvest. They also had to watch over their crops every night to prevent the depredations of animals. Elephant, deer, wild boar and hare were a constant threat, attempting to get in and eat what was growing in these chenas.

Many villagers watch over their crops at night, some alone and others with a group of farmers who too have crops to protect. This tedium takes a heavy toll of the farmer who has other chores to attend to during the day.

In some instances, for the protection of their crops, farmers set up trap guns. These guns are also set to kill deer and wild boar, either for the pot or for sale. These muzzle loading guns are set at the level of the animal targeted, generally a deer or pig and are pointed in the direction of the animal approaching along a well-used path. A string or wire is tethered to the trigger and brought in front of the gun. The gun is set to fire when the approaching animal presses on it, and thereby discharges its load, which consists of ball bearings, metal chips, old nails and the like. It kills the targeted animal, but others such as elephant and man, who are taller may get maimed.

Loris

One of the pastimes we indulged in at night when camping, especially in the dry zone, was to look for the loris. It is a nocturnal animal, which is sluggish by day but very active at night. It looks towards the bright torch and is easily detected when its large, circular eyes gleam in the light. The coastal belt of the Eastern Province is a stretch where we have come across many lorises. I also used to encounter a number of them when I was working in the Mahaweli areas in the North Central Province. Many of them, found during the jungle clearing operations of this project, were brought to me. I used to feed them on insects till I was able to despatch them to the zoo. One unfortunate loris was given a scorpion as food. It ate this with relish but was found dead the next day.

The loris has no tail but uses all its four long and thin limbs with equal ease and dexterity to move among the trees in search of its prey which consists of insects, lizards and sometimes even small birds. It moves very quietly up to its prey and in a swift movement seizes the victim by grabbing it with its hand. It then brings the prey close to its chest and eats it. There is a belief that the loris moves so slowly and quietly through the trees that if by chance a bit of bark gets loose it will carry it all the way to the bottom of the tree, leave it there and come back to resume the stalking of its prey. This manoeuvre would prevent disturbance and possible escape of the prey. There is also a belief that the loris would creep up to a sleeping peacock and snap off its head and devour the brain.

Many Sinhalese villagers used to believe that tears from the large saucer-like eyes of the Loris, when used in a concoction, would give one second sight. Some also believed it helped their sex drive. In order to obtain tears the captured loris is cruelly suspended by its legs over a fire till the smoke makes it tear. The loris is kept like this till sufficient tears have been collected.

Pangolin

Many of the jungle dwellers, especially Veddhas, do not refer to any animal in the jungle by name but by description. Therefore the elephant is the ‘Big one’, and the bear is the ‘Black one’ or the ‘One who throws up dust’. The latter description relates to a bear tearing away at an ant-hill in order to get at the termites therein. In the same way, pangolin is called the ‘One who rolls himself up’.

The pangolin or anteater is, like the loris, an entirely nocturnal animal. It is brown in colour but the young are pale white. One was brought to me when I was on an estate in Passara by some labourers who had killed the mother the previous night. I was advised to give it low fat milk by the local veterinary surgeon. Unfortunately it died two days later.

When the young have developed to a certain degree, they move about by clinging onto the backs of the mother. Pangolins have large scales on their body and powerful curved claws. They excavate anthills for ants and termites, which they lick up with their long, sticky tongues. They walk in a waddle but at the slightest sign of danger, curl up with the head inside the coil.

The oil extracted from the pangolin was used in early times as a medicinal potion. There is a story of a medicine man who thought he had killed a pangolin for its medicinal value. He had slung the animal round his neck and started on his journey back home. On the way the pangolin, which had not died, had revived and curled itself round the man’s neck, thereby strangling him. Later in the day the dead man and the wounded pangolin were found.

(To be continued)

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



Features

Glimmers of hope?

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The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis

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By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.

FERTILISER ISSUE

1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.

Recommendations

1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Features

Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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