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Wanderings in the forests and estuaries of the North and East – Part 1

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by Junglewallah

The northern forests around Mankulam, situated some 200 miles from Colombo on the main Jaffna road, consist of tall trees and the undergrowth. These forests are densely populated by the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), perhaps more so than any other area in Sri Lanka. A vigil by a water-hole during the dry months of July and August will show an average of five to 10 bears coming to drink at it before dusk – on occasions, even more.

Bears

The reason why bears are so numerous in this area is worth investigating. The prime reasons, I feel, are the presence of dense forest cover and an abundant supply of food favoured by bears.

I owe much of my experience and knowledge of this part of the country to the guidance of a famous Northern Province outdoorsman and shikari named S. C. Rasaratnam (known as Master throughout the Northern Province). He had been a much-respected schoolmaster from Hartley College, Point Pedro, who had retired from teaching and settled down in a little farm that he owned at Karupaddaimurippu on the Mankulam-Mullaitivu Road. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a tiny hamlet situated about eight miles from Mankulam and was in the heart of the bear country.

Master was a person who was reluctant to talk about himself and his achievements. According to what I was able to extract painstakingly from him in evening discussions at his camp, he and his good friend, Brigadier C. P. Jayawardena, who was then an Assistant Conservator in the Forest Department, had been requested by Mr. D. S. Senanayake, sometime before Independence, to drive off the herds of elephants that were devastating the cultivated lands of the colonists in the newly opened out settlements in Minneriya and Hingurakgoda. Apparently the colonists were chiefly from Mr. Senanayake’s electorate, Mirigama, including his ancestral Botale, and there had been numerous instances where the elephants had destroyed their huts and killed the colonists.

The settlers were threatening to pull out and return home unless something was done to drive off the elephants. According to Master, Brigadier Jayawardena and he took on the commission of driving off the elephants; but except for saying that they were successful in keeping the colonists back, he was very reticent on how many animals had to be destroyed in order to drive off the predatory herds. It was during these early days, when Master as a youth was engaged in the assignment given to him by the Government, that he had acquired his knowledge and love for the wilds.

According to what Master stated, bears are extremely fond of the fruit of Polyalthia korinti (uluvinthai T; miwenna, ul kenda S). I have observed that it is found in profusion in the Mankulam area, more than in any other forests in Sri Lanka. Huber (1985) describes it as a treelet that is widely distributed, but specifies Mankulam as one of the type localities. In the Mankulam area the uluvinthai is found growing in thickets stretching over large areas of the forest. It is a tallish bush with fairly slender and fragile trunk and branches. The bushes afford thick cover for the bears, but the trunks or stems are not strong enough to support the weight of a man. There is little chance, therefore, of a threatened hunter or villager escaping an enraged bear by climbing one of these bushes.

The uluvinthai bush yields an abundant supply of sweet reddish berries in December and January. The ready supply of this berry, together with a fair profusion of palu (Manilkara hexandra,) which yields a sweet yellow berry in the drier months of the year, as well as the presence of out -cropping rocks containing caves. scattered throughout the forest and providing shelter to the animals, makes this area a virtual paradise for bears. Additionally, there are tracts of the forest where clayey soil is found, where termites build their nests in the form of hills. These termites afford yet another source of favoured food for bears.

The sloth bear has a fearsome reputation in our forests. It is an animal with poor eyesight and only slightly better hearing, but possessed of an excellent sense of smell. In the forests where it is found, if an unwary jungle villager is unfortunate enough to approach a bear down-wind (that is, where the wind is blowing from the bear towards the villager), the animal will not be able to get the scent of the man. Nor will it hear his footsteps, for the little sound the footfalls make will be drowned by the wind. The first thing that a bear with its poor eyesight sees is an intruding villager almost upon it. This-normally happens when the bear is grubbing for termites behind a tree or an ant -hill. In these circumstances, the animal thinks it is about to be attacked. Believing that offence is the best form of defence at close range, the bear launches an attack on the intruding villager with a view to protecting itself. With its fearsome claws and strong teeth it inflicts terrible wounds on the villager. Those who are fortunate enough not to succumb to their wounds are left fearfully maimed and scarred for life.

Victims of bear attacks are not uncommon in the remote forested parts of the Island, particularly in the Mankulam area. I have come across two such maimed persons in this area, one of whom had been reduced to being a cripple as a result of the bones of his legs having been reduced to almost splinters by the bear’s teeth. Until 1963 bears were regarded as vermin and could be shot throughout the year. In the Mankulam area they were profuse enough to be a threat to jungle villagers, who had to go into the forest to cut grass and firewood. The villagers in this area were, therefore, strongly supportive of the shooting of bears. The methods of getting to grips with bears with any degree of certainty were twofold.

First, during the dry season in July and August each year, when the kachan wind blows consistently as a dry land wind blowing towards the north-east, and parching the Wanni forests and drying all the water-holes, the customary mode of lying in wait for bear was over water- holes. The Mankulam area was almost devoid of rock water-holes (or kemas), which are normally found towards the coastal forests. Where the bear came to drink in Mankulam was in deep burrows in the dry sandy riverbeds, which it had dug itself, after scenting the underground water springs with its acute sense of smell. These deep holes went sometimes as much as eight feet into the river beds, and were called puval by the villagers in the area. They contained a small puddle of clear water at the bottom which dried up with the drought as time went on, requiring the animals to dig even deeper. It is of interest that the only animals in the forest, besides the bear, that actually dig for water are the elephants. I have observed them digging for water using their feet and trunk in the dry bed of the Akkarayan Aru, off Murukandy in the Mankulam area.

The customary method adopted by the Wanni villager of sitting up for bear and other game was on the bank of a dry river bed, with a barricade built upon four sides with enough dry branches and driftwood to conceal the hunter and his guide. The kachan wind during the drought blew consistently from the. south-west to the north-east. It is, in fact, the south-west monsoon which has shed its rain over the central hill country, and which blows as a dry-land wind over the north-east of the Island. On several occasions I have sat on the ground in complete safety. The hide is usually built with game paths approaching from the front and sides, and the hunter faces the wind blowing into his face. Any animals getting the human scent from behind, invariably flee from the hated scent, while those that come along the game paths in front and from the sides, unable to get the human scent, proceed unawares to the water to drink.

Whilst on the subject of the extraordinary powers of scent that bears have, I may relate an interesting experience I had in the company of Master. We had gone out to inspect a remote water-hole in the morning, where a hide had already been built a few days earlier. The drought was fierce, with the blistering kachan wind being able to dry even a sodden bath towel hanging out in the shade in a couple of hours. Whilst there had been a small puddle of water when the hide was built, the burrow was now bone dry at the bottom, and since it was the only water-hole for miles around, I was disappointed that I would not encounter any bears that evening. Master however, gave a smile, and told me that I need not worry. He knew of a trick that would attract bears that evening.

After an early lunch, we set off in a Land Rover with Master, the tracker and another villager. When we left, I noticed two large brass vessels of water in the back of the vehicle, which Master had got filled from his own well. On inquiring what this was for, Master told me the purpose. On sitting down at the hide about 4 pm he asked the tracker to empty the two containers of water into the bottom of the dry water-hole dug by the bears. He said that he had done this successfully before, and although the water would be immediately sucked into the bone dry sand, its scent being borne on the kachan wind and carried into the forest would be strong enough to bring the bears to what they thought would be a source of drinking water. Indeed, he proved correct, as before sunset, several bears came to the water- hole.

In retrospect, however verminous they might have been considered, shooting bears over water-holes when they come to drink, crazed with thirst, cannot be justified in any way on ethical grounds. In mitigation, I could only say that bears were so numerous in the area around Karupaddaimurippu that they were a positive threat to the jungle villager. In fact, the son of the headman of the neighbouring village called Manavalapattaimurippu was the victim of a bear attack and reduced to being a cripple. The destruction of bears was therefore something that the villagers pleaded for, and unless they were shot by hunters they were quite safe from the villagers as their skins had no commercial value whatsoever, unlike the skins of leopards.

In my experience a 12 bore shot-gun loaded with SG cartridge was not adequate to bring down a bear with certainty, and this was the weapon the normal jungle villager had at best. The villager therefore avoided having any encounter with a bear unless he was compelled to shoot in absolute self-defence, and even then the animal was seldom killed outright with a shot- gun charge. My experience is that a centre-fire rifle of .30/06 or larger calibre, using soft-nosed bullets is the safest weapon to use on bear.

The second mode of shooting bears in the Mankulam jungles, was not quite as certain as water-hole shooting, but certainly more exciting and risky. It consisted of tracking them in the uluvinthai thickets in December, which was the berry season. There were large tracts of forest around Karupaddaimurippu where these bushes grew in profusion. In fact, some sections were almost exclusively overgrown with these bushes, which in that area were about 10 feet high at the most, but the trunk and branches were quite slim and could not support the weight of a man and certainly not that of a bear. The bears’ technique of getting at the berries was to reach up and tear down a branch and then gulp them down. At the same time, these berries were favoured by the villagers as they were edible and sweet. It is in search of these berries and jungle bees honey that the villagers would come into conflict with bear and be attacked.



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President picks up the gauntlet

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by Jehan Perera

By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.

President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.

But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.

13TH AMENDMENT

Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.

At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”

The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.

IRONIC PERSECUTION

It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.

On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.

An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.

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Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka

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Student union leader Wasantha Mudalige with prison guards

by Anushka Kahandagamage

Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.

School children as “drug addicts”

A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”

Bhikku students as “alcoholics”

The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.

The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.

University students as “terrorists”

The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.

The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.

Privatization of Education

The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.

The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.

Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

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Janaka…Keeping the Elvis scene alive

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Janaka Palapathwala: Recreating the Presley era…through song.......

For the past three years, local performers have certainly felt the heat, where work is concerned, beginning with the Easter Sunday tragedy, followed by Covid-19 restrictions, and then the political situation

Right now, there seems to be a glimmer of light, at the end of the tunnel, and musicians are hoping that, finally, the scene would brighten up for the entertainment industry.

Janaka Palapathwala, whose singing style, and repertoire, is reminiscent of the late Elvis Presley, says he was so sad and disappointed that he could not reach out to his fans, around the world, because of the situation that cropped up in the country.

However, he did the next best thing possible – a Virtual Concert, early last year, and had this to say about it:

“The concert was witnessed by so many people around the world, in 12 different countries, and I take this opportunity to thank all those who showed a great interest, around the world, to make the show a mighty success. Lasantha Fernando of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the USA, went out of the way to pull a huge crowd, in the States, to make the concert a massive success. Lasantha, by the way, has done many shows, in Minnesota, including a concert of mine, four years ago.”

Toward the end of 2022, the showbiz scene started to look good, with musicians having work coming their way – shows, sing-alongs, events, overseas tours, recordings, etc.

Janaka added that the Gold FM ’70s show was back after six years, and that the music industry is grateful to Gold FM for supporting musicians with such an awesome event.

“Also, the unity and the togetherness of the Sri Lankan western musicians, scattered around the globe, were brought together, once again, by the guidance of Melantha Perera.

“The song ‘Baby Jesus Is Fast Asleep’, written, composed and directed by Melantha, was a true Christmas gift to people around the world.”

Referring to his career, Janaka said that these days he is involved in a mega video production project.

“I intend to do a road show for a total Dinner Dance Promotion package, titled ‘Janaka with Melantha and the Sign’.

“Phase One of the project is already completed, and we are now heading for the second phase, where we plan to get Sohan Weerasinghe, Clifford Richards and Stephanie Siriwardane involved in the cast”.

Janaka also spoke excitedly about his forthcoming trip to the USA.

“I’m so excited to tour the USA, after three years. The ‘Spring Tour USA 2023′ is going to be different.

“I’ve done formal concerts, in the States, but this Spring Tour will be a series of Dinner Dances where I would be seen in action, along with the top ranked DJ of Washington D.C., Shawn Groove, and some of the best domestic bands in the States, and I can assure all my friends, and fans, in the US, that this new venture is going to be doubly exciting.”

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