Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Wildlife Watching Ethics

There are many people nowadays who are into wildlife and photographing wildlife. It is good to see more and more people coming to appreciate the beauty of mother nature. When I was a kid only myself and a handful were really interested about this. I would encourage everyone to observe, travel and appreciate what mother nature has given us in Sri Lanka. We are blessed with things which most other countries will envy. And yet we tend to take these for granted.

What I like to enlighten and highlight to you all today are the ethics of Wildlife watching. There always needs to be a code of conduct on how you approach and view wildlife and nature.

Below are a list of things which I would like to share with you

  • The animal is more important that the photograph- this is the cardinal rule in wildlife photography. Doing things to disturb or manipulate the animals behavior for the sake of a photograph goes against all basic principles of wildlife photography. I have come across cases where some disturb an animal to capture the perfect shot. Eg- Throwing a stone at a leopard for it to turn around and look at the camera, disturbing a flock of birds to get a flight shot, lifting overhanging branches and leaves in a forest to get a clear view of a roosting owl. These all are things which should not be done as a principle. If you miss the shot, too bad, that is the way of nature and sometimes its even better to just put the camera down and enjoy the sighting with ones own eyes.

  • Do not disturb bird nests- The main reason for this is because most birds would abandon nests if it is disturbed. This will obviously end up with the chick dying. If you do see a nest observe it at a distance and only with minimal disturbance. Do not use flash to enhance the light as this will disturb the animals and possible damage the eyes as well. Best is to set up a hide in a good distance to observe the adult birds when perched nearby rather than the nest itself.

  • Minimise the use of flash on nocturnal animals- The use of flash is sometimes used to light up a dark area. But this needs to be done with care especially with nocturnal animals like the Loris and Owls as this can damage their eyes and disturb them.

  • Do not use bird calls to lure animals- This is common practice among guides in Sinharaja etc and is not a recommended thing because most calls are mating calls which when played repeatedly can affect the breeding patterns of these birds.

  • Observe park rules- It is important to observe park rules when inside a national park. Below are the park rules issued by the Wildlife Department.























































  • Do not feed the animals- This is obviously something anyone with common sense would know. The dangers to the animal can be severe illness or death of not being able to digest its unnatural food. the dangers to humans is the animal becoming a nuisance to the public. This is the case with Gemunu the tusker who is a menace now in Yala. Videos of him are widely available on youtube.
Please take this in a positive light and try to carry out ones activities with these ethics in mind. Also encourage your friends and others to follow the same.

Wild Tuskers of Sri Lanka


My love and passion for the wild tuskers of our land runs deep within my veins. Seeing a tusker in the wild is a sight to behold, when he steps out of the forest canopy and into the sunlight, he strides along the plains like a colossus showing absolute confidence and dominance over all before him. The female elephants rumble and trumpet in excitement and the other males move away in fear. The tusker truly is the king of the Sri Lankan wilderness. 
 

 

Tuskers constitute only a very small proportion of the entire elephant population, and are scattered across the dry zones of our country. To encounter one in the wild is extremely rare, and when I do find one, the spiritual and emotional connection I have when making eye contact with him is beyond words. I sometimes feel they are trying to tell me something, perhaps they know that their days in this land are outnumbered and that their future is uncertain.
 

It may come as a surprise to many that the majority of tuskers and elephants are found outside the protected national parks and sanctuaries. These giants are scattered across small pockets of forests which are surrounded by an ocean of human settlements. When I venture into certain areas in search of them, I am in shock that such large animals could live in such a small space just next to a busy, bustling town. This is the harsh reality these elephants have to face.
 

Over the decades the habitats of these animals has shrunk whilst thousands of human settlements have sprung up around them. This isolation has resulted in loss of lives from both sides of the fence. Due to sheer desperation the villagers in the conflict areas have resorted to drastic means of retaliation such as the use of the dreaded “Hakka Pattas” which is a small homemade explosive which is hidden among vegetables, waiting to explode in the mouth of an unknowing animal. The death from such a device is astoundingly agonizing and it takes days to finally succumb to the horrific injuries. In turn villagers may lose their fathers, mothers and children overnight when they are caught unawares by a marauding pachyderm. I personally feel this is a war in which we cannot blame any side, as both are placed in a situation of utter desperation and hopelessness.

 

When I think about the plight of the wild tuskers, I sense a very heavy feeling in my heart, because I know their future is unsure. Do tuskers and elephants still have a place in a fast developing Sri Lanka? Will he have a future where the only remaining tuskers are those poor creatures who spend their lives in chains, and occasionally parade themselves in lit up costumes to appease a nation’s view on culture? These are questions to which I do not hold the answer.

 

The fate of the tuskers and all other wildlife lies in the hands of every Sri Lankan, not only the poor villagers or those that are in power, it is within every one of us.  The deciding decade is upon us and the choice is ours to make.
 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tribute to a Montane Wilderness

The highlands of Sri Lanka hold a special mystery. The cold sweeping cloud forests envelop an ancient land which is a stark contrast to the dry zone scrub jungles of the lowlands. Long ago the entire hills of the region were covered in jungle, where vast arrays of wildlife including elephant and bear roamed.  The British colonials cleared most of this land for plantations and killed off all the elephants and bear for sport.
The remnants of these forests are limited to areas such as Horton Plains National Park and the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. These are small islets surrounded by a sea of human habitation. Some of the species found in these forests are endemic to this area alone.
 Black Bul Bul
Eurasian Blackbird
After many years I paid homage to Horton Plains during the a weekend in 2013. Driving slowly along the misty road we stopped at the famous pool which is by the road side to try our luck in finding the legendary Arrenga or Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, but to no avail. We did see many other species like the endemic Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Greater Flame back woodpecker, Sri Lanka white eye, Scimitar Babbler, Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl. The car park at the former Far Inn Hotel I was treated to a very close encounter with the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler. This rare and endemic bird had a nest close by and I spent hours photographing its behavior.

 Tob and Bottom-Sri Lanka Bush Warbler



One of the most iconic animals of the plains is the Sambhur which is the largest deer species found in Sri Lanka. These majestic elk are found throughout the park, and some have sadly been accustomed to eating garbage, thanks to the scores of irresponsible visitors.

The only predator of these giant deer is the leopard. These elusive felines are seen once in a while, especially between the ticketing office and the Farr Inn entrance.  We missed a sighting by around 20 minutes as we stopped on our way out to photograph some sambhur.  A vehicle passing us had come across a large male crossing the road close to the ticketing office.

 

One of the less charismatic, but very rare and endemic species found here is a type of shrimp named Caridina singhalensis which is now restricted to only 10km of a stream in the park.

The traditional tourist trail is from the park entrance to Worlds End which is a sheer precipice with a 870m drop which is in the southern boundary of the park. Another attraction on the way is Bakers Falls which is a waterfall formed by Belihul Oya. Besides these well-known trails an interesting hike is to climb Kirigalpotta, the second highest peak in Sri Lanka which is 2,388m above sea level. The trail to Thotupola Kanda, the third highest peak is another interesting trail. Legend has it that king Ravana of old landed his flying machine the “Dandu Monara” on this peak hence the name “Thotupola” which means landing point. This is a very short but interesting trail close to the ticketing office. Most of the leopard sightings have been reported from this area, and walking along the misty trail we came across the endemic rhino-horned lizard.

 Dull Blue Flycatcher

 
 
A truly unique and mystical land, Horton Plains National Park is like no other, and its unique and fragile habitats simply take your breath away. May this last remnant of the cloud forests of our country be preserved and remain as a natural wonder for generations to come.

The Sri Lanka Spurfowl- A Rare Encounter with an endemic forest dweller‏

Having a particular interest in endemic birds which are found only in Sri Lanka, I was particularly interested in photographing the elusive and rare Sri Lanka Spur Fowl. This shy bird has hardly been photographed  and when I heard of a sighting I was determined to find them. A member of the pheasant family this bird is endemic to the rainforests of Sri Lanka. A very secretive and shy bird it is known for its loud call but rarely seen as it slips through the dense undergrowth. The call is loud and consist of three syllabled whistles.

 was advised to reach the location before daylight and set up a hide. Remaining still and patient is key in order to catch a glimpse of this rare bird. Reaching the spot at around 5.30 am I set up behind some branches and bushes which I draped with a khaki bed sheet under which I set up my tripod and lens. The morning calls of the various birds is just astounding. From the loud orange  billed babblers and black bul buls in their mixed feeding flocks to the cacophonic calls of the Sri Lanka jungle fowl who first appeared in the open to feed on the worms and grubs.

After about an hour the bird arrived on cue, it was the male bird which had white streaks running across his body and a red patch on his face. Unfortunately the light was still too low in the dense forest for my lens to focus and hence I missed the photo opportunity. After walking around and pecking at the ground the bird disappeared back into the dark forest giving a very loud echoing call.  Determined not to give up, I stood fast and remained in the spot, and my patience paid off when the female appeared and shortly afterwards the male came out.


Despite the low light, the sun was high enough to capture some good images. Later I was told of a chick being sighted few times with the adult couple. Such a young bird as far as I know has never been photographed before, and this knowledge made me want to come back again to the location few weeks later.




Back in the same spot again two weeks from the first sighting, I set up again in my usual spot before dawn. The morning dew makes the surroundings moist and leeches are found everywhere. Hungry for blood these critters managed to make be bleed from the onset, but I remained determined in order to capture my quarry in film. As expected the birds arrived with the young chick in tow, but their stay was short lived as an aggressive Jungle fowl chased them away. Remaining patient throughout the day, I caught short glimpses of this shy and elusive family several times, enough to get some good photographs. The chick was a young male and was showing signs of plumage akin to his father.
 
I felt honored to have been witness to this rare sight and I hope that they remain undisturbed by the many visitors who frequent this pristine forest.
 
 
 
May the call of the spur fowl echo across the vales, streams and canopies of our rainforests for years to come.
 

The Waiting Game

Seeing a leopard in the wild is a rare occurrence, and getting a really good quality sighting is even rarer. Getting the best sighting involves some work from your part as well. Patience being the main virtue, one need to be adapt in the waiting game. The chances of getting lucky are 50/50, but when you do get sightings it is rewarding indeed. 
 
Through my travels in the wilds of Sri Lanka, I realized that staying put and waiting for the perfect sighting is much more rewarding that merely running from one place to another hoping to find a sighting. The ideal places to lie in wait are at a water hole where, especially during the dry season it is most probable that a leopard will come to quench its thirst. Another thing I like about lying in wait at a waterhole is the many other sighting you get of all the denizens of the jungle. Some of the sightings range from large herds of spotted deer that warily approach the water and bolt at the slightest noise to the horde of wild boar, buffalo and countless birds. Waiting to welcome them is the mugger or marsh crocodile ready to drag an unlucky soul into the muddy depths.
 
After what seems like a lifetime, suddenly you catch a glimpse of the apex predator of the forest approaching. Sometimes silently and without warning, but at other times the arrival is pre announced by the shrill alarm calls of the spotted deer and the coughing like sound of the grey langurs. My observation is that these cats are very picky with the spot they choose to drink from and may walk about the water hole at times looking for the best location. Sometimes snarling at the water if a mugger is found, finally settling down at a spot the leopard will drink its fill. Finally quenched of its thirst, if one is really lucky the cat will relax on the sand on the edge of the water. Rolling and playfully frolicking about or lazily sitting in one place and yawning occasionally this is a photographers feast, with the loud machine gun like clicking heard from many a patient soul like myself.
 


 
 
At times climbing a tree close by the leopard will do what cats do best which is to fall asleep in the quiet afternoon.  Sometimes the location being almost impossible to photograph, only the patient few will be rewarded once the cat wakes from its slumber.  Often stretching itself and yawning profusely the sightings are amazing if one is willing to wait hours for the lazy feline to wake up.
 
 
 
 
After a while which always seems to short, the leopard will slink back into the forest from whence it came with the same stealth and mysterious aura it brings with it, and we are left almost out of breath with a memorable sighting.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Gost of the Forest- The Sloth Bear

The sloth bear, is an often misunderstood animal. Despite being sighted in both Yala and Wilpattu National Parks in the recent times very little study has been carried out its behavior. The jungle folk would recall the bear as one of the most dangerous animals to encounter while on foot. Many Veddas and villagers near the jungles have horrific scars from their confrontation with this animal. Having very poor eye sight, the bears natural reaction is to attack when startled. Rising on two feet the 6 inch long claws inflict terrible damage on a person’s face, with many people left maimed and disfigured.
 
My personal odyssey with this elusive animal has been quite vivid and interesting. The early encounters I had were when I was very young, while on camping trips to Yala National Park. Some encounters which I remember were very brief sightings of bears running across the road, and in once case of a mother and cub resting on a rock. I did not have good cameras back then and it was virtually impossible to capture these encounters using the small point and shoot cameras which I had. I recall a sighting in 2004 of around three bears feeding on palu trees completely oblivious to the throng of vehicles. Another close sighting was after my A Levels again in Yala of a very old and sickly bear who seemed to have seen better days.
 
I have had two close shaves with bears while of foot. One was in Wasgamuwa National Park, when I was camping out in Medhapitiya which was adjoining a small stream which ran along deep forest. Having borrowed an old manual SLR camera from one of my friends, I intended to walk along this stream photographing the birds I could find. After a good half hour I realized I have ventured very far out into the forest and away from the campsite. I began to feel that I was watched by someone or something. The feeling gave me the shivers, and I heard a hooting noise from the forest. This noise was very similar to a human giving a hoot, and I was confused as to what or who made that sound. Thinking it was my friends I gave a hoot back, with no reply except some loud grunts and the rustling of leaves and branches from deep inside the forest. My saving grace came in the form of my friends who had followed me on my path. Hearing their voices in a few minutes I doubled back and headed towards the relative safety of my friends company. Back at camp, I related my story to our tracker who said that bears make very human like noises and the hoot was one of them. He related that this is the reason to hoot twice like a “Hoo Hooo” to signal to other people while in the jungle rather than a single hoot.
 
The other encounter was in Lunugamvehera National Park. We were on a school camping trip there, and I was an old boy who joined the trip to help our school master to manage the young boys. We were taken on a hike to climb a large rock. This was a tall rock which was covered in dense forest and we were accompanied by an armed ranger. Halfway up the climb I had some difficulty due to a leg injury, and decided to rest while the others continued towards the summit. While waiting for the others to return, I began to hear noises of a large animal coming from the forest. Suddenly I heard loud grunts and despite the injury managed to climb some rocks and peer down to where I was sitting. From the jungle appeared a lone bear and only then did I realize that I was actually sitting outside its cave. I was terrified, but managed to muster some nerve to make some loud noises to chase the bear away.
 
In the later years I began to take photography more seriously and managed to invest in some good equipment. Despite my new arsenal, my bear sightings were running dry. I was doing weekly trips to Yala and Wilpattu for two years and yet I couldn’t get a decent image. Most of the shots I got were either hazy and blurry or were during low light and hence were underexposed.
 
Finally my dry spell came to an end in 2013, when I came across three bears in Wilpattu National Park. One of them was during good morning light. The bear was sighted at Maradanmaduwa, and we followed him all the way to Thambi Oluwa where the fellow was walking along the road searching for termite mounds.
 
During the rains of December the bears come out during the afternoon and I had a very good sighting in Ibbanwala in Wilpattu last year. We drove past Ibbanwala once without a sighting and due to the insistence of another driver we turned back towards the so called location. When we approached Ibbanwala again, there he was a big male digging on a termite mound. He may have been sleeping when we passed this place the first time. The bear was busy digging, but hearing our vehicle approach it lifted its head and walked towards us. After satisfying its curiosity, it went back to digging the ground.  The photographs taken by my new lens truly showcased the behavior of this shy and elusive animal.
 

 
 
The latest encounter was few weeks back during a long weekend; I had made a bungalow booking inside the park. While driving into the park early morning we came across a young bear digging for termites by the roadside. Curiosity got the better of him and I got some good shots of the fellow looking up at us. During late evening while heading back to the bungalow we entered the open glade of Panikkawila and stumbled upon a bear who had come out to drink. Being very shy, the bear ran back into the forest. I noticed the bears around the villu areas are more reclusive and shy compared to the ones found on the main wilpattu road around Maradanmaduwa.
 
 
 
In recent times It seems that Wilpattu is the place to go to find bears as the Yala sightings seemed to have lessened in the recent past. The reason behind this occurrence is unknown and is worth some investigation.
 

 
These mysterious animals will continue to capture my imagination and I hope to have many more close encounters with the sloth bear in the years to come. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Gladiators

The good old land monitor (Varanus bengalensis) or “thalagoya” is an animal treated with much indifference. Most suburban households in Sri Lanka have these critters walking about their garden or sunbathing on their roofs. I find these resilient lizards very interesting as not only do they do us a service by eating the rats and snakes in our area, but are also harmless unless provoked and generally adapt well to urban environments.

The Bengal monitor has been said to reach nearly 175 cm with a snout-to-vent length (SVL) of 75 cm and a tail of 100 cm. Males are generally larger than females. Heavy individuals may weigh nearly 7.2 kg and obese captives even more and the males grow to greater weight. Young monitor lizards are more colourful than adults. Young have a series of dark crossbars on the neck, throat and back. 

A memorable encounter with the “thalagoya” was at Yala when I was on safari with my mother and two of her best friends from the USA. We were driving around the park during February of 2011 when we came across a sight which I will never forget.

Two land monitors were locked in combat; they were wrestling and fighting with each other using their sharp teeth and claws in a deadly embrace. The movements of their combat would look very similar to a Greco Roman Wrestler, where they lock each other in a clinch position and attempt to use balance and strength to out maneuver the opponent. The difference in this case was that both animals were armed with viscous teeth and razor sharp claws which dug into each other. The two were bleeding profusely and it seemed that both would die from this clash. I was in awe at the sight of these two gladiators who fought tooth and nail in a combat of life and death. The fight went on for over 20 minutes till an approaching jeep prompted the pair to let go of their embrace and go their separate ways.




I am still mesmerized by what I witnessed and will admire the courage and heart of those two warriors.