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Sunday, October 9, 2011

14. Coming back Home

In June 2003, with thoughts typical of someone returning home after an absence of eighteen long years, I walked in again through the gates of the Park Headquarters at Okanda.

I had very little hopes about the future of Yala East as a wildlife reserve when I first wrote and published the Sinhala version of this book in the year 2000. But things changed unexpectedly as they usually do. The department managed to re-establish the park headquarters at Okanda in the year 2002, taking advantage of the temporary calm and quiet that dawned with the peace accord signed that year. By then, except for one collapsing three roomed staff quarters all the buildings of Okanda office complex were completely demolished by vandals. Only the dilapidated walls of Okanda and Tummulla wildlife bungalows that in the halcyon days of the old gave moments of peace, tranquillity and appreciation of nature to many were remaining. Hardly any road in the park was negotiable.

As mentioned in the last chapter the scars of the destruction caused by human activities were visible all over Yala East. Wildlife populations were depleted to bare-bone levels and the remaining animals would take to their feet at the slightest hint of a human being.

Fortunately, other than some changes in Kumana Villu there was no significant impact on the natural vegetation in the park. The tall thick strands of mangroves in the villu had disappeared and only short and scattered trees remained. But this remaining mangrove vegetation supported the nesting birds as well as in the past. The villu had been gradually expanding into adjacent low lying areas southwards. The tall grove of aging coconut trees and the crumbling school building brought back memories of the old resilient Kumana village. There were hardly any signs of the houses left apart from a few scattered foundations.

It was the efforts of Mr. K. A. Amaratunga, the then Assistant Director of the Eastern Region, Dr. Ranjen Fernando, Honorary Director, Eastern Region and Mr. Lalith Seneviratne, Honorary Director, Southern Region that enabled the reawakening of Yala East possible. Necessary funds for construction were donated by the Philadelphia Zoo, USA at the instigation of Mr. Seneviratne. By February 2003, the staff quarters building at Okanda was renovated to accommodate the handful of officers first posted and two new buildings were constructed to house the office facilities. On 9th March 2003, Hon. Rukman Senanayake, Minister of Environment and Natural Resources declared open the redeemed Yala East National Park.

I was posted to Ampara Regional Office in June 2003, three months after the reopening of the park. Within a couple of months of my assuming duties at Ampara, Mr. Amaratunga retired from his three decades of service as a wildlife officer. In the years that followed the opportunity I had to shoulder overall management responsibility and witness the recovery of Yala East from a state of complete exhaustion was a gift of joy and satisfaction beyond words.

Staff strength at Okanda was gradually expanded and young keen and energetic wildlife officers such as Mohamed and Siyasinghe volunteered to be posted at Okanda and experience the ultimate challenge a wildlife officer can undergo. Mohamed became the first Warden of the redeemed park followed on by Siyasinghe. Trespassers who were destroying the resources of the park were stopped within a couple of months and maximum security was ensured by continuous patrolling in the park. The road network was rehabilitated and the Bagura wooden bridge which was collapsing without necessary maintenance was renovated to its original status.
Towards the end of 2004, the influx of visitors to the park was increasing gradually. Many a wildlife enthusiast, researcher and photographer began visiting the park. A whole new generation which before had only knowledge of the area through what they read got the chance to experience it in real life. Articles and books got published and photography exhibitions began to be held in the city. The veterans could once again camp in such pristine places along the Kumbukkan Oya like Gal-amuna and Madametota and introduce the novices to them. Faithful began the long journey to the ancient shrine at Kabilitte. Many committed people from all walks of life contributed in kind and with finances to restore the numerous water-holes, tanks and the roads. Among them comes to mind Mr. Shirley Perera, the Assistant Director at the time of my joining the Department, Engineer late Dr. Amith Munindradasa and conservationist Mr. Anura Weerakkody. Tuskers began to emerge as if out of the wood-work. Vast herds of deer numbering hundreds began to roam without fear.

Before 26th December 2004 the word Tsunami was known in the East only as a name of a small tourist motel in the surfing resort of Arugambay on the way to Panama from Pottuvil. While the tidal wave struck the heavily populated coastal areas in the east devastating life and property, the damage to the forested coastal belt south of Panama protected by sand dunes was minimal. Water entered inland only through the estuaries of rivers and lagoons. Staff at Okanda managed to escape the water that rushed along the lagoon. Apart from a layer of debris and sediments left behind by the tide inside the buildings which were submerged a couple of feet momentarily, there was no major physical damage. Interestingly, no casualties were visible among the wildlife populations too. Ranger Siyasinghe who was at the beach narrowly escaped by climbing a tree. He led his staff through the forest to emerge at Lahugala a few days later. He had managed to negotiate the completely washed away road from Okanda to Pottuvil. The old steel bridge across Arugambay lagoon was mangled and they had to detour round the lagoon, through a jungle tract in the twenty year old park Land Rover. Nothing of Warden Mohamed’s home far south in the town of Hambantota remained. He was at home on vacation but the whole family was luckily visiting one of his relations inland at that fatal moment.

By the beginning of 2006, observations of wildlife populations in Yala East proved that they had returned to their maximum carrying capacity thanks to the devoted staff at Okanda. Number of leopards counted resembled the numbers observed before the park was abandoned in 1985. Being the top-most predator in the Sri Lankan jungles and occupying the apex of the food pyramid, the leopard is one of the best indicators of the health of a forest.

Thus, it was a great experience for us to see the complete recovery of the eco system in Yala East from the hopeless state it had fallen into prior to the reopening in 2003. It invariably is a classic example that shows how a natural habitat can recover completely from prolonged destructive human impact within a short period. It was the sheer dedication of Okanda staff that made the recovery possible.   

At the same time we embarked on an effort to strengthen the network of wildlife reserves within the Eastern Region by indentifying the weak points and taking action. Expansion and connecting together of existing isolated wildlife reserves will ensure the protection of adequate good habitat for the long term survival of wild animal populations. This is true especially in the case of elephants which need the space and the use of resources of large tracts of jungle. New boundaries for Yala East were identified and declared to expand it westward, doubling its extent. Yala East was renamed as ‘Kumana National Park’ in the year 2006 as a lasting tribute to the lost resilient ancient villagers of Kumana. The extent of Lahugala National Park was expanded by three fold. The untouched jungle tract between Panama and Kudumbigala was declared a new sanctuary named Kudumbigala – Panama Sanctuary. Tiergarten Schoenbrunn (Vienna Zoo) willingly came forward to provide the financial assistance to build the Range Office in Panama, again at the instigation of Mr. Lalith Seneviratne. The staff and well-wishers contributed the labour and the office was opened in February 2006 with Harry and Gaby Schwammer in person representing the Vienna Zoo. Lnt. General Parami Kulatunge also participated in the event.
With the collapse of the peace accord all but in name the security situation in the east has been again swinging like a pendulum since the fall of 2006. It is obvious that the wildlife staff at Okanda can discharge their duties effectively only under a situation where their lives are not endangered by terrorism. The Range Office in Panama provided a timely sanctuary at the edge of the park to operate from where the staff was able to provide some degree of protection without risking their precious lives.

As this book gets ready to be published we hear the good news that terrorism has been completely eradicated from our country. Our fervent wish is that the same political will that ensured victory over the terrorists will ensure that a system of governance that enables the aspirations of all to be fulfilled is put in place. By nature of its isolated location the prevalent security situation will always decide the fate of the fauna and flora of Kumana National Park.  What is certain though is that this is a unique habitat to be protected for the benefit of the generations to come.

“This is my aim:
To leave some lasting tribute to this land I love
Changes of mood and scene,
Remembered scent of wood-smoke rising on an evening breeze;
Bird-song and wind-song mingle midst forest trees;
Strange ways and byways, which once were hard and sore,
New ways and old ways that man had walked before.
These I have known and cared for in my island long ago
But the old ways are now shattered
I know not where to go
Tsunami's claw at our coast line,
The Teeth of Tigers show.
But deep hidden - Dear God, where?-
Still lies Sri Lanka's essence.
Indestructible, most rare."
                             – Christine Spittel Wilson


13. Uncertainty

At the time of my joining the department the coastal belt stretching from Akkaraipattu via Pottuvil to Panama was one whole peaceful ethnic melting pot. It consisted of townships and villages of Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala communities mixing together and living in harmony. Though the flames of separatist terrorism were gradually being kindled in the north, the east was yet to feel its heat. We never felt uneasy as we got off the train at Batticaloa and made our way back to Okanda after leave.

The first tremors disturbing this tranquillity appeared soon after that fateful day in July 1983 when in Jaffna up in the north thirteen soldiers were blown-off by a terrorist mine. This led to the famous black July riots where Sinhala mobs went on the rampage against Tamils in many parts of the country.  The annual feast of the Okanda Hindu temple was on and we received first news of the great turmoil from police officers on duty there. But, not even the faintest thoughts crossed our minds that these troubles far away, however ugly, would soon reach us to this southernmost inhabited corner of Sri Lanka and engulf us equally.
About two weeks after the incidents, Swami Selwarajah, the Hindu priest of the temple returned from Colombo and told us in tears how there is no trace of his sister and her six children. He did not believe that they were alive. In vain, I tried to console him telling that they must have taken shelter in a refugee camp and that they surely will be traced soon. People living in the East hearing such stories and living so far away from Colombo had their minds badly tainted and imagined the worst. Even small acts of vandalism taking part on the other side of the country reached their ears passing from mouth to mouth and getting amplified in the process to become transformed to horrific tales of atrocities.

Around 1984 the activities of the separatist raised their ugly head in the East in the form of petty anti government protests instigated by them. Within a short period these got transformed to robbing and arson of government vehicles. Next came bank robberies, land mines and assassinations.
Soon the terrorists overpowered the capability of normal police to maintain law and order. This led to the formation of a commando regiment of the police called the Special Task Force (STF) and subduing terrorism in the East was entrusted to them. These specialised commandos who were extensively trained in anti terrorist activities soon curbed lawlessness in the large townships including Batticaloa. But the elimination of the movement of terrorists in jungle areas was a different kettle of fish.

Though terrorist activities were aimed at disrupting the government, at least initially, it turned the life of the general public upside down. They had to suffer immensely due to disruption to agriculture their main livelihood.  State services, trading, transportation etc., were paralysed directly affecting the day to day life and the economy of the area.  Although the Muslim community was neutral on the issue at the beginning they gradually started to get agitated and organised and the possibility of them becoming militant loomed. A head on clash between Tamils and Muslims that together form the bulk of the population in the area would have made the situation spin totally out of control. However, far sight remained with the Muslims and they were able to pull back from militancy at the very last moment for the betterment of all.

By January 1985 with disturbances in Pottuvil, the tentacles of terrorism reached the outer reaches of Yala East. Though the terrorists were held back in larger townships such as Batticaloa successfully the over stretched security resources could not rein on them in suburban areas like Pottuvil. The Police while carrying out their routine duties during daytime withdrew to fortified police stations at night. Terrorist literally ruled the night, plundering state property, engaging in arson and planting land mines, at will.
Their activities then got directed at the Sinhala community there. A Sinhala family running a bakery was killed, accused of passing information to the security forces. Fear spread among the Sinhala community that were for generations running a multitude of businesses and they started to leave the area. In February one of the two state banks in Pottuvil was looted by the terrorists and both the banks stopped their operations. We had to travel to Akkaraipattu about forty five kilometres away under police guard to bring our salaries.   

The unfolding situation in Pottuvil heightened the tension among the wildlife officers at Okanda. With its isolated position and assets consisting of vehicles and money, it could become an easy target. The shot guns we had for anti poaching duties would have been no match for the automatic weapons the enemy carried.
At that time, one of the most senior officers in the department was the Senior Ranger at Okanda who succeeded Mr. Alfred Perera. He was a committed officer who had served and faced the brunt of the troubles at Wilpattu National Park during the 1971 insurrection.  During that insurrection, he apparently had the habit of spending time seated on top of a wooden chest, with the intention of hiding inside it in case of an emergency.  ‘Just because of that…’ he recalled with a laugh, ‘I was nicknamed Pettiye Mahattaya’ (man of the box).
We were quite inquisitive about the vehicles reaching Okanda during the day and kept ourselves as alert as possible at night.  The anxiety made the sounds of the waves and that of the motorised fishing boats amplify and keep us mostly awake and only half asleep. Even the moonlight filtering through the canopy troubled the old ranger ‘Pettiye Mahattaya’ who mostly spent sleepless nights.

One afternoon during the second week after the bank robbery, some strange footprints were seen on the beach at Okanda. The ranger in charge sent a group of officers to survey the beach. A little later he walked to the well below the tank bund for his usual bath. He who normally never went alone called one of the range assistants to accompany him as I was away on leave. It was a delight to bathe at this small well made of a buried Hume pipe filled with cool clean spring water. As accustomed he sang parts of old melodies that came to his mind while showering.
On this day however he could not complete this soothing ritual due the sudden appearance of a group of men over the tank bund. Their rough appearance and the automatic weapons they carried was a pointer to who they were and of what would unfold next.
Rounding up the two and putting them in front the armed men proceeded to the office. Any resistance at this juncture was futile. They quickly took into custody the officers who by then were returning after having earlier been sent on inspection as well as those remaining in the office and quarters.
Everyone was locked up in a room and what was happening outside could only be deduced by the noise of things being smashed. Arms and ammunition, cash, office equipment and binoculars etc. were all collected. They then walked up to driver Norbet and asked ‘Where are the keys to the vehicle?’ indicating that this was a pre-planned raid after studying the situation. The loot was loaded into the vehicle and the terrorists disappeared in a hurry.

The vulnerably of Okanda was proven. There was no way of obtaining help in an emergency as there was no human settlement or a security camp nearby. The only link we had with the outside world, the radio communication equipment, too was removed.  Strangely though, in spite of the clearly demonstrated risk to life no one thought of abandoning this office which was the park headquarters that had been operational for over half a century, through their sheer dedication to work and affection for the park. The Senior Ranger who was by then about to retire stayed there until my return and got transferred to Colombo to spend the last days before his retirement,. It was a pity that this humble and dedicated officer had to go through the trauma of the events just at the very end of his career.

Though the raid seemed to have been well planned most of the looted items were recovered by the Special Task Force within a few weeks. I was called to identify the goods lying at the STF camp at Kallady near Batticaloa.  With police officers from Pottuvil I reached the Batticaloa police station and was introduced to a STF officer from the Kallady camp. Going to the camp with him I could identify most of the lost items.  Among them were the uniforms of the officers, firearms, binoculars, typewriters and a lot more.
After identification and listing of the items I was allowed in one of the vehicles of a STF patrol convoy. Seated among the heavily armed STF officers, travelling up to Kalmunai was a thrilling experience. They showed me places where the road was damaged by land mines blasted by terrorists. The end of the journey was a great relief as the thought of a landmine exploding or a bullet piercing never left my mind all the while.

A few days later, the office of the Lahugala National Park was ransacked. The terrorists entered the office at midnight and looted firearms and cash, harassing the Park Warden Mr. Liyanage who was not in good health, having heart disease and high blood pressure. Within a few months he passed away leaving behind the memory of an able wildlife officer with wide knowledge.

One morning, towards the end of March, a truck carrying a troop of army officers was moving towards Siyambalanduwa from Pottuvil. They spotted a person walking towards them suddenly stop and jump into the paddy field and run away. He was carrying a gunny bag. The truck came to a halt and one of the officers started chasing the person. He could have been caught easily as it was open flat ground. As the officer was nearing the person what he saw was a sub machine gun being aimed at him. The unarmed officer quickly lowered himself to the ground in the face of this unexpected threat and hoped for a rapid response from his colleagues in the truck. This they did by lining up and firing while moving forward. The enemy although hiding in the thick growth of paddy was instantly hit before he could raise his head. Then they rescued the officer and moved further on to finish off the terrorist and recover his firearm. The body was transferred to Pottuvil police station.
The wildlife staff at Okanda was called in to identify whether the dead man was one of those who raided their office but this turned out not to be the case. The corpse was lying with gun-shot wounds all over the body. He had given his life for the sake of making a separatist’s dream come true.

By the beginning of April, terrorist activities in Pottuvil area were intensifying day by day. The army camp at Komari only a few kilo metres from Pottuvil was attacked. Nevertheless, and in spite of the mounting insecurity, the staff at Okanda had every intention of remaining for the protection of the park and property. Vacation of Okanda would invariably pave the way for destruction of all the government property and wildlife resources in the park. Notwithstanding the risk, Mr. Shirley Perera, Assistant Director of the Eastern Region, too visited Okanda frequently and gave encouragement to the staff.
The fear and tension among the staff was growing to the extent that passing each day was becoming a struggle. Every movement, the tiniest noise drew the attention of the staff. A temporary camp was erected in the nearby jungle as spending the night in the quarters was not thought safe enough. Sinhala New Year, normally a time of peace and celebrations was spent in this subdued and tense environment. Only that night did all the officers get together to celebrate and forget their tense state for a brief moment. But with the dawn of the next day the gravity of their predicament returned. 

One afternoon during the first week of May, Mr. Shirley Perera came to Okanda, met the officers and went to the Tummulla circuit bungalow to spend the night, hoping to return back to Ampara the following morning.
Though the officers at Okanda spent the night in the temporary camp, Range Assistant Gunaratna preferred not to go there. Despite the risk he preferred his familiar quarters. He got up early next morning and a strange noise from the direction of the office caught his attention. Peeping from the quarters he saw a gang of armed men trying to break open the front door of the office. Not thinking twice to figure out who the strangers were he took to flight wearing his night sarong, instinctively pole-vaulting across the short parapet wall of the quarters and the barbed wire fence behind. As he related later, he travelled the sixteen kilometre distance up to Panama on foot and borrowing a shirt from someone reached the Police station at Pottuvil. While his entry was duly lodged all the police could tell him was to go back to check what had happened afterwards and report back!. 

Back in Okanda the wildlife officers who woke up in the morning and walked back to the office one by one, were rounded up by the terrorists, unable to offer any resistance. Succumbing to their will was the safest strategy. They thereafter ransacked the property or what was left of it after the first raid a few weeks before. Their next aim was to capture Mr. Shirley Perera who was by now returning from the Tunmulla bungalow.
They proceeded up to Kuluwana with a couple of wildlife officers and ambushed and captured unsuspecting Mr. Perera. No doubt, the terrorist were pleased with the smooth progress so far and that is when they began to relax and loose focus. Instead of heading back they journeyed up to Kumana village deeper inside along with the captives and partook some refreshments that they obtained from the only boutique there.  Their intention was to return to Okanda later and take a break at the circuit bungalow there and thereafter to vanish with Mr. Perera as a captive.

The reason for the success achieved by the STF in suppressing terrorism was the intense jungle combat training they underwent. By then there was a STF training camp located not too far away from the Kumana village. Officers in the camp used to come to the village occasionally.  It was a sheer coincidence that on that particular day such a visit took place just after the terrorist group had left with their captives.
On hearing of the incident they promptly called in additional support from the camp. It did not take the STF long to reach Okanda and cordon off the bungalow where the terrorists were taking shelter with Mr. Shirley Perera and others captives. 
The storming and the rescue had to be planned so as not to endanger the lives of the captives who were held in the upstairs of the bungalow. No sooner the first round was fired, the terrorist who was on watch screamed ‘Police commando....‘ aloud.  Within a split second the group jumped off the bungalow knocking over some of the captives in the process and vanished into the jungle behind. One of them who was in the shower was spotted jumping off with foam still dripping from his body. Mr. Perera and the rest while being stunned were rescued without any harm. Later on a cordon and search operation was carried out in Panama to filter out any terrorists taking shelter there but this did not lead to any arrests.  The group had truly dispersed by then.

This repeated terrorist attack completely demoralised the wildlife staff and depleted their courage. All the officers had vacated Okanda when I returned from duty at the head office. Protection of Okanda office and the staff quarters and, general park supervision was brought under Kumana staff. But Kumana being even further away inside the jungle and being sixteen kilometres distant, there was very little supervision that could be done from there, especially with the limited staff and resources available at a small ranger station like it. Thus, the doors opened for the plundering of this pristine national park.

Subsequently, Okanda staff was assigned to Yala (Ruhunu) National Park headquarters at Palatupana. While I was at Palatupana I had the opportunity of visiting Okanda several times by traversing through Block II of Yala, crossing the Menik and Kumbukkan Oya rivers. Though only a few months had lapsed since vacating the park it had become a poacher’s paradise. Buildings at Okanda were ransacked and there were signs of poacher activity all over. Illicit gemming was rampant along both banks of Kumbukkan Oya river, downstream up to Kumana.
After about a year although an attempt was made to re-establish the Okanda office the spirit and energy among the staff was naturally lacking to make it a success. A temporary camp was set up, upstream, at Kebilitta but it too had to be abandoned after the staff while on a patrol near Menik river were fired upon. On the brighter side, during our short stay at Kebilitta a large number of illicit gem miners on the banks of the river were apprehended and produced at the courts. Later on, the staff quarters at Kumana in which all the remaining official documents and equipment from Okanda were stored was burnt down by the terrorists. All the other park office buildings, staff quarters and circuit bungalows too were demolished by them. Only the ruined walls and foundations of the infrastructure of a once flourishing national park where animals roamed in plenty and where many a nature lover enjoyed the peace and beauty remained.

The last attempt to redeem Yala East was made in 1989, four years after it was deserted. By then Mr. Shirley Perera was transferred to the Southern Region while Mr. M.M.D. Perera was the Assistant Director of the Eastern Region. Nearing retirement with long years of experience as a wildlife officer, he was one of the most efficient officers in the department. Though he had realised the risk of travelling into an un-cleared area he wanted to fulfil his duties as the senior most wildlife officer in the region. The government was embarking on a peace initiative with the terrorists and it was assumed that the situation would be somewhat safe.
On that fateful morning Mr. M.M.D. Perera arrived at Lahugala from Ampara with his driver Dingiri Banda. There, the Park Warden Lahugala Mr. K.T.P. Perera, Arul, who by then was promoted to a wildlife ranger and, a couple of others joined them. They arrived at Okanda via Pottuvil and Panama and met a group of terrorist who were now operating openly because the peace talks were on. Discussions took place in a cordial manner and the terrorists in fact offered tea to the group.  Little did they know that it will be their last cup of tea. They turned back to head home and got up to Uda-Helawa where they were sprayed with a barrage of bullets by another group of terrorists. The injured officers were then shot at point blank range. Mr. M.M.D. Perera, Mr. K.T.P. Perera, Arul and Dingiri Banda died on the spot whereas the others while being terribly injured survived by virtue of the dead falling over and covering them. The last attempt thus to re-establish Yala East ended in sheer tragedy that will live forever in our minds.
Though nearly one and a half decades have lapsed since the desertion of Okanda no favourable change of circumstances has taken place. According to occasional reports received poachers, illicit timber fellers and gem miners continue having a heyday raping nature and the environment there.

Terrorism whose flames are spanning the north and the east and whose heat is felt elsewhere didn’t only destroy innocent lives and property. The mutual symbiosis and trust which existed among the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim races for centuries too were twisted and badly tainted by it. Last but not least, it destroyed nature’s creations of beauty - the life and ways of animals who can never bite back and that of flora that bring us humans the very breath of fresh air that sustains us.

Wildlife is not a resource whose value can be underestimated, be considered second to human existence or be taken for granted. Being an integral part of the eco system that very much includes man and having strong bonds between each other, wildlife resources do not belong to a single nation or a race. Existence of us humans totally depends on the equilibrium of this natural system. Though we establish political boundaries drawing lines on the ground, disaster will be around the corner for us if we refuse to accept and acknowledge this fact and adjust our actions accordingly, even at this very last juncture.

“As I lay imprisoned as once Dutugemunu did
I think of those endless places that have no bounds
Places that this country is so blessed with like none other

Those sylvan streams like Kumbukkan Oya,
With Kumbuk trees lining to infinity, and living their dream

Villages like Kumana that flowed with milk and honey
Baduludena, that Shangri-la

Then I ponder – how can I fly again
And realise that it is a futile dream

Then I have a thought that came in a flash
Can I become a droplet of water in Kumbukkan Oya?

I will no longer be bound by man’s greed
Greed that imprisons us slowly but sure

While I sooth the mighty and silvery Kumbuk trees
That in turn gives me the shade, the sponge roots that gently cleanses me

I will float with freedom to dream
I will see those wonders again in full steam

I realise how blessed a simple droplet of Kumbukkan water is
That it is not bounded by man’s greed”

                         - Lalith Seneviratne

12. As a Wildlife Officer

One’s love for nature sometimes lays dormant inside without his or her knowledge. When such a person enters an undisturbed natural environment and experiences its soothing power, suddenly, he or she will be aroused and the never ending journey of love with nature begins. When I got exposed to an outdoor life as a wildlife officer I started to love it more and more, having awakened the fondness hidden inside me. Such affection must have been implanted within me in my early years by reading Lord Baden Powell’s book ‘Scouting for Boys’ and taking part in scouting camps when I was a school boy.

As the first year of our career was in training we were not entrusted with any significant responsibilities. So, we had the opportunity of spending most of our time learning and observing wildlife and nature around us while on duty in the station and while going on expeditions in the jungle. The expeditions we made with Arul and Hudanchi were much enlightening while equally being joyous.

Mr. Chandra Jayawardana
On the directive of the Park Warden, Mr. Chandra Jayawardene, we had to learn wildlife law, court procedure and office work in addition to labour supervision and jungle craft.
Being the new recruits we were quite nervous about court work. We were to learn the preparation of documents, giving evidence and prosecution of court cases, in relation to action filed by the department under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and the Fire Arms Ordinance. Though we prepared ourselves thoroughly before attending courts, at the beginning we forgot everything when in open court through the sheer excitement. Once at the Lahugala mobile court no answer came around to my mind to a question the judge asked me. After a long struggle I managed to say ‘I don’t know your honour’with a childish smile. The judge looked at me quite sympathetically and postponed the case. If by any chance the judge was impatient he could have detained me until the court proceedings were over.

After a few months of initial training, Shantha and Jayantha were posted to other stations while Okanda became my permanent station. Though Okanda was considered one of the more gruelling stations it was quite an attractive place for me. Friendliness of the colleagues, solitude when needed, charming environment and the encouragement received from the higher officers made Okanda a cosy place for me.

The Regional Assistant Director, Mr. Shirley Perera and the Park Warden, Mr. Chandra Jayawardene were experts on birds. They greatly influenced us to develop a good knowledge on wildlife, especially birds.

Within a few months of our joining the department as Range Assistants, applications were called to recruit Game Rangers, a higher rank, for which we too applied. With an intensive training schedule Mr. Jayawardene got us three Range Assistants prepared for the test. Armed with the knowledge we received under his supervision and constant encouragement, I and one other got through the test successfully and we were re-appointed as Game Rangers.

Mr. Shirley Winston Perera
One who thoroughly inspected our duties was the Regional Assistant Director, Mr. Shirley Winston Perera. He was one of the best examples of a conscientious state officer I have ever met – one who performed all his duties meticulously. He planned everything he did perfectly and nothing escaped from his sharp eye. We had to perform all our duties knowing that everything would be subjected to his thorough scrutiny. Most of the time we had to be quick enough to judge his feelings from his body language and the expression on his face. One evening, on his return from a visit to the park he called me up to the vehicle saying ‘I brought a present for you’. As his face had become reddish and the eyes were a bit enlarged I felt that something was seriously amiss. He pulled out a bagful of garbage containing empty cigarette packets, biscuit wrappers, empty cans etc, all picked up inside the park. He just dumped the lot in front of the office and left in haste without a single word. This was a lesson I would never forget.

Just as I was completing my training period and was being entrusted with more and more responsibility, the Park Warden, Mr. Jayawardene left the island for a long overseas training. Senior Ranger, Mr. Wijesekara was also transferred to another station.  
One of the most experienced hands in the department by then, Mr. Alfred Perera, who was nearing his retirement succeeded Mr. Jayawardene. Such was his nature that he gave complete freedom to us placing utmost trust to carry out our duties diligently. It was a wonderful opportunity and a challenge for me to work at my will and gain invaluable experience in park management.
 The routine duties we had to perform included the issuing the park entry permits for visitors and assigning them park guides, office administration and organizing patrols for the protection of the park. As there was not much influx of tourists except in the weekends and during school vacations, office work did not demand much of our time. To our great delight we could spend most of our time on park development work such as construction and maintenance of tanks and water holes and development of the road network. I loved roaming around the park executing the work and directing the labourers, all with great camaraderie.

There is ample evidence to show that Yala East was an integral part of the ancient Ruhunu kingdom of the south. It was a flourishing advanced hydraulic civilisation that practiced successful agriculture. We could see the remains, sometimes still in good order, of the tanks, irrigation channels and Buddhist shrines, strewn all over the now engulfed jungle as we trekked. It was an invigorating experience to see the tanks spill with rain fed water once their breached bunds were repaired by us. The peak of the monsoon was rather a busy period for us as the heavy rains at times severely damaged tank bunds and roads.

The destruction caused by the villagers to the wildlife in the park was generally minimal as human settlements were quite far from the fringes of the park. Though illicit gemming was taking place in far corners like Kebilitta the staff unfortunately could only be deployed in the dry season. The turbulently overflowing streams running across the road to Kabilitta along the left bank of the Kumbukkan Oya river made it impossible to reach such places during the monsoon.

This was the alluring setting during the first three years I spent at Okanda. Each morning opened a completely new day in every sense of the word - exciting and challenging and, opening up new vistas in our lives. The isolation of Okanda and the demands it placed on us never even remotely troubled us.

“I would sing you a song of my boyhood
Where the highlights and shadows lay clear;
Of my walks through the fields and the greenwood,
With so many friends who were dear.
But with half of a century past
There are memories too that are sad-
I would sing of these also. But last
I shall sing you some songs that are glad,
Mostly happy adventures, and deeds
Done at midday, and night, and at dawn-
These are things that a boy seldom heeds
Till he finds his companions are gone.
Any trail that you wend,
To the end from the start,
Joy will always attend
If you’ve friends near your heart.”
                             - Conrad Felsinger

11. Porcupine and the Pangolin

Evolution, in its endless journey of creating ever shifting diversity and beauty has given animals too its fair share of attention with some of their acquired attributes being nothing but astounding. To inquire and observe how physical and behavioural adaptations fit in so well with the distinct environmental conditions of their respective habitats is fascinating.

Hair coat, the typical skin cover of most mammals is an attractive and mostly a soft physical feature. It provides shelter against unfavourable weather conditions and parasites such as blood sucking insects.

For the porcupine, the coat doubles up as the critical weapon that provides protection against predators.  In an emergency a porcupine has the ability to erect its sharp bunch of quills which are normally leaning backwards. Though the body of the porcupine is well protected by the quills the skin its head is bare and therefore vulnerable.  Predators such as leopard therefore aim at the exposed head. A porcupine instantaneously turns its back towards a dashing predator with its quills fully erected. Although it is commonly believed that the quills are ejected like arrows this is just a misconception. The erected quills with its hissing noise frightens a foe as well as causing it bodily injury that can at times be fatal when it tries to pounce upon the porcupine.

There have been reports from India about tigers and leopards which have died of severe injuries to vital organs such as brain, heart or lungs, caused by piercing quills. Jim Corbet was a famous writer who hunted man eating leopards and tigers in India. Relating his experiences he concludes that the discomfort of the injuries received while trying to prey on porcupine have caused some of the leopards and tigers he came across to become man eaters. According to him although quills that pierce the limbs can be pulled back, pieces of the tip remaining underneath the skin cause infesting wounds. When the animal weakens as a result humans become the easier option for it to prey upon.

Once in Yala East, during a trek to Bowattagala, Mr. Lalith Seneviratne and a group found the remains of a leopard that had succumbed to injuries caused as a result of a wrestle with a porcupine. Quills that had pierced the inside of the mouth and elsewhere could clearly be seen.

Another fascinating creation of nature is the Pangolin. It is a rare nocturnal animal inhabiting the low country.  The layer of overlapping large horny plates on the skin is its protective armour. When faced with danger it seeks refuge by hiding its elongated slender head between the forelimbs and rolling the whole body into the shape of an impenetrable ball. The strength it has to keep the body rolled so is immense. Pangolin does not move fast and relies entirely on this strategy for protection.

Pangolin is one of the few species of wild animals which feed only on ants. It breaks a termite mound and feeds on termites by sliding the thin long tongue inside. Tackiness of the tongue helps to get the termites out. Another unique physical feature of the Pangolin is the lack of teeth - with evolution depriving it of this feature due to it being of no use.

Dexterity of a pangolin in burrowing a termite mound is noteworthy. Resembling steel hooks, its strong claws helps it to reach out to the termite hives breaking the mound in a matter of a few minutes. While on the move, it avoids the claws touching the ground to prevent unnecessary wear. Referring to the strength it has to burrow the ground an Indian writer has recorded an instance where a pangolin had removed stones weighing ten pounds in escaping from a bathroom where it was temporarily caged. A pangolin can never be pulled out once it gets into a burrow and clamps itself to the ground with its claws. Pangolin does not hesitate to climb a tree to hunt red and black ants. It will hang on a branch with its prehensile tail and feed on the ants their eggs and larvae.

Though not asserted to be true or not, an interesting incident is described in W. W. A. Philip’s book “Mammals of Ceylon”.  A villager having killed a pangolin he came across in the jungle slung it on his shoulder and headed back home. Though he thought the animal was dead it had only been stunned and soon regained its consciousness. It coiled itself around the man’s neck strangling him. The man was found dead with the pangolin still clasping the neck.

“Any hound a porcupine nudges
Can't be blamed for harbouring grudges…..”

                       - Ogden Nash


10. Deer

The drought that scorches the forest ends with the rains brought about by the north east monsoon commencing usually in mid October. The hibernating roots of grass shoot out no sooner the earth gets soaked with rain water and the surface then becomes a bluish green carpet within a matter of a few days. The dusty dry grasslands which are an eye sore flips into pleasing scenery.

Herds of deer separated into small family groups and withdrawn deeper into the jungle during the drought, flock together, back into groups of hundreds to feed on the growing tender grass in open glades with the dawn of the rainy season.

Out of the four members of the deer family found in our country three are resident at Yala East with Spotted Deer being the commonest among them. It is one of the most sensitive and harmless creatures among the herbivores. They form part of the food chain that turns the flora of the jungle into the food of the carnivores. The wellbeing of the top carnivores such as leopard which occupies the apex of the food chain depends on the abundance of prey species such as spotted deer.

The pair of antlers which adorns the head of a well built male deer brings out its personality. Leadership of a group is offered only to a strong male which is capable of overpowering other males. To retain leadership the dominant male will have to fight with others. A strong leader will get a better chance to mate with the females in the group. Only a strong male can contribute to a strong posterity.

Females are attracted to the rutting calls and courtship behaviour of males and give birth to a fawn after a gestation period of eight months. Fawns are weak at birth and the mothers will have to protect them from predators such as leopard and jackal until they grow strong, hiding them in cover such as tall grass. While foraging, the mother returns to the fawn for suckling from time to time. Feeding on mother’s milk the fawn grows fast and learns to go about with the group.

First pair of antlers of a male deer does not branch out and resembles a pair of short spikes. Antlers are covered with velvet looking skin during the tender stage. As they grow and harden this skin dries out and peels off. After shedding the first pair of spikes a deer gets a small pair of proper antlers which sheds and re-grows annually during the first few years. It is after this that a complete and full grown branching out pair of antlers forms.

Deer prefer to spend the cool morning and evening hours grazing in open areas. They spend the hot daytime lying under the shade of a tree, resting while chewing cud and dozing off in between.  At times, they go to a water source nearby to drink. These activities all take place with eternal vigilance keeping tab of anything that moves. Any mistake would literally be at the cost of their life. Preying on deer which possesses sharp senses of sight, smell and hearing is not an easy task for a predator.

The prime predator dependent on deer for its sustenance is the leopard. Sometimes, a careless deer will fall prey to a python lying in ambush under a layer of crumbling leaves along a trail or to a crocodile lurking in the murky water of a water hole. Fawns and injured deer are easy prey for jackals. There is hardly any deer which undergoes a natural death escaping from untimely death that peeps from every corner of the jungle, unendingly.

Deer which mostly depend on lush green shoots gets its full complement of food only when the grasses shoot out during the rainy season. When the grasslands go dry during the drought deer will have to move into the jungle and browse on the dry undergrowth of the forest. Finishing the tender leaves of a tree or shrub within their reach they raise themselves with the hind limbs to feed on upper layers.

Deer put on weight during the rainy season and then gradually emaciate and become weak as the drought reached its peak. Stress due to scarcity of food and water grows steeply as the tanks and water holes dry out. Water is left only in the deep rock pools as the drought continues unabated. By then, the rapidly receding water in the rock pools is being shared by all animals in the forest and is becoming foul.  The few inches of water left at the bottom is sometimes beyond the reach of deer. Many deer perish by tipping into the waterholes while trying to reach for the water. It was customary for us to clean and de-silt the waterholes when they dry up at the height of an extreme drought. I remember removing a vast quantity of animal bones including elephant bones from the “Kiri kema” rock waterhole.

At times, even the man-made water holes within the coastal belt of the park completely dry-out making the situation precarious. The only hope left for the animals is to reach Kumbukkan Oya.  The river by then has become a narrow and shallow stream of water leisurely flowing by hugging one of the banks or worse, only small puddles of water remain here and there. In extremely severe droughts when even these puddles dry out, animals find water only in small fountains formed as a result of clever digging by elephants. By then, only the strongest of animals which can withstand all the adverse conditions in the jungle have survived. The weak have perished succumbing to the nature’s way of letting the strong survive to pass along their traits to the next generation.

Barking Deer is a member of the deer family more often observed in association with riverine forests. It is a beautiful animal smaller than spotted deer, reddish brown in colour and lacking spots. When alarmed, it emits a barking call and disappears into the bush quickly.

Hog Deer is quite similar to Barking Deer but it is not found in Yala East area. Its appearance is restricted to cinnamon plantations in Alpitiya area, in Galle District. It is on the verge of extinction due to the destruction of habitat and poaching.

The largest species of deer in Sri Lanka is Sambhur which is not less than one and half metres in height at the shoulder and weighs over three hundred kilograms. General feeding habit of Sambhur which prefers to live in rocky hilly terrain is to browse the under growth while grazing occasionally.

Sambhur is generally solitary or found as a small family unit and displays more nocturnal behaviour than spotted deer. The only exception is the population of Sambhur at Horton Plains National Park which grazes in open grasslands every evening.  Sometimes, a herd of Sambhur at Horton Plains may number over fifty. This may be attributed to the absence of competitors such as wild buffalo and spotted deer for food and the feeling of safety and security.

Though Sambhur is generally quiet its piercing alarm call is heard over a long distance in the jungle. It resembles a short burst of a vehicle horn. Once I was completely startled hearing it at close range.

It was a dark night and we were on a foot patrol to Helawa area where farmers sometimes poach wild animals that come to raid their paddy fields. While on night patrols Senior Ranger Wijesekara leading us never allowed us to make any noise or flash the torches. On that cloudy night without even starlight the strip of empty sky above the road helped us to be guided. Suddenly, we were jolted hearing the loud hoot of a lorry horn right beside us. It took quite sometime to realize that we had got too close to a Sambhur walking in the dark and that it was the alarm call that shook us. It took even longer for my excitement to fade away and the blood pressure to become normal. Even a leopard dashing towards a Sambhur to kill would be stilled for a moment on hearing its alarm call. Instead of being a harmless Sambhur if the animal we met while walking in pitch dark was a rogue wild elephant this book would never have been written.

Sambhur commonly suffers from infections caused by ticks and other parasites. The strategy they adopt to avoid such parasites clinging onto them is to bathe in mud by lying in a pool and getting a layer of mud formed on the skin. Then, it is spread evenly all over the body by rubbing against a tree. Sometimes, small groups of Sambhur take refuge on the windy sea beach to get rid of parasites such as blood sucking insects.

Social life of Sambhur is interesting to study. Its rutting season dawns as the tender antlers grow on a male adult. The velvet skin peels off and the hardened pair of huge antlers become a crown on its head. Young energetic animals in heat raise specific rutting calls and express their desire. During this season Sambhur emits chemical secretions from pre-orbital glands and glands in between their hooves which cause sexual attraction. Pheromones that are chemicals present in urine during the season too arouses sexual desire among the animals. In a video film on ‘Barasingha’, the Indian swamp deer, one male was shown spraying urine all over its face by leaning down. Males which come with the smell of well laced urine must be attractive to females.

Stimulated by the male Sambhur the females mate with it. Sometimes, a male attracts several females and will not allow other males to enter its territory. During the mating season the male Sambhur performs various behaviours to show its dominancy. Showing a proud domineering look, having leaves and twigs on antlers etc., are some such behaviours. Towards the end of the short rutting season the females conceive and are left to themselves by the males. Males commence a solitary life once again.

Epidemics are not rare among the wild animals. Once in a few years a large number of wild animals die within a short period being victims of an epidemic. Animals belonging only to one species die at a time during such epidemics sweeping across the jungle, mostly during the peak of the drought. In August 1984 it was reported by Kumana staff that an epidemic was spreading among the Sambhur population in that area. On our inspection a number of Sambhur were seen showing symptoms of the disease. A female Sambhur severely emaciated due to the scarcity during that drought season was standing under a bush motionless. Having the head leaning down she did not respond to any provocation. It appeared that her hind limbs were paralysed.  We also found a number of carcasses of Sambhur near the Kumana tank.

It was established after sending samples of blood and tissue taken from the carcasses to the Veterinary Department of Peradeniya University for testing that the Sambhur died of a virus disease. In such a situation no action can be taken other than burning and destroying the carcasses to prevent further spreading of the disease. During severe drought periods when the animals are physically weak and unable to resist infectious diseases they fall victim to epidemics easily. As only the strong animals withstand the disease and survive epidemics can be considered as another barrier set up by the law of natural selection to select and ensure the survival of only the strong individuals.

Though not considered to be one of the true deer species Mouse deer is an innocent small animal resembling a tiny deer. It is an ungulate with a brown coat of hair speckled with white spots and with shoulder height not exceeding twenty five centimetres. This solitary animal is seen very rarely as it is nocturnal in behaviour. When scared it runs fast and generally climbs along the trunk of a leaning tree on which vines and runners grow. Climbing upwards inside a tree hollow or switching between sides of a tree are some of the wonderful antics it uses to get rid of a pursuing predator.

Undoubtedly, members of the deer family are the wild animals most ruthlessly harassed by man. Killing deer takes place using all forms of poaching methods ranging from organized hunting using automatic rifles by well to do people travelling in vehicles down to primitive methods such as noosing carried out by people in remote areas.
Once at Giritale near Polonnaruwa we came across a doe trapped in a noose. By then a few days had elapse and the cable wire of the noose had cut into her neck. The wound of the starving animal was infested with maggots. Though the rescued animal was treated by a veterinarian she died after long and acute suffering. Though she did not raise any noise right from the moment she was found, up to her death, she pleaded for her life with melancholy eyes filled with tears.

An innocent and lovely animal like a deer is killed by sending a heated lead pellet through its heart, choking with a noose made of a cable wire or by surrounding it with dogs and clubbing it on the head – all for the sake of its flesh that we cherish as a delicacy. In turn, they never demand equal rights to live or fight back for their rights, but rather die silently harassed by man, until extinction perhaps will emancipate them finally.

“A hunter, happening on a glade,
Beheld a quietly browsing doe
That rooted gazed with eyes afraid
At levelled gun but feared to go.

The gun sang death – but even her pain
Gave to her halting feet no wing:
The woods rang out to death again,
Again the poor beast felt the sting.

She ambled off some screen to find –
While from the scrub leapt to her side
A gentle, frightened, little hind
The man till then had not espied.

It smote the hunter’s heart with awe;
He could not end the deed he’d done –
With anguished, shaken soul he saw
His home, his wife, his little one.”

                                                            - R. L. Spittel