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Sunday, October 9, 2011

4. Characters

If one were to carve out and bring to life a human figure blending the travails of a life born and bred in Kumana with the responsibilities of meeting the needs of a family with many children and, on top of that being employed as a wildlife officer with its demanding and sometimes conflicting responsibilities – that would be Wildlife Range Assistant Palani Hudanchi Appu. He was blessed by fate with towering strength to endure the multiple hardships and challenges life threw at him.

Dark and short built Hudanchi’s was born to a Tamil father and a Sinhalese mother and grew up in Kumana in Sinhalese tradition. He was married to a Sinhalese woman. When I met him during my start-up posting to Okanda he was near retirement and was the senior-most officer there. He was respected by every one in the staff and was called ‘Senior’. Since he had long experience as a wildlife officer, the new recruits were always brought under his supervision. Being placed under him as a fresher, I also had the opportunity of absorbing a fraction of his wealth of experience in the jungle.  

Within the period of four and half years I spent in Yala East, I had the opportunity to go on a number of excursions to various interesting places within its vast jungle. Most of these excursions were done under the guidance of Hudanchi during which he imparted his expertise and knowledge to us. On such excursions he leisurely explained his experiences in the jungle and notable happenings in the history of the department.

The most commendable attribute I saw in Hudanchi was the un-raffled way in dealing with any issue he comes across. In such a situation he first took the black cigar that he continually had in his mouth away. Then he looked at its bitten end and re formed it with his fingertips. Then only would he express his reaction and comments. In any tussle between the villagers and the department Hudanchi always took the middle ground and attempted to be fair by both parties. This was not easy at the best of times. Sometimes he only received complaints but he was not bothered.

Later, I came to know that Hudanchi retired toward the end of nineteen eighties and moved to Monaragala to spend his retirement. Being the first teacher in my chosen career and one who gave me the all important fist grounding, Hundanchi is instilled in my memory with a deep respect.

The other remarkable person I met during my time spent at Yala East was Wildlife Range Assistant Theiwanayakam Arulanandan who was attached to the Kumana Beat Office. He was born in Pottuvil and joined the department as a Wildlife Guard at a very young age. When I met him he was around fifty years and mature with long years of experience as a wildlife officer. Arul, as we affectionately called him was of unique personality and of good health. He sported a broad beard across the cheeks and had short grey hair. His deep voice and fluency in both Sinhalese and Tamil made him stand out.

Arul explained how he could not even ask for a glass of water in Sinhalese when he first joined the department, a situation which he corrected quickly. Once Arul related an anecdote that showed how his proficiency in Sinhalese had improved. He sat for the Sinhalese language aptitude test that was part of the process needed to get promotions. A member of the interview board pointed at the tablecloth and asked Arul what colour it was. Arul wittily said in good Sinhalese how the colour of the cloth had faded because the same question was asked repeatedly from all the candidates. That ended further questions on his Sinhalese skill.

Arul who didn’t know the meaning of the word idleness started his day long before daybreak. Cleaning himself, he never waited for others to start the day’s activities. While on our forays to the jungle, as we stretch out to rest after an exhausting trek of several hours, Arul will be busy preparing tea and food. In such situations he would act in camaraderie without regard to his age or seniority.

Arul spent the greater part of his life in the jungles and was a master of jungle craft. He knew countless tactics for survival and protection whilst in the jungle. He would be the first to sense danger or change whether far or at close quarters, well before anyone else. Once, we were walking along a trail towards Bowattagala cave near the Kumana tank. I was leading and suddenly Arul stopped me holding my shoulder, to show a tiny dry twig that he picked up from the ground. There were hundreds of tiny ticks clinging on to the twig. He pointed to several such small twigs lying along the path, all full of ticks, waiting to waylay the victim animals. Irritation and sores caused by tick bites in the jungle are so painful and do not heal for months.

Arul would notice even the faintest signs and marks he would come across in the jungle and words will flow from him interpreting them in a way that even a child could comprehend, as if reading off a book. He taught us how wild animals can be identified by footprints and other various signs they leave behind, how they can be approached without startling them and of the precautions one could take for self defence in the jungle.

Some who have experience in the jungle interpret and relate their stories in a glorified and twisted manner. Arul was not so and would quickly recognise and point out unhesitatingly to anyone who would do so. Once, a well known monk related how he had spotted a leopard twenty feet in length and Arul was quick to ask whether the leopard had a pair of legs in the middle too.
One of the most important skills one should learn in order to adapt successfully to jungle life is the ways and means of gathering food. Fishing and gathering bees honey are foremost among them. But, the former, Arul could never teach me.

While on an excursion, always a river bank or a shade of a tree near a water body is selected for the lunch break. While one member cooks rice others start fishing. Line on the fishing rod has a hook at its end and a small float is fixed a little above. The line thrown into water goes under up to the float. The subsequent sinking of the float helps in identifying the pulling of the fish which has started to scavenge on the bait. As the rod is pulled back with a jerk, the quivering fish comes out of water hanging on the hook. The helper waiting beside the angler takes the fish and hits its head a couple of times with the blunt edge of a knife to make it still. Then the fish is cut and cleaned within a few seconds before being thrown to the pot. Some of the fish wriggle in the pot, even after the fins are cut off, the belly is cleaned, the fish skinned, washed and spices are added. I failed miserably the subject of fishing, in the course on jungle craft. Arul always ridiculed me for not having any appreciation for the freshly caught fish cooked and served on a plate while seated in pristine surroundings.

A beehive in a tree hollow in the jungle can be traced by the hum of the bees. Only an expert in jungle craft can follow this barely audible humming sound and trace the tree in which the hive is. Widening the opening of the hollow by cutting with a hand axe and taking the honeycomb out of the hollow by putting the hand in has to be done carefully and painstakingly. Sting of the bees aroused by a slight mistake would be rather painful.

Western boundary of Yala East National Park meets the southern boundary, Kumbukkan Oya river at a scenic place called Mahawelatota. Once we were camping out there with a group of labourers who were clearing the western boundary. During our stay in the camp which was on a knoll near Kumbukkan Oya, we were to visit a few ancient sites with ruins, nearby. One morning, carrying our lunch packets we set out to visit a site called Veheragala. Arul and a few others joined us in the excursion led by Hudanchi.

Crossing the boundary path, we walked along an elephant trail and entered the short scrub jungle. The trail stretched across the narrow grassy patches which interspersed the scrub jungle. Old hands in the department when they wanted to trace a particular place in the jungle, totally depended on their memory. They managed to trace back places they visited years before, with the help of land marks familiar to them such as rocky hills, water holes, water streams, large trees, old cut marks on trees etc. They also had a wonderful sense of direction. When in doubt they would climb a tree, rock or a hillock and determine the direction to take by checking the landmarks around. The prominent land marks scattered in the Yala jungle were rocky out crops such as Chimney Gala, Mandagala, Akasa Chitiya, Bambaragastalawa and Bagura rock. Although maps were a reliable source of information on the geography of an area, officers in the lower ranks of the department were not used to reading maps those days. Even on long excursions across the jungle they preferred to rely on their memory and instinct rather than the use of map and compass.
As our destination Veheragala was a tall rocky mountain we could determine the direction easily by climbing a tree. It was while getting close to Veheragala that the experts in the group sensed the signs of a beehive. They did not take much time to locate the hive which was in a hollow about three metres up a satinwood tree. The hive was taken and consumed to the fill with the remainder wrapped up to be taken away.

 It was after some time I realized the effect of eating too much bees honey. Bees honey produced in different seasons of the year in which different types of wild flowers bloom give different effects. Honey produced during the time ‘Kala wel’ is in bloom gives an intoxicating effect. I was feeling so lethargic and decided never to have bees honey again. My determination stood firm only until I got the next opportunity to discover a beehive.!

We reached the summit after a steep climb and negotiation through scrub jungle and boulders where at places we went on our knees. As we looked down from the summit, the unfolding panorama of the great and endlessly stretching Yala jungle in all directions except the sea was breathtaking. Rocky outcrops and mountains pierced through the forest cover and emerged here and there. Most dramatic thing we saw on the summit of the mountain was elephant dung strewn around. One could never reason out what makes the elephants reach such a difficult places at all. They must be going there just to explore the mountain tops and see what is there just as we do, I thought. ‘Elephants climb steep hills so carefully…’ Arul explained - ‘you could reach from behind and even pull their tail  …’.

By then it was around noon and sitting on a flat rock, we settled to lunch. Arul opened packet of lunch and squeezed a piece of honeycomb to add bees honey to the rice. In a flash a line of black ants rushed in and stormed the lunch before even a couple of mouthfuls could be eaten. As we looked to see what would be next, Arul regardless of the ants continued to eat. ‘I just cannot save the ants and eat the rice at the same time. They should know to take care of themselves’ was his only comment.

Some of the old hands in the department had a strong belief in ‘chants’ for the protection from wild animals. Even those who did not know chants used to respect the power of them. For those who neither knew chants nor believed in them, the simple way of avoiding confrontation with a wild animal was to be on constant alert. In a situation where an animal is too close to be avoided, the best one can do is to scream in a high pitched voice as loud as possible. “Jahah…. Aliya….” or “Jahah….. Meema…” screamed in a high pitched voice makes an elephant or a buffalo turn away and run most of the time. But there were occasions when both chants and screams did not do the trick and death or injury resulted to some officers serving the department. Ability to instinctively take precautions from threatening animals and save one’s life can largely come only through experience. It is almost as if that if all else fails, ones fate will determine ones existence.

Arul never believed in chants. He managed to chase the animals encountered in the jungle only by shouting at them aloud. One evening in August 1981, along with the then Director of Wildlife Mr. Lyn de Alwis who was on an official visit to Yala East, we set out to visit the famous Walaskema rock water hole in Yala Block II. We crossed Kumbukkan Oya near Madametota in two jeeps with Arul joining us at Kumana. We proceeded via Gajabawa along the dusty road that runs up to Menik Ganga. Walaskema is situated half way on this road about a hundred metres off it.

As block II of Yala is not open for the casual visitors this road stretching across vast grasslands around salty lagoons was not used regularly and therefore its track was not always clear.  Only an experienced officer can find the way through with the help of landmarks. Wild animals in this part of Yala were shy of people and disappeared on sight. During the wet season, the lagoons swelled across the grassy plains and allowed no vehicle to pass through.  The two vehicles moved raising clouds of dust and passing wood apple and malittan trees that dotted the dry plains.

Suddenly, an elephant was observed scalping the grass by the road just a couple of hundred metres ahead and the jeep in front was already approaching the animal. There was anyway no option but to move close to the elephant because the rough bed of the lagoon on either side did not allow us to sidetrack. During the dry season elephants spend most evenings scalping grass off the dry grasslands. This elephant was a well grown male and had a long tail with the clump of hair at the end of it almost touching the ground. It is not common to see such a full tail as most of the bull elephants loose the hair and the lower part of the tail during scuffles they have with other bulls to establish their physical strength.

As we were approaching this elephant admiring its features, it was showing signs of unrest. Before we could notice we saw the elephant dashing towards the jeep in front. It approached the vehicle to within a couple of metres and stopped, raising a cloud of dust. Then, it watched the two vehicles move away with a burning wrath in its eyes.

Walaskema which  is renowned among jungle enthusiasts is a huge rock with an extent of a couple of hectares and having several deep pools which can hold water even at the height of the drought. When one climbs this rock which rises gradually and, gazes from its summit, one can observe clearly the other rocks in Block II such as Dematagala and Mandagala. The Little Bases light house stands in the sea off the shore of Pottana. A couple of decades ago Walaskema became famous as the crossed tusker known as ‘Walaskema Puttuwa’ (Walaskema crossed tusker) was frequently observed and photographed there.

We spent a few hours and headed back before dark. Everybody was expecting to meet the annoyed elephant once again. There it was as expected, waiting patiently in a patch of jungle, almost as if to take revenge. Then, the vehicle driven by Mr. Shirley Perera overtook the Director’s vehicle and we got the turn to face the charging elephant. When alarmed the behaviour of a lone male elephant can suddenly change with approaching danger. If the elephant notices its opponent ahead, it behaves in a well thought out manner. Firstly the elephant becomes still and watches the approaching danger carefully. Then, the elephant which stands steady spreading its four legs wide and cocking its ears, will gain a rogue and hefty look. If he feels that the threat is diminishing he would gradually relax and move away slowly.

 If the danger continues, its behaviour will continue to be more aggressive. And, finally, a curved trunk placed in the mouth is a sign of taking the last step. Then, raising its head a bit, the elephant will dash towards the challenger. This exact setting unfolded in front of us that beautiful evening.  

As the elephant curved its trunk Arul got down from the jeep with his habitual curse. Then came the roaring call of Arul who stood directly facing the elephant now galloping towards us. Our improvised calls too came out at that moment. At the last moment, the elephant screeched to a halt and stood still for a second with the trunk still in its mouth, and then took a few steps back. At once, he turned around and crashed into the bush and took cover. That must have been his most shameful retreat ever.

Arul had great self confidence and endurance which helped him to go through any difficulty in life. In the aftermath of the cyclone of 1978 the trees that fell completely blocked the roads along the coastal belt of the east. Arul walked the 140 kilometres from Pottuvil to Valachchena to see his family. As he passed under one such tree he could hear the humming of bees. He started his walk again only after finding an axe from a nearby house and taking the beehive which was in a hollow of the fallen tree.

In 1983, Arul joined us in a conservation march organized by a non governmental organization from Galle Face in Colombo up to Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, without any hesitation and in his usual joyful mood. He was in his mid fifties but we who were much younger had a hard time keeping pace with him.

In later years he was promoted to the rank of Wildlife Ranger. Soon after, in 1989, Arul unfortunately became a victim of the spectre of terrorism that does not distinguish anyone by colour or race. He became one of the many countless moderate thinking Tamils to have been senselessly silenced by their own extremist elements. Arul died in an ambush at Udahelawa, near Kudumbigala Sanctuary. It was a great privilege for me to have commenced my career associating a character of great inborn and learned talent like Arul.

“Mountains, and woods, and the winds that blow over them;
Meadows, and downs and the wild flowers that cover them;
Rocks, and ravines, and the jungles that smother them;
            All these I love with a love that possesseth me,
            But more than all these I worship thee.

Sea, and the shore, and shells the gods squander there;
Corals, and pools, and wild things that wander there;
Silence, and caves, and the thoughts that men ponder there;
            All these I love with a love that enchanteth me,
            But deeper in my depths springs love for thee.” 

 - John Still