Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Born to be Free – the Story of Dodam the Giant Squirrel

In April 25th 2010 a fortuitous set of circumstances brought the President of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, Ravi Corea to a small temple in the backwoods of nowhere in Sri Lanka. At the temple Ravi observed a male giant squirrel in a small cage and made up his mind to ask the Chief Priest to consider releasing the giant squirrel back to the wild.

Dodam in his small cage in the temple

After making friends with the Chief Priest, Ravi asked him about the giant squirrel. The priest was very receptive to the idea and gave the giant squirrel to Ravi to release it back to the wild. Apparently the giant squirrel had been found abandoned as a baby and the priest had brought him up with much care. Unfortunately the rural urban area around the temple was not the most suitable place to release a giant squirrel that had been brought up in captivity. With no fear of humans the semi tame giant squirrel would either be captured by someone else or fall prey to one of the many dogs that are in homes in the area.

The giant squirrel, now named Dodam―literarily meaning orange―as in the fruit in Sinhalese― was brought to Pussellayaya in Wasgamuwa where the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society has a field operations site. The night Dodam was collected from the temple was a night to remember. It was Friday, April 30th the time 9 pm and it was pouring with torrential rain and pitch black since the power was gone. Ravi and Sampath, a staff member of SLWCS with the aid of a flashlight, an umbrella borrowed from the temple and a pet carrier borrowed from a friend spent an eventful half an hour trying to entice a very recalcitrant giant squirrel that a better life awaited it if it would only cooperate.

At 9 pm on a pitch black night, in the pouring rain, illuminated by brilliant flashes of lightening and deafened by ear splitting thunder, was not the ideal circumstance to convince a giant squirrel with large incisors and long claws to consider a life of freedom as a long term option. It was a difficult situation. A wet giant squirrel is not an easy animal to handle either with equally wet hands. As Ravi tried to gently ease Dodam into the pet carrier holding him in a steady grip the inevitable happened. Frightened by a large clap of thunder and blinding lightening Dodam jerked out of Ravi’s hand and in an instant was out of his cage and making a beeline to the periphery of the temple compound where he would easily evade the capture team once he was among the trees. Fortunately the sermon hall (darmashalawa) of the temple obstructed his gateway. Highly confused due to the rain, the thunder and the lightening and of course two determined pursuers who seemed not to give up Dodam slowed down to re-strategies his escape efforts. Slipping and sliding in the wet mud and slippery cement floor the capture team managed to persuade Dodam ironically with the aid of a large orange colored umbrella lent by the Chief Priest, to enter the pet carrier.

It was with a tremendous sigh of relief that the capture team took their leave from the Chief Priest an embarked on an eventful trip in which torrential rain, lightening, and thunder accompanied them throughout. Thrice the vehicle had to turn back and seek alternative routes due to trees and a lamppost blocking the roads. At two locations along the way the Defender had to wade through 4 feet of fast flowing water while trishaws (tuktuks), vans, motorcar drivers and pedestrians looked on in amazement and envy. Eventually they made it to Wasgamuwa at 5 am. It was one of the most grueling road trips ever. Through it all an unperturbed Dodam demolished a large selection of fruits (incredible that a small animal could pack all that food in) and slept soundly on his back with feet widespread in an unseemly manner showing off his male-hood as if they were the crown jewels.

Dodam traveling in the pet carrier to a new future
Sleeping in an unseemly manner
Arrival at Wasgamuwa
Making sure Dodam is okay

Once in Wasgamuwa over several days Dodam was encouraged to venture into the outdoors. First he was let loose from his temporary holdings and allowed to roam around the house. On the 2nd and 3rd days he was allowed to go up into the trees nearby the field house.

Encouraging Dodam to come out of his temporary holding pen

Encouraing Dodam to go up into the trees

On the 5th day when he was let loose it was incredible to watch Dodam breaking of branches from a Kohomba tree to build a nest in a Gliricidia tree and lining it with banana leaves. From that day onwards Dodam spent the night in his nest making visits to the house only when he was hungry.

The nest that Dodam built

Today Dodam is a giant squirrel that was reared in captivity and is living a life of freedom.

Reaching new heights in his new life

First meal as a free living giant squirrel

Whenever he wants Dodam pays a visit to the field house where of course he is assured of a good meal and friendly companionship. With other giant squirrels in the area in time hopefully Dodam would find the right mate and start a family. This is what everyone who was involved in setting him free aspires for Dodam.

There is always a friendly shoulder to come too...
...a good meal...
...and friends to hang out with

There is nothing like eating outdoors
Born to be wild...
                                        ...but there are always friends to lend a helping hand

Most of the projects that the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is involved are at the landscape level and are long term and addresses a multitude of issues that are relevant to the wellbeing of humans, the environment and wildlife. The success of these large scale efforts can only be measured in months and years. Sometimes a simple effort such as trying to give a wild animal a second chance to be wild can bring a tremendous amount of joy and achievement that far surpasses the satisfaction gained from the successes of the larger conservation efforts.
Born to be free and now living free
Always appreciative of getting a second chance to be wild - Dodam with Ravi