Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Saiya’s Saga – the Langoor that fell from the Sky

Grey Langur (Semnopithecus priam)


High up in the dry evergreen broadleaf forest canopy in the dry zone of Wasgamuwa a troop of grey langurs move. These forests are part of the Himbiliyakada Forest Reserve―which forms an extent of the protected area network that has been created to protect the fauna and flora in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. Underneath unknown to the troop on the forest floor moves stealthily the most dangerous predator on the planet―a man with a gun and a lust for fresh meat. The unsuspecting langurs move gracefully from branch to branch up in the canopy swaying in the breeze. The female langur pauses before she moves instinctively checking each and every branch. She has reasons to be cautious―tightly clinging to her belly is a baby male langur not even 2 days old.

When the shot runs out it reverberates through the forest floor and canopy bringing to a standstill for a nano second all forest activities. Immediately the forest erupts with various animals fleeing for their lives. The small animals like mouse deer, hare, quail, jungle cats and spur fowl scurry deeper into the thickets and lies quietly...waiting…waiting to find out who has taken the shot? Amidst this cacophony of fear and alarm the female langur catapults down through the forest canopy high above clutching tightly at her new born infant―she falls from the sky.

As silence settles in the forests, the female langur wreathes in pain on the forest floor as her senses dims and wanes. The shadows of the forest become dark and concern for her new born is a struggle to maintain as her life blood drains to the forest floor. Soon life ebbs away from her and the hunter approaches and picks her up from the tail.

It is May 22nd 2010 and Ravi Corea the President and several of the field staff of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) consisting of Samantha, Chinthaka, Darshana and Sampath are scouting the forests of the Himbiliyakada Forest Reserve checking for leopard signs. Unmistakable signs of a leopard such as scats, scratch, and pug marks have been encountered over several days of conducting transects in the forest. There were also accounts from the Irriyagaha Ulpotha field camp caretaker of encountering a leopard several times in the forest recently. He believes there are two leopards in the forest―possibly a male and a female. While it was great to hear that a leopard or even a pair of them had moved to the old leopard haunts in the forest concerns were also high that they won’t meet the same fate as their predecessor who was poisoned. Hopes are high that this time it would be possible to get some photos of the leopard from the remote camera traps. Since 2006 the SLWCS has been making an all out effort to get images of the illusive leopard that haunts these forests and has come to be known as the “Pooping Ghost” since that is all the physical evidence it leaves behind of its’ existence.

The Ghost of the forest

The team has just completed doing the Kutiya trail-transect, which is where most of the leopard signs have been located during the past few days. This specific transect is conducted along a trail that leads to the forest hermitage of a foreign Buddhist priest who spends the entire long dry season from June to October meditating in the forests. The trail ends at his little hut or Kutiya situated on a hill amongst the tall cathedral and gallery forests of the forest reserve. The tall arching forest canopy, the sounds of flowing natural springs and wildlife and the green filtered sunlight streaming from the canopy creates an ambience of sublime serenity.

Chasing the Ghost - checking for leopard signs on the Kutiya transect
The Kutiya

Checking leopard scat

Clues to the existence of the Ghost are its' poop, pug and scratch marks
Setting up a remote camera trap

Checking the camera

Applying scent lure

Camping at the Kutiya - hoping the Ghost will turn up

Night in the forests where the Ghost roams

Tired after the morning hike on the Kutiya trail checking for potential locations to set the remote camera traps the team has headed back to the Irriyagaha Campsite for lunch and rest. After lunch and a brief rest as the team was getting ready to head back to the main field house at Pussellayaya the caretaker brought news about a baby langur that had been brought to a house in the next village. While it is not the primary work of the SLWCS the Society does make an effort whenever the opportunity arises to rescue and release back to the wild any unfortunate wild animal that has been captured or injured.

Making a small diversion the SLWCS team arrived at the small village in the jungle and located the house where the baby langur was being kept. The young man who was rearing the baby langur was convinced to release it to the care of the SLWCS team so that it could be given the proper care it needed and eventually its freedom when it became an adult. Almost all primates make bad pets and are prone to become moody and aggressive as they grow older. Initially the owner was reluctant but eventually considering all the disadvantages of keeping a primate he walked up to the vehicle and handed over the baby langur and his feeding bottle to Ravi. That is how the male baby langur now named Saiya who survived a fall from the tree canopy up in the sky fell into the care of the SLWCS.

Saiya the day he was rescued by the SLWCS
The immediate concern was to change the diet of Saiya. The villager has been feeding him on powdered milk made for adults. A one hour trip to the town of Hettipola was made to get a tin of infant milk formula. Hettipola is a small backwoods town in the Central Province therefore it was very fortunate that a can of unexpired infant milk formula was found in the only pharmacy in town.

Changing Saiya's diet was an urgent priority
The change of diet did tremendously to improve the condition of Saiya who was lethargic and apathetic when first found. Within 2 days he has become an active and very vociferous little monkey. The female volunteers were basically lining up and taking numbers to monkey-sit Saiya―and it was not even the Year of the Monkey! Saiya was definitely a hit with the girls that there were concerns whether the little fellow will ever want to go back to the jungle!
Saiya a definite hit with the girls

Saiya the Heart Throb

The next challenge was how to give Saiya the round the clock care and attention that he needed if he were to grow into a healthy adult. This was not possible for the field team to provide. While this was not an issue as long as volunteers were present it would become a problem though when they left. A decision was made to bring Saiya to the Colombo head office so that the woman caretaker of the Colombo HQ who was known for her kindness and love for all things animal could take care of him.

Everybody needs mothering - Saiya with his surrogate mother

A baby langur generally depends on its mother until its 10 or 12 months old

Now Saiya is running the Colombo operations basically demanding all the attention having wormed himself into the hearts and minds of everybody including Blackie―whose reputation as a hunter albeit several missing canines―still has all the underground denizens of the urban sewer, drainage and subterranean burrow system shivering in terror.

Saiya best of friends with Blackie the Terror of the Underworld

Love makes odd couples - there is a lesson here for people
It is nearly a month since Saiya was rescued and he has grown tremendously and hopefully will turn out be a handsome langur worthy of his primate lineage. The plan is to set Saiya free once he is old enough in Wasgamuwa where the SLWCS has a field house and large property which has become a safe haven for rescued wildlife to live in freedom and safety.

Saiya learning to be a computer savy Corporate Monkey...
...of course with the hope of climbing to the top of the corporate ladder - Saiya on top of Ravi's head


Everyday thousands of animals from mouse deer to elephants die in the forests of Sri Lanka. Without proper protection these forest have become butchering grounds for poachers.

An elephant killed in the forest

While vast expanses of forests have been set aside for wildlife―these forest sanctuaries without forest guardians have just become killing fields. Poachers set trap guns and wait in the night on tree platforms near game trails and water holes and shoot animals by their eye-shine after blinding them with a flashlight. Both systems kill animals indiscriminately as was the case with the killing of Saiya’s mother.

A poacher's hunting platform overlooking a game trail
Human elephant conflict has become one of the most conspicuous environmental issues that have grabbed media headlines and the attention of the government and the public for several years now. While human elephant conflict can be claimed as one of the biggest environmental and socio-economic crises in the Dry Zone of rural Sri Lanka today there is a far more serious issue that is cause for concern. Due to perceived threats at the time from Tamil terrorists weapons were distributed to rural villagers. Rural youth were employed as Home Guards and armed with T-56 automatic rifles. Today firearms have become ubiquitous in the rural backwoods. Observations made while conducting fieldwork in areas such as Lahugala, Seruwila and Lunugala shows poaching is rampant with gunshots heard practically throughout the day. According to local sources game meat is freely available, which was supported by the observations that were made. Game meat is transported in old fertilizer bags and gunny bags. There was an instance where a Home Guard was selling game meat from a bicycle. Based on these observations it is obvious the situation in other parts of Sri Lanka must be similar or worst.

Compared to the prices for chicken Rs.380-480 (US$3.50-4) per kilogram, pork Rs.420 (US$3.75) per kilogram and beef Rs.450 (US$4.50) the price of venison and wild boar is Rs.300 (~US$2.50). Field surveys conducted in Lahugala over the past 3 years show a marked decline in large animals. At the beginning of the field surveys 3 years ago the physical presence and signs left behind by large animals were frequently encountered in the Lahugala forests. Today large animals are absent and mostly squirrels are to be seen. In addition to poaching the illegal clearing of forests for encroachment and illegal logging is devastating these forests that were once teaming with wildlife. What is most unfortunate is that the Lahugala forests have been hardly studied to record their biological wealth. This sad situation basically applies to most forests in Sri Lanka.

It is apparent that efforts must be made to educate rural communities to increase their awareness about the consequences of indiscriminately annihilating the wildlife and destroying the forests in their neighborhoods. There is a ray of hope in some villages where the Home Guards themselves have created Societies called Meththa Samajaya (Compassionate Societies) which they run very actively. It is of utmost importance to give these societies all the encouragement and support. If these steps are not taken immediately then Sri Lanka will be left with vast empty spaces to remind us of our own negligence, lack of stewardship and leadership. It will be a sad day indeed when we will have to walk in empty forests.

In the meantime Saiya’s saga continues…please keep listening to the jungle grapevine for further updates.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Piggy and Wiggy – The Story of Two Little Piggies

The historic Somawathiya Temple is an incredible place

The historic Somawathiya is an incredible place. It is the second oldest temple in the country and the Buddha’s right canine tooth is enshrined in the Chaitiya. Somawathiya is situated in the flood plains of the mighty Mahaweli Ganga the longest river of Sri Lanka and has an elephant population of over 300 elephants. The Somawathiya Chaitiya Temple is an incredibly unique place―possibly the only Buddhist shrine in the entire world where pilgrims venerate in the midst of wild elephants. Wild elephants visit the temple and the Chaitiya practically every day but with the increasing numbers of devotees it was essential to make sure the elephants could not come to areas that were important for devotees and pilgrims to conduct their veneration activities.

A wild elephant saunters in while devotees are in the temple

A wild elephant in front of the historic Chaitiya

An elephant chasing pilgrims at the temple

In 2005, the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) at the request of the Chief Priest of the Somawathiya Temple provided a solar powered electric fence to the temple with funds provided by the Alexander Abraham Foundation of New York.

The electric fence erected by the SLWCS ensures the safety of pilgrims and elephants

The SLWCS has maintained a continuous relationship with the temple and is in the process of developing a nature/culture program to teach especially foreign visitors about Buddhism and how the precepts and concepts of Buddhism are very much ingrained in the Sinhala culture, especially the concept of ahimsa which calls for not causing harm to other life forms.

It is February 27, 2010 and I am at Somawathiya for a discussion with the Chief Priest about our project. After my meeting with the Chief Priest, the junior Priest who is the assistant to the Chief Priest―an affable young man―took me to aside and said they had been given three orphaned baby wild boars and would I mind taking two since three were a handful. His intention was to release just one in the temple grounds but felt three would be a problem. Ever willing to help a needy wild animal to get back to the wild I agreed. The challenge though was how and where we could release the two baby wild boars? While the obvious place was to release them back to the wild at Somawathiya the chances that they would survive there on their own was very slim. The other problem was who will take care of them at Somawathiya until they could be released. Another issue was once they were released will they get used to eating refuse and swill of devotees and pilgrims who came to the temple which would make them a problem later on. The second challenge was how to give the two baby wild boars the best chance to survive once they were released? To give them the best chance of living like wild boars they had to be brought up in such a manner. Since they were small and had to be taken care off there was no way to eliminate completely the presence of humans from their caretaking. This meant that they would not only be fully wild but also have no complete fear of people―therefore there was a huge possibility of them venturing into human habitations and meeting with a mishap one day.

 The three orphaned baby wild boars at the temple

Taking all of these issues and concerns into consideration the two baby boars were brought to the SLWCS field site at Wasgamuwa. The reason to bring them to Wasgamuwa was the absence of major predators, poachers and trap guns. The baby boars could grow in a near wild state without the fear of falling prey had they been released in the Somawathiya area. As it turned out figuring out how to get two wild boar piglets back to the wild happened to be the easy part. Trying to catch them was another completely different matter!

They are small, very cute, striped like ostrich chicks, have dainty hoofs, and are very fast. To that now add a 5000 watt output squeal that sounds like a banshee and basically you got yourself a wild boar piglet straight off the assembly line.

They are cute, fast and squeal like banshees

 The singers who did not make it at the American Idol try outs should take heart and not be disappointed. The two piglets when they were caught could squeal to a musical scale that has been devised by rubbing two inflated party balloons and at such a high frequency, that there was no fear of the human ear ever missing out on their vocal performance.

The three baby wild boars were held in a construction site at the temple. The efforts to catch two toy porcine formula cars did not definitely add to the sanctity of the temple. Adult men trying to catch little wild piglets under any circumstance do not look like a serious occupation―neither did it look like we were doing a meritorious act that befits the behavior of good Buddhists in the hope of attaining Nibana. The disapproving frowns and alarms of anxiety appearing on the faces of devotees that a moment ago was in sublime repose and serenity meant we were causing bad sound vibrations. Therefore we had to catch the baby boars as quickly as possible and get out from the temple before bad Karma caught up with us.

After they were brought to Wasgamuwa the two baby wild boars were held in a temporary holding pen and were allowed to gradually settle down. To keep them from getting too habituated to people just the field house caretaker was assigned to take care of their needs. While it was quite a challenge at first to interact with two highly strung animals they gradually settled down and were soon eating from the hand of the caretaker. Throughout this whole process the always curious Dodam the giant squirrel was a frequent visitor who came by to give his moral support to the two piglets. His visits though always coincided with the feeding time of the baby boars―talk about the 6th sense in wild animals!

The care taker of the field house who took good care of the two piglets

The caretaker of the SLWCS field house and his lovely wife did a tremendous job taking care of Piggy and Wiggy the two baby wild boars. The two very endearing names came about from a visit from two young and hip ladies to the field site. Apparently the two little wild boars reminded them of two cute friends they loved and respected very much!? Well! I guess that’s what friends are for!

Three months after they were brought to Wasgamuwa, Piggy and Wiggy were released from their temporary holding pen and allowed to go free. Apparently they had other ideas because it seems free meals are hard to come by in the wild. Today they have moved into a patch of bush in the property where the field house is located and seem to be quite content.

The two young wild boars in their patch of bush  

Growing old in the wild seems a realistic dream now

Well in retrospect they should be content! There are no leopards, poachers and trap guns at the field site to be afraid off or die from. Dying of old age in the wild seems like an achievable and realistic dream now.

They arrive like clockwork for their meals...

...and so does Dodam

And of course in the interim they have been brain washed by Dodam the giant squirrel because now they too arrive at meal times like clockwork.

The SLWCS field house is getting to be a quite a hang out joint for animals

There seem to be a small wildlife union forming up at our field site. Well I’m not surprised, because the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is in fact was established to work and speak on behalf of wildlife. So in a sense it does make good “sense” for wild animals to hang out at our field site.