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.


  1. Yea Indeed Saiya would back to where he owns once
    he can live independently.

  2. Hi Ravi

    Very soon Saiya is gonna get rid of the rest of the hair on your head. Good work SLWCS.