Monday, July 5, 2010

Thalaya Boy Learns a Lesson as well as Gets a New Life

It is June 20th 2010 and exciting things are happening at the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society field operations site in Wasgamuwa. Our efforts to establish a pilot dairy model for the dry zone is going on schedule. We have observed that cattle and elephants get along very fine without conflict and share resources in harmony.

Elephants and village buffalo grazing together

So we are now developing a dairy model as a compatible land use and livelihood system with elephants for farmers in intense human elephant conflict areas to adapt. We hope to bring our first cows to our Maha Mega Uyana farm sometime in August. The free range poultry farm is another project which we have established to provide chickens to villagers who will be participating in our home garden development and alternative crop cultivation programs. The chickens will control pests, weeds, provide nutrients to the gardens, and protein and supplementary income to the families.

The large poultry house at our Wasgamuwa field house named the Chicken Hilton by a disgruntled former Project Manager complaining that the chickens had better quarters than he did today is full of activity and noise.

The Chicken Hilton

It is around 8.30 am in the morning and Samantha our Farm Manager, me and our farm Assistant, Gamini is taking care of our various poultry. The place is a bedlam of noise and cacophony. The Chinese geese are the noisiest not to mention their rambunctious behaviour whenever someone got close to them. They would rush out at you with their mouths open hissing loudly with their serpentine necks stretched out. They could look pretty impressive if you were only 3 feet tall. Just to make sure they understood who were the bosses sometimes we would lift one by its’ long neck and put it aside. This would for a short time dampen their ardor to fight but endowed with a very small brain in relation to their body size (I know a few people who are like that too) this placidity is a momentarily lapse.

The Chinese geese are the noisiest and most ill-mannered animals 

The ducklings have grown tremendously passing without mishap their ugly duckling phase which seems to be mandatory for ducks and they are now looking pretty impressive. It seems their main purpose in life is to get everything wet―the “wet-look” is a permanent fad with the ducks! Of course they are happy to add to the ongoing cacophony their quacks in various keys. Looking at them I wonder how did canaries, thrushes and warblers (who sing beautifully), and ducks and geese who quack, honk and bray like asses end up in the same taxonomic Class, Aves! I tend to wonder similarly when I’m in the company of some of my kith and kin too! I guess nature works in wonderful and mysterious ways!

We have just brought the geese and the ducks from the lake where we take them for a morning swim and for them to feed on the lush grasses and plants in the littoral area of the lake. The littoral area is a luminous blanket of flushed green grass which sprout overnight as the waters of the lake recede due to the dry season. From the hill where the field house is situated it looks just like a green swath of a golf link. The ducks and geese love this daily trek to the lake in the early morning or in the late afternoon. They dabble for hours in the shallows bathing, preening, swimming and even diving underwater. They also love to eat the aquatic Ipomea that grows ubiquitously along the shallows of the lake.

Walking the ducks and geese to the lake

To the lake away we go

Herding the geese across the littoral plain of the lake to the water

The geese parade...

...while the ducks looks on

We have to be very vigilant at the lake since there is a resident pair of white-bellied sea eagles and other various species of raptors who would love to grab one of our plump and juicy waddling wards. From past experience we know that though white-bellied sea eagles are supposed to be piscivorous―meaning―love to eat fish―they would readily change their palate to fit in poultry. A few years ago the same pair systematically decimated a large flock of African helmeted guinea fowl that we were raising as an experimental project.

Keeping vigilance over aerial attacks

A water ballet of ducks and quacks...

...while the geese provide background music with honks and brays

Both the geese and ducks love to dabble, swim and dive in the shallows

Of course the free ranging chickens of various hues and colors take pride of place in our poultry farm. Chicks of various ages and broods jostle with hens, roosters, pullets and cockerels at the feed and water troughs. The group of laying hens and two gorgeous roosters occupy their own house which is where the brooding hens are also kept. For the past two weeks the eggs production has dropped drastically. Adding to the overall concern was the evidence of several egg shells pointing out to possible egg cannibalism among the hens. Generally this means a deficiency in calcium, which our hens are very well supplied with or as a result of poor husbandry or management practices. Considering all of our poultry is provided with the best husbandry and management it was baffling why the sudden loss in egg production as well as why some hens were eating their own eggs? According to Samantha and Sampath egg production has come down by about 70 percent. This is a big drop and a huge loss since the eggs are essential for us to increase our poultry for the success of our programs. All of their attempts to find out which hens have stopped laying eggs or to identify the egg cannibals have not been successful. That morning this matter was very much on our minds as we went about taking care of our poultry farm.

I was attending to the ducks and Samantha was outside mixing various supplements to the water for the entire poultry flock when I heard a commotion from the adjoining section where the hens were. When I looked in that direction I was amazed to see a very large Bengal monitor lizard about 4 feet long clambering up the wire mesh inside the cage. Apparently it has been hiding underneath the egg boxes while we were tending to the hens. After we left sensing an opportunity to escape the large lizard was now trying to flee from the chicken cage. Immediately I realized here was the culprit who was responsible for our recent decline in egg production and for all those cannibalized eggs. It seems we had a habitual egg raiding Bengal monitor which was known locally as a thalagoya or thalaya visiting our hen house. I quickly rushed out of the duck pen shouting out to Samantha that we had a thalaya in the hen house. I quickly got into the hen house closing the door behind me so as not to let it escape. It was now trapped inside the hen house and was running all over the place trying to find an escape channel. Chickens and feathers were flying in every direction. It looked like a Cirque de Soleil act that has gone out of control! The fact that the thalaya did not have a specific secret escape route meant it had been coming through the door which is left open every day from morning until dusk for the chickens to range freely. While Samantha ran to get a stick―I made a grab for the thalaya’s tail. Whisking the tail like a whip and hissing madly the thalaya evaded me and kept clambering higher up the mesh. Finding no escape route through the roof it rushed down again. This time I was ready for it. As soon as it got close to me I grabbed it by its tail. Immediately it spun around and lunged at my leg with its mouth wide open hissing loudly. It has probably learnt this tactic from the geese! I jumped back with my hand outstretched barely evading a good bite from the sharp and curved teeth of the irate Thalaya.

A scoop in the coop - catching the monitor that was raiding eggs

Bringing Thalaya to the field house

The Bengal monitor or thalagoya as it is known locally belongs to the taxonomic family known as the Varanidae in the order Squamata in the vertebrate class Reptilia. The largest lizards in the world including the Komodo dragon belong to this family. In Sri Lanka we have two species, the much larger carnivorous and predatory water monitor or Kabaragoya which can grow as long as a Komodo dragon but not as heavy and the much smaller and omnivorous Bengal monitor or Thalagoya. While the Thalaya will not grow to the length of a water monitor, which could easily reach 10 feet or more―I have seen Bengal monitors that were over 6 feet long.

Water Monitor (Varanus salvator)

Water monitors grow to a length of 10 feet and more

Two large water monitors

The water monitor prefers an aquatic environment while the Bengal monitor is more of a terrestrial lizard. The water monitor will kill calves, pigs, goats, chickens, dogs, and is even known to carry away infants whereas the Bengal monitor is more in the armature league where it sticks to raiding eggs, grabbing the occasional chick and eating a variety of unmentionable stuff.

Bengal Monitor (Varanus bengalensis)

Bengal monitors can grow to a length of 6 feet or more

Due to its omnivorous diet―meaning it eats anything―the Bengal monitor is considered a delicacy by the rural masses. So it was not surprising that our locally recruited farm laborers were lining up and very kindly and with deference offering to take Thalaya off my hands. To be honest I was in two minds, whether to let Thalaya go to pot or save its sorry neck by releasing it somewhere far enough that it won’t be able to make it back to our field site. Under stress of being caught and most probably worried about its fate―Thalaya very generously regurgitated all the eggs it has eaten that day. To see all those eggs coming out did not to help to endear it to us either. To say we were annoyed with Thalaya would be an understatement. Over a two week period Thalaya has eaten easily over 100 eggs―probably even more!

The challenge when you catch an animal that is powerful, agile and nasty with your bare hands is that you cannot let go―it is the proverbial situation of catching “a tiger by the tail.” So there I was in this difficult situation where I was holding this large, powerful, agile and nasty lizard in my hands with no exit plan.

Holding on to a nasty monitor is like holding a tiger by the tail

It seems I did not have that many options open either! If I treated it with kindness and held it gently it would twist around and bite me. If I let it go it will run away but will continue to eat our valuable eggs. If I give it to our labor force it will end up as a spicy curry. So the only option was to take it somewhere far away safe and let it go. The issue was we did not have a strong enough cage to keep Thalaya until we could release it. It was pointless to tie it with a rope because it would quickly cut through or wriggle out of the knots and make good its escape. So we had no choice other than to somewhat resort to what the aborigines of Sri Lanka the Veddas do when they catch a Thalaya. The reason I said, “somewhat” is that the Veddas generally when they catch a thalaya either by giving chase with their mangy dogs, or by digging it out of its burrow in a termite mound and if there is no immediate need to eat it they truss it up and carry it to their camp. The way they truss a thalaya is to pull back the front and rear feet over its back and loop them through its own skin. Then they will split the throat and thread the tail through the slit and pull it out of its mouth so this way they can carry it safely. With the tail popping out of its mouth the thalaya cannot bite also this way it will still be alive and farm fresh until they get to their camp.

The challenge was how to keep Thalaya from escaping until it could be released in a faraway place

Please don’ get alarmed. We just borrowed from the Veddas their concept of trussing up a Bengal monitor and not their method. We tied Thalaya’s feet behind its back similarly but with a thin rope so that it could not use its long sharp claws to untie or cut through the rope or claw us. Then we tied a rope around its waste and tied Thalaya to a tree in the garden and left him in the shade after sprinkling some water to cool him down. Nevertheless Thalaya still managed to get the back feet loose and run around with its front feet still tied behind its back emulating a felon attempting to escape from a squad car with the hands handcuffed behind his back. There after we had to keep him under constant vigilance until we were ready to take Thalaya to his release site. We also had to make sure we release Thalaya in a location where he won’t easily end up in some villager’s pot. Or…back in our hen house with eggs and chicks inside his pot!

Untying Thalaya at the site of his release

Taking off the last bonds prior to release 

Namini Oya is a vast marsh located along the Hettipola to Wasgmuwa main road on the western bank of the Minipe irrigation canal. It is a beautiful and vibrant wetland with many species of fauna and flora. It is about 5 kilometers from the field site.

In the background the Namini Oya weltands where Thalaya Boy was released

Thalaya was taken to Namini Oya and released into the canal as an encouragement to swim across to the marsh side.

Releasing Thalaya Boy to live a new and good life in the Namini Oya wetlands

The last view we had of Thalaya was when he came up for air. He popped his head of the water and took an immediate nose dive when he spotted us―observing from the bank his start of a new life in the marsh where chickens eggs will not play a prominent role in his daily menu.

The innocent face of Thalaya Boy a professional egg robber

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