|The three lobsters awaiting their fate|
|An outrigger catamaran out at sea|
|Waiting for the fishing boats to return|
|An outrigger speeding back to the headland|
As the boats land they are hauled all the way up the beach out of reach of the waves and immediately the fishermen and their families begin the process of sorting the day’s catch. While the film crew occupied themselves filming this traditional way of life that was probably thousands of years old—I was observing how the fishermen were sorting their catch—fish of commercial value ended back in the boat and everything else that had no value was thrown on the ground. As the fishermen continued sorting I began to wonder what would consist the bigger pile—the commercially valuable fish or the by catch? In a short time it looked as if a wave has left a shoal of fish stranded on the beach.
|Sorting the catch|
|None commercial value fish were thrown on the beach|
I could not connect this waste with a traditional lifestyle—how could such waste of life support a lifestyle that was so old? There is something about the glaring eye and gasping mouth of a dying fish suffocating on land that is impossible to forget or to walk away from. On many occasions, I have put aside whatever “other important” things I had to do at the time, to gather fish that were still alive and had been discarded by fishermen as by catch to throw them back to the sea.
|A repast for crows and other carrion eaters|
|The glass eyed stare of a fish that has suffocated|
|"By catch" reflects the wastefulness of the fishing industry|
|A crow flying off with a discarded crab|
When you consider that this happens throughout the coast of Sri Lanka where hundreds of thousands of peoples livelihood is subsistence fishing, the magnitude and scale of the by catch issue becomes mind boggling. At Kalpitiya I have seen entire stretches of the beach littered with by catch. There were so many fish spread along the beach that even the carrion eaters had given up!
|A boat at Kalpitiya filled to the gunwales with Sea Jack caught using the illegal "leila" netting system|
|Thousands of small fish being discarded as by catch at a fish landing beach at Kalpitiya|
|So many fish littered the beach at Kalpitiya the carrion eaters could not cope with it|
|An environmental problem of epic proportions|
|The look of death!|
As the film crew moved on to other boats, I walked up to the one that they had been filming. I greeted the fishermen and walked around their boat looking at all the various fish that had been caught.
A baby shark
that was still alive, a few deadly looking barracudas (Sphyraena sp.) known
locally as Jeelawa, glittering silver-colored fish of various kinds flashing
iridescent hues on tin foil textured skins, globs of mauve colored squid and
then in a hole dug in the sand I saw the catch of the day—lobsters!
|Observing an age old traditional lifestyle|
|The Catch of the Day!|
Since lobsters are robust and can live off water for a considerable amount of time they are kept alive by putting them in a pit dug in the sand. This ensures that they are alive and fresh when the buyers come to purchase them. There were six of them two were gravid females with their underbellies packed with thousands of probably even a million bright orange-colored eggs—the future generation! One would assume, putting these two gravid female lobsters back into the sea as soon as they were caught would be the most common sense thing to do, since they ensure the sustainability of the livelihoods of these fishermen. While they do adhere to a government imposed ban on catching lobsters during the general breeding season—gravid females caught off the breeding season are not protected and can be sold. The more sensible regulation would be to ban the catching or selling of gravid female lobsters at anytime. Three of the lobsters was so small they could have passed for large prawns!
|Destroying the future: gravid female lobsters can be caught off the breeding season|
Over the years I have found myself in this situation many times—basically appealing or bargaining to release or acquire some unfortunate animal or animals that had been caught to be eaten or kept as pets. Sometimes I feel like a hostage negotiator—with the exception that the parties I deal with most times—like these fishermen—our also hostages in a sense. They are marginalized people tied to a lifestyle where they barely eke out a living. Like hostages they too have very few life choices in regard to their fate. In a rapidly changing world they see their traditional ways of living been pushed out by the so called march of “progress.” I appealed to the fishermen to release the baby shark and the three small lobsters back to the sea. To my relief they agreed to do this. A young fisherman carried the shark by its tail and released it to the sea. I and another older fisherman did the same with the three small lobsters.
|The young fisherman with the baby shark prior to releasing it|
|Releasing the baby shark|
|One of the three very small lobsters that were put back|
|Taking one of the small lobsters back to the sea|
|A chance to live another day|
Now began the more serious negotiations—bargaining for the three large lobsters. For about 30 minutes I haggled with the fishermen the purchase price of the three lobsters. The reason it took so long to make a deal is because generally a fishing expedition constitutes a coalition of fishermen; the boat owner plus another 3 or 4 fishermen. The boat owner provides the boat, outboard engine and fuel and the others provide the fishing equipment and labor. The value of the catch is divided according to a pre-arranged percentage scale with the boat owner getting a major portion of the income. So I have to appeal to, or bargain with the entire coalition, or if he is present, then with the boat owner since he gets the lion’s share of the catch. Finally, we strike a bargain! I pay Rs 5,000 for the three lobsters, which is comparable to their current market value. .
|Negotiating the price of life|
|The gravid females had more market value|
|Sold to the Moron with the sunglasses over there who sees them as cute characters from "Little Mermaid!"|
|The successful coral replanting project of Somé's|
Suddenly thinking of Somé brought recollections of how we saved a green sea turtle nest from poachers in 2006, when we were conducting the post tsunami ecological assessments in Hikkaduwa. It happened quite by accident. Sanjayan and Genevieve, two friends from the Nature Conservancy based in the USA who were assisting us with the ecological assessments were jogging with me on the beach at 5.30 am when we came across the nest. We saw the patted down sand and the two sets of turtle tracks leading to and from the nest. Apparently the turtle had just laid the eggs and gone back to the sea. We called Somé immediately and told him about it. He asked us to wait by the nest until he came and not to leave it alone even for one second. We understood why because already there were several egg poachers and feral dogs hovering around to raid the nest. With Somé’s help we dug the eggs out and transferred them to a sea turtle hatchery nearby. Hikkaduwa used to me a major turtle nesting beach but today due to the extensive development along the beach very few turtles come ashore to nest. When we unearthed the nest to transfer the eggs to the hatchery it drew quite a crowd of onlookers since it is a rare occurrence now to see a nesting turtle or its nest. The sea turtles’ that nests along the Kalpitiya coastline are going to face a similar situation, when all the major tourism development efforts planned for the area gets underway.
|Digging up the green turtle nest before predators and poachers go to it|
|Feral dogs are one of the biggest threats to sea turtle eggs and hatchlings|
|The eggs waiting transfer to an official turtle hatchery established nearby|
|The eggs attracted a fair number of onlookers|
In regard to the three lobsters, I phoned Somé immediately and apprised him of the situation. He asked me to bring the three lobsters as soon as possible to the Coral Gardens Hotel where he operated his dive shop. Fortunately, the distance from Galle to Hikkaduwa was less than 20 minutes. I asked one of the fishermen to pack the three lobsters into a cardboard box. He diligently did so by first putting a thick layer of sand and then packing the three lobsters on top of it. As soon as they were packed and ready to go Sampath and I raced off to Hikkaduwa in the Defender.
When I arrived at the hotel, Somé had arranged a young diver to take the
three lobsters to the reef to release them.
It was good to meet up with Somé since the last time we saw each other
was way back in 2006. While we watched from the beach, the
young diver waded to the reef to release the lobsters carrying the box on his
head. When he returned after releasing
them, he said, the male lobster had shot of like a rocket as soon as he let it
go underwater, where as the two females had moved much slowly probably due to
their gravid situation. It was a happy
reunion for Somé and me, with the additional satisfaction of having saved the
lives of some unfortunate animals that faced certain death.
Over tea it was good to catch up with what
has been going on since we last saw each other, as well as to reminisce over
past events. As mentioned earlier Somé
was one of the first people in Sri Lanka who had successfully replanted
coral. At the time we met in 2005, he was
facing obstructions from the Department of Wildlife Conservation and from a
well known professor of marine biology at the Colombo University to continue
his coral replanting efforts. I tried to
help him by meeting the professor, whom I knew to clear matters and get his
support. To my disappointment the professor,
purely because of personal reasons and ego was adamant not to allow Somé to
continue with his coral replanting project.
It was an enlightening experience as well as a clear example of some of the
real challenges that conservationists face, which the public rarely gets to
know—which is, trying to do conservation while appeasing the ego of petty
bureaucrats, self appointed experts and environmental gurus.
|Getting ready to pack the three lobsters|
|Packed and ready to go|
|Somé checking out the lobsters|
|Discussing with a local fisherman a potential release point|
|Heading out to the release point|
|The young diver wading to the reef to release the lobsters|
|Discussing current marine conservation issues|
|The diver releasing the lobsters by the reef|
This brings to mind another similar experience I underwent recently. Myself and a fellow conservationist—coincidentally also named Ravi (I assure that this is not a tale of two Ravi’s), submitted a proposal to the Department of Wildlife Conservation to map all the elephant corridors. The objective was to create a map that clearly showed all the elephant corridors that were used by elephants to range between protected areas. While these corridors are crucial for the ranging of elephants they have no official designation or protection. Therefore they are vulnerable to encroachment from squatters, slash and burn agriculture, settlements and other development programs. Habitat loss is a serious threat to wildlife especially to large and highly mobile animals like elephants that require substantial areas to live. When they lose habitat elephants tend to range for food elsewhere, which results in conflicts with humans. Ensuring the survival of a ‘flagship’ species like the Sri Lankan elephant requires the protection of the entire landscape, which automatically benefits other wildlife that relies on the same landscape for their survival.
The objective of the Elephant Corridor Mapping (ECM) project (as we named it) was to address the issue of the lack of and access to elephant distribution and ranging information which hampers the efforts to safeguard areas essential for elephants. Been a small island, space constraints preclude affording the 25,000 – 35,000 km2 required to sustain the estimated 5000 - 7000 elephants. The only alternative is to adopt innovative land use policies and strategies that allow people and elephants to share the existing land. To achieve this level of co-existence it is critical to identify the areas that are essential for elephants especially outside the protected area network and make this information available to development agencies, government officials and to the general public. An effective way to provide this information would be to create a map identifying all the areas where elephants are distributed and the corridors they use for their annual ranging. At the same time these corridors could be identified on the ground using specific markers. Protecting the corridors will help to reduce human elephant conflicts tremendously. The map can be made available to the general public via Google maps API.
|Elephant Corridor Map would be similar to this map showing elephant death data due to HEC|