Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Animal Encounters and Rescues: The Tale of Three Lobsters…Not Spiced with Hot Butter and Garlic!

The three lobsters awaiting their fate
Standing on the rocks that have been placed along the coastline to stop sea erosion one could see far into the southern sea.  It is November 17, 2011 and I’m standing on one of these rocks looking out at the Indian Ocean.  Silhouetted against the horizon and scattered over a Persian carpet textured sea are a number of outrigger catamarans.  At this early hour the color of the sea is gunmetal blue.  It is 6.30 am and I’m in a place called Ginthota located on the outskirts of Galle town with a French film crew from France 5 television channel.  We are waiting for the fishermen to return from the sea to film them and their catch.  An hour later, all the catamarans as if they are heeding a hidden command all head back at the same time to the headland.  From a hardly discernible speck in the distance—where one could barely see them move—suddenly each catamaran becomes a speeding wave rider cresting over breaking waves racing to the beach.

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

Wasteful Death

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. 

Observing an age old traditional lifestyle
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!  

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!"
Now the question was where to release them?  Putting them back into the sea by that beach would be a wasted effort.  I suddenly remembered Somadasa, a dive master who had a dive shop at Hikkaduwa.  I got to know Somadasa or Somé as he was popularly known—when we were conducting post tsunami ecological  assessments of all the protected areas located along the southern coast in 2005 and 2006.   Somé is a respected local environmental activist.  He was the first person in Hikkaduwa to organize the clearing of tsunami debris from the coral reef soon after the devastating tsunami of 2004.  He was also one of the first people in Sri Lanka who had successfully replanted coral.  This was in response to 80% of the Hikkaduwa coral reef dying due to bleaching.  It seems the coral reefs at Hikkaduwa were the ideal place to release the three lobsters, since it was a marine sanctuary where fishing was prohibited. 

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.
Jogging early in the morning at Hikkaduwa turned out to be a sea turtle saving effort

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.  

Getting ready to pack the three lobsters

Packed and ready to go
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.  

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
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. 

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
We met with the current Director of Operations, who was then the acting Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation to discuss the details of the project and to get the Department’s consent.  Funds for the entire project we would raise with the Department only having to give its’ consent and support.  When we gave the details of the project to the acting Director General, he was all excited about it.  He especially remarked how the ECM would be extremely helpful to the Department in their efforts to erect electric fences to mitigate HEC and to provide protection to elephant corridors.  However to our surprise he asked us to submit the project proposal to the Research Committee of the Department.  This dysfunctional and completely useless research committee consists of experts appointed from various academic and scientific institutions whose primary function was to say no to research.  So not surprisingly, the research committee led by a self proclaiming environmental guru told the Wildlife Department not to support the ECM project.  The tragedy here is not the self proclaiming environment guru’s illiterate, egoistical and vindictive behavior.  But the fact that, the officials of the Department of Wildlife Conservation are so unqualified for the posts they hold, that they cannot take an educated unilateral or independent decision when it comes to supporting a project that they themselves can obviously see as been beneficial to their own efforts.  To hide their professional shortcomings the officials of the department hide behind the so called “research committee” which is equally illiterate.  This situation has created a negative feedback cycle that is hard to break now.  As a result, over the years, this trend has turned the Department of Wildlife Conservation into one of the most ineffectual scientific institutions in the country unfortunately to the detriment of our beleaguered wildlife.  If the animals could speak Latin, I’m sure they would say, "Ave, DWC, morituri te salutant!" (We who are about to die salute you). And if the DWC knew Latin (more unlikely than the animals knowing Latin) they would probably reply, "Avete vos" (Fare you well).

"Ave, DWC, morituri te salutant!" (We who are about to die salute you)


  1. Great story and sad that government officials make such "informed" decisions.

  2. Agree with Hashish. Janaka Mudalige

  3. Salute you for releasing those lobsters and attempting to save by catch fish. Thank you Sir for your efforts. Heart breaking and blood boiling to know how the government functions with regard to wildlife and nature matters. Wonder how this can be solved.

  4. Great post, sorry to hear about the mapping project issues. What is the next step?