15th June, 2003 Volume 9, Issue 47
leopard — up close and personal
The Leopard: A tribute to the Sri Lankan leopard
By Rukshan Jayewardene, Jehan Kumara, Sriyanie
Miththapala, Harith Perera, Ravi Samarasinha, Charles Santiapillai and John
Seidensticker. Harith Perera Memorial Trust, Colombo. 192 pp. [290×275 mm;
ISBN 955–8798–00–2]. Available at the Odel bookshop from June 16.
by Rohan Pethiyagoda
you see anyleopards?” The
question every visitor to Yala
is asked on his return. Even a fleeting glimpse of one of these wonderful cats
gives the accomplished raconteurs of Yala’s frequent-flyer club hours of
animated anecdote-telling over that evening’s soda and splash. Well, For
The Leopard will make those casual leopard-watchers drool. With more
than 200 colour photographs including several in full-page and double-spread
format, it is a visual blockbuster. As a celebration of the leopard, it is
unlikely ever to be equalled. Here is the culmination of years of
painstaking observation accompanied by several thousand accomplished leopard
photographs, of which only the cream are included in the book.
leopard is the largest of the four wild cat species in Sri Lanka, and also
the most visible (the others, the Rusty-Spotted Cat, the Jungle Cat and the
Fishing Cat, are far more elusive and less commonly seen). Just how many
leopards there are in Sri Lanka, no one seems to know. The authors estimate
that there are between three and 18 animals for every 100 square kilometres
of habitat, depending on the availability of prey. A back-of-an-envelope
calculation would mean therefore, that Sri Lanka is host to between 600 and
3,500 leopards. As for myself, I would be inclined to plug for a number
closer to the higher estimate.
long as it needs to be done from a vehicle, I doubt if a
reliable leopard census will ever be possible. Direct sightings alone
are unlikely to yield accurate results when it comes to enumerating forest
fauna of any kind, especially
if they are essentially nocturnal and shy, like the leopard. I suspect more
leopards are seen in Yala because they are no longer shy of people, and
because of the rather open habitat. Seeing leopards in a regular forest is
altogether different, and one needs to look for them from signs such as
pugmarks and scats.
that Horton Plains is the last national park in which visitors are yet
allowed to trek, a parallel study there could be extremely rewarding.
Leopards are often seen on the plains, and it is the only place I know in
Sri Lanka where you stand a good chance of getting close to a leopard on
foot. Leopard scats are common and, if you have a twig handy, full of
interest. A little prodding shows evidence of hare and mice (eaten ‘on the
bone’) and most bizarrely, crabs. Given the abundance of sambar in Horton
Plains, it is strange that these deer do not seem to comprise the
‘lion’s share’ of the leopard’s diet there.
I learned from my friend Cedric Martenstyn, after Rodney Jonklaas perhaps
the last of the truly ‘wild men’ of Sri Lanka, was that you can safely
approach a leopard quite close on foot. Driving on a forest track in the
Western Ghats of Kerala at about sunset with Cedric one day in 1993, a
mongrel-sized leopard cub crossed the road ahead of our Maruti.
Cedric stopped and waited, assuring me that mama would soon be along. We
remained there silently, the engine turned off, for about five minutes, but
mama leopard failed to show. Not turning a hair, Cedric alighted from the
jeep and, urging me to follow him, hared off into the jungle in search of
the female leopard he knew was lurking there. She was, just 10 metres or so
from the road, sideways-on and glowering at us. We approached her slowly
(and on my part with much trepidation), and when we were about half that
distance from her, she turned and walked quickly away.
that I have on two occasions seen leopards at Horton Plains at around dusk
while on foot, and noticed that they are at least as frightened of us as we
are of them. At our field station near Agrapatana, leopards are common (from
their pugmarks and droppings), though I have yet to see one. We have a
mother and two large cubs visiting us frequently, getting as close as 50
metres from our house. Pugmarks are commonest in the clay during the rains,
but scats indicate the animals are around in the scrub much of the year.
These scats too (many of them lovingly preserved in alcohol by the
field-station staff), suggest that these leopards feed mainly on animals
from Barking Deer downwards in size.
suspect that the electric fences put up by vegetable cultivators in the
forests around Nuwara Eliya (Hakgala, Pedro, Ambewela) are among the
greatest threats to leopards in this area. I met a man in 1989 who proudly
showed me half a dozen pelts from leopards killed by the illegal electric
fence around his property bordering the Hakgala Strict Natural Reserve. Many
of these were of cubs. Three years ago the local villagers hunting boar with
dogs in the tea gardens just outside our station at Agrapatana had
encountered a leopard and speared it. They had sold the flesh in the nearby
bazaar at Rs 300 per kg, with the genitalia and skin being donated to the
police, who evidently were in need of both.
I digress. I had watched (from a safe distance) For The Leopard in
development over the past several years, relentlessly asking Jehan the one
question authors simply hate being asked; “So when will the book be
out?” Well it is, now, and
what a splendid piece of work it has become. To describe the content would
be to gild a lily— but what touches me most is the dedication and team
work this disparate group (they are disparate: I know almost all of
them) has contributed to produce this magnificent book. Perhaps the most
touching bits are Harith Perera’s posthumous contributions, such as the
photograph on page 13 and the diary extracts on page 90. I can but echo
Professor Charles Santiapillai’s ready wit: “Harith was the nicest
person I had never met.”
For The Leopard is driven essentially by its superlative photographs
(it seems that there is nothing a leopard does, apart from being born, that
the authors have failed to capture on film), its text is both informed and
lucid. Two well-written chapters on leopard ecology and genetics, by
Professor Charles Santiapillai and Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala respectively,
set the stage for contributions by the other authors, who did much of the
fieldwork. For the most part the text is written in an informative,
matter-of-fact style, seldom flowery and never sentimental (I mention this
because given Harith Perera’s poignant role in the authorship, the
temptation to be sentimental must have been almost irresistible).
that we reviewers can earn our bread and keep the wolf from the door, we are
required to demonstrate that we have actually read the book and not just
skimmed through the pictures with a single lick of the thumb. Duty calls
therefore, to point to a few of the errors and omissions I have noted. Of
typos there are some, but no more than in most books I have published (no
book is complete without its share of typos: after all, they give readers
who discover them a sense of gloating, satisfaction and achievement, which
can only be good for sales). A few minor points however, might bear
discussion, especially in relation to the book’s two ‘scientific’
worry about Professor Santiapillai’s statement (p. 20) that “The
leopard’s range includes a total of 624,317 ha, 78% of the
island’s protected area.” While a range estimate to the nearest hectare
is probably pushing arithmetic a trifle too far, it must be remembered that
leopards exist not only in the 12% of Sri Lanka managed by the Department of
Wildlife Conservation, but also in the 17% of the country that is managed by
the Forest Department. The total range of the leopard in Sri Lanka is
therefore likely to be at least twice the figure mentioned by Professor
Santiapillai. Likewise, Santiapillai’s assertion that “Within many of
the protected areas in Sri Lanka, the leopard appears to be the least
nocturnal of all the world’s big cats”: surely he was forgetting the
largely diurnal cheetah?
Miththapala’s chapter reviews her earlier (1991) genetic analysis of
leopard populations, which served to confirm P.E.P. Deraniyagala’s (1949)
identification of the Sri Lanka population as a distinct subspecies, Panthera
Pardus Kotiya. Her statement, “Even the great Carl Linnaeus…
named the subspecies Panthera Pardus Pardus as from India, when he
meant ‘from abroad’” however, warrants a response, especially since
poor Linnaeus is no longer with us. First, Linnaeus did not use or recognise
subspecies, a concept first introduced by Schlegel in 1844, more than 60
years after Linnaeus’s death. Second, Linnaeus did not name Panthera
India. His Latin statement “Habitat in Indiis” is not a
reference to India (which at the time was not yet a political unit): in the
18th century, Indiis (and India Orientalis) referred to Asia
east of the Indus river, as maps by contemporary cartographers such as J. C.
Homan and M. Seutter show. Indeed, Linnaeus’s own ‘type’ specimen of
the leopard was from Egypt and not India, probably a sub-Saharan specimen
shipped from Cairo.
suggestion that the leopard populations of India and Sri Lanka have been
isolated for only about 10,000 years, since sea levels rose from their Ice
Age minimum of about 120 metres below present-day level (not 35 metres, as
stated on page 44) is, I suspect, under-estimated by at least an order of
magnitude. While a tenable land connection existed until c. 7,000
years before present, it seems that endemism in Sri Lanka has more to do
with local habitat associations than the ability of animals (and plants) to
migrate over the land bridge that existed throughout much of the past
it was that many South Indian large mammals, together with dozens of
competent species from other motile, wide-ranging groups such as birds, were
slow in moving into Sri Lanka. Mammalian oddities include the Wolf, Bengal
Fox, Nilgiri Tahr, Four-horned Antelope and Blackbuck. Likewise, many motile
Sri Lankan species such as the Jungle Fowl, evidently failed to cross over
to India. But this is to pick nits. For The Leopard is a pleasure to
read, to own and to wonder at. One can but admire the devotion of the
authors to this task, which must have involved literally thousands of hours
of observation and a great deal more expense than could ever be recovered
from the sale of the book, which in any case is earmarked entirely for
conservation. This has clearly been a labour of love, and the diversity of
interest and specialisation among the authors make them the dream team to
lead the way into conserving leopards in Sri Lanka in the future. (The fact
that the authors are credited alphabetically cannot be a coincidence, and is
as good a symptom of teamwork as any.) Interestingly, it was partly this
same team that facilitated the BBC documentary, The Leopard Hunters,
on the leopards of Yala, that served to put Sri Lanka’s leopards on the
world map. Jehan Kumara’s story of that endeavour went on to make the
cover of BBC Wildlife, Britain’s most widely-read nature magazine.
the ephemeral nature of the television and periodical media however, I feel For
The Leopard will do much more even than that. For the charismatic
species of every country there ought to be a book. For the leopards of Sri
Lanka, this book is that book. My congratulations to Charles, Jehan, John,
Ravi, Rukshan and Sriyanie; and to Toby Sinclair, the ‘unseen hand’
behind this enterprise: may this lend more strength to their collective arm.
Our child received these burns at her montessori school
no small wonder that our child was saved’
Monday, May 26, Parindi Gunesekere, a
Montessori student aged four
received severe burn injuries to her face, left ear, arm, knee and parts of
her right hand when she fell on a fire that had been lit to burn garden
rubbish at the Montessori school she attended. AMI Small Wonders Montessori
down Melder Place, Nugegoda is where the incident took place. Small Wonders
Montessori is run by two teachers with two assistants aiding them and the
school premises is owned by one Mrs. Tissera residing at No. 24, Melder
Place, Nugegoda. The question that needs to be answered is who is to take
responsibility for the act of negligence that has left a child scarred
physically and emotionally at such an early stage in her life?
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child put children’s rights on the
world’s agenda; it is the most widely ratified treaty in the world and the
convention promises children around the world the right to life, liberty,
education and health care. At a time when children’s rights have assumed
much importance it is indeed a shame to see that Sri Lanka still does not
have any state authority that overlooks Montessori education.
to Parindi’s mother, Chithrika Gunesekere, she had received a telephone
call at around 10.40 a.m. on the particular Monday morning saying there had
been an accident at the nursery and for her to come there immediately. “I
was told to bring another dress for Parindi with me,” said Chithrika. She
had then rushed to the Montessori in a three-wheeler and was met by two
“visibly upset” teachers. “They told me that Parindi had got herself
burnt. When asked how, they explained that a fire had been burning at the
school premises and during play time she had fallen on the hot coal,” said
parents on their attorney’s advise have taken pictures of the school yard
where the fire had been lit. The area covered in hot coal and ashes is
approximately five to six feet in diameter.
to the child’s mother the Montessori
staff claims the fire to
have been lit two days prior to Monday 26. However, Parindi’s family
believes otherwise. “For our child to receive such severe burn injuries it
is apparent that the fire was only lit the same morning as the school
reopened after the weekend break, she says the injured girl’s grand father
H. Gunesekere. “This is pure negligence on the part of the teachers as
well as the owners of the school,” says Gunesekere adding that lighting a
fire inside the Montessori grounds knowing there are 34 children who will
move about and play in the yard is something that no sensible person would
do. “I don’t think any of the teachers or assistants there have even one
iota of brain. If they do they would not have kept hot coal and ashes from a
fire when the children arrived,” he said.
distressed mother says, “Keeping your child safe is almost every
parent’s priority. I have never ever let her get hurt like this while in
my care. I just don’t have words to explain how I feel about what has
happened to my child. She was perfectly okay when I dropped her at the
school. But she came back home from Montessori school scarred for life,”
tanks as seats
mother also claims that instead of garden chairs or benches for the
children, the Montessori staff have only kept three to four empty fish tanks
turned upside down in the garden for the children to sit on. “It is when
Parindi had tried to sit on one of these that another child had pushed her
resulting in her falling on the hot coal that was left over from the rubbish
fire,” she said.
trusted them to take care of our child. The child is in their care for the
nursery school hours until we pick her up. It is their responsibility to
take care of her in which they have failed miserably,” said an angry
incident has raised concern among parents of Montessori attending
youngsters. “We leave our children in the care of the staff with the
common understanding that the child will be kept safe and looked after well
till the school hours end,” said a mother of one four year old attending a
to Parindi’s parents Small Wonder Montessori School has a policy of not
allowing parents to come in with the kids when they are dropped off in the
morning. “This they say is due to most children crying when their parents
leave. But I feel that parents should be allowed inside the premises,” she
Montessori school assistants are usually young women who offer their
services for a small amount of money. The absence of a regulatory authority
leaves room for almost anyone to become a Montessori assistant or teacher.
If they are qualified enough or whether they have a genuine interest in the
work relating to children there seems to be no one to oversee.
grandfather believes mushroom Montessories
that spring up everywhere should no longer be allowed. “Why can’t the
authorities take action against these and bring in rules to establish
standards for these schools?” he asks. But what most people including
Parindi’s grandfather do not know is that there is no state authority in
charge of these institutions.
Education Ministry is clueless as to who holds responsibility over the
country’s Montessori education. When asked whether they are in charge of
Montessori schools since these are institutions where early childhood
education is provided to youngsters, The Sunday Leader received a
curt reply from one official who said “no, no, we don’t have time for
those.” These early childhood education centres seems to be nobody’s
baby with the Childcare and Probation Department too claiming Montessories
do not come under their purview. (See box)
most Western countries becoming a childcare worker without being registered
with the local authority could even lead to prosecution. Before such
persons’ are registered qualifications for training in first aid and other
emergency treatment is taken into consideration. Moreover, 24 hour abuse and
neglect hotlines to report emergencies are in operation for the benefit of
parents and children who may need assistance.
education should have set standards — standards that need to be followed
and should be routinely monitored and inspected. A license for a Montessori
school should be issued only after appointed inspection staff carry out
onsite investigations. But the current practice in place leaves much to be
the Dehiwala Mount Lavinia Municipal Council admits that Small Wonder
Montessori at Melder Place falls within their designated area to be
registered as a business. According
to the Council’s, Revenue Inspector Sarath Perera,
before a license for a Montessori school is issued building
inspectors would carry out onsite investigations. Also a valuation officer
would submit a report and before the license is issued the extent of the
premises in square feet is taken into account. When asked whether they take
into consideration the safety and suitability of a premises — for
extremely young children to spend time in, or the qualifications of the
staff before a license is issued or renewed he replied in the negative. All
attempts by The Sunday Leader to contact the owner of Small Wonders
Montessori School proved futile.
Playing with fire
is one of the most treacherous elements
man can face. Yet from ancient
times up to modern day, entertainment people have been willing to put
themselves in potentially hazardous situations to perform with fire.
would anyone be willing to get into this high-risk situation? A handful of
fire eating dangers include the ‘blowback,’ which could collapse a lung:
achieved by breathing in whilst the fire torch is in the mouth, or if the
participant blows windward. The shock can induce a heart attack and eyes are
susceptible to damage. The likelihood of burns to the skin is also a notable
relation to the Kandyan Dancers of Sri Lanka the fire aspect of the ritual
they perform is only one component of the ritual as a whole. This is an
important ceremony to pay homage to the
Buddha. This form of worship dates as far back as a passage on the
Buddha from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta records. This passage tells of
the time the Buddha’s body was lying in state and musical performances
inclusive of dance, song and orchestration were held in his honour. The
ceremony was the lay patrons portrayal of their deep veneration for Lord
Buddha, through unreserved expression. The present day Kandyan dancers’
drumming and dancing ritual is known as Sabola-puja, or ‘offering
of sound.’ The fire ritual aspect of the dance includes running a flaming
baton across bare arms, eating fire and walking over a bed of red-hot coals.
fire walking part of the ritual can be traced back to the epic tale of Rama
and Sita. Ravana, the King of Ceylon abducted Princess Sita of India, and
when her husband, Rama, took her back she proved her chastity (during her
enforced stay with Ravana) by walking across red hot embers unscathed.
symbolism of the dance denotes the celebrant’s ability to charm the fire
and drive off invisible evil spirits. Absolute faith is, allegedly, what
protects them from the coals, which are hot enough to melt aluminum. As well
as driving out these evil spirits they are calling out for the assistance of
other spirits to help them do so.
devout faith is sharply contrasting with the blatant exhibitionism of circus
acts. These people perform with fire for the benefit of the crowds and those
doing it for television are ultimately pushing danger boundaries for
ratings. When Thomas Wood, pyrojuggler was asked whether fire eating hurts,
he replied “It’s fire people.” He gave the same reply after questioned
if it is hot, and revealed – “The real trick to fire eating is that it
is not a trick at all. I really am taking a large flame and putting it in my
mouth.” No doubt there is a great rush in testing your fear limitations,
however Wood answers simply to the question of why one would eat fire if it
hurts – “for you!”
is necessary to mention the Kandyan dancers charge for the privilege of
watching them and the tourist touts at the entrance are a clear indication
that it takes more than warding off evil spirits to make things tick these
than entertainment and the purging of evil spirits another example of why
one might partake in fire activities is to search for solutions to life’s
problems. “Chief Kapurala’ Somipala Ratnayake at Kataragama Devale
claimes those coming to Kataragama are there to seek solutions for various
problems for which they have no other resources. Prior to the traditional
ceremony the participants prepare by abstaining from meat and other vices,
engaging in deep prayer and meditation and seeking the gods’ blessings.
Today hundreds of pilgrims can be seen walking over the red-hot live coals.
If they emerge un-injured this is proof the devotees are in an intoxicating
trance, sustained by their devotion to God. Burns are a result of a lack of
unadulterated devotion and purity.
No one answer can be ascribed to the question of why people endeavour to purposefully play with fire. It is clearly a guaranteed money spinner, but due to fire’s deep rooted cultural significance, the fire rituals connotations are more than mere showmanship. Ultimately, to perform with fire is to tame a potentially lethal force, thus harnessing a considerable power.
Miles away from
Colombo in Delgoda,
lives this young man who is struck with an illness which is hitherto
unknown to the world
tell me what is happening to me’
road leading to the Meegahawatte police
is a de-serted stretch that extends without
any hope of luxurious living. People walk for long distances to acquire bare
essentials. And it is down this
long road that 32 year old Chaminda Wikremaratna lives with his wife and
five year old son. But Chaminda
does not trek down the parched lanes, that is because he has no leg.
it was only a few years ago that Chaminda was a strong young man.
In 1996, when he knocked his leg on a wheelbarrow, it was just one of
those everyday accidents that we all meet with when we rush around. And when
he experienced a ‘shooting pain’ in that same leg he thought that it was
some muscle pain and rushed to their family doctor. “We were living in
Talawathugoda at that time.Though our family doctor treated me, the pain did
not go away. So he referred me
to another doctor, who took an X ray and said that there was nothing wrong
with the bone, but a nerve had been damaged,” explained Chaminda.
subsequently had to undergo three operations, but still the pain continued.
By this time Chaminda could not keep his foot on the ground.
I went to see Dr. Sridharan and I experienced no pain thereafter. The
operation was a great success,” recalls Chaminda.
Chaminda had to travel to India, and when in India, he had experienced some
pain and had to be admitted to hospital.
was told that I had to undergo a surgical operation and after this surgery
in India I had no pain,” said Chaminda.
weeks after returning
from India, everything seemed okay. But one day, to
Chaminda’s consternation he found that there was a mark that
appeared from the scar of the surgical operation in India.
went to about six doctors, but they were perplexed. They could not find out
what was wrong with me,” said Chaminda.
was at this time that Chaminda had gone in search of Orthopaedic Surgeon Dr.
doctor had commenced immediate treatment. “He admitted me to hospital and
started treating this scar with an immediate operation. When he was treating
one place, the burning scar and painful degeneration occurred elsewhere. Now
it had spread upto my knees. Though this doctor tried his best to save my
leg, he could not. The degeneration occurred before my very eyes. My muscle
and skin just rotted away giving me immense pain. And I had to amputate my
leg. I will never forget this doctor for he even spent on anaesthesia for
me. The drugs involved in my case are expensive, costing about Rs.35,000 a
month,” cried Chaminda.
today as you read this article there is heavy degeneration going on in
Chaminda’s body. In the morning there is a mark like a small birthmark
that begins to burn, by evening it has expanded to one as big as a tennis
ball and the burning sensation is even more unbearable. Then it begins to
sore and degenerate.
condition is a mystery. It is a rare disease, possibly a germ caught from
somewhere the doctors believe.
is this disease. Please help me. Already I have had to cut off two toes on
my other leg and my condition will mean that I will lose this leg too,
unless someone, in some country, helps me or finds me a cure,” begged
who sews to make a living, has appealed to the President’s
Fund but to no avail.
“This is not a cancer I am told, but I have to undergo chemotherapy.
Tomorrow I have to undergo a skin graft to cover this degeneration,” said
Chaminda, Wednesday morning last week. His heel is affected too. “How can
I cut off my heel?” Chaminda asks me with tears in his eyes. His only hope
is Dr. Sridharan who has stood by him during this most painful time in his
is sadness all around their home. Chaminda lives with his wife, child and
his parents in a small annexe in a small house. Their address is 217/2,
Meegahawatte, Delgoda. Confined to a wheel chair, there are tears in his
eyes as he expresses his fears of the future. If this condition continues,
Chaminda and his family will soon be out of their small annexe too, and on
the road, on which Chaminda will never be able to walk on.
of a rare calibre
in the line of duty’ was the
first thing that struck my mind when The Sunday
Leader covered the press conference last Monday at police
headquarters where IGP T. E. Anandarajah handed over a reward to a police
officer’s family and another officer for courageous work.
year on May 12, two officers, RPS Mahinda Padmasiri and RPS K. G.
Navaratne were escorting a van that was transporting cash to Nippon
Fashion factory in Yatiyantota.
the van was on its way to the factory six army deserters stopped the vehicle
in the hope of robbing the cash.
the vehicle came to a halt both RPS Padmasiri
and RPS Navaratne were
engaged in a face-to-face gun battle
with the attackers. RPS
Navaratne was hit and died on the spot while RPS Padmasiri continued
to protect the vehicle and the cash totalling over Rs. 7 million.
Padmasiri was able to bring the situation under control and take the van
along with the money to the Kabullumulla police station.
the vehicle and the money were saved, RPS Navaratne lost his life in that incident,
leaving behind his wife Thushari Priyanthi and their two children,
Yasoda Lankame aged 10 and their son Shihan Kaneshke aged
four. The couple had been married
for 10 years.
K. G. Navaratne had joined the police in 1988.The police last week
rewarded RPS Navaratne for his courage and gave the family Rs.100, 000
however wife Thushari says she
cannot go to work as she has to care for her children and her daughter has a
growth in her stomach where at times she faints
and has to be immediately taken to the hospital. “My parents are
too old to look after my children for me to go to work so I have no income.
The salary my husband was getting has also been
stopped so I am dependant on my
parents.” Her father has a small business but it is not enough to support
now lives with her parents K. Padmalatha and K. Thilakaratne in Padukka.
RPS Mahinda Padmasiri who was also rewarded is still serving in the police force and is still working at the Yatiyantota police station. RPS Mahinda Padmasiri is truly brave and will not hesitate to give his life for his work, as did his fellow officer RPS K. G. Navaratne even if their work goes unnoticed by the public who take these officers for granted.
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