Friday, December 22, 2006

A Man for the Sea

In a couple of days it'll be the 2nd anniversary of the Tsunami that struck South and South East Asia in 2004. We were holidaying in Sri Lanka at the time, and although a cousin of mine and his entire family were killed, my wife and her folks were lucky enough to be in the wrong place at the right time - and thats why she is still alive and well today, thank God.

A few months before the Tsunami struck, I was out in the Maldives filming a turtle and coral reef conservation project. We took a day out to visit a local fishing community who were living out on a tiny island whose houses were built with old blocks of coral, and whose streets were populated by the old folk and the youngest children, while the men were still out at sea. I was truck by the peace and timelessness of the place, and by one oldtimer in particular. He made such an impression on me that I wrote this following piece about him.

After the tsunami struck I was informed that the entire island had been overcome by the waves, and the nearby resort where we had been staying had opened their doors to the survivors. I never did find out what happened to this 'Man for the Sea'...

A Man for the Sea

There is an island. I have been. Bleached like forgotten bone ‘neath an unforgiving, vengeful sky. I have walked its salt-stained streets. Stung my feet on the burn of its cobbles. Coral blocks, dressed and trimmed, resilient for decades, centuries before. Built to withstand the monsoon, the hurricane, the easterly tempests, these houses of old are museums for days that have come and gone. The fishermen have left, swept away by the red dawn, across the fathomless Indian Ocean, far from their island home, whose name is written in a language I cannot read.

All good women shun the daylight, gathered up in satins and bright colour – resplendent in the coolness of their homes. Children occupy vacant doorways, three abreast, with smiles so old for their young skin. Does everyone here know something I do not? I know nothing of the struggles here, it’s true. Of days that are spent hand to mouth, watching the sterile sky; longing for a benevolent breeze. Waiting for fathers, brothers and sons to return, not just with the catch, but also with their lives.

As a mark of time’s passage the coral cottages give way to things of steel and concrete; the dull insult of cable television now mocks the cry from the distant minaret, calling the faithful to count their blessings, to continue their faithful harvest. But what of these times. I am a foreigner who will be forgotten in the blink of an eye, and yet I still sense time catching up with them, their little space of something, a drop in this ocean.

Languished in the harbour, only one defiant sailing ship sits, drowning gracefully in flooded repose. She has not ventured forth for years, yet she retains a timeless splendour which the fibreglass boats cannot match. Her timbers rot and stain the shallows, but she has outlasted her crew, long departed.

Save perhaps one.

Down the coastal road, under the sway and dappled light of yellowing fruit trees, past the provisions store, the school, and the one-room hospital. In a shadowed doorway a figure sways and saunters. I can see him in the deeper labyrinth of his light and shade house, moving through clutter that only he could decipher. He reveals himself at the bare timbers of his door. His weathered, salt-cured skin breaks into a wide, white smile, and his great age suddenly drops away from his face, swept away like the tide across a worn beach. I am his guest – unexpected but welcome and we sit together – broken English and the indignant stare of his infant grand-daughter, pride of place atop his lap.

“I was a sea captain”. The lines on his face have already told me that story. “She was my ship”. Of course, we three were meant to meet. She can no longer brave the current, and he faithful to the last, remains by her side, watching over her.

The old man is sinewy, muscled, honed by a slow grill under the southern sun. His face has borne the brunt of it, but his frame is strong. He carries the infant effortlessly in one hand and shoos her to sleep. He seems half my height, but is clearly twice the man.

First impressions are deceptive. At first I thought of him as a stranded soul, having struggled perhaps like Hemingway’s Old Man, to calm the tempests, to carve a piece of this endless sea for himself. And yet in the draining of this shared spiced tea, I meet a man who struggles no more. He has won his fight, proved his worth. The light in his eyes shine for his grand-daughter, not for the riches of the sea. He is grounded with the love of his life, but he is content I think, to share brief memories with brief friends and speak of things that the young ones have no memory of.

As he gathers up the baby and adjusts the colourful but faded sarong about his lean waist, I thank him for his time. He bids me good travel to the place of my heart – and for a brief tantalizing moment I realize the allure of this place, the timelessness of it all. Centuries cannot change history here, although fibreglass surely replaces wood and merchants concede to tourists. How can time change a world governed by tides and the pull of the moon? It cannot, and I find that I have outstayed my welcome, because time still has an effect on me…

So we take each other’s leave, and I head for open waters, gliding past the love of his life, turning back one last time, to salute a man for the sea.

A Man for the Sea (and his grand-daughter)

(c) 2004, Charith Pelpola

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Wildlife News: New Borneo Frog

And ironically, in the same week we witness one species disappear from the face of the earth - we welcome a new one....

(Image: A Haas/WWF)

This tree frog, found in Borneo, has been named Rhacophorus gadingensis. The environmental group WWF says in a new report that at least 52 new species have been found in Borneo during the past year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Wildlife News: Baiji Dolphin - Functionally Extinct

"The Baiji is Functionally Extinct. Lipotes vexilifier is the first species of cetacean – whales, dolphins and porpoises – to disappear from our globe in modern times… the first large mammal to go extinct as a result of man’s destruction of their natural habitat and resources.

The disappearance of the Baiji from our planet is a tragedy for animal lovers around the world – and a tragic milestone for international animal conservation."

Those were the words of
August Pfluger on the blog

Photo by Cetacean Society International

Last week when researchers came back empty-handed after an expedition to find any traces of the dolphins in their native Yangtze River habitat in China, the realization dawned on many that we were actually witnessing extinction in action.

It is an incredibly tragic situation - that a highly specialized and unique species of
freshwater dolphin should be allowed to disappear so easily from an area that was once its stronghold. Conservationists involved in the race to save the species, themselves admit that all their efforts were made too late.

Although the expedition itself found no dolphins, they believe that there may be one or two still surviving along the length of the river - but this still marks the Baiji as being functionally extinct - a species needs at least 25 indivuduals in its population to ensure its continuity...

The last Baiji was seen in the wild back in 2004, and the last captive Baiji died in 2002. This latest news finally sounds a tragic death knell for a remarkable and unearthly beautiful creature.

The news, as reported by the BBC:

Monday, December 11, 2006

Every leaf, every feather, every hair

In the lone hills of southern Sri Lanka, there lies a belt of tropical rain forest called Sinharaja. Like all ancient forests, it once stretched out across the country, linking the burning coastline to the cool, lingering highlands.

'Sinharaja' is literally the 'lion king', which refers to the original "Royal Forest of Sri Lanka". The small 8,000 hectare fragment that remains today is the last of its kind, and its survival into the present day has been ensured, not by the blessings of royalty, but the diligence and stewardship of one single man.

Over thirty years ago a young tracker named Martin Wijesinghe joined the Forest Department, bringing with him nothing but a love of nature and an overwhelming desire to learn from the wilderness around him. He was assigned to Sinharaja, and thus began a union that continues to this day.

Martin came at a time when environmental concerns were the last thing on most people's minds.

Even the powers that be were not overly concerned with the country's fast-deteriorating forest resources, and Sinharaja was low on their list of priorities.

As Martin's knowledge of the forest grew, so did his worries for its future.

Experts came and went, but none stayed long enough to absorb the real necessity for the forest to be protected. The timber merchants from home and abroad took their toll on the hardwoods and softwoods of the forest.

The forest fragmentation was to have disastrous consequences for the highly specialized animals of the forest. Sinharaja is home to 19 of the country's 20 endemic bird species, among them, the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, and the Red-faced Malkoha, cited as one of the fifty rarest birds in the world.

Sri Lanka Blue Magpie

Red-faced Malkoha
photo by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

Tea estates swallowed up the surrounding lands, and slowly began to encroach over the forest's boundary. Herds of elephant that once migrated seasonally, from one region of the forest to another, gradually vanished. And the characteristic 'sawing' call of the leopard faded from memory too. When Sinharaja was finally declared a strict National Reserve, it was barely a fraction of its former size.

Through it all, Martin stayed put, and in time became the foremost authority on Sinharaja's plant and animal wealth.

His knowledge of the forest's herbal plants, its unique insect life, and the secretive animals that hide within its depths, has made him an invaluable consultant to various conservation projects and Sinharaja's eventual establishment as a Man and Biosphere Reserve. Martin remains a respected teacher to hundreds of school children that have visited Sinharaja. And all from a humble tracker without a single qualification.

During the few times that I have visited Sinharaja, I have been amazed to hear Martin rattling off plant and animal names, as he spots them - in both their common AND scientific names. He is a walking encyclopedia and his knowledge is to be treasured by his country.

Martin has been awarded special commendations for his work, and has been granted residence in a department bungalow within the forest itself, which has now been expanded inot a guesthouse.

From there, with his family, he works to keep the forest alive; maintaining a watchful eye on every leaf, and every feather, and every hair. Guarding the forest. Delivering it into the future.

Sinharaja, photo by Nihal Fernando

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Field Journals: The Blue Bull

Perhaps the only tropical grassland in India with the status of a national park, Velavadar in Bhavnagar, is 36 kilometres of grasslands and thorn scrub in the southern confines of Gujarat.

We travelled through this area in search of Asiatic Lions, and although the forests of Sasan Gir were our ultimate destination, I was beginning to get a distinct feeling that we were now entering an area of real, primeval wilderness.

The grasslands were bathed in a suffocating, impenetrable heat haze, and searing temperatures dogged us incessantly, draining our energy before we could even pick up our cameras and get to work. Velavadar is a stronghold of the majestic Black Buck – reputedly the fastest antelope over long distances and a highly protected species – by royal decree.

Having almost been wiped out by overzealous hunters in the last century, the Black Buck is enjoying a comeback of sorts in India, if only through the committed work of local conservationists.
The reserve is carefully managed, and the species so precious that they are further protected from their natural predators by the wildlife department. Jackals though, and the extremely rare Indian Wolf still make enough of an impact to strike some kind of equilibrium in the numbers.

We were not staying here for long – there are no lions here – and we only wanted some coverage of the Black Bucks to fill in some back story to the main show. And besides, we had arrived out of the breeding season, so the gorgeous black and white adult males were not being as flamboyant with their advances towards the females – although the dominant stags spent most of their time putting sub-adult males in their place. With no cover from the heat, we were about to leave the black buck and head for the cover of the forests, but then we all stopped what we were doing when a strange figure materialized on the horizon.

Out of the shimmering grass strode one of the most unusual looking animals I have ever seen.
The mirage slowly began to take shape and for a moment I believed I was looking at a strange hump-backed, long-necked buffalo. But it was far from a strange, fantastical mutation. This was a very real, and very sacred Blue Bull, or Nilgai to give it its proper name. I have read about Nilgai and seen pictures of them, but to witness one in the wild – it almost seems like an improbable mixture of several different animals…

With a pair of devilish little horns adorning its head and a black beard sprouting from its neck, we were able to identify it as a male. He was uneasy, changing his posture regularly and sniffing the air. His uneasiness was caused by an adjacent herd of lighter-coloured females. His behaviour suggested that at least one of them was in breeding condition.
Our presence, all loaded into a big grey Land Rover, may have also been causing him some nerves, so we pulled away, and left him to his potential exploits…

Full-grown male Nilgai, reputedly are pound-for-pound, one of the strongest antelope species in the world, but I’m not sure how such a statement is either gauged or measured. But what I do know is that they are a very regal-looking animal. The males in particular make an imposing sight. When we finally reached Gir, we came across a number of other individuals – but one battle-worn male particularly stood out from the rest.

Like a proven prize-fighter, one of his horns was dramatically broken, and his thick neck was scarred and streaked from run-ins with rivals or predators, or both.

His beard was long and his blue-black coat positively glistened in the sun – he was quite a striking sight, and he seemed to know it.

This male too was hanging around a female, with calf in tow. She seemed to be pregnant as well, so I’m not sure why the male was hovering around them. But he was on full alert, so mesmerized by scanning the horizon that he totally overlooked our presence.

After a long while, we were distracted by a hunting party of Jackal, and left the trio behind, to trail the jackals deeper into the bush. It was only later on in the afternoon that we found out the reason for the male’s unease.

A small pride of lions had been enjoying their mid-morning siesta about a mile away, and although he couldn’t see them, the old Nilgai could certainly smell the felines.
Nilgai are fully equipped to survive in a place with lions and tigers for neighbours. Apart from their bulk, they are capable of attaining prolonged speeds of up to 30 miles an hour, and have very sharp eyesight.

By early evening, we encountered a pair of bachelor bulls, who were in their prime and muscled up like the 500-pound heavyweights they were. But a sudden change in the wind, and they were off, along with the female they were following...

The matriarch lioness had roused her family and they were on the move…
As dusk settled, even the formidable Nilgai withdrew from centre stage and sought out the sanctuary of the undergrowth – still the best tactic when a Lion has dinner on its mind…

All photos
(c) copyright, Charith Pelpola

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Making of Spirit Bear #3: The Old Girl

When I finally got round to fine-tuning the narrative for our documentary, it was vital that we had a semblance of a "cast" - characters on whose lives we could eavesdrop if only for a fleeting moment in time, and tell their stories, from their point of view.

Well that was the plan anyway. And after our first season of filming and hardly any bears on the ground, I was beginning to wonder if this plan was as straightforward as it had seemed initially.
But then the wilderness intervened as She usually does, and this year, out of the undergrowth stepped the Old Girl.

She is called "One Eye" in the documentary, for obvious reasons, and she was as wizened and beaten-up and bedraggled as an old sloth bear could get. Calloused and besieged by skin ailments, many would call her ugly and not give her even a second glance. But we fell in love with her, and she repaid our attentions by remaining in "our patch" of the forest for an entire week.

So for seven days we were given a glimpse into the life of a bear in her twilight years. Film-makers are often warned against the temptation to portray an animal's life or behaviour using a palette of human emotions - but how could we not be affected by the discomfort she displayed while walking on a badly injured paw, or the almost hopeless look of desperation that swept across her eyes when faced with the prospect of having to climb a tree despite her aching arthritic joints.

You could read that bear like a book. The fear of wandering into a younger bear's territory, or being ambushed by another. The seemingly hopeless search for food, and the fatigue that she obviously felt after hours spent stumbling under a sweltering sky.

So with the visuals we came back with, her story slowly unfolded - I didn't have to tell the Old Girl's story - she told it herself. And when at last she disappeared into the bush for the final time, we felt like we were saying goodbye (and good luck) to a friend, whom we knew we would never see again.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A message from above

I thought today would be a bad day, considering the way it started: our much loved Suckermouth Catfish, Hypostomus plecostomus, imaginatively christened "Spotty" by my wife, had passed away during the night. I bought him as a 2 inch baby when we first came to Singapore in 2000, and 6 years later, he had grown into a handsome 2 and half feet giant.

Farewell Spotty. We had good times...

I spent a sad morning burying the former King of the Castle in the garden. He (although 'plecos' are difficult to sex, so I was never sure about this) was a charismatic resident of the aquarium, regularly rearranging the scenery to suit his needs, and polishing off entire cucumbers by moonlight. The tank is much emptier following his demise...

Some might wonder how one could get so attached to a fish - but I'm afraid both of us are suckers for any animal - and especially those that enter our home, for they inevitably enter our hearts.

But on the upside, my "Buddies" are growing nicely, and my local aquarium shop-owner - don't know his name, so I shall call him Uncle Fish - presented me with a pair of Super Red Melon Discus, as he knew how upset I had been at my old pair's passing. Hopefully they will acclimatize and settle down.

They look something like this...

Anyway I sought consolation in the last remaining pages of David Attenborough's "Life on Air" - yes it seems ridiculous but its taken me all this time to finally sit down and read it. As I finished his concluding chapter, I closed the book with a sigh of satisfaction. I reflected on his exploits and collected memories as I walked down the road this evening back home, and I thought to myself,
Yes, to be touched by nature and the wilderness - that's all I could really ask for.

As I thought this quite profound thought, I passed under a towering Sea Almond Tree, and one of its great big green nuts fell on my head.

It hurt.

Not quite what I had in mind by being "touched by nature", but appropriate nonetheless.

Yes, quite fitting actually...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Making of Spirit Bear #2: Faces in the Crowd

There comes a moment in the jungles, after the first few days of frenzied surveillance and field research, when you settle down, figure out your likely locations, and just wait for things to happen. And that's the moment when the wilderness gradually starts to accept you as part of the landscape...

It was no different this time in Sri Lanka, while waiting for the stars of our show to make their grand entrance. And boy did we have to wait - but that was not necessarily a bad thing, because we had time to acquaint ourselves with other residents of the reserve - who spent as much time watching us, as we did them...

One of the most familiar faces in the foliage are Toque Macaques, a species endemic to Sri Lanka, but similar to the Bonnet Macaques of India. Each is characteristically distinguished by the curious "hairdo" (toque) that they possess.

The individual hairstyles are as unique as fingerprints, and are used to identify each macaque in field studies. Anyway it didn't take long before they allowed even the youngest members of their clan to come take a look at the strange bipedal monkeys...

Hello... who are these strange looking animals then?

Not another herd of wildlife film-makers...

Oh well, better assume the "cute baby" pose then...

Cocoa and the Dragon

Cocoa is a curious sort. For those that don't know her, she's a typical "Singapore special" - mysterious parentage, but some recognizable breeds incorporated somewhere within her ancestry.

She's extremely inquisitive and when she's feeling up to it, inclined to bouts of cleverness.

Cocoa is very familiar with all the animal life that frequents our neighbourhood here in the west coast of the island. She has strong maternal instincts and is forever trying to make friends with any species that she comes across, and so far this has failed with the Mynah Birds, the Pigeons, the Orioles, the Plaintain Squirrels, and the Changeable Lizards. But these minor setbacks have never stopped the old girl, and today she found a new and highly unexpected potential-friend:

Yes, its a Gliding Lizard or a Flying Dragon; Draco volans I think. I don't know what she was doing on the lawn, (very small throat flap so I'm guessing it was a female), but we almost missed her when she was on the pavement, blending in with the pebble-dash.

When Cocoa approached a little too close for comfort, the little dragon spread her wing membrane and dashed across the grass for cover.

I presumed that Draco was strictly arboreal, so perhaps the female had come down to the ground to lay and bury her eggs? Anyway, in keeping with tradition, she was not keen to strike up a friendship with Cocoa, and quickly disappeared into the bush.

Cheer up Cocoa, you should be used to that kind of reaction by now...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Wildlife News: World's Rarest Big Cat Captured

from National Geographic News

In the remote forests of southeastern Russia, scientists have captured what's believed to be the rarest big cat on Earth: a Far Eastern leopard.

The animal is so scarce that only 30 are thought to survive in the wild.

The team, led by biologists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, caught the 100-pound (45-kilogram) male in a snare last week while studying Siberian tigers in the Russian Far East, 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Chinese border.

The chance capture gave biologists a priceless opportunity to study the elusive feline, and Melody Roelke (below), a specialist in big-cat genetics with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, wasn't shy about getting a closer look.

She and other team members conducted a thorough series of tests on the leopard, from studying its teeth to collecting sperm samples, before releasing the animal back into the wild.

Among the scientists' main concerns is whether Far Eastern leopards, also known as Amur leopards, can continue to sustain their tiny, isolated population, or whether disease and inbreeding may eventually wipe out the cats.

"This capture represents a milestone in our cooperative efforts to save the Far Eastern leopard and Siberian tiger from extinction," said Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Russia Program, in a statement.

"With the information gained from these animals, and others to come, we will be in a much better position to determine appropriate conservation actions."

—Blake de Pastino

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Making of Spirit Bear #1: Neighbours

Well, if blockbuster Hollywood movies can have them, then why can't I?

Thought it might be fun to show you some of the behind-the-scenes goings-on of "Season of the Spirit Bear", as a lead up to its premiere on Animal Planet in a couple of weeks.

And just to make sure that I give absolutely nothing away - none of this stuff actually appears in the documentary... so you'll still have to tune in anyway to understand what's going on...

But in order to go behind-the-scenes, I first have to introduce the show's most important character; the man who takes the pictures - Simon Nicholls. Now being modest, humble and an all-round good guy, Simon doesn't talk about himself, so I will have to.

One of the pre-requisites of a wildlife cameraman is to be able to sit very still for hours on end until you lose all feeling in your limbs and the constant hum of mosquitoes becomes music to your ears, and the urge to use the loo is but a distant memory. Simon can do this. Simon can switch into 'statue-mode' whenever the need arises. And yet, remain alert to the slightest movement in the bush...

Erm, Simon, the bear is in front of you...

Simon's stony concentration is what gets him his classic wildlife portraits. His unwavering patience and attention to detail are legendary, even to the point of getting himself into "situations".

Case in point:

Simon is interested in filming a tree...

He is
very interested in this tree...

But he's not the only one...

So is the next door neighbour...

Perhaps you should move Simon... quickly

To be continued...

Thai Zoo to Teach Panda to Mate with 'Videos'

A Thai zoo, which has hosted a couple of pandas for four years, will play ahem, "adult" videos for the male next month to encourage them to breed in captivity.

The pair - living chastely together at the zoo in the northern city of Chiang Mai since arriving from China in 2003 - would be separated in December, but stay close enough for occasional glimpses of each other, said panda project chief Prasertsak Buntrakoonpoontawee. "They don't know how to mate so we need to show the male how, through videos," Prasertsak told Reuters.

Too much TV for this tired little panda

He said Chuang Chuang, the six-year-old male, would be shown the videos on a large screen when he might be feeling amorous. "We'll play the video at the most comfortable and intimate time for him, perhaps after dinner," Prasertsak said, hoping Chuang Chuang would then use the techniques on Lin Hui, a five-year-old female.

I wonder if the videos in question feature human or panda "actors"...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Wildlife News: Indian Wildlife researchers face too many bureaucratic hurdles

Throughout the Asian region, outdated laws and blinding oversights still exist that make the work of the wildlife researcher difficult to say the least.

Check out this improbable example from India - or, "How to study a nocturnal animal, without permission to do any research at night."

[text from Science Nov. 10, 2006 - DOI: 10.1126/science.314.5801.907a]

Little is known about the Malabar civet (Viverra civettina), an endangered mammal the size of a small dog that lives in the wet forests of southern India. To get a better understanding of this vanishing beast, N. V. K. Ashraf, a veterinarian with the Wildlife Trust of India in New Delhi, sought a research permit last January from the Kerala Forest Department, which manages the civet's last-known habitat.

Permission was granted - but to work only between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The Malabar civet, however, is a nocturnal animal. Not surprisingly, Ashraf has found no trace of the civet during his daylight-hours research. Ashraf 's frustrations are far from unique - and now India's wildlife researchers have had enough.

Writing in the 25 October issue of the journal Current Science, 14 of the country's leading experts bemoan "a disturbing trend across India where scientists are increasingly denied access to wildlife reserves for scientific research or are seriously impeded, without scope for redress." They blame the antiquated Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which puts research and hunting permits in the same general category. They also claim that unnamed officials "arbitrarily" deny access to reserves and "demand co-authorship on publications as a precondition" for a research permit.

Download Science in the wilderness: the predicament of scientific research in India’s wildlife reserves [PDF]. Current Science Vol. 91 No. 8

Saturday, November 11, 2006

something fishy, 'buddy'

Everyone should have a hobby - and as I don't drink or smoke, the next best thing was fish-keeping. And since going on about David Attenborough can't strictly be classified as a hobby, raising tropical fish seemed a more socially acceptable pastime.

I must admit that my efforts at piscine husbandry kind of faded away after my dear old pair of Blue Discus died of, well, being terminally old. Although an assorted population of South American catfish are thriving in the former Discus abode, its just not the same without the Old Blues not being around any more.

The Old Blues - we had such fun together

But having said all that, I have recently resurrected a small two foot tank - stocked it to the brim with plants and fed them with CO2. The desired "submerged jungle" effect is well on its way and I have populated the tank with a species of fish that has long intrigued me...

While browsing a local fish shop (better known as 'LFS' by aquarium aficionados like myself), I came across a shoal of inch-long fish which the shopkeeper had creatively christened "Buddy's buddies".

Well I thought to myself, this all sounds and looks very familiar - and my suspicions were later confirmed after surfing the 'net. This was Badis badis, a charismatic little fish from India.

According to the experts, "
Badis badis is also known as the chameleon fish due to it's ability to quickly change it's bright colors. Taxonomically it is a bit of a chameleon as well. It shows a relationship to Anabantids - Gouramis and Leaf Fish. At the present time the genus is monotypic and Badis badis is the only species. However, with the discovery of the un-described Scarlet Badis, all of the subspecies are being looked at and may be broken up. Specimens of this fish can be found in India, Pakistan, Burma and Thailand, resulting in the subspecies."

They actually behave a lot like cichlids, and when the diminutive little males establish their territories and jostle for breeding rights, they actual colour up quite nicely. So I will follow my little band of five "buddies" closely, and eagerly anticipate a bit of rumbling in the jungle.

Right now they look a bit like this:

But when its 'time', the males should look like this:

After my lot have settled in, I will take some of my own photos...
This experiment has just begun, and keeping in mind that my subjects are currently smaller than my fingernail, I will diligently continue my observations inspite of the repetitive eye strain.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and indulging in my hobby. It keeps me out of trouble and is certainly cheaper than a bottle of Red Label (unless I decide to invest in Discus again, in which case - it won't be)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Field Journals: Elephant Songs

Above all perceptions in the natural world, is the tuning of the senses to a language far more resounding than words. Yet so subtle, that it remains inaudible to our own human acoustics.

As you or I might walk through the forests, and delight in the songs of the oriole, or the warning drill of a flamboyant peacock, we remain entirely unsuspecting of the deeper meanings of this hidden forest language.

In the undergrowth, a transmission of thoughts, a communication of triumphs and fears are exchanged continuously, between these other forms of awareness.

We are able to hear the excitable splash of a rock upon the surface of a stream. But we could never fathom its numerous, submerged meetings with other drowned pebbles, before it finally lays to rest beneath the currents.

There is a clear division between perception at the surface, and an insight of what lies beneath it all.

But there is a language that crosses this boundary. And once in a while, you may hear its voices, in the open, scrub-land forests of Sri Lanka - as you listen to the songs of
the songs of the elephant.

Before we even see them, before we can hear the drumming approach of their footsteps, their voices reach us first. Penetrating our inner thoughts and awakening instinctive, buried memories of our lost communion with the wild.

On the plains of Udawalawe National Park, the resident herds and migrating nomads converge and unite, as the rains begin to fall. This is a time for reawakening family ties. Their strong. tactile bonds are intimately revealed by the delicate embrace of trunk within trunk, and head upon head. So simple to rationalise and interpret in terms of human affection, but there is more to this. Listen, and you will hear them speak. Not with words, with music.

Elephants most often communicate in deep, rumbling notes. These songs seem to have a calming effect on their fellows. A matriarch will often comfort her distressed herd with a continued series of gentle rumblings. In fact elephants have been known to rest their trunks on the hoods of safari jeeps, and fall asleep to the sounds and vibrations of the engine. They will also raise their pitch when alarmed, and sound their characteristic ‘trumpet’. At times like these, their intentions need no explanation. But there is a whole range of inflections between and beyond these two voices.

Although we may never hear them, it seems that they rarely stop talking. An elephant mother will stay in constant vocal contact with her calf. Rival elephant clans can avoid unnecessary conflicts by voicing their opinions and grievances from afar. All of these exchanges are transmitted through an infrasonic frequency, conveyed by the very currents of the enveloping air.

One of the most necessary reasons for elephants to stay in touch , is to ensure the continuation of their kind.

A female in oestrus will resonate a mating call that can be heard by prospective partners over five miles away. This is essential, when one considers the facts that a female elephant might be sexually receptive only four days in every four years, and that the mature bulls often live many territories away from the family groups.

While we may be unaware of these calls, and events that influenced them, the elephants, with their superb low-frequency hearing - the best of any mammal yet tested - heard them all, and understood perfectly, their intentions.

Infrasound, on which the elephants send their songs, is carried by the strong temperature inversions form at the surface before sunset and decay with sunrise, often accompanied by calm wind conditions during the early evening. The results suggest that the range over which elephants communicate more than doubles at night. At these times, ranges of over 10 km are likely, with the greatest amplification occurring at the lowest frequency tested.

This strong diurnal cycle in communication range may be reflected in longer-lasting changes in weather and may exert an influence on elephant behaviour on time scales from days to many years.

Scientific recordings of these calls impart very little of what transpires between them. It is almost impossible to determine who is speaking, as elephants give few visible signs of actually calling. With highly sociable animals, the identity of the caller is often just as important as what is being said.

For example, your response to hearing your name would probably be very different depending on whether the speaker was a family member or a complete stranger. It is important to know both who is speaking, as well as what is spoken, if a communication system is ever to be deciphered. For the moment, it remains an ancient secret of the elephants.

We remain oblivious to these reactions. Yet chance encounters will sometimes bring us unexpectedly close to them. There are many responses that come to mind when a herd surrounds you. Despite the protecting armour of a vehicle, when the matriarch summons her siblings, and they converge upon your jeep, it is not their incredible collective bulk that is shocking. It is their voice. As she manoeuvres the herd to shield her precious young from your intrusion, it is not her anger that chills you. It is that alien wisdom that colours her raging eyes.

Environmentalists have often describe life, in it’s simplest terms, as a cycle. An unending sequence of events. Growth and decay, following growth and decay. If one component is removed, the others will destroy themselves in symbiotic accord. Without the elephant, there is no land. And without the land, there are no people.

But Sri Lanka changes, ever so slowly. The country is waking to the songs of her elephants. As the herds gather in Udawalawe, and countless other protected pockets of forest; researchers and laymen are pooling together their accumulated knowledge and expertise. Voicing their plans for recovery and their fears of inevitability. This may be the last, great attempt made to save the Sri Lankan Elephant. If the rate of their population decline is to be taken seriously, then we may lose them within the dawn of this new millennium.

If you should venture into the forest, look for the elephants. If you can’t find them, then listen for their songs. In the undergrowth; over the silent water-hole; against every gnarled and twisted tree. The songs of the elephant will always be here. Until the elephants are no more.

photo © Nihal Fernando
All b+w photos
© Charith