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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 baiji.org 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