Archive for the ‘Other Animals’ Category

Snake Identification Service to Save People, Snakes

August 5, 2018

Expert sets up website to prevent human and snake deaths. Published on SundayTimes on 15.07.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180715/news/how-to-keep-our-serpents-in-paradise-302412.html

Hump nosed viper (කුණකටුවා) venomous

To prevent the needless slaughter of up to 10,000 snakes a day by people panicking over snakebite death, toxinology expert Dr. Kalana Maduwage is urging the public to use a snake identification website he has masterminded to find out if a snake is venomous.

The Snake Identification Service (www.snakesidentification.org) will assist doctors and others to accurately identify creepy-crawlers and save both human and snake lives – news to celebrate tomorrow (July 16) on World Snake Day, which highlights the diversity of snakes and the important role they play.

“I developed this Snake Identification Service because of the many phone calls I am having every day from doctors,” said Dr. Maduwage, highly respected as an authority on snake venom toxins and antivenoms. “Many doctors at hospitals are not able to identify snakes.”

Sri Lanka has rich snake diversity with approximately 105 species, more than half of them endemic to this country. Most of the snakes are non-venomous and not a threat to humans.

About 15 species of sea snakes and only a few of the 90 land-inhabiting species, such as the Indian krait, cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper, hump-nosed viper and Ceylon krait, have lethal bites.

Wolf snake – a common creature often misidentified as venomous

Snakebite is a major medical public health issue in this country with about 80,000 people being bitten annually, resulting in about 400 deaths. Most of the victims are farmers in poor agricultural communities, with most being admitted to hospital for anti-venom treatment.

There are two kinds of venom, so early and accurate identification of the snake responsible for a bite is critical in treating the patient.

Anybody in difficulties can log on to the computerised Snake Identification Service to obtain help.

Users are asked to upload information about the snake of concern or interest to them. “The expert team behind the Snake Identification Service will be immediately notified and we will respond quickly,” Dr. Maduwage said.

Dr. Maduwage, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Peradeniya who has carried out important research on snake bites and treatments, has also developed a series of video lectures that explain snakes and treatments for snakebite.

This nine-part series titled “Snakebites: The Whole Story”, covers all important aspects of Sri Lankan snakebites and can be accessed freely on YouTube through links on http://www.snakesidentification.org.

Dr.Kalana Maduwage

Dr. Maduwage believes these lectures will fill the knowledge gaps on issues related to Sri Lankan snakebites.

It is often difficult to find accurate information on snake identification, bites, clinical features, hospital investigations, treatment, first aid, preventive strategies and other issues, Dr. Maduwage said. Even in standard medical and other textbooks, updated information on these areas is missing, leaving medical professionals groping for answers to snakebite complications they face.

The first part of the lecture series gives an overview of Sri Lankan snakes and their high diversity. The second covers the identification of venomous snakes and easy ways to distinguish them from non-venomous snakes.

There are four lectures on clinical features of snakebite, investigation, treatment and snake antivenom that are specifically for medical professionals in Sri Lanka confronted with snakebite victims.

The lecture series also covers first aid in treating snakebite, useful for people who either live or work in snake-prone situations. A lecture on the prevention of snakebite describes where snakes are commonly found and their activities. The final presentation is on the conservation of Sri Lankan fauna, including threats to snakes.

Dr. Maduwage, who has discovered a number of snake species, emphasises that snakes, as top predators, play a vital role in eco-systems as they control the breeding of pests such as rats in paddy fields, helping to save crops.

Snake venom is used to produce antivenom and many other medications. Several common antihypertensive drugs such as Captopril were developed from snake venom.
“So the presence of venom is not a reason to kill snakes,” Dr. Maduwage pointed out.

“As far as I know, about 10,000 snakes are killed every day only in Sri Lanka due to lack of identification and the wrong impression that ‘all snakes are dangerous’,” he said.

Dr. Maduwage said he was grateful for the help of medical student Parakrama Karunatilleke in setting up the Snake Identification Service website, and for the assistance of three young doctors, Dr. Bhagya Nikapitiya, Dr. Sajith Tillekeratne and Dr. Asiri Seneviratne, in developing the YouTube lecture series.

No excuse for snake shows in ayurveda
Wildlife officers raiding a house in Rajagiriya two weeks ago found 21 snakes including a green pit viper, python, green whip snakes, ornate flying snake and cat snakes being kept without a permit by an ayurvedic practitioner. The man, who was later released on bail, said he had kept the snakes for educational and identification purposes – which the law allows ayurvedic doctors to do if they obtain a permit.

Decades ago, ayurvedic treatments using medicinal oil and medicinal stones claimed to have antivenom properties were more popular than western medicine for treating snakebite victims. Ayurvedic doctors, sometimes commonly known as “beheth thel karayas” (people who sell medicinal oil) used to exhibit snakes in public areas as a tactic to grab people’s attention to sell their products. 

“Keeping snakes for education/identification is a fake excuse. We can educate people without live snakes,” Dr. Kalana Maduwage said. 

 

The slithery unwelcome stranger and a pipe snake that escaped death

January 3, 2017
The Pipe Snake rescued from Deniyaya. Pic by Minuwan Shri Premasinghe

The Pipe Snake rescued from Deniyaya. Pic by Minuwan Shri Premasinghe

Holidaymakers in Nuwara Eliya this season were in for a rude shock when a strange slithery visitor was spotted at the iconic Lake Gregory e. Many who flocked there suggested it could be a Cobra and a confirmation later by snake experts that it was infact a juvenile cobra caused shivers that had nothing to do with the weather, to many.

“But if you leave a Cobra alone you don’t need to worry,” said one expert. Although the Cobra (Naja naja) is a lethally venomous snake, it attacks only as a last resort when being cornered or accidentally stepped on. The Cobra when threatened will first display its hood and make a hissing sound in an attempt to scare away intruders. The one found in Nuwara Eliya was a juvenile cobra according to experts.

However, it is not common to find a Cobra in Nuwara Eliya and its environs as many snake species cannot withstand cold weather. “I have never encountered a Cobra in Nuwara Eliya,” said Herpetologist Dr.Anslem de Silva who has conducted many reptile surveys islandwide. Only rough-sided snakes belonging to the genus Aspidura and rat snakes are usually found in cold environments such as Nuwara Eliya.

Our Nuwara Eliya correspondent, Shelton Hettiarachchi said residents believe the Cobra may have ended up there in a goods vehicle from some other part in the country.

Meanwhile, the sighting of a pipe snake has also been reported. Minuwan Shri Premasinghe had sighted this unusual reptile on his way to the Sinharaja rainforest. The Pipe snake in Sinhala is known as the ‘Depath Naya’ with ‘Naya’ meaning ‘Cobra’ and ‘depath’ meaning ‘heads on both ends’ of the body. The Sinhala name was given by locals on observing the Pipe snake’s behaviour when it was agitated– it flattens the lower part of its body and points the tail forward. In this position, the ventral pattern appears like two large eyes with the cloacae appearing like an open mouth.

While making its tail erect the Pipe Snake also tugs its head under the body when facing a predator. This is a defence mechanism where the snake warns potential predators not to come closer. If the predator undeterred by the warning decides to attack, it first targets the ‘fake head’ which is in fact the ‘erect tail’. This gives the pipe snake a vital fraction of time to escape. Even if the tail is injured, it is not as severe than an injury to the head, which is vital for the snake’s survival.

The Pipe Snake is a nocturnal creature and Mr. Premasinghe had seen the snake at around 10 p.m. at Deniyaya. The pipe snake was nearly killed by mortified villagers who tried to attack it with wooden poles and iron rods.

The cobra spotted in Nuwara Eliya. Pic by Shelton Hettiarachchie

“The Pipe snake is a harmless non-venomous reptile and this one was nearly killed by terrified villagers. Only a handful of Sri Lankan snakes are lethally venomous, so innocent snakes too get killed as people do not knowto identify snakes,” said Mr.Premasinghe who pointed out the importance of educating villagers, particularly those living close to biodiversity rich areas such as the Sinharaha forest. Mr. Premasinghe released the Pipe Snake to the rainforest the next day.

The Pipe Snake scientifically categorised as Cylindrophis maculatus is in fact the first reptile described from Sri Lanka in 1754. It is also special as the snake was introduced to the scientific world by Carl Linnaeus who is known as the “Father of Taxonomy”– for formalising the modern system of naming organisms called binomial nomenclature in 1754.

Dr.De Silva states that the average length of a Pipe Snake is 500 mm. The longest Ceylon pipe snake spotted so far has been a 715 mm long female recorded from Deraniyagala in 1955, according to a book written by Dr.De Silva.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170101/news/the-slithery-unwelcome-stranger-and-a-pipe-snake-that-escaped-death-222494.html

Don’t monkey around with our monkeys

November 20, 2016

Having a feast: Coconuts and bananas not spared. Photos by Rukmal Rathnayake

A peaceful resolution of the conflict for living space with our closest relatives

As monkeys struggle for existence while causing havoc to the people with their monkey tricks, the need to co-exist with our closest animal kingdom relatives was emphasised at an international conference here.

The Toque Monkey, better known as the Rilawa, causes more trouble than the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey or Kalu wandura, according to studies.

The Fifth Asian Primate Symposium hosted by the Sri Jayewardenepura University was held at the Mount Lavinia Hotel with seven countries participating to discuss ecology, biodiversity, human-animal conflict and related issues of interest to Asian primatologists.

An analysis of around 500 monkey-related complaints received by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), from 2007 to 2015 was presented at the conference by Dr. Tharaka Prasad, the DWC’s chief veterinary surgeon. According to him, 54 percent of the complaints have been against Rilawas and 29 percent against Kalu Wandura. Both these species are endemic to Sri Lanka.

Colombo which records the highest human population density had the highest frequency of conflicts of 115. Sadly, most of these are against the Kalu Wandura which is closed to the risk level of the Critically Endangered Western Purple-faced langur. Its conflict with humans severely undermines its future survival. Sri Lanka’s western region, where these langurs mainly stay, has only a few forest patches and the remaining habitats are also being lost or degraded. There are only a few protected areas, under the control of the DWC in the Western region, adding to the challenge of conserving these highly arboreal langurs.

Dr. Prasad who frequently treats injured monkeys said: “Monkeys are social animals. So we get into really difficult situations as to what we should do for the injured animals after they recover.”

At present, such monkeys are released to a location closer to Colombo as there is no alternative. There is a plan to build a facility to keep such monkeys, he said.

Sri Lanka is home to two other primate species — the Grey Langur and Slender Loris. Slender Loris monkeys stay mainly on the trees and rarely make contacts with humans. Even where Grey Langurs or hanuman monkeys are concerned, the number of human-animal conflicts is negligible.

According to the analysis, about 70 percent of the complaints relate to crop damage. Several other primate scientists, both local and international, made presentations at the symposium. A strategy to conserve and coexist with Sri Lanka’s monkeys was also presented in a paper prepared by Dr. Rudy Rudran of the Smithsonian Institute. Dr. Rudran’s research team is conducting an islandwide survey to identify important issues relating to monkey troubles.

Local researchers Surendranie Cabral, Sanjaya Weerakody and Rukmal Ratnayake say the utcome of this research may help to identify factors and reduce conflicts or tension between humans and monkeys.

Instead of viewing this situation in the grim terms of monetary losses due to the conflict, it should be seen as a challenge to the science of conservation biology, where coexistence of humans and monkeys is the key to conflict resolution, the symposium agreed.

Trials to start for home-grown anti-venom

October 10, 2016

Drug will for the first time counter kunakatuwa bites : Published on SundayTimes on 09.10.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161009/news/trials-to-start-for-home-grown-anti-venom-211742.html

Researchers at the University of Peradeniya will next week begin clinical trials for new snake anti-venom that experts

Prof. Indika Gawarammana

Prof. Indika Gawarammana

hope preclude the high rate of allergic reactions from imported medication.

Indian-manufactured anti-venom serum is the main weapon used against the 50,000-plus snake bites recorded annually in Sri Lanka but as venom varies in snakes of different countries the Indian anti-venom has limitations here.

As this paper reported recently, Indian anti-venom could cause adverse allergic reactions in 50-80 per cent of patients, with nearly half of these reactions life-threatening. Most Sri Lankan doctors see the solution (anti-venom) as a bigger challenge than snakebite itself.

“All laboratory tests have now been completed and the results show that the new anti-venom is far superior in terms of neutralising venom compared to the Indian anti-venom,” the team’s chief scientist, Professor Indika Gawarammana, said.

“After the safety and effectiveness of the new anti-venom is established following clinical trials, commercial manufacturing can be started.”

The research team received the first batch of the anti-venom processed by its collaborator, the Instituto Colodomiro Picardo (ICP) of the University of Costa Rica a few weeks ago and are now ready to begin clinical trials, said Prof.Gawarammana, who is Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine at Peradeniya.

First batch of anti-venom for our own snakes

First batch of anti-venom for our own snakes

The anti-venom is active against number of venomous snakes. The first test batch will be effective against venom from the cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and the hump-nosed viper (kunakatuwa). Anti-venom properties for the krait will, in time, be included in this serum.

The hump-nosed viper (Hypnale hypnale) is responsible for the highest number of snake bites in Sri Lanka and these can sometimes be fatal. Currently, there is no venom to treat kunakatuwa bites and victims are only treated with symptomatic treatment such as painkillers. Records show an unfortunate proportion of patients develop chronic kidney failure due to lack of an anti-venom.

The process of anti-venom development is complex. First, tiny amounts of venom are injected periodically into horses. Horses subsequently develop antibodies – a process similar to immunisation of children for various infections (polio, measles etc.) – in their blood.

These antibodies, the anti-venom, are then extracted, purified and freeze-dried for human use. If the purification is faulty the resulting substance could contain other serum proteins that could cause the problematic reactions coming from Indian anti-venom, Prof. Gawarammana explained.

The researcher recalls how the project began: “In October 2013, Ministry of Health of Sri Lanka invited Sri Lankan scientists, including myself, to produce safe and specific anti-venom for Sri Lanka.

“At our request, one of the best anti-venom producers in the world, Instituto Colodomiro Picardo (ICP) in Costa Rica, agreed to produce a test batch of Sri Lankan species-specific anti-venom at almost no cost,” Prof. Gawarammana  said.

The ICP produces anti-venom for many South America and African countries and Papua New Guinea and these countries do not experience the problems seen in Sri Lanka from anti-venom. Recognising the value of the Peradeniya team’s work, the National Research Council of Sri Lanka provided part of the funding for the project. The rest of the funding came from Animal Venom Research International, a non-profit organisation based in USA.

The necessary permission to collect snakes and house them in a serpentarium, milk venom and export venom to Costa Rica was given by the Department of Wildlife of Sri Lanka.

The project was not without challenges. The team faced unnecessary delays due to adverse media publicity at the inception of the project. As well, researchers only received permission to collect snakes from home gardens to extract venom.

Prof. Gawarammana said ICP was ready to transfer the technology for making the anti-venom to Sri Lanka. He said the researchers do not mind who manufactures it as long as they realise their dream of seeing it save lives.

Milking a Russsell's Viper to extract venom to be used for research

Milking a Russsell’s Viper to extract venom to be used for research

The new anti-venom be effective against Kunakatuwa bites as well

The new anti-venom be effective against Kunakatuwa bites as well

 

Study shows problems with snake antivenom

October 1, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 14.08.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160814/news/study-shows-problems-with-snake-antivenom-204880.html

Russell’s Viper’s fangs

Research shows one of two kinds of antivenom imported from India might not be very effective against some venomous snakes in Sri Lanka, where 40,000 people are hospitalised due to snakebite each year.

The research team checked several batches of Indian antivenom from the VINS and Bharat brands, the only antivenom (antivenene) available in Sri Lankan hospitals for many decades. They are made to counter bites by four major venomous snakes in India, the cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and common krait.

Dr. Kalana Maduwage, senior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya’s Medical Faculty, who recently returned to the university after completing his PhD in Australia, led the research.

The study showed only the VINS antivenom neutralised the neurotoxicity of krait venom. Both antivenoms partially neutralised cobra venom and did not neutralise Russell’s viper venom.

VINS antivenom neutralised the toxic effects of Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper venom more effectively than Bharat antivenom.

The researchers conclude VINS is a better product that could help save more lives compared to Bharat but stressed the need to have locally manufactured anti-venom.

Both antivenoms lead to high rate of allergic reactions. Past studies have shown a 35-85 per cent chance of allergic reactions to Indian snake antivenom, a high figure compared to the allergic reactions reported in antivenoms used in the United States and Australia which are under 5 per cent.

Dr. Kalana Maduwage

The study also found a wide variation in the protein content and effectiveness of the different antivenom batches manufactured from 2008 to 2012, an inconsistency of quality that is a worry for medical practitioners fighting to save the lives of snakebite victims.

Snake venom is a complex mixture of toxic proteins that act against different vital organs, leading to life-threatening complications and death. Snake venoms harm the blood-clotting system, nervous system and kidney functions.

Snake antivenom is produced by injecting horses with small and repeated doses of snake venom to produce antibodies that are extracted from horse blood and made into antivenom.

There can, however, be other horse proteins in this extraction that need to be filtered out.

Contamination through unwanted horse proteins and impurities in snake antivenoms lead to allergic reactions to antivenom.

“The best option is for us to develop our own antivenom to cover all medically important venomous snakes in Sri Lanka,” Dr. Maduwage said. A group of scientists at the Peradeniya Medical Faculty is working on developing antivenom.

There is currently no antivenom available against the hump-nosed viper, the commonest type of highly venomous snakebite in Sri Lanka.

Listed along with Dr Maduwage as authors of the antivenom research paper published in the international journal Nature Scientific Reports last month are Anjana Silva, Margaret A. O’Leary, Wayne C. Hodgson and Geoffrey K. Isbister.

While researchers normally use mice in order to test the effectiveness of antivenom on snake venoms the team’s study reveals this method can be faulty.

“How snake venom attacks mice and human are different. The results of the mice study in our research are inconsistent with what happens to humans,” Dr. Maduwage said.

Saw scaled viper

Famed snake rescuer killed by rescued cobra

September 28, 2016

Note: ‘Window2Nature’ was not updated for several months. During this period, I have done several articles and these will be uploaded to the blog in coming days. Apologize from those who subscribed to the blog for filling your inboxes with number of posts in shorter period. The blog will be active and get updated regularly hereafter. 

This article was published on 16.08.2016 on SundayTimes. May it be a tribute to Amal Wijesekara’s silent service of rescuing countless number of snakeshttp://www.sundaytimes.lk/160807/news/famed-snake-rescuer-killed-by-rescued-cobra-203978.html 

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Amal Wijesekara – saviour of countless snakes, died last week of a snake bite, aged 47 and unmarried. He was found dead on August 3 morning, near his residence in Galle, with bite marks on his left hand. Apparently the tragedy had occurred late at night or in the early hours of the day. The large cobra believed to have bitten him was also found dead in a cage.amal-wijesekera-milking-a-venomous-thith-polanga-russells-viper

Popularly known as ‘Amal Ayya’, Mr Wijesekara was famous in Galle and its suburbs for ridding gardens and houses of intruding snakes. If a suitable place to release the snake is not available in the vicinity, he takes the snake home and keeps it in a cage, until he can find transport to release them in the wild. Many of the snakes Amal rescued had been beaten, so there were times he had to treat their wounds for months, before releasing them to the wild.

If not for Amal, many snakes would have been killed, as the public doesn’t know how to get rid of venomous snakes. Amal did not belong to any organisation and conducted his rescue mission voluntarily. Amal’s technical assistance was used by the National Geographic team for their field work on snakes. Amal also trained elite soldiers on handling and surviving snakes in the field.   “Amal was very competent at handling snakes” recalls Prof. Ariaranee Gnanathasan of Colombo University’s Faculty of Medicine. “Amal is a good man and it is sad to hear of his untimely loss,” grieved Prof Ariaranee.   Amal Wijesekara was very good at identifying snakes. About 9 years back, he picked an unusual looking Hump-nosed Viper and referred it to his colleagues Dr Kalana Maduwage and Anjana Silva. “Amal gave this strange looking specimen of a Hump-nosed Viper from Galle, to Kalana and me, saying, “Malli meka new wage” (Brother, this snake looks like a new species). Indeed, it was a new snake species. We named the snake after him to honour him, by proposing the name Hypnale sp. “amal” – according to the proper nomenclature – Hypnale amali. This is the only thing we could do for him,” writes Anjana Silva.

“He is a wonderful person with a big heart,” say his colleagues who recognise Amal as one who worked for the love of snakes, sans any personal gains. He studied at Richmond College Galle.

Sinharaja’s slithering new beauty

September 26, 2016

A new creature has been found in the Sinharaja rainforest, surprising experts who believed the well-researched forest had few secrets left.

Hidden from sight high in the tree canopy is a new and vividly-coloured snake now revealed by veteran herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe in an article published this week in the prestigious science journal, Zootaxa.

“The snake lives in the canopy of the forest and that could be the reason it eludes the eyes of researchers who frequent Sinharaja,” Mr. Wickramasinghe explained. He had first seen the snake as early as 2001 while conducting other research and had continued to search for this snake afterwards, managing to spot just six such specimens.

He has named the new snake the Sinharaja tree snake or Sinharaja bronze-backed snake.

treesnakegraphic-449x1024

The Sinharaja tree snake is a beautiful reptile with a unique colour pattern of prominent cross-bars in black and white and a red neck. It has a dark purple tongue. It has a slender body, rounded pupils, enlarged vertebral scales, and a head distinct from the body.

The live specimen Mr. Wickremasinghe photographed was recorded 15m high up in trees near Kudawa. “I was on top of a small cliff so the tree canopy was at eye level when I spotted the beauty,” he said, recalling his chance encounter.

The snake is active during the day and lives in the trees. Its large pupils give it very good eyesight, and Mr. Wickremasinghe believes sight, more than scent, is used to hunt prey. The snake could be feeding on geckos, lizards, skinks and could be laying its eggs in tree hollows.

The holotype or the single type specimen upon which the scientific description and name of a new species is based was unfortunately a member of the species run over on the road near Mederipitiya. Mr. Wickramasinghe preserved it in formalin and then began the painful scientific process of comparing it with specimens of other snakes to make sure it was not, in fact, already known to science.

Mr. Wickremasinghe assigned the snake to the genus Dendrelaphis and gave it the scientific name Dendrelaphis sinharajensis. In Sinhala, it is called Sinharaja haldanda and in Tamil, Sinharaja komberi.

The Dendrelaphis genus has 44 members around the world. There are six bronze-backed snakes in the country, three of them endemic. Although they share many common features, the colour pattern of Sinharaja tree snake makes it easily distinguishable from its close relatives.

The Sinharaja tree snake is rarely sighted, so it is likely to be rare, Mr. Wickramasinghe said, stressing the need for more research into the species.

Habitat loss and forest fragmentation could affect this species directly as it need trees to survive. But, sadly, the axe of destruction moves at the boundaries of the Sinharaja forest.

With the new discovery, Mendis Wickremasinghe has scientifically described 23 new species – two snakes, 11 amphibians, seven geckos and three skinks. He hinted that another discovery is on the way, so keep checking The Sunday Times for another new species very soon.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.09.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160918/news/sinharajas-slithering-new-beauty-209050.html

Repertoire: Mendis’ book wins awards at State Literary Awards 

Mendis Wickramasinghe is an outstanding wildlife photographer and his maiden coffee-table book,Repertoire, won two awards at the recently-concluded State Literary Awards, commended for presenting scientific information in a simple manner and for Kasun Pradeepa’s excellent layout.

Those interested in buying a copy should contact 0767 987 688 or purchase the book at a special rate from book fair stall no: L-379 of the Wildlife Trust. 

repertoir

Toxic frog joins elite endemic club

February 16, 2016
The Mihintale narrow-mouthed frog and below, the tadpole of this frog

The Mihintale narrow-mouthed frog and below, the tadpole of this frog

Mihintale is recognised as one of the world’s oldest wildlife sanctuaries, so it is fitting that a new frog found to be endemic to Sri Lanka has been named after Mihintale to honour its ancient values.

“On top of being a historic sanctuary, Mihintale is also the point of unison for two ancient cultures, when Mahinda Thera (Son of Indian Emperor, Asoka) met Dewanampiya Tissa (the king of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka) in 246 BC. Hence we named the frog Microhyla mihintalei”, Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura, who led the research team, said.

This frog is now officially called the Mihintale narrow-mouthed frog (Microhyla mihintalei). The specie is found mainly in the lowland dry zone and also has a small presence in some parts of the Wet Zone. The specimens these scientists used for their study lived near Mihintale.

As its name implies, the frog has a narrow mouth that restricts its diet to smaller prey such as termites and other ants. It is reddish in colour and a little bigger than Microhyla ornata (ornate narrow-mouthed frog) the other species in Sri Lanka that can be confused with this species. The females are bigger – up to 2 inches, while males can be 1.5 inches.

Being in proximity, Sri Lanka and India share many wild species. But as a result of thousands of years of separation due to the sea barrier, Sri Lankan populations of a number of amphibians evolved to become unique to the island.

Tadpole of Microhyla mihintalei – MadhavaM

The Mihintale frog had been previously considered to be a species called Microhyla rubra that is widespread in India and Sri Lanka.

Being a dry zone species, the Mihintale frog has to wait for torrential rains to breed. They lay floating layers of eggs on the surface of rainwater pools. The tadpoles have to be lucky to become transformed into frogs before the water pool runs dry.

The skin of this frog is toxic, so many predators avoid it, giving the species a greater chance of survival.Unlike other endemic frogs, the population of Mihintale frog is considered stable.

The reporting of this endemic species is yet another success story of joint research by Sri Lankan and Indian scientists. The discovery was published in the Zootaxa journal with research being carried out by graduate students Nayana Wijayathilaka, Sonali Garg, Gayani Senevirathne, Nuwan Karunarthna under the supervision of Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura of University of Peradeniya and India’s frog expert, Prof. S.D. Biju.

There are 118 frogs and toads in Sri Lanka and with the new member, 102 of them are endemic to Sri Lanka.

Published on SundayTimes on 31.01.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160131/news/toxic-frog-joins-elite-endemic-club-181321.html

Shed some tears for sea-surfing Colombo crocs

September 28, 2015

Two weeks ago, the Sunday Times reported about a crocodile that took refuge in a home garden at Rawatawatte. Crocs are making news once again. This time, it is crocodiles from the sea.

The buzz about the crocs began last week with somebody seeing a croc in the sea off Mount Lavinia. Since then the croc made waves of news, making appearances here and there. It was last seen alive in the sea off Kollupitiya on Wednesday, riding the waves of the rough sea. But the following day, its lifeless body was seen being carried away by the waves.

But that was not the end of the story. Reminding us of a Hollywood thriller, where the end scene shows the problem is still not over when everyone thinks it is, another croc emerged in the Dehiwala sea on Thursday. It was later seen moving towards the Port City in the seas off Galle Face.

But unlike the man-eating monster crocodiles in Hollywood movies, the crocs in the Colombo Sea have not harmed anyone. But fishermen and visitors to the beach see them as a threat due to natural fear. Some have tried to catch them, throwing fishing nets and hooks or other methods that cause injury to the animal.

Dr. Tharaka Prasad of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) who conducted the post mortem examination of the crocodile says the poor animal had a tear wound on its underside. The croc’s stomach was empty; it had not eaten in many days. Usually sea crocodiles use ocean currents to move around, but the sea was very rough during this week.

The presence of the agitated people who tried to catch the croc, did not allow the animal to come to shore for basking and rest. Dr. Prasad believes that a combination of these reasons has weakened the Colombo croc and caused his early death.

This croc was a 12-foot long young male and could be about 8 years old. It is known that crocs inhabit the Bolgoda Lake, Werasganga, the Lunawa Lagoon and even in the Wellawatte Canal secretly.Seeing crocs in the sea is not a new phenomenon.

The Sunday Times has reported at least two such croc sightings. On March 2012, we reported about a croc seen in the same stretch of the sea off Colombo.

The headline read: ‘Crocodile in Dehiwala sea does not spoil fun of two-mile swim’. A January 9, 2011 story in the Sunday Times carried the headline: ‘Offshore Croc has Matara abuzz’.

Again it was we who first reported in 2007 about a crocodile living in the Wellawatte Canal. No untoward incident has happened so far, indicating that man and crocodile can co-exist, provided one does not stray into the territory of the other.

Dr. Anslem de Silva, Chairman of IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group for South Asia and Iran, says some crocs, especially the males, may migrate to other localities via the sea. For instance, they may move from the Wellawatta canal to the Panadura/Moratuwa area and vice versa.

A few centuries ago, they might have made this journey over land without being noticed by humans. But today, their land path is blocked by concrete jungles. Besides, the people react with panic when they spot a crocodile, the croc expert says.

“Seeing crocs in the seas off Colombo and its suburbs is not unusual. Several old records speak of saltwater crocodiles.

In fact, they could travel a few thousand km in the sea,” says Dr.de Silva adding that he himself had come across the ‘salties’ – as they are fondly called – in the seas off the western, eastern and the Southern coasts in recent times. Of these, one was captured, two escaped and two were killed.

Roaming off Dehiwala on 21.09.2015 (c) Adrian Meedeniya

Roaming off Dehiwala on 21.09.2015 (c) Adrian Meedeniya

Dr. de Silva recalled that the Maldivian authorities seeking his assistance for solving a crocodile problem in their islands about a year ago.

The Maldives has no native crocodiles and the nearest area with a crocodile population is southern India and Sri Lanka, more than 400 km away.

It is believed that the crocodiles use oceanic currents to ride large distances without much effort. It is said that there are records that salties navigate 2,000 kms in the open sea.

If you see a crocodile in the sea, there is nothing to panic. Just keep your distance and let the animal as it is. Remember that animals too are subject to agitation, exhaustion and can sometimes also forced to act in self defence.

If you see an agitated crocodile either in the sea or on land, call the Department of Wildlife Conservation without trying to act, advises Dr. de Silva.
(M.R.) Published on SundayTimes on 27.09.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150927/news/shed-some-tears-for-sea-surfing-colombo-crocs-165674.html 

Colombo Croc Dies

September 23, 2015

The Crocodile that ride on the waves for last few days on the sea off Colombo Colombo was reportedly dead yesterday evening (23.09.2015). It was disturbing to see the lifeless body being carried by the waves particularly for the animal lovers. Crocodiles off Mt.Lavinia, Dehiwala, Colpetty sea is reported once in a while, but after few days, they believed to be find their way back to the inland waterways they were living in.

Feared by its presence, the local people and fishermen also tried to catch the crocodile on their own using fishing nets. It is feared that hooks used in these failed attempt could injure the crocodile. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) veterinary surgeons carried out its postmortem.

Published on Times Online on 24.09.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/news-online/colombo-croc-roamed-mount-beach-dies.html

Dead body of Colombo Croc carried away by the waves (c) DM

Dead body of Colombo Croc carried away by the waves (c) DM

MAH06957[21-55-493-600-1 MAH06957[21-56-173-600-2

Croc terror in Colombo Sea – this is not the first time and nothing to panic..!!

September 23, 2015
The Croc off Dehiwala on 21st sept (c) Adrian Meedeniya

The Croc off Dehiwala on 21st sept (c) Adrian Meedeniya

Sighting of a crocodile in the shallow sea off Mt.Lavinia, Dehiwala, Colpetty terrorized the people in the area. But this is not a new phenomena as crocodiles are reported in the sea on many occasions. In March 2012, just few days before famous 2 mile swim, a croc was seen off Dehiwala. But the event took place without any problem.

In January, 2011 a Croc that come to bask on a rock near Matara Town become a celebrity drawing huge crowd rushed to witness it. In 1999 another croc got entangled in fishing nets in the sea off Moratuwa. Many thinks that the salt water will harm the croc and will kill the beast eventually. But this species that we often found in the sea is known as Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) that can adopt to a living in the sea.

Like in 2012 where croc disappeared after few days, most probably find its way to the home – the croc that can be seen off colombo too go peacefully this time too. Until that people need to act carefully, but there is nothing to panic calls the experts.

Following are links to my stories about the crocs found in Sea and around Colombo

  1. Crocodile in Dehiwala sea does not spoil fun of two-mile swim – March, 2012 : https://window2nature.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/crocodile-in-dehiwala-sea-does-not-spoil-fun-of-two-mile-swim/
  2. Offshore Croc has Matara abuzz 
  3. A croc comes to town – Dec, 2007 
  4. The saltie that terrorised Rawatawatte – Sept, 2015 

The saltie that terrorised Rawatawatte

September 18, 2015
Neighbours woken in the wee hours by the news that a croc had entered their garden hoped it was just a bad dream. Malaka Rodrigo reports 
A resident of Dharmaratne Avenue in Rawatawatte, Moratuwa, was returning home after his night shift around 2 a.m. when his van’s headlights picked out something that looked like a slowly moving log. Disturbed by the sound of the vehicle the “log” came to life, lunging to the side of the road and entering a neighbour’s garden. The resident got home and told his father, D. Perera, who telephoned and alerted the neighbour to the presence of the trespasser.

The police were called on 911 and with the Pereras and their neighbours began a search with torches. Soon the trespasser was found, lost and equally or more terrified than the search party – a 7.2-foot saltwater crocodile. The police and residents managed to corner the croc near a wall and called the Department of Wildlife Conservation. One person also alerted a croc expert, Avishka Godahewa, who lives close by. Mr. Godahewa, a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Crocodile Specialist Group, is permitted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation to handle wild crocs.

Guess who came to the garden? A 7.2-foot saltwater crocodile

Guess who came to the garden? A 7.2-foot saltwater crocodile

With the department’s approval, he rushed to Rawatawatte to take care of the intruder. Although a fearsome predator, the Rawatawatte croc was a frightened beast in unfamiliar, hostile territory.

After checking out the croc, Mr. Godahewa decided how it should be captured and carried out the rescue mission with the assistance of his father. The croc was not tired and had plenty of fight left in it, so capturing it was not an easy task as the onlookers’ safety had also to be considered; the whole neighbourhood had by now gathered to see the croc. Mr. Godahewa tied up the crocodile and took it quickly to a safe croc habitat. As soon it was released the croc rushed to the water in relief at returning to familiar territory.

Sri Lanka is home to two species of crocodile: the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) or geta kimbula in Sinhala, is larger than its cousin, the mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) or hala kimbula. The Sri Lankan population of saltwater crocodiles is considered endangered and some of the wetlands such as the Weras Ganga and the Lunawa lagoon in Colombo are the last hideouts of this species in the Colombo suburbs. Hence, even though it is a feared creature, it is important to protect the remaining individuals.

“I was woken by the SOS call from a panicked neighbor,” he said of that day, August 29. “I don’t call them nuisance croc calls but croc rescue calls as otherwise terrified people continue harassing the crocs, even killing them,” he said.Twenty-year-old Avishka Godahewa, the youngest member of the IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group, has so far rescued about 10 crocodiles from the Rawatawatte area.

Dharmaratne Avenue is a highly residential area and the nearest water source is about 300-400 metres away. The crocodiles have a habit of leaving their waterholes at night to go in search of food or other waterholes, Dr. Anslem de Silva, the country’s foremost expert on the reptiles, said.

Three more crocs were rescued in Ambalantota in the Hambanthota District in the past few weeks. One had trespassed into a home garden close to its waterway while the other two had become entangled in fishing nets laid in a small village tank, the Nonagama Wewa. All three were mugger crocodiles. Wildlife officers caught them safely and released them to the Udawalawe tank.

Capturing the crocodile was not an easy task

‘Gaddafi’ catcher was here to train local croc hunters

Steve Irwin’s famous Crocodile Hunter episodes shown on television made catching a croc look easy but it is an extremely dangerous job: a simple mistake could cost the hunter a limb or his life. 

To help Department of Wildlife Conservation officers learn how to catch and rescue trapped or straying crocodiles training seminars were held recently led by internationally-acclaimed crocodile hunter, Peter Prodromou.
Mr. Prodomou has worked in Uganda with Nile crocodiles. He became famous for catching a killer croc called Gaddafi that accounted for three lives in Uganda. Before catching this croc, Peter used methods such as placing a dummy of a human child to check which croc attacked first in order to single out the culprit responsible for the attacks. 

In Sri Lanka, soon after an attack, people hurriedly put out bait to catch a crocodile that comes close to the area. While this might snare the real culprit as crocs are usually territorial, there is a higher chance that one that is not responsible for the attack gets caught.
During the training, Mr. Prodomou showed the wildlife officers easier techniques such as using floating baits to catch a nuisance croc. The training was organised for the DWC by Avishka Godahewa, together with his brother, Avinda, and a colleague, Mafas Mohammed, both of whom are also members of the Crocodile Specialist Group. 

from the training on how to catch a croc

Published on 13.09.2015 on SundayTimes on http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150913/news/the-saltie-that-terrorised-rawatawatte-164034.html

Yala was no sanctuary for this leopard

August 30, 2015
More animals die so that we can ride in comfort 

In more sad news from Yala, the body of a female leopard was found on Friday inside Yala National Park itself, on the verge of the Jamburagala road. The body had no apparent scars but the postmortem revealed the leopard died due to a broken neck (spinal code). There was evidence that some elephants had passed through the area in which the leopard was lying but it was unlikely that the death could have been due to an attack by elephants as adult leopards never confront elephants.

It is probable that the leopard died after being hit by a speeding vehicle, Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) Director General H.D. Ratnayake said. No culprit has been nabbed yet but there will be an investigation about the death of this leopard, he said.

The female leopard killed by Hit and Run vehicle inside Yala National Park

Female leopard killed by Hit and Run vehicle inside Yala (c) Janakafb Janu

Yala is the busiest national park in Sri Lanka with its key attraction being the leopards. The safari jeep drivers and other visitors always want to see a leopard so any leopard sighting is swiftly communicated through mobile phones to other jeeps that then flock to the area for a glimpse of the prized big cat.

The park is closed every day at 6 p.m., so jeeps that go deep into the jungle without a sense of the time, speed their way toward the exit at closing time, and this could lead to accidents like this. This is not the first leopard killed by speeding vehicles inside Yala National Park. In 2011, a leopard was killed by a speeding vehicle and since then, several animals too has been reported killed by speeding vehicles.

Mobile phones are a big factor in these Mad Max-type situations in Yala as they are used to pass on the message of leopard sightings. Heeding requests from conservationists, the DWC, in collaboration with mobile phone operators, in experimenting with cutting off service inside the park, Mr. Ratnayake revealed.

The network was switched off on alternate weeks this month. The leopard death occurred during a time when phones were active, according to local sources, indicating that a total blackout could improve the situation to some extent. It is, however, the responsibility of visitors not to allow the jeep to speed up for the sighting of a leopard. Jeep drivers speed in order to give tourists a better sighting, which will mean a bigger tip, so ask them not to speed up, conservationists say.

Local sources say that as many as five leopards have died this year in Yala due to various causes. A leopard was killed a few months ago in the buffer zone in Dambewa after being caught in a wire trap. The remains of another leopard was found near Rathmalwewa in Yala about a month ago.

Earlier this week a tourist bus hit a herd of deer on the Kirinda-Yala road, reinforcing concerns that the road has become a death-trap for wildlife as its newly-carpeted surface allows motorists to speed. No carcasses or wounded deer could be seen on the road after Wednesday’s accident but blood on the road indicated that several animals could be badly injured.

It was dark at the time of the accident and the wounded animals sought refuge in the jungle. Conservationists worry that even if these deer do not die as a direct result of their injuries the wounds could become infected and make the animals less mobile,making them easy prey for predators.

Last drop of water - trying to quench thirst of dying deer hit on Kirinda - Palatupana - Yala road on 21st of Aug

Last drop of water – trying to quench thirst of dying deer hit on Kirinda – Palatupana – Yala road on 21st of Aug (c) Sampath Galappaththi

On August 21, a deer was hit and killed by a motorist who sped off without waiting to be identified, leaving the animal suffering by the side of the road. It was the ninth deer known to have been killed in the past three months since that stretch was resurfaced to provide a comfortable ride for park visitors, local resident Sampath Galappaththi said.

The fact that large animals like deer are being killed on the road indicates smaller animals and birds are being killed in larger numbers, unnoticed.

Mr. Galappaththi revealed that carcasses of nightjars, a nocturnal bird, have become a common sight on the road.
Mr. Ratnayake said he was aware of the problem. He said that as the road comes under the Road Development Authority, the DWC would hold talks with the authority to find a solution. In the meantime, he urged motorists to be careful when driving on roads bordering on or passing through through wilderness areas.

Drought break for wildlife
The Yala National Park will be closed for one month from September 7. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) announced this week that Yala, the country’s mostly visited national park, is closing during the height of the drought to ease the pressure on the animals from visitors. The break also gives an opportunity to repair infrastructure in the park. The tradition of closing the park at this time started in colonial days when the park was a game reserve providing hunting opportunities. 

Sri Lankans star in Hollywood epic

August 30, 2015
Where humans failed, our rilawas succeeded

 

Although human Sri Lankans have failed to take leading roles in Hollywood a film composed entirely of Sri Lankans has now entered the history books and the actors are our closest cousins, our own rilawas, the endemic toque macaques (Macaca sinica).
The epic story of a monkey troop living in Polonnaruwa, captured in the Disney film Monkey Kingdom, was released in Sri Lanka on August 21.

Description: Dr. Jane Goodall, Disneynature Ambassador and .Founder, The Jane Goodall Institute with Dr. Wolfgang Dittus, Scientific Consultant, in the Monkey Kingdom.  Wolfgang has been studying the macaque monkeys of Sri Lanka for nearly 50 years. His and Jane Goodall's study at Gombe are the longest running studies of wild primates. For the film, Wolfgang helped select the monkey characters and decipher their behaviour. His decades of research were invaluable to the making of Monkey Kingdom

Description: Dr. Jane Goodall, Disneynature Ambassador and .Founder, The Jane Goodall Institute with Dr. Wolfgang Dittus, Scientific Consultant, in the Monkey Kingdom. Wolfgang has been studying the macaque monkeys of Sri Lanka for nearly 50 years. His and Jane Goodall’s study at Gombe are the longest running studies of wild primates. For the film, Wolfgang helped select the monkey characters and decipher their behaviour. His decades of research were invaluable to the making of Monkey Kingdom

 

Monkey Kingdom’s main characters are lead female Maya, a low-caste being, her newborn son Kip, the troop’s alpha male Raja, a trio of high-status females called The Sisterhood, and Kumar, a newcomer wishing entrance to the tribe. The struggle of mother Maya brings tears to viewers’ eyes.

The monkeys’ struggle for power is also well documented in the movie, adding some adventure, and viewers may spot some recent political parallels. The monkey clan inhabit Castle Rock. Raja controls the group with an iron fist. A new team using strategic tactics lure the rock’s inhabitants into the jungle and defeat Raja’s party. Raja himself loses the troops’ leadership to Kumar, who plays monkey politics wisely, building relationships with many monkeys. This will surely make flashes of comparison of recent political events in Sri Lanka although the film’s production began three years ago.

Monkey Kingdom is the sixth theatrical release for Disneynature and cost $16.4 million. Disney brought world-acclaimed nature filmmaker Mark Linfield to Sri Lanka to direct it. The film crew spent 1,000 days on location, the most time spent in the field for any Disneynature feature film, according to Linfield.

It was, however, resident primatologist Dr. Wolfgang Dittus’ research that made this movie possible. German-born Dr. Dittus has been studying macaques in Sri Lanka for nearly 50 years, the longest-running monkey study of all time.His research proved invaluable to the film crew. His knowledge of the monkeys in Polonnaruwa allowed the filmmakers to understand their social structure, day-to-day lives and individual personality traits. As a result, they could choose their “stars” wisely and approach filming in an informed way, telling the troops’ true story as it unfolded.

Furthermore, the fact that Dr. Dittus and his researchers have been studying the Polonnaruwa monkeys for almost five decades gave filmmakers access to the animals that would not have been possible with monkeys who were not familiar with humans.
“Our many decades of past research invested in these toque macaques paid dividends for the production,” Dr. Dittus said.
“Not only do we know these monkeys intimately but the monkeys were perfectly at ease and behaved normally when the film crew pointed a camera at them. They treat us as a normal part of their environment, like a deer or a tree.”

Dr. Jane Goodall, the world’s authority on chimpanzees, who also visited the Polonnaruwa site, says the mother-child relationship in primates always inspired her. “When Maya first has her little boy Kip, we see how difficult it is for her to care for him when, at any moment, the dominant females can just take him away and there’s nothing she can do about it,” she said.

The movie features breathtaking scenery captured with high-quality equipment. Taya Diaz, a nature documentary maker who helped make the BBC’s film, Temple Troop, also based on the Polonnaruwa monkeys points out that Sri Lanka an abundance of wildlife that can make to the big screen and our film-makers need to look for them.

“It is important to see nature through a scientific eye and make these kind of movies that can help to bring out the value of Sri Lanka’s nature,” Diaz said.

Monkey Kingdom has already been nominated for some awards.

Monkeys boost Lanka as a  nature destination
Sri Lanka Tourism Promotions Bureau Chairman, Rohantha Athukorala hopes the worldwide release of Monkey Kingdom will be a massive boost to Sri Lanka’s visibility due to “screen-based” marketing, where tourism in a country featured in a popular movie increases due to movie enthusiasts visiting the original location.The tourism bureau used the launch of the film in the United States in April to promote Sri Lanka there, and did the same in China.Mr. Athukorala said the bureau was pursuing the possibility of setting up a “Monkey Kingdom” in the Disneyland Park in Shanghai.The next major release is in France, in November, and the bureau will launch a drive there promoting Sri Lanka as a nature destination.These events clearly indicate the importance of wildlife to Sri Lanka. Often seen as pests, the monkeys are helping to promote Sri Lanka. Environmentalists point out this alone should be a reason for protecting the remaining wildlife habitats of Sri Lanka, which could attract more tourists, bringing in much-needed foreign exchange.Monkeys invade houses, becoming a nuisance because of the fault of the humans themselves. Dr. Dittus warns people not to offer food to monkeys and not to even throw food out if monkeys are hanging around as food and water will attract them to homes, leading people to regard them as a threat or nuisance.

Description: Two monkeys catch some termites during the monsoon

Description: Two monkeys catch some termites during the monsoon

Description: Wolfgang Dittus, Scientific Consultant with Chameera Pathirathne, and Sunil Rathnayake, Scientific Assistants, observe some monkeys in the ruins. Wolfgang has been studying the macaque monkeys of Sri Lanka for nearly 50 years. His and Jane Goodall's study at Gombe are the longest running studies of wild primates. For the film, Wolfgang helped select the monkey characters and decipher their behaviour. His decades of research were invaluable to the making of Monkey Kingdom

Description: Wolfgang Dittus, Scientific Consultant with Chameera Pathirathne, and Sunil Rathnayake, Scientific Assistants, observe some monkeys in the ruins. Wolfgang has been studying the macaque monkeys of Sri Lanka for nearly 50 years. His and Jane Goodall’s study at Gombe are the longest running studies of wild primates. For the film, Wolfgang helped select the monkey characters and decipher their behaviour. His decades of research were invaluable to the making of Monkey Kingdom

Character: Kip

Character: Kip

Description: Oliver Goetzl, Field Producer, setting a remote camera in a sloth bear cave.

Description: Oliver Goetzl, Field Producer, setting a remote camera in a sloth bear cave.

Photo courtesy: DisneyNature. Published on SundayTimes on 30.08.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150830/news/sri-lankans-star-in-hollywood-epic-162384.html

August 29, 2015

A roar of protest has gone up from animal lovers at a plan to transfer four young sloth bears under the guardianship of Department of Wildlife to the National Zoological Gardens, with calls for the bears to be rehabilitated and released to live free in the wild instead of in a cage.

The bears were to have been released into the wild but upon a request by the Director of the Zoological Gardens, the Director General of Department of WIldlife Conservation issued a hurriedly executed directive last month to transfer them to a zoo.
Three of these orphaned bears, rescued from northern wilderness areas, were rehabilitated at the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home (ETH) while the other one is being cared for at the Giritale Wildlife Training Centre. The eldest bear at Udawalawe is a well-grown male, aged about two and half years, rescued from the Kilinochchi jungles. The other two cubs, siblings of one and half years, were rescued from Vakarai.

The Elephant Transit Home was set up with the aim of rehabilitating orphaned elephants and later releasing them to the wild. Several batches of elephants have been successfully released and the staff had been trying to rehabilitate these bears too, with the intent of sending them back to the forests.

The eldest bear had, in fact, been released to the wild recently but the attempt failed as it was found with head injuries few days after release. It is believed the bear, which had lost fear of humans, would have gone too close to a gang of hoodlums that often infiltrates the Udawalawe jungles.

Even though the bear would have meant no harm, those who had panicked by its approach would have attacked and injured it. Luckily for the bear, it was fixed with a radio collar and the ETH team that was constantly monitoring it went to its rescue as they noticed the bear had stopped moving.

The other two bear cubs had grown much in isolation so carers had hoped they would have a higher chance of survival. Sources close to the ETH revealed that plans for releasing these bears to Yala Block-II had already been underway. The bears were being habituated to a new environment by being kept in a large enclosed wilderness area before their release, and they were to be closely monitored as they adapted to the wild.

Zoological Gardens Director Anura Silva said the bears would be given a half-acre enclosure at a zoo at Wagolla in Pinnawala. The Pinnawela zoo needed more animals, and instead of capturing them from the wild the zoo had asked for these orphaned bears, he said.

Mr. Silva said the zoo hoped to breed them in captivity. The Dehiwela zoo has a few sloth bears but the zoo was finding it difficult to breed them, he said.Mr. Silva gave assurances that the bears’ welfare would be looked after.

DWC Director-General H.D. Ratnayake said the bears had been handed over to the zoo as that had been the best option. The director of the zoo had requested sloth bears for the new zoo at Pinnawela, he said. As the law permitted the capture of wild animals for the zoo if the necessity arose, sending these bears to the zoo meant sloth bears would not be captured from the wild.

Mr. Ratnayake pointed out that there were difficulties in rehabilitating the bears in their current condition and they might not have survived in the wild. He revealed that there are doubts that a leopard that had been rehabilitated and released had survived.

The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), among the big five tourist attractions in the Sri Lankan wilderness, is listed as “endangered” and is becoming closer to extinction. It is important to protect the wild population and the attempt to rehabilitate and release the orphaned animals back to the wild is indeed a noble task. Biologists point out however, that this involved much work and such releases should not be carried out in a haphazard manner.

More issues than food needed to be considered. There needed to be very good rehabilitation facilities, said Dr. U.K. Padmalal who was involved in sloth bear research in Wasgamuwa a few years ago. It is also important to release cubs to environs in the region where they were initially found as there could be different genes in other sloth bear populations.

It seems that the fate of these orphaned bear cubs is to remain in captivity but as sloth bears are a threatened species it is important that a state-of-the-art facility be built to rehabilitate and release them back to the wilderness in the future.

Published on 23.08.2015 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150823/news/road-to-freedom-becomes-a-dream-for-born-free-bears-161618.html

How researchers co-opted a remote village to save rare fish

July 27, 2014

An attempt by villagers and wildlife enthusiasts to save a rare fish from extinction is a rare ray of hope amid the gloom of the gradual loss of biodiversity.

Last week, ignoring blood-sucking leeches, dozens of volunteers got their hands dirty and pants wet on the muddy banks of the Galapitamada stream, known to be the only habitat of the critically endangered Bandula Barb. They cleaned the stream and planted ketala aquatic plants on the edges of the stream to enhance the breeding habitat and give much-needed protection for this small fish.

Bandula Barb (Pethia Bandula) is one of the rarest and most endangered fish in Sri Lanka as it can only be found in a 2.5km stretch of a small stream in the Kegalle district. Their present count is just over 1000, so the threat to their existence is enormous.The habitat rehabilitation work held last Sunday was organised by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with the assistance of the Toyota Environmental Fund. This two-year project began in 2013 in accordance with the Bandula Barb Recovery Plan drafted by the Sri Lanka Biodiversity Secretariat of Ministry of Environment in 2007, looking into empowering the villagers to conserve the fish as the area is totally outside any protected areas. Habitat enrichment and the introduction of the fish into other habitats are part of this Conservation Plan, being implemented under the guidance of Professor Devaka Weerakoon.

The data on the drastic decline of Bandula Barb emerged through research carried out by Hasula Wickremasinghe in 2003 as part of her MSc research. In 1991, the fish “catch rate” – a technique used to measure fish population – as 15-100 but in 2003 it sank to 0–5. This is an 80 per cent decline of the population. Ms. Wickremasinghe and Sampath Goonathilake, prepared the Bandula Barb recovery plan under the guidance of Prof. Weerakoon.

In May 2013, a total of 598 Bandula Barbs were found. This number increased to 1073 in December that year, raising hopes that the species can recover but more work has to be done to get the population stable, according to experts.

The volunteers of the Aquatic group of the Young Zoologists Association (YZA) were the leading force behind last Sunday’s activities. The team planted native trees along the stream bank together with the participation of the villagers. As the climate in the area is expected to be drier with repercussions of climate change, it is hoped these trees could provide a lifeline to the stream, keeping it from going dry.

This stream in which the Bandula Barb lives flows between paddy fields and rubber estates so the agro-chemicals used in the paddy fields have become the main threat to their survival.

“So the IUCN tried to convince the villagers of the importance of turning to organic farming. We linked them with an organization supporting organic paddy cultivation and we are happy that the paddy fields adjacent to the stream areas turned into organic cultivation areas where agro-chemicals are not used,” said Naalin Perera, IUCN Programme officer, Biodiversity, pointing to the lush paddy fields.

The IUCN also organized a workshop on freshwater fish for the village youths. This included a field visit to Kithulgala to observe the freshwater fish and methods of observation as well as techniques of counting.

The village youths became involved in the counting of number of Bandula Pethia in the stream in a survey conducted in December last year. A total of 1073 fish were recorded, an encouraging result for the conservation team. Mr. Perera also commended the enthusiasm shown by the village youth on learning more details about the freshwater fish.

The IUCN team has also reintroduced a population of Bandula Pethia to an isolated area close to Galapitamada. A wall was built under the project to prevent Bandula Barb being washed into the nearby paddy fields during heavy rains. The IUCN hopes the the effort to save the Bandula Barb from extinction will be successful.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140727/news/how-researchers-co-opted-a-remote-village-to-save-rare-fish-108595.html 

Bandula Barb

The Bandula Barb was discovered in 1991 by Rohan Pethiyagoda. Communicating through email, the expert on fish reveals that he first saw the Bandula Barb in an aquarium at the home of Rodney Jonklaas around 1987. Mr. Jonklass named the fish Bandula Barb because these specimen were given by Ranjith Bandula, an ornamental fish collector.

Mr. Jonklass thought it was a subspecies of the fish we now know as Pethia reval, or that it was a hybrid between Pethia reval and Pethia nigrofasciatus, the so-called Bulath Hapaya. Both those species too, occur in the same Kelani River basin as the Bandula Barb.
However, Mr.Pethiyagoda realised that that this could be a new species and his research with Maurice Kottelat ended in recognising the fish as a valid new species to science. This was later confirmed in 2012 through DNA analysis done by Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura at Peradeniya University.

Mr. Pethiyagoda said no one knew the reasons for this fish having such a narrow ecological niche. “It is certainly unusual given that there is apparently nothing to prevent the species from dispersing further down the stream,” he added.

‘At first, we were suspicious’

“We are proud to have Bandula Pethia in the village as the fish made our quiet hamlet a famous place. Lots of people and collectors visited our village after getting to know the importance of this fish, but we haven’t allowed anyone to steal the fish,” said Ranjith Amarasiri, a villager who works with the researchers. “Even our children are protective of the fish and don’t allow outsiders to take them out,” Ranjith said, sharing a story of how a village child protested when outsiders tried to take away a specimen of Bandula Barb.

It is the vigilance of the villagers that helped the Bandula Barb to survive through these difficult times where exploitation, invasive species and pollution threatens Sri Lanka’s freshwater fauna.

“When I first visited Gapapitamada in 1987/88 the local people had no idea this fish existed or that it was special,” said Rohan Pethiyagoda who described the fish scientifically.

“They were initially strangers and didn’t say anything to us,” said Sarath Weerakkody, a villager who initially helped to build the link between villagers and conservationists. “When they combed the stream and started to catch fish we grew suspicious. Some youth who became angry and even threw stones at these researchers. But they came and explained to us about the fish and we also began to realise the importance of the fish,” said Mr. Weerakkody.

The effort of the villagers of Elpitiya, Hapudoda and Rabbidigala to prevent the extinction of the Bandula Barb could be a unique conservation model to protect Sri Lanka’s biodiversity.

Young Lankan scientist makes life-saving snakebite discovery

July 20, 2014

A landmark discovery by a Sri Lankan scientist could save thousands of lives lost through snakebite the world over.

A snakebite victim’s life often hangs in the balance in the minutes during which doctors watch for symptoms of poisoning before injecting the person with anti-venom as the remedy itself could cause severe allergic reactions that can cause immediate death. Not every snakebite sends poison into the bloodstream: sometimes the fang fails to inject the venom; sometimes the snake had engaged in a recent attack that depleted its venom sacs and the new bite fails to carry enough venom to harm the victim.

Unfortunately, the wait of a few minutes to ascertain such information could mean life or death. It could also cause permanent damage to organs or nerves as once signs of paralysis and muscle damage begin to appear they cannot be reversed by antivenin.

The good news is that scientists have found a blood test that could be successful in detecting whether venom entered into the bloodstream even before symptoms appear.

This breakthrough was made by Dr. Kalana Maduwage of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Peradeniya, who is currently doing his PhD at Newcastle University, Australia, in snake venom science.

He and a team of researchers tested a common enzyme in snake venom called Phospholipase A2 (PLA2). They had collected blood samples from those who had symptoms of snakebite and measured these against blood from people who were not bitten. This particular enzyme was found in high levels in snakebite victims who had the venom penetrate their blood stream.

Dr. Maduwage says that both Sri Lankan and Australian victims of snakebites were tested for this new method. Bites of four venomous Sri Lankan snakes – cobra, krait, Russell’s viper and hump-nosed viper – were tested successfully. Sri Lanka records one of the highest levels of snakebite in the world. According to the Health Ministry nearly 39,000 snakebites are reported to government hospitals every year, ending in approximately 100-150 hospital deaths.

Dr. Maduwage paid special tribute to the supervisors of his study, Professor Geoff Isbister and Dr Margaret O’Leary at the University of Newcastle. Dr Isbister is a world expert on snakebite research and has published more than 250 scientific papers on snakebites and spider bites. Dr. Maduwage said he was lucky to have Professor Isbister as his supervisor.

The work, previously published in Nature Scientific Reports, was presented last month at the Australian Society for Medical Research Annual Scientific Meeting in Sydney. Dr. Maduwage is working hard with the team to develop this concept into a bedside test kit that can be easily available around the world.

Dr. Maduwage has more than 10 years’ experience in the study of snakes, especially the hump-nosed pit viper. In addition, he has also discovered and scientifically described 10 varieties of fish, three new snake species and one lizard species. Dr. Maduwage, who is still in Australia doing his PhD applauds the research-friendly environment in Australia but says he will return to Sri Lanka to serve his country upon completion of his PhD and will keep on developing techniques that can save more lives.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140720/news/young-lankan-scientist-makes-life-saving-snakebite-discovery-107840.html

How anti-venom is produced  A simplified explanation of how snake antivenin is produced is that extremely small amounts of snake venom are injected into mostly horses on a regular basis over a long period of time. The amounts are so small that the horses are not affected except that their bodies produce antibodies to counteract the foreign substance in their system. After about 10-12 months of this immunological “conditioning” a small proportion of each horse’s blood is removed and the plasma is extracted. This plasma contains the antibodies which, when injected into a snakebite victim, will neutralise snake venom.
Hump-nosed Viper

Hump-nosed Viper

Garden lizard gains an elite relative from Knuckles

April 11, 2014
Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard – Calotes pethiyagodai

Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard – Calotes pethiyagodai (c) Vimukthi Weeratunga

 The The common green garden lizard that belongs to the Agamid lizard family this week gained a new relative that brings to 19 the number of spcies in this group, 16 of them endemic to Sri Lanka. new addition is been a result of strenuous scientific analysis under difficult conditions by young researchers Thasun Amarasinghe and Sameera Suranjan Karunaratne.

This lizard lives in the forests in the Knuckles Range. It had been misidentified as the Crestless Lizard – Calotes liocephalus. Studying the lizard in the Central Highlands and the Knuckles Range, researchers Amarasinghe and Karunaratne spotted some differences in the Crestless Lizards found in Knuckles Range from the same species found in the Peak Wilderness in the Central Highlands. After further study they concluded that the Knuckles lizards were a different species.

Researchers only had nine male specimens from the Knuckles and five males from the central highland to conduct this study but they said the differences were significant enough to classify this species. The specimens in the Wildlife Heritage Trust (WHT) and other museums too had been studied.

Males of the new species are different from males of C. liocephalus because of the absence of a gular pouch and by having mid-gular scales smaller in size than those of its counterpart. The scales in different parts of the body too had clear distinctions, helping the researchers to separately identifying the two species.

But this left researchers with another challenge. C. liocephalus was classified by a researcher named Günther in 1872 using a single male specimen. He did not mention the precise location of the type specimen collected. Thus Amarasinghe and Karunaratne had to compare the holotype with museum specimens and live specimens (not collected) from the Knuckles massif and Central Highlands. The type specimen has been secured in the Natural History Museum in London and Mr Amarasingha also visited the museum to carry out further research.

“After identifying the specimens, we saw that the holotype resembled the Central Highlands populations. Hence we describe the population distributed in the Knuckles massif as a distinct species” said Mr Karunaratne. He and his colleague named the new lizard Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard – Calotes pethiyagodai – to honour Rohan Pethiyagoda for his effort to make Sri Lanka a biodiversity hotspot. In Sinhala the lizard’s is name is Pethiyagodagë Nosilu Katussa.

The scientific paper describing this finding was published in the prestigious journal ZooTaxa. Researchers from Germany, Japan, Austria and England where specimens of these species exist helped the local researchers to make the comparison.

“It is not easy to get measurements of this specimen as it involves a physical count of the scales. It takes about a day to study a single specimen so scientists who helped us had to spend days analysing the specimens in their possession. So they too have been included as authors of this paper: they are Jakob Hallerann, Junichi Fujinuma, Heiz Grillitsch and Patrick D. Campbell.

Knuckles is already famous for its Horned Lizard and this new find will add more value to the area declared a UNESCO Natural World Heritage.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140406/news/garden-lizard-gains-an-elite-relative-from-knuckles-91795.html

Calotes liocephalus (Gravid Female) Dushantha Kandambi

Calotes liocephalus (Gravid Female) Dushantha Kandambi

Calotes liocephalus (Male) Dinal Samarasinghe

Calotes liocephalus (Male) Dinal Samarasinghe