Archive for the ‘Personalities’ Category

Snake specialist charmed by the attention

October 1, 2019 published on SundayTimes on 15.09.2019 

Dr. Anslem de Silva has been honored as the ‘Father of Modern Herpetology in Sri Lanka’ at a global gathering of scientists studying tropical biodiversity. The one-time magician has generated more than 450 publications during 50 years and inspired almost all the next generation herpetologists of the country.

Dr. de Silva was felicitated on September 12 by the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation’s Asia-Pacific held at MAS Athena premises at Thulhiriya from September 10-13. “I was a magician before becoming a herpetologist,” Dr de Silva revealed.

Most Sri Lankans know him as the leading herpetologist studying reptiles – snakes, crocodiles, and lizards. He has also won a number of magic contests and even published 22 papers on magic. His first paper had been published in an international journal in the United States.


The former magician turned herpetologist performing an act at his felicitation ceremony. Pic by Madhava Botheju

“At young age, I was a big romeo become an expert on magic” said Dr.Anslem de Silva

“My dad used to show a few tricks to me when I was a kid. That made me interested in becoming a magician. I used to practice magic at school and sometimes visited other schools to perform – specially the girls’ schools. When I was young, I was a big Romeo,” Dr de Silva said.

Tricks such as bottle balancing, lifting a chair with the mouth, and fire juggling are some things he was at first good at, but he learned more. “I later became a leading magician in the country winning two national awards. I had two massive evening shows. Performing from Matara to Jaffna and I was very popular in Jaffna,” Dr de Silva added.

He later became interested in snakes.

While studying at Matara St.Servatius College, he once rescued a rat snake that had suffered at the hands of senior students. “I just grabbed it and threw it into a thicket. I wasn’t scared, and the snake didn’t bite me. After that, I reared a few non-poisonous snakes, a baby saltwater crocodile, and a few sea turtles,” Dr de Silva said. In the evenings, he would go in search of geckos and villagers started calling him ‘Hoony Mahaththaya’ (Mr Gecko).

At the age of 17 years, he got a copy of the “Snakes of Ceylon” written by then expert Frank Wall. He still considers this as a definitive guide. “Our house was in the Fort premises of Matara where the famous ‘Pacha gaha’ stood near the courts where a lot of snake charmers gathered. I used to watch them handling snakes and used to talk with them to get more information.’’

He became one of the leading figures in the field of conservation of amphibians and reptiles of the country engaging in some pioneering work. Dr de Silva was the founder president (1990) of the Amphibia and Reptile Research Organisation of Sri Lanka (ARROS) an NGO dedicated to conserving the amphibians, reptiles. and their habitats. His contributions towards the conservation of amphibians was instrumental in him being nominated as the chairman for Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force, World Conservation Union (IUCN) for Sri Lanka and he is the current co-chairman of the Amphibian Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union.

He also made a significant contribution towards creating public awareness of reptiles and amphibians by publishing the first series of posters illustrated with colour photographs in 1990 and 2001.

At the event, the organizer, Dr Ruchira Somaweera who is now in Australia recalled how he entered the field of herpetology. “One day I saw the poster ‘Snakes of Sri Lanka’ by Anslem de Silva. This made me visit him and he gave me a magazine in which he wrote, ‘may this inspire you to be a herpetologist’. That spark created a hobby. That hobby created passion and that passion made me work in herpetology as a job. And now that has become a lifestyle,” said Dr Somaweera honoring his guru.

Both young and senior herpetologists shared similar stories at the felicitation, but Dr de Silva accepts tributes with humility, saying “I’m really wondering whether I did all these funny things for you”.

He worries that Sri Lanka’s snake population is declining. “When I was a young kid, I used to see lot of snakes, but not now. Even road kills are becoming less. There is a massive decline of reptiles of the country. Habitat destruction is the main reason,” Dr de Silva said.

Though closer to 80 years, he continues field work and conservation efforts. He said he is happy that his son Panduka de Silva who works as a naturalist, is also involved in crocodile conservation. Panduka had done a study of some locations of Andaman islands where crocodiles became a problem.

Anslemi the gecko named after guru  
Geckos received much attention in the past few weeks since researcher Sameera Karunarathna and his team named six new geckos after past warriors stirring controversy. In parliament lawmaker Wimal Weerawansa called it disgraceful. 

But the same researchers named another gecko new to science found in the foothills of Peak Wilderness forest Cnemaspis anslemi. This was a discovery by researchers Sameera Karunarathna and Kanishka Ukuwela. They timed the publication of the findings to the event honouring Dr de Silva. 

“Anslem is my inspiration and I wanted to be an ‘Anslem’” said Dr Ukuwela, “So we wanted to name our new find after our guru.’’ Mr Karunarathne first read about Dr de Silva during the time he was studying for his Ordinary Levels in 1995. He first wrote to Dr des Silva after reading an article in the Vidusara newspaper about a book on snakes by Anslem de Silva and there was an address. He was thrilled to get a reply in a few days with a number of posters and few other publications signed by Dr de Silva. “It was like a letter from the American president. The letter was signed and I still have it,” said Mr Karunarathna.

“I’m really honored to have a gecko named after me and I congratulate the researchers,” Dr de Silva said, graciously. 


Clicking not just a picture but a story

June 24, 2018

Amanda Samani Jayawardhana who specialises in conceptual photography to hold her maiden exhibition. Published on SundayTImes on 18.06.2018

“Photography is more than just a collection of random clicks. I treat the camera as a tool that helps me to express a story,” says Amanda Samani Jayawardhana who will hold her maiden solo photography exhibition titled ‘Artsy’ next weekend.

Amanda Samani Jayawardhana


The 50 photographs she has chosen to exhibit cover a wide array of subjects ranging from nature, culture, people, babies, jewellery – each with its own story.

Speaking to the Sunday Times magazine, Amanda says she is fond of conceptual photography that is often staged to illustrate an idea.The photos testify that she has a keen eye to capture a unique story out of ordinary settings. The photograph showing dozens of bee-like insects gathering to feed on sugar crystals was taken when the insects were feeding on sugar thrown out randomly by a roadside juice seller. Amanda took the photograph at an angle to bring the heart shape into the frame.

This juice seller Amanda had met in India, she observed, would throw out the last bit of sugar at the bottom of each sack containing the sugar for the bees. It was the dry period and the man had said that without this sugar, the insects would starve. Yet however, short of food, the bees were disciplined in feeding; unlike humans who would try to grab all they could. “I wanted to capture this story in my photograph,” Amanda says.

She also sets the stage to take some of her photographs to tell a specific story. In one, she painted nuts and bolts in bright red before giving them to a labourer to hold. “These people are compelled to do manual work, but they too are humans in our society who have a warm heart as much as we do. I made the red nuts and bolts to be held in a heart-shape to contrast that,” said Amanda again emphasizing that she wants viewers to read the stories told by these photos.

Touching on lighter themes, Amanda has included a number of baby photographs in her exhibition. “Baby photography is becoming a more commercialized area in photography now and I wanted to see it in a very natural angle to give every single photograph a soft touch,” she says. Parents of course want a memorable photo and Amanda advises keeping the background simple and trying out natural light as much as possible. “Babies are unpredictable, so you need to be ready to click on the moment of truth that brings out their smile or any specific activity to get a memorable photo,” she says.

A professional art photographer with nearly seven years experience in the industry, Amanda has already bagged over 40 national and international awards for her photography.

Bee-like insects foraging on sugar crystals

Having started photography at Grade 6 using a small 110 (one-ten) camera given by her grandfather, Amanda pursued her hobby even at school. After gaining a B.A. (Hons) degree in Image Art Special at the Department of Fine Art, University of Kelaniya, she worked as a visiting lecturer at the Sri Palee Campus and lectures diploma students of the National Photographic Art Society of Sri Lanka.

Amanda who is also an active member of the Women’s Photographic Association of Sri Lanka says she hopes her exhibition will encourage other women photographers. “We still have restrictions in our society or with our own mindset. But it is indeed time to break free and I do hope my exhibition will encourage more women photographers to come forward to do their own events to promote photography,” she says.

Amanda will conduct a separate session on June 23 evening for schoolchildren who are interested in art photography and has invited many girls’ schools to participate.

The ‘Artsy’ photography exhibition will be held on June 23 and 24 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the JDA Perera Gallery at Horton Place, Colombo 7.

Elephant master

Dirty hands, warm hearts

Science needs strategic direction, says UNESCO chief

October 12, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 21.08.2016

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova

“Science holds answers for many of the key questions of sustainability we face today and science needs to be more strategic and tightly connected with national strategies,” UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova, told a forum of about 200 scientists in Colombo.

The event last week was organised by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a dialogue between Sri Lankan scientists and the visiting DG of UNESCO. Ms.Bokova acknowledged the talent of Sri Lankan scientists and invited them to use UNESCO platforms more effectively for their work.

Participating scientists spoke out about barriers to research in this country, saying lack of funds and high-calibre science projects hurt the quality of research in Sri Lanka.

Taking oceanography as an example, Professor Ruchira Kumaratunga, who established the country’s first university Oceanography Department at the University of Ruhuna, said, “The equipment and other services needed to carry out oceanography research is costly. We have buildings, but it is difficult to get these fully equipped with the funds we receive. We also have research vessels, but fuel is costly. Even a diving licence is costly”.

The Minister of Science, Technology and Research, Susil Premajayantha, said the government is to set up a National Science Centre in Colombo to exhibit and celebrate the beauty and wonders of science. Such centres exist in most South Asian countries as well as in the developed world. Ms.Bokova pledged that UNESCO would support the project.

It was essential to attract more talented Sri Lankans to science, Minister Premajayantha said. “You don’t find as many scientists of very high calibre as we had in the past so we have a duty to popularise science, technology and innovation,” he said.

Ms.Bokova also visited three of Sri Lanka’s eight World Heritage Sites, including the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the Sigirya Rock Fortress, and the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. She had to face a barrage of questions relating to the status of the Dambulla Rock Cave Temple, a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Asked whether it would lose its status due to unapproved development work carried out by a local monk, Ms.Bokova said a UNESCO technical team that inspected the site in March 2015 had made a number of recommendations and UNESCO was working with the government in order to improve the conservation and management of the site. At the moment, there are no plans to delist Dambulla, she said.

Ms.Bokova, who met President Maithripala Sirisena and other leaders, said she was “impressed by the strong political will to move forward and go through the reconciliation process”.

Top international award for Peradeniya scientist

October 1, 2016

Prof. Savitri Gunatilleke with her PhD “guru”, Prof. Peter Ashton, and her husband, Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke, holding the plaque for the award of an Honorary Fellowship of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation

The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), the premier global organisation with a mission to foster scientific understanding and conservation of tropical ecosystems, has awarded its 2016 Honorary Fellowship to Professor Savitri Gunatilleke, Emeritus Professor at the University of Peradeniya.

Prof. Gunatilleke is the first Sri Lankan to receive this award, made at the ATBC’s 53rd Annual Congress in Montpellier, France last month.

The award is given to researchers who have demonstrated life-long distinguished service to science and have been an inspiration and role model for younger scientists and students of tropical biology.

The ATBC said Prof. Gunatilleke’s selection was unanimous, with nominations including researchers from the United States, United Kingdom, India, France and Indonesia.

Founded in 1963, the ATBC Honorary Fellowship Award is considered one of the highest accolades a researcher in the field of tropical biology can receive, with more than 80 scientists around the world being honoured so far – of whom only six have been women.

The main area of Prof. Gunatilleke’s research has been the Sinharaja rainforest. In the 1970s, the Sinharaja forest was logged by the state forestry enterprise. Her research and conservation promotion contributed in large part to the eventual designation of the Sinharaja as a World Heritage Site.

Prof. Gunatilleke graduated with a first class honours degree in Botany from the University of Ceylon in 1969. She completed her MSc in Ecology, and also obtained her PhD – on a paper entitled “The Ecology of the Endemic Tree Species of Sri Lanka in Relation to their Conservation” – in 1975 from the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of the world-renowned tropical forest expert, Professor Peter Ashton.

“In fact, I wanted to study plant pathology – the science of studying causes and effects of plant diseases – but Professor B.A. Abeywickrama, then head of the Botany Department at Peradeniya, suggested I study forest ecology. It was a decision that changed my academic career,” she said.

The higher studies were challenging for the shy research student. “Quite frankly, I had not been to a forest when I started my PhD studies and I hardly knew how to identify different plants in the field. So I had to learn fast but luckily I had supportive local supervisors,” Prof. Gunatilleke.

She pays tribute to her undergraduate teachers, professors M. D. Dassanayake and S. Balasubramaniam, who helped her tremendously to gain this knowledge during her formative years.

As the distribution patterns of Sri Lanka’s endemic tree species growing in the different lowland climates unravelled during her Ph.D. field research, Prof. Gunatilleke’s bond with the forests grew. She pays tribute to her team of field researchers and field assistants for her success.

Later, she tied the knot with another academic in the field, Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke. “Nimal has been of great strength to me,” she said, adding she was lucky to have a research partner at home.

Prof. Gunatilleke was a pioneer in taking university students to the field for forest studies. Earlier, the practice was that even forest ecology had been taught in the classroom without stepping into a forest.

When asked why that practice could not continue, she was persuasive. “Sri Lanka’s forests are among the best ‘outdoor laboratories’ to study biological diversity. But it was a time that the university had limited resources so we had to push the administration to convince the importance of these field studies,” Prof. Gunatilleke said, recalling the time she introduced “multi-day” field courses to her students.

Prof. Gunatilleke has a long history of mentorship of a younger generation of Sri Lankan tropical scientists, with a number of them serving in reputed international and national institutions.

Savitri  Gunatilleke is an outstanding role model for scientists in Sri Lanka and women scientists in particular. Apart from her academic work, which is evident from her many influential publications, she also committed herself to the advancement of ecology and conservation in Sri Lanka’s development. She has been a member of Sri Lanka’s National Man and Biosphere committee and helped to prepare the country’s Biodiversity Action Plan (1997) to name but two of many contributions.

Prof. Savitri observing tree crowns in Hakgala Botanic Gardens.

Prof. Savitri observing tree crowns in Hakgala Botanic Gardens.

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 snakes 

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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.

Beaked whale with Sinhala name retakes its place in history

February 23, 2014
Push to honour Prof. P.E.P. Deraniyagala for his research

This week, an enigmatic whale first described studying a specimen found in Sri Lanka has been reclassified as a new marine mammal species. The whale species – member of a family known as beaked whales for their elongated beak-like snouts – bears an interesting history.On 26 January 1963 a specimen of a dying 4.5m-long, blue-grey female beaked whale was washed ashore at Ratmalana. After carefully studying its form and structure, marine scientists led by Dr. P.E.P. Deraniyagala (Director of National Museum 1939-1963) declared it to be a new species of beaked whale belonging to the family Ziphidae.

Dr. Deraniayagala named the whale Mesoplodon hotaula for its pointed “beak” (in Sinhala, hota means beak and ula means pointed”).The skull of the holotype- the term for a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based – was kept in the National Museum Collection.Two years later, however, the Mesoplodon hotaula was re-grouped into the related ginkgo-toothed beaked whale, Mesoplodon ginkgodens, by overseas scientists and the Mesoplodon hotaula name was dropped.

Beaked whales are deep divers that are believed to be able to dive to 1,800m (5,900 feet).A total of 22 beaked whale species have now been identified but most of them have not been studied alive in their oceanic habitats. Identification of most have been based on dead or dying whales that have been washed ashore.

As belief began to grow again that the whale found in Sri Lanka was a distinct species, a visiting research scientist at the University of NSW in Sydney, Australia, Dr. Merel Dalebout, wrote to the Director of the National Museum in Colombo inquiring about the possibility of taking a DNA sample from the whale to make comparisons with samples taken from elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.

Researcher Dr. Manori Goonatilake inspecting the specimen Deraniyagala collected in 1963

Dr. Manori Goonatilake, Assistant Director National Museum, became involved in the study. With the permission of Department of Wildlife Conservation she had sent the DNA samples taken from the holotype’s mandible bone, tooth, and skull using a special hand drill without harming the external appearance of the specimen.

Artist Gamini Ratnavira’s conception of a pod of Hotaula. Courtesy ‘Mammals of Sri Lanka’ by Asoka Yapa/Gamini Ratnavira

The scientists managed to find seven specimens of this species including the Sri Lankan specimen. The haul included three whale carcasses from the United States and one each from the Republic of Kiribati, the Maldives, and Seychelles.

Finally, after a series of DNA and morphological analyses it was recognised that these seven specimens belonged to a distinct species of beaked whale. So 51 years after its discovery off Ratmalana the whale regained its first scientific classification, Mesoplodon hotaula, given by Professor Deraniyagala.“Now it turns out that Deraniyagala was right regarding the uniqueness of the whale he identified. While it is closely related to the ginkgo-toothed beaked whale, it is definitely not the same species,” Dr Dalebout says in an article on the university website.

It has been suggested that the common name of the species be “Deraniyagala’s beaked whale” to honour the late scientist for his finding. This is perhaps the only marine mammal carrying a Sinhala name in its scientific name and is a showcase of Sri Lankan researchers’ talent in the field of natural history.
The smelly whale carcasses that wash ashore once in a while grab our attention but are often soon forgotten. This new discovery highlights the Importance of studying these carcasses when they come to light, as studying them in the vast ocean is difficult

New research on jungle giant

Dr. P.E.P.Deraniyagala, director of National Meuseum from 1939-63, was a pioneer in zoology and paleobiodiversity (the study of extinct animals in prehistoric time through studying of fossils) and his research led to the finding of clues of the existenceof species such as the lion, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and gaur (giant wild cow) in Sri Lanka.

At a memorial to Dr. Deraniyagala held a few weeks ago to honour the late professor’s services to his country, scientist Kelum Manamendrarachchie revealed a plan of conducting further research on the “vil aliya”, described as a separate subspecies of the Asian elephant.According to Dr. Deraniyagala, the vil aliya (scientifically classified as Elephas maximus vilaliya) is a subspecies of the Asian elephant that inhabited the flood plains in the current Somawathie National Park Region and was bigger than elephants elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

These elephants fed on grasses and other vegetation on marshy areas and shallow water which are very nutritious, so they grew larger. The vil aliya’s foot became larger, which is believed to be an adaptation more suitable for a life in marshy areas. Plans are underway to perform DNA analysis on specimens collected by Dr Deraniyagala.

Published on SundayTimes on 23.02.2014 

Wildlife gets new DG

November 24, 2012

A new Director General (DG) has been appointed for the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) this week.
The appointment of Mr. H.D. Ratnayake ended the longest period the Department has been operating without a DG after the position was rendered vacant 15 months ago in July 2011.

Assuming duties, Mr. Ratnayake said he will take care of the wildlife of Sri Lanka to the best of his ability using his years of experience working in the Department.

He was the Director Operations before this appointment.�Since the transfer of the former DG Dr.Chandrawansa Pathiraja, Agrarian and Wildlife Ministry Secretary engineer Udeni Wicremasinghe has been looking after the DWC as the acting Director General. However, many of his decisions and the way he operated the Wildlife Department has come under the scrutiny of environmentalists more than once.

A man who made them all ‘wild-men’

October 14, 2012
Dharma Sri Kandamby, the unassuming ‘sir’ from Galle has inspired a host of leading wildlife conservationists in the country, reports Malaka Rodrigo

Earlier this month the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle launched its first major publication “Sri Lankan Primates: An Enthusiasts’ Guide” before a gathering of the wildlife community. The book was dedicated to a man little known to the public: Dharma Sri Kandamby. The dedication read- “To Dharma Sri Kandamby, Founder Patron of the Galle Wildlife Conservation Society for his guidance and inspiration”.

Curator of the Galle Maritime Museum, Mr. Kandamby retires this month, after a lifetime of service to conservation, guiding many young people in Galle who have gone on to become well-known scientists today.

When the time came to present the first copies of the book, the authors Madura De Silva and Nadika Hapuarachchi invited Mr. Kandamby on stage. After handing over the first copy, Madhura knelt before ‘Kandamby Sir’ to pay tribute to his first teacher in wildlife – the man who helped him come this far in the field. Hundreds of unsaid words would have been expressed between these conservationists from two generations in the emotional hug on stage.

“I was so happy when I learned from Madura de Silva and Nadika Hapuarachchi that they wanted to dedicate their book on Primates to Mr. Kandamby. It makes me proud to know that none of these young men have forgotten their teacher and their mentor,” said Rohan Pethiyagoda who contributed the text of the book.

“Kandamby Sir” as they call him has also been a great source of inspiration to the young naturalists of the Galle Wildlife Conservation Society at Hiyare. Recalling the early days, Madhura, who has been the society’s president since its inception said that back in 1992 a few nature lovers had gathered together with the intention of forming a Wildlife Society. “But we neither had direction nor proper resources to learn about wildlife. Luckily we heard that the Galle Maritime Museum had an expert on wildlife and decided to go and meet him to get his support.” Madura and his friends were then studying for their Advanced Levels.

“I wanted to check whether their intentions were genuine. An interest in nature alone wouldn’t work as real conservationists need discipline and ethics,” Mr. Kandamby said remembering that first meeting. “I believe conservation begins with a love for nature. To love nature, one needs to be knowledgeable- so education plays a major role.” Mr. Kandamby’s vision on conservation also became the vision for the Galle Conservation Society. Soon the Maritime Museum became the study centre for members of the Galle Conservation Society. But membership was not something obtained overnight. One needed to attend a few classes and show an interest in studying at least one animal group to become a full-time member.

Madura also praises Mr. Kandamby’s approach to conservation. “As youngsters, we always want to catch animals such as snakes. But Mr. Kandamby always discouraged us from doing that. He taught us to be patient and made us first understand animal behaviour.” It wasn’t an easy task two decades ago as there were only few guides and colour illustrations that helped identify animals or plants.

But under such guidance, many prominent researchers on wildlife have emerged from Galle. The list starts with Mohammed Bahir who is now the authority on freshwater crabs, a species that records the highest endemism in Sri Lanka. The researcher never forgot his mentor and paid tribute to him in 2005 by naming a freshwater crab that is new to science as Ceylonthelphusa Kandambyi. Other young naturalists who had been inspired by Mr Kandamby include Sudath Nanayakkara, Sudesh Batuwita, Dr. Kalana Maduwage and Dr. Anjana Silva.

Ceylonthelphusa Kandambyi: The freshwater crab discovered by Mohammed Bahir, named after his mentor

Dr. Kalana Maduwage who has discovered many new species of snakes testifies that Mr.Kandamby is the most inspiring teacher that he has ever met. “He has the ability of using different teaching methods for different�students�according to their talents and interest, which was the reason for their successful careers. The outcome of his teaching ability is expressed in the discovery�of more then 100 new species by his students,” Kalana added.

Sudath Nanayakkara who is now managing the Agra Arboretum and WHT research centre recalls memories of the days Mr. Kandamby kept the Maritime Museum open for him to study when he came in late after attending another technical course.
Mr. Kandamby remains the modest man he always has been. “After Madura and others came to leadership, I let them run the association on their own.

I’m really happy that the society which is still young has come this far,” he said. Before he became curator of the Galle Maritime Museum in Galle in 1992, he was attached to the National Museum’s Zoological Lab where researchers would often come to study specimens. Joining as a technical officer, he studied on his own and associating with top scientists both local and international helped further his knowledge on reptiles, amphibians and fish. His presence in the museum also made the researchers’ task easier, as he could point out any specimen they were looking at quickly.

“Mr. Kandamby understood the importance of type specimens on which the description and name of a new species is based and put extra care into preserving them,” said well-known researcher Kalum Manamendrarachchie who has discovered a number of new amphibians.

Wildlife expert Rohan Pethiyagoda who published the landmark guide to Freshwater Fish was only an amateur naturalist when he first met Dharma Sri Kandamby back in 1988, almost 25 years ago. “I was preparing to write my book on freshwater fishes and I went to the museum to look at some of the type specimens. Mr. Kandamby immediately made me feel very welcome and offered to help me in any way he could. I went on to spend many happy days in his company in the museum. I was incredibly impressed by how much he knew about fish and how readily and unselfishly he shared his knowledge with me, going to a lot of trouble to find specimens and refer old registers,” Rohan said.

Most of the country’s wildlife societies are based in Colombo, so Mr. Kandamby’s contribution to Galle producing so many young naturalists cannot be forgotten. Rohan Pethiyagoda’s comment may be the most fitting tribute to this quiet man of science. “I sometimes wonder what natural history studies in Sri Lanka would have been like if there were a “Mr. Kandamby” in every town in Sri Lanka. Can you imagine how many young people could have been inspired? But sadly, there is only one Mr Kandamby, and for him we must all be grateful.”

Published on 20.09.2012

Changing climate of cartooning

March 23, 2010
Women to the fore in largely male dominated field
By Malaka Rodrigo
The climate is changing and we don’t mean just the weather. The recently concluded cartoon competition on Climate Change organized by the British Council saw young women cartoonists claiming both first and third places in a field hitherto dominated by men.


Reindeers sunbathing in a North Pole that had lost its ice caps due to climate change was the theme of Shamanthi Rajasingham’s cartoon “Welcome to the North Pole” that won first prize in the contest. With Santa Claus in shorts and shades enjoying the sun, the cartoon was both eye-catching and effective.

“The cartoon just made me laugh the minute I saw it. It is uncomplicated and genuinely comical – a great advantage when satirising and often hard to achieve,” said the UK based cartoonist Michal Boncza Ozdowski who was one of the judges, commending Shamanthi’s confident draughtsmanship.

Michal is also a trustee of the Ken Sprague Fund which collaborated with the British Council to conduct this event coupled with a one-day cartoon workshop. Michal together with a panel of eminent Sri Lankan cartoonists, science communicators and Climate Change consultants had a tough time selecting the best cartoons from 400 entries.

The cartoons were judged on creativity, humour and subject relevance. Shamanthi, a 21-year-old undergraduate of the University of Colombo reading for a degree in English said the idea struck her while she was researching for a debate on climate change at the university. Christmas was also around the corner at the time so when she got to know about the competition it spurred her to use these familiar images. “I did not look through other environmental cartoons on the internet as I wanted to keep the novelty in my work,” Shamanthi said.

“If a picture is worth 1000 words, then a cartoon’s worth 10,000,” adds Shamanthi who is a firm believer in the power of this medium. In Sri Lanka though, cartoons mostly cover politics and subjects like conservation are sidelined. Shamanthi who is not drawn to political cartoons said she developed a special interest in the environment when she was learning art at an early age where she got the chance to study nature closely. She fears deforestation will be a major environmental issue in the future for countries like Sri Lanka.

Already using cartoons to liven up some of the websites she designs, she says the laptop she won as first prize will encourage her to continue cartooning.

Placed second was Dileepa Dalawatta’s cartoon ‘I pray for water not nectar’ which lampoons our naiveté in hoping that supernatural forces will somehow solve problems we have created.

“The cartoon is a funny eye-opener, a wake-up call of the type that is much needed today,” said the judges praising Dileepa’s work. Three other cartoons by Dileepa also won a ‘commended’ from the judges.

The third prize went to W.M.D. Nishani – a 27-year-old science teacher from Negombo. “When I teach science subjects, I’m often reminded of what could be our destiny if we destroy forests” Nishani said explaining her theme. In their citation, the judges acknowledged her effectively ridiculing the get-rich-quick mentality and pitfalls of our present suicidal culture.

With a flair for children’s illustrations, Nishani earlier won a UNESCO’s picture book illustration competition in 2006.

A special guest at the awards ceremony at the British Council was Camillus Perera, creator of the popular Sri Lankan cartoon character – Gajaman. Camillus started cartooning 45 years ago and is still giving life to his characters today.

“When I started, there was nobody to help me. Competitions and workshops like this are important to encourage young talent,” he said.

The winning and commended entries will be on display from March 25 to 27 at the British Council auditorium.

They can also be viewed at the British Council website

Making waves in the ocean

March 14, 2010

Riding with a Turtle

For young marine biologist Asha de Vos the Indian Ocean is her second home. “I’m a marine biologist with a special interest in marine mammal behaviour and conservation particularly in Sri Lanka. My short term goal is to do a PhD on blue whales,” says Asha’s LinkedIN social network profile. Blue Whales are the true giants of the Earth weighing around 200 tons and growing over 100 ft. Studying them in the open oceans needs real guts as you are exposed to many dangers.

Asha is now in Australia studying for her PhD, but thanks to the internet, I managed to interview her online. “I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist for a very, very long time – so long that I cannot remember when the fire was initially ignited. I’ve always had a deep respect for the ocean and its changing character…and mostly, its elusiveness,” Asha says.

Asha has always been a water baby. She took to swimming at the age of three and hasn’t stopped since. She represented her school, Ladies’ College, in both swimming and waterpolo and went on to become the captain of both teams.  “It was at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where I did my undergraduate studies that my fascination with marine mammals was solidified,” she says.

Asha specialized in marine and environmental biology at St. Andrews which is considered one of the leading institutions in marine mammal science in the world. This she followed up with a more general research technique based Masters at the University of Oxford. During her days as a gypsy research assistant in New Zealand, she studied the endemic Hector’s Dolphins and often body surfed with them. She also got the chance to sail around the Maldives and Sri Lanka aboard the R/V Odyssey – thanks to her sheer persistence. Asha’s dream was always to become an adventurer-scientist and she feels she is heading in the right direction. Her passion for her work is overwhelming- “my hobby is my job and my job my hobby,” she quips.

“If you want something, no matter what aspect of your life it involves, it is important to know that everything is achievable, with an equal portion of hard work of course. If it is your lifelong dream you will find the strength within you that will allow you to work as hard as you need to get to where you want to be. Needless to say you will encounter many obstacles along the way but these will only make you stronger and more focused towards your goal,” she says.

Asha has had many magical experiences in the ocean. Snorkelling with about 200 manta rays at Hanifaru Bay in the Maldives and swimming with a Whale Shark – the biggest fish in the world at the same spot are just two of the many she can detail. Encountering a group of 27 Sperm whales logging at the surface and seeing six Blue whales in a single visual area also remain some of her unforgettable memories. Another amazing experience was on a recent night dive where a manta ray appeared out of nowhere and danced above Asha and her fellow divers. “We followed it with our torches and I felt like I was at a performance titled ‘the dance of the manta’ – I could even hear the orchestra playing!” she says. Asha also reveres and revels in the aesthetic side of these elusive ocean creatures.

Some experiences are more daunting. Years ago while doing some research off Sri Lanka, she had to jump into the ocean to collect a whale’s poo sample (for analysis). The whale was so close she glimpsed its tail propelling through the water.

“That was the first time I realized the immensity of the strength of this creature and how lucky I was not to be knocked unconscious,” Asha recalls, cautioning all those whale-watchers who want to get close to these giants to remember how unpredictable nature can be and how important it is for us not to try to disrupt the behaviours of these animals unnecessarily.

So it is indeed a job with challenges of its own. “Challenges make it all the more interesting and worthwhile! There are women who have contributed a great deal to the field of marine biology and I hope I can do my part too,” she says. Asha also talks of the need to stay strong and keep working hard. She recalls returning to Sri Lanka after her Masters as a fresh-faced graduate with big ideas. “There were so many instances when people wouldn’t take me seriously because I was a ‘young’ ‘girl’ – little did they know that that was precisely what spurred me on! I don’t believe in giving up and hurdles make it all the more interesting – they make you think outside the box.

As a female, I think it takes more patience as you try to carve out your niche and ‘prove’ yourself but if you work hard enough, at some point you will turn heads!” Asha says her mother has been the biggest force encouraging her to be independent and have her own career. “My mum always encouraged me to stand on my own two feet.”
Both her parents and her brother are always supportive which she says is like having her own personal fan club. Her favourite part about the work she does, is sharing all her exciting adventures with her family when she gets home.

Though constantly on the go, Asha considers herself ‘well domesticated’. “Of course I cook! It’s a survival tactic having lived on my own many years (and presently also living away from home!) I love to bake most of all! I think it’s partly because I find baking more challenging than cooking with more chances for things to go wrong! Not only am I hydrophilic, I’m also food-o-philic (if there is such a thing!) and am particularly fond of my mum’s chicken pilau and vegetarian pizzas,” she adds.