Archive for the ‘Travel & Explorations’ Category

Off to Kumamoto to see Japan’s famed cherry blossoms

April 11, 2014

“The Sakura flower is extremely beautiful, but its splendour does not last long. A few days after blossoming, the flower starts to disintegrate, reminding us of the uncertainty of life,” said Nobuko, my Japanese colleague explaining how the Japanese view the cherry blossom season.

The Sakura’s bloom marks the arrival of spring, as the trees bloom only when climatic conditions are right. Missing them in Tokyo, I was lucky to see them in Kumamoto city at the heart of Japan’s southernmost island Kyushu.

Kumamoto is roughly about 40 minutes by domestic flight (six hours from Tokyo by train). Signs of Sakura could be seen as soon as we exited the airport.

Literature says cherry blossom is the flower of any of several trees of genus Prunus, particularly the Japanese Cherry, Prunusserrulata. As my Japanese colleague explained, there are many varieties of Sakura flowers ranging from pink to white. However, white is the most popular Sakura flower among the Japanese. When over 80% of Sakura flowers open up, it is called a ‘Full Bloom’ and the Japanese go out to picnic in parks to enjoy the dawn of spring. The trees in Kumamoto were a few days prior to a full bloom, but were already infested by a swarm of white butterflies. The Sakura trees line the main roads, making it a beautiful sight. Some of the tree branches are bandaged with medicines to prevent them becoming infected with disease – a reminder of how well the Japanese look after these trees.
Kumamoto though offers more than the Sakura. Tasting the cleanest water directly from the source was another experience, the city being famous for its groundwater springs. There are a few hot water springs too in the vicinity and the tour also took us to visit one of the largest active volcanos in the world.

Passing barren mountains that had traces of crystalized lava, we moved toward Mount Aso located about 30 miles away from the city. Disappointing and scary news reached us while on the way that due to high volcanic activity, the public would not be allowed to go to the crater but things had settled by the time we reached there and we were allowed to climb all the way up.

Though having seen many documentaries about volcanoes, I never thought it would be so scary to look at one up close. The volcano was emitting gushing whitish fumes with fury from the heated volcanic lava, the sound captured by the ears more frightening than what has been seen by the eyes. The scent of sulfur was everywhere and announcements were constantly made that asthma sufferers should not go closer.

A tour to Kumamoto is not complete without visiting its most symbolic historic monument; the Kumamoto castle, incidentally the location for the Tom Cruise movie ‘The Last Samurai’. The movie is based on the historic events of the Satsuma Rebellion that took place in 1877 and the final battle between Samurai warriors and the empire’s troops that took place in Kumamoto. Dating back to the 1600s, the Kumamoto Castle is considered a most impregnable fortress with singular features such as its curved stone walls called mushagaeshi and its wooden overhangs, originally designed as protection against the ninja, together with its black and white main towers according to the guides.

Today, Kumamoto Castle also houses a museum which contains palanquins, samurai armour, Japanese swords and other artefacts from the Kato and Hosokawa clans, as well as detailed information on the castle’s remarkable history. It is also an excellent site for cherry blossom viewing,
The friendly people are the most valuable asset of Kumamoto. If you are lost, most would not hesitate to come along to show you the way. I even found a Sri Lankan restaurant in Kumamoto!

Published on SundayTimes Photo credit for Cherry Blossoms in ‘Full Bloom’ Chunli Yang.

?????????? ?????????? ?????????? Sakura bloom at Kumamoto Castle (c) Chunli Yang 2014 ??????????????????????????????? DSC_0010




President Orders the camp sites to be out of National Parks

October 21, 2012

Private campsites at national parks are to be dismantled and removed, on an order from President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The order came at a special Hambanthota District Development Committee meeting held last week, at which a report was tabled that claimed these campsites had become permanent and were polluting the environment.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunasekara said he welcomed the news, as the private campsites were illegal. Under the Fauna and Flora Ordinance, only the Department of Wildlife Conservation may provide facilities inside a park. The lawyer said private parties had no right to clear vegetation, build roads or put up structures inside a national park.

These private campsites have been maintained for years inside national parks with permission from Department of Wildlife Conservation. It was only when a dispute arose between campsite operators and Yala Jeep drivers that the illegality of these structures has come to the spotlight. In August, a gang of Jeep drivers assaulted employees of campsite operators, saying they were taking away their business. Campsite operators denied the allegation, saying their services were pre-booked several months ahead, while Jeep drivers conducted safaris on a daily basis. Reports also say that over 100 jeep drivers gathered at Palatupana near Yala entrance with aim of beating the leaving campsite operators and there is lack of Police Protection. However, jeep drivers too break law and discipline inside the park driving vehicles on high speed. 

[Full text: It is reported that the President Mahinda Rajapakse has ordered private campsites to be removed from the National Parks. As state mediate reported, he made this directive addressing a special Hambanthota District Development Committee meeting last week. According to the report, President Rajapaksa said these camp sites have now become permanent camp sites and the environment of the National Park has been polluted in alarming proportions according to information he gathered.

Environmentalists commend the move of the Rajapaksa also pointing out that the private camp sites are also a violation of law. The Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunasekara says that he welcomes this move as the private campsites are clear violation of law. He points out that according to the Fauna and Flora Ordinance (FFPO) only Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) can provide facilities inside the park. Furthermore no person can engage in having business in National Parks. The veteran lawyer point out it is also illegal to clear any vegetation, construct roads or erect any structures inside a National Park by private parties.

However, these campsites are been operated for many years and only a raw between the campsite operators and Yala Jeep Drivers had taken this issue to the arena. In august, several employees of camp site operators have been beaten savagely by the Jeep drivers saying that they are grabbing the jeep drivers business in unfair manner. But the campsite operators denied these allegations saying that their services were pre-booked several months ahead while Jeep Drivers are getting their safaris on daily basis.

This raw has been later settled down, but followed a DWC team to inspect the sites. They had given green light for 2 of the camp sites, but the one operated by the EcoTeam was temporary closed down as the conditions were found unsatisfactory. The head of the Leopard Safar; Noel Rodrigo said their operation is clean and done on Environmental Friendly manner with limited environmental footprint.

However, organizing a press conference on the issue; Sajeewa Chamikara of Environmental Conservation Trust alleged that 4 more private companies are given campsites in Yala. It is also revealed that those private campsites are going to be allowed in other National Parks too which could be a dangerous precedence.

Rukshan Jayawardane who is another activist who follows the Yala issue also welcome the president’s decision. However he pointed out that there should be a thorough investigation on how these private campsites have got permission through DWC and allowed to be running for many years ignoring the FFPO. Rukshan also point out that the visitor misbehavior and Tissa Jeep Drivers activities too should be regulated and monitored properly in Yala National park. The Jeep Drivers are speeding in the national park and on busy long weekends the Yala National park is getting lots of vehicles that all in search of leopards which ends up speeding.]

Published on SundayTimes on 21.10.2012 0n page 04

Looking up in awe at a symbol of peace

July 26, 2012
Malaka Rodrigo visits Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue..!! 

The ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue known in the local language of Portuguese as ‘Cristo Redentor’ is visible in the Rio de Janeiro skyline wherever I go in the city.

All lit up in green for the Rio+20 Earth Summit, it’s famous as one of the seven Modern Wonders of the World.

Deciding against taking an expensive taxi to the Corcovado Mountain where the landmark statue is located., my Indian colleagues and I hop a bus to the foot of the mountain although it is hard to find an English-speaking Brazilian to even explain where we are heading. But armed with a map, we show the conductor where we want to go.

On the way, the statue comes into view between buildings that block the Rio landscape. The Corcovado Mountain which means ‘camel-back’ or ‘hump’ in Portuguese due to its curved shape could possibly be the best place for Christ’s statue as its shape gives prominence to the statue on its crown.

The picturesque mountain can be conquered by vehicle or by foot; but we select the traditional Tram Car that goes up every 20 minutes to the peak. The tram car ride gives us a breathtaking view of the city and surrounding areas. The journey is also through Tijuca Forest National Park, which is a rainforest in the centre of the city. I was surprised to see trees similar to jak or kitul and this Brazilian rainforest reminds me of a forest in Sri Lanka. We are also greeted by the mischievous Capuchin monkeys that hang on the trees looking inquisitively at our tram car. Hummingbirds too could be seen hovering by flowering trees, their wings beating furiously.

When we reach the final station, there is a lift to go up, but we decide to walk the final 220 steps. On our 15 minute-walk, we see different segments of Rio de Janeiro and the buildings look like tiny match boxes. The view also includes the famous Rio beaches Copacabana, Ipanema and its famous Sugarloaf mountain.

The platform at the foot of the statue is crowded with tourists. But there is a feeling of awe when you look up from the bottom of the statue of ‘Christ the Redeemer’-a worldwide symbol of peace. The plaque mentions that it took nine years to complete this wonderful statue which is made from reinforced concrete with the outer layers being soapstone. These materials were chosen for the Rio de Janeiro statue due to their hard wearing qualities and ease to work with.

The statue is 39.6 metres (130 ft) tall including its 9.5 metre pedestal and is 30 metres (98ft) wide from fingertip to fingertip. With a weight of 635 tonnes, the Christ the Redeemer is considered the fifth largest statue of Christ in the world.

The idea of building a statue of Christ to mark the centenary of Brazil’s independence from Portugal came up in 1921. The foundation stone had been laid in 1922 and work completed in 1931 by architect Hector de Silva Costa.
Most tourists are also on a photo spree at the peak, spreading their hands like Christ in the statue. It is also fascinating to watch the photographers, who lie on the ground to capture the tall statue in the same frame as the people.

Published on SundayTimes on 08.07.2012

Hit and run vehicle kills a leopard in Yala

November 6, 2011

The carcass of a young leopard was found near Patanangala on October 22, around 6.a.m. by a group of wildlife enthusiasts who had set out early to get a glimpse of the morning wildlife.

The body had not been touched by predators and was still warm at the time it was found with a wound visible on its side, raising suspicion that it could have been killed by a wild boar attack. However, the carcass was sent to Udawalawe for a post-mortem and it was revealed that the leopard in fact had been killed by a speeding vehicle inside the park.

The veterinary team that conducted the post-mortem found that the leopard’s ribs were smashed and its lungs damaged. Dr.Vijitha Perera who headed the team said that kind of injury could only be caused due to a collision with a speeding vehicle.

Leopards are the key attraction at Yala and sometimes it is overcrowded by tourists who visit the park mainly to get a glimpse of the elusive big cat. The tourists often spend long hours in the park to maximize the opportunity of leapord sightings. However, since there is a rule that vehicles should leave the park at 6.30 p.m., some vehicles make a last minute dash speeding towards the exit just in time. Wildlife officials believe that one such vehicle could have been the culprit behind this hit and run tragedy.

Leopard carcass photographed few minutes after it was found (c) Spencer Manuelpillai

But the fact that the leopard was found in the morning with its body still warm and untouched by predators such as mongoose and not even covered by ants, has many wildlife activists believe that the fatal accident would have happened just a couple of hours before it was discovered in the morning. “If it happened in the morning it won’t be difficult to trace those responsible as only a few vehicles are usually found in the park that early,” Rukshan Jayawardene of the Leopard Trust said.

Pointing out that the leopard was a young female around six months old, Mr. Jayawardene said losing a female in Yala endangered the species more than when losing a male. A male leopard mates with several females so the death of a female means losing about several cubs for Yala.

He said the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) should launch an investigation to find the culprits and to impose strict regulations about speed limits to curb such tragedies in the future.
It is well known that over-visitation is a huge problem at the Yala Park, especially since the end of the war. On some long weekends, there are over 150 vehicles driving visitors into the park. However due to the limited number of trained wildlife trackers it is difficult to assign a tracker for every jeep thus leaving room for reckless behaviour by visitors, wildlife activists point out.

Most of the visitors’ main aim is to see as many wildlife as possible and sometimes at their insistence the trackers are forced to comply resulting in speeding vehicles and traffic jams.

The increase in the number of enthusiasts whose main hobby is to click a leopard has also aggravated the situation. This hobby has its downside especially with the popularity of Facebook where photographs are shared encouraging others to take their own leopard shots. This has has already driven away genuine wildlife photographers. “We no longer visit Yala,” said wildlife photographer Namal Kamalgoda who was a fan of Yala about a decade ago. He said many wildlife lovers like him have stopped visiting Yala and are looking at other prospects.

Yala is also being promoted as a tourist destination by the Tourism Promotion Bureau. But wildlife lovers say that even foreign tourists would stop going to Yala if there isn’t a check on the unruly behaviour, mainly of local tourists.

Wildlife biologist Manori Gunawardane says the tourism industry should impose self regulation to control the situation in national parks like Yala. Simple measures such as not to employ a jeep driver who misbehaves too can make an impact say conservationists.

She said many jeep drivers and tour operators have not understood the real meaning of a wildlife experience and believe that it only boils down to taking a photograph of one wildlife sighting and then rushing to another. She also said targeting some parks as safari sites for one species or another has also endangered the tranquility of these nature reserves.

Commenting on over-visitation, DWC Director General H.D.Ratnayake said that they are opening other wildlife spots to ease the pressure on the popular sites. He said measures have been taken to strengthen the existing rules regarding speeding vehicles with moves to cancel the licences of those who do not adhere to the speed limits. He also said investigations are being carried out on the death of the leopard.

published on SundayTimes on 06/11/2011

‘Spectacular’ coverage for The Gathering

July 17, 2011

International travel guide puts Minneriya wildlife phenomenon among the world’s top wildlife treats.Malaka Rodrigo reports. 

Sri Lanka’s image as a nature-based tourist destination has been given a boost by the internationally acclaimed travel guide Lonely Planet, which has named the “elephant gathering” of Minneriya as one of the world’s “10 greatest wildlife spectaculars.”

‘The Gathering’ is the name given to the elephants that assemble on the banks of the Minneriya Reservoir during the dry season. Every evening, between 150 and 200 elephants arrive at the reservoir, mainly to graze the grasses growing on the tank bed. During the drought, the water level drops, revealing a tank bed that allows the grass to grow. The elephants turn to these much needed fodder at a time when foliage in other areas dry up. The Minneriya reservoir also becomes a playground where the elephants can satisfy their water needs.

The Gathering peaks in August and September, at the height of the drought. According to wildlife authorities, the Minneriya gathering is the largest grouping of wild Asian elephants at any given time.
This congregation of elephants probably goes back centuries, but it was only recently that the phenomenon was considered a potential tourist attraction, thanks to Srilal Miththapala and Gehan de Silva Wijerathne, who promote wildlife tourism in Sri Lanka. Five years ago they branded the wildlife event as The Gathering, and it has been drawing a growing number of visitors since.

The sad news, however, is that The Gathering may be threatened. If a plan to retain the Minneriya waters in the dry season is carried out, the temporary grasslands on the bed of the Minneriya tank would disappear, and the number of elephant visitors would decline. This would affect the area’s elephant population, which depends on the temporary grassland as fodder in the dry season. The baby elephants would be especially seriously affected.

That The Gathering has gained international recognition as a nature “spectacular” may help in lobbying for keep the Minneriya tank for the elephants.

The popularity of the wildlife event has also created problems for itself. During the months of The Gathering, the Minneriya park is crowded with safari jeeps, which often block the elephants’ way to the tank. Wildlife activists say there is a need to monitor the safari jeep traffic and manage visitor behaviour to minimize inconvenience to the elephants.

The Gathering ranks sixth on the Lonely Planet wildlife spectaculars list. The list includes famous nature events such as the great wildebeest migration in Serengeti; brown bears feasting in Alaska; the penguin rookery in the Atlantic, the Monarch butterfly migration in Mexico; orca feeding in Argentina, starling roosting in England, and the salmon run in South Africa.

Lanka herded with world’s best nature treats

Lonely Planet’s 10 Greatest Wildlife Spectacles  

1. Látrabjarg bird cliffs, Iceland
2. Monarch butterfly roosts, Mexico
3. King Penguin rookery, South Atlantic
4. Great migration, Serengeti, Tanzania
5. Brown bears feasting, Alaska, USA
6. Elephant gathering, Sri Lanka
7. Bats of Dear Cave, Sarawak, Malaysia
8. Orca feeding, Valdés Peninsula, Argentina
9. Starlings roosting, Somerset, England
10. Sardine run, South Africa

Published on SundayTimes on 17.07.2011

Let’s play Olinda

April 10, 2011
As people prepare for the festive season, Malaka Rodrigo looks at a traditional avurudu game – ‘Olinda Keliya’ and the sting behind the bright red and black seed used “Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,
Olinda thibenne Bangali dese..
Genath handanne koi koi dese,
Genath hadanne sinhala dese..”

This song heard during the Avurudu season over TV reminds us of the traditional Olinda Keliya (game), a firm favourite during the new year.

‘Olinda Keliya’ is a board game also known as Mancala games where a wooden board known as “Olinda Kolombuwa” or “Olinda Poruwa” which has several holes is used. The rules can differ from area to area, but the game is normally played by two players seated on either side of the board. On either side of the poruwa there are usually nine holes in which are placed four beads each. The beads are Olinda seeds that can be found in abundance in villages.

The players have to shift the beads from one hole to the other and collect the seeds found in the hole immediately after an empty one. Ultimately the player who could collect the largest amount of olinda beads becomes the winner of the game.

The Olinda vine

The ‘Olinda Kolumbuwa’ also showcases the creativity of Sri Lankan traditional wood carvers. These boards are usually made of ebony (kaluwara) wood and beautifully carved. Most of these boards that are with families were designed during the Kandyan period. There is also a large collection of these boards in the Colombo Museum indicating how popular the game must have been in those days. ‘Olinda Keliya’ is also special, since it is mainly played by the women of the house while other traditional games are played mainly by men.

However, the most attractive element of this game is the shiny little red and black seed – Olinda. Crab’s eye is its common English name while the seed is also known as Jequirity, Rosary Pea or Indian licorice. The scientific name is Abrus precatorius. Olinda is a slender creeper that can grow large if the conditions are right. The vine has long, pinnate-leafleted leaves.

The Olinda vine has small whitish, pink or purplish pea-shaped flowers that bloom in dense slightly elongated clusters. Individual flowers have five small green sepals, which are fused together at the base into a short tube as per botanical sources. The fruit is a flat and relatively broad pod (20-35 mm long and 12-15 mm wide) with a sharp point. These pods are sparsely covered in hairs and have a rough texture. But when mature, these brown pods split open and curl back to reveal several (usually 3-7) oval-shaped Olinda seeds. The very distinctive seeds are about 5-7 mm long and 4-5 mm wide. They are bright scarlet-red in colour with a large black spot. Smooth in texture and glossy in appearance, they generally remain on the plant for several months.

Olinda seeds in ancient time were used to measure gold. Olinda is an indigenous plant to Sri Lanka, but not endemic. Though it looks like a nut, the Olinda is also a legume like a pea or bean that splits into two with the seeds attached to one edge. They look beautiful, but many beautiful things can also be dangerous. “The Olinda seeds are also poisonous. They contain a toxin called abrin,” revealed Dr. Siril Wijesundara, head of Botanical Gardens Department. Abrin is deadly toxic, so it is always advisable to keep the attractive seeds away from children who may put them in their mouth.

“But the leaves have a sweet taste and are edible. Even the roots are not poisonous and used in medicine. The Olinda plant is a close relative of medicinal ‘wel mee’,” Dr. Wijesundara said. It grows fast and the birds disperse the seeds around. It can be an invasive in some parts. There is another species in this family called as ‘ela olinda’ – Abrus melanospermus, he adds.

Published on SundayTimes on 10.04.2011

Sakura: Pretty blooms to take away the gloom

April 8, 2011

Disastrous Earthquake, Tsunami and then the nuclear threat has put Japan in a somber mood. But like parents coming to calm a troubled child, the Mother Nature has stepped in bring in a little serenity to the stressed Japanese people last week by bringing in blossoms to their Cherry trees. “Sakura or the cherry blossoms cannot come at a more perfect time than this” sending an email from Tokyo, my Japanese friend Takura communicated. Sakura will indeed be a relief for the eyes of the Japanese that has been witnessing disaster, death and uncertainty since Earthquake and Tsunami a month back.

Cherry blossom viewing season marks the dawn of the spring and is normally among the most anticipated announcements Japan. “We usually go out to parks and every inch of outdoor space in Japan is full of people during Sakura Blooming. But this year, Sakura just reminds us the nature of life; the extreme beauty and quick death” my friend who is also a Buddhist said. Full bloom is usually reached within about one week after the opening of the first blossoms. Another week later, the blooming peak is over and the blossoms are falling from the trees. Sakura flowers started blooming in end March from south of Japan and moves north until May. There is only simplicity, purity and truth, and an undeniably beautiful aspect to the powers of nature. Takura who enjoyed the previous Sakura Seasons said that when the flowers start shedding the petals after a full bloom, it is like a rain coming from a pink cloud. The ground is completely covered by the fallen petals providing a carpet to walk in.

Viewing these flowers sitting under a tree is indeed a meditation that nature brings to soothe the minds. While much attention is focused on the blossoms, the trees themselves have strong characters of their own. These old sentinels stand like philosophers and poets from ancient times, telling how the laws of life apply to the disasters around us. As terrible as it is to lose thousands of flowers in a sudden storm, the tree remains intact, ready to provide new flowers in coming seasons. Even under dark skies or gloomy clouds, the flowers emit a white shade of hope, for all who open their eyes enough to see it around them.

This year’s Sakura blooming is announced on last Monday by the Japanese Meteorological Agency. Japan designates certain Sakura trees for monitoring across the country, and considers a region to be in bloom when at least five or six flowers can be counted on its trees. When 80 percent of the trees’ flowers have opened, an area is officially designated as in “full bloom”. The blooming time of cherry trees differs from year to year depending on the weather and Japan says this season started six days later than last year in Tokyo. The blooming of sakura begins in the warmer south and moves north. Flowers in regions hit hardest by the tsunami are projected to make their appearance in early- to mid-April as per Japanese news reports.

Cherry Blossom viewing is a tradition that started centuries ago in Japan. It is known as Hanami in Japanese that means “flower viewing”. Hanami ritual involves sitting under “sakura” trees and picnicking. “But we do not talk much about cherry blossoms this year due to massive disasters and nuclear problems, which still occupied our daily lives. However, we hope we can enjoy sakura season soon” said Eiko – another Japanese friend lives in Kanayama.

A Cherry Blossom is infact the flower of the Japanese Flowering Cherry Tree known as Sakura. There are several species of Cherry Trees that brings flower grows in that region. In Sri Lanka, Hakgala Botanical Gardens once tried to grow these Flowing Cherries. Recalling his memories, the Director General of the Department of Botanical Gardens Dr.Siril Wijesundara said the Botanical Garden was presented few cherry plants in 1980. The botanists tried to raise the unique trees, but they survived only 2 years – perhaps the weather and soil of Sri Lanka did not suit them.

Most of the public places like parks and sides of the roads in Japan are full of Cherry Trees. So it would be a treat to eyes for those who visit Japan during this period of time. The Sakura flowers really represent Japan and the Japanese see the cherry blossoms as symbolizing the need to go back to basics in life. Even during World War II, the cherry blossom was used to motivate the Japanese people, to stoke nationalism and militarism among the populace. So it is a gift given by the nature for this nation and it will surely help them this time too..!!

Published on SundayTimes on 10.04.2011

Pics show Sakura bloom at Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya and Mt.Fuji with a Sakura tree in full bloom..

Off to Jaffna to see the birds

March 24, 2011

“Look.. that is a Black Kite.. It is a bird unique to this Northern Peninsula, so you have to visit the North to see it,” said Prof. Sarath Kotagama pointing out the bird soaring in the sky to 14-year-old Namesha, the youngest member of the birdwatching group. It was Namesha’s first visit to the Jaffna Peninsula as it was for the majority of the 29 birdwatchers of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL)’s maiden field excursion to Jaffna last month.

Flying high in the Jaffna skies
Gliding in unison: Pintail duo
Looking for a bite: Striated heron. Pix by Vimukthi Weeratunga
Grey Partridge male and female take a sand bath in Mandathivu Islet, Jaffna. Pic by Chaminda Jayaratne

“The northern part of the country can be considered a special avi-faunal zone with several birds like the Black Kite found only there. The Black Drongo, Grey Partridge, Long-tailed Shrike, Golden-backed Woodpecker, Indian Courser are few other unique representatives of the region,” Prof. Kotagama, a veteran ornithologist and founder member of FOGSL said.

During their recent Jaffna trip, the group mainly focused on Jaffna’s coastal areas dotted with wetlands which are magnets for waders, both migrant and resident. The team also visited Delft Island, Mandathivu, Kayts and other wetlands rich in birdlife. To reach Delft they had to take the one-hour ferry ride, which helped them to enjoy the sea birds of the area.

“The Striated heron was the first bird we spotted on the shores of the island. It was interesting to watch its antics as it got ready to pounce on its prey as it’s known to place bait such as feathers or leaves on the water surface and pick fish that come to investigate,” said Nishanthi Perera. During the few hours spent in the island, the birders observed 64 bird species.

At Mandathivu, they had seen a Grey Partridge pair, basking in the sun. Migratory ducks were plentiful in the area, but they missed the star migrant Flamingos during this tour.

Chunndikulam, Thirukkovil, Konda manaru and Sarasalei are some of the best birding sites in the north. The area is also the entry point for many migrants who travel through the Indian sub-continent landmass. The observers say it was fascinating to witness large numbers landing on these special sites – the scene looking like a busy airport. Some 262 species migrate to Sri Lanka during the migratory season that starts from late August and continues upto March/April, so this would be the best period to schedule your birdwatching trip to Jaffna region.

However, the facilities are still not star-class. It is possible to book a house for accommodation and travel to the more remote areas. During their visit to the Delft Island, the FOGSL team used the normal mode of transportation on the island -small tractors. Some of the remote areas are still not cleared of land mines, so one needs to be wary of the dangers and always take precautions not to step out of the cleared areas. But the birding rewards may compensate for any such drawbacks

Dr. Devaka Weerakoon, president of FOGSL also invites those who have an interest to join similar birding field trips to join the society which is also the local affiliate of BirdLife International that celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. “Jaffna is only the first trip FOGSL organized for 2011.

The society has planned its trip calendar for this year and anybody interested in birdwatching can take part in them by enrolling as a member of the society based at University of Colombo,” says Dr. Weerakoon. Prospective members need not be experts on birding he adds.

Published on SundayTimes on 20.03.2011

Diving in Sanctums

March 18, 2011

Titanic and Avatar film maker James Cameron’s latest movie Sanctum was in the town at Savoy opening up world of diving infront of Sri Lankan viewers. However, a tragedy breaks-out last week that a stun diver of the film too died in similar manner. But while the extreme activities like “Cave Diving” can be risky, there is also much safer ‘Recreational Diving’ which opens up a whole underwater natural beauty upon your eyes. The article looks more into ‘Recreational Scuba Diving’ too…!!

Agnes Milowka – Sanctum’s stunt cave diver died recently

I hope many of you would have enjoyed James Cameron’s latest block-buster movie SANCTUM screened at Savoy Cinema. The film was based on an epic adventure about a group of Divers that trapped in a gigantic cave. Many perished on their attempt to escape through an underwater channel – some of them by exhaustion of breathing oxygen. This has actually saddened me, but what shocked me was the news that a stun diver of the movie died in similar manner getting lost in murky waters while diving in a cave in Australia by exhaustion of air.

Cave Diving is tagged as one of the riskiest sports in the world. There are no known inland caves in Sri Lanka filled with water allowing anybody to do cave diving; however being an Island, Sri Lanka offers ample opportunities of Recreational Scuba diving at sea. Can Recreational Diving too be similarly risky..? – We asked some of the experienced divers.

“If you are properly trained, having right equipments, correctly prepared and know your limits; diving is not risky. It will open up a whole new beautiful world upon your eyes that others envy at you” says Nishan Perera – a young diver who dives for the last 15 years. Nishan who is also a marine biologist says there is plenty of underwater serenity to explore for an amateur diver, ranging from coral reefs to sunken ship wrecks.
“But proper training is a must and the first step” he pointed out. Those who are interested at diving should first get trained at a diving school. There are plenty of Diving schools in Sri Lanka where a simple web search will link their contact details. The instructors of these diving schools will teach the novice diver about the basic skills of Scuba diving, how to operate the breathing equipments, survival skills etc. Once the novice is ready, he will be issued a PADI license. PADI License is issued by Professional Association of Diving Instructors and there are different levels of licensing levels to categorize the divers’ upon intensity of their training.

After you are trained and equipped with a PADI license, you can join a diving team to go to the ocean. But like there are many athletic events defined by distance, diving too is categorized upon the depth and complexities, so it is required to know your limit.

Sri Lanka is also having lots of Ship Wrecks. Some vessels are reachable to a casual Recreational Diver, but many lies in Deep Ocean which needs special skills to dive in. These are usually called as ‘Technical Diving’ if the dive is more than 40meters deep. When you go deep in the sea, pressure will be a fact that affects your body and you need to know how to control the air you breathe. You need to descend to the deep carefully and coming back too should be done carefully taking breaks on the way. Increasing pressure at depth also increases the risk of oxygen toxicity – Remember Frank’s Buddy George in the movie Sanctum suffered decomposition sickness. So technical diving is always for experienced Scuba divers.

There is also a buddy system which twins two people specially to ensure safety. The buddies operate together as a single unit so that they are able to monitor and help each other; each may be able to prevent the other becoming a casualty or rescue the other in a crisis. <remember Frank dived with Jude in the film as buddies together and later tried to give his full-face mask to Jude whose hose has snapped off. This is known as ‘Buddy-breathe’>.

But for those who dare to go deep, it opens up a whole new colorful world. Differently colored corals, fish in different colors and sizes who swims together with you, the wrecks that lies hundreds of years – it is indeed a pleasurable. “To me diving is meditative… its about being alone and enjoying nature peacefully while having a minimal impact on the environment” says Asha de Vos – another young diver. But she also points out its not sometimes easy to spent 7 hours in the hot sun on a boat while traveling to your dive site.
But divers are also the first to witness the degradation of unique underwater environment. The first marine sanctuary in SL was established at Hikkaduwa in 1979 because some of the pioneers – Like Late Rodney Jonklaas, Sir A.C. Clarke, Mike Wilson and Lyn De Alwis saw the degradation of the marine environment and recommended to establish marine protected areas. Divers are in a unique position to monitor the health of ocean and can lead the marine conservation. Taking the pioneers’ footstep, the young divers in Sri Lanka teamed under divers’ association SubAqua Club also become watchdogs to protect Sri Lanka’s marine habitats.

Standard Diving equipment
o Diving mask or full face diving mask and snorkel
o Swimfins or scuba fins
o Dry suit, wetsuit or regular swimsuit, depending on the water temperature
o Buoyancy compensator or buoyancy control device (BCD)
o Diving weighting system or weight belt
o Diving cylinder or scuba tank
o Diving regulator
o Contents gauge or submersible pressure gauge (SPG)
o Dive computer or depth gauge and timer
o Surface marker buoy or other surface detection aid

Cave Diving

A cave or cavern is a natural underground space formed by geological processes, erosion or digging. Some of these caves located inland are filled with water and many call these caverns are the last unexplored sites in the earth. Caves are often made of limestones which fossilize both land and marine animals, so the cave walls are also rich hunting grounds for paleontologist as different time periods are marked in alternative layers of embedded organic matter.

The underwater access passages in caves are often very narrow and a diver can not surface to breath in an accident which makes the cave diving a dangerous sport. Despite these risks, water-filled caves attract SCUBA divers due to their often unexplored nature. The Santum’s stun cave diver – 29 year old Agnes Milowka claimed cave diving was the essence of exploration despite the risks. She said on her website “The rewards were worth it”. Agnes’ website and her Flickr photostream are still active for anybody to witness her caving explorations

To do cave diving, a diver needs a special license. Florida, Mexico, Australia are some of famous cave sites, but there are no known freshwater filled caves in existence in Sri Lanka.

Published on SundayTimes on 13.03.2011

Solution eludes monkey menace at Dambulla

December 31, 2010

Some of the members of the Monkey clang inhabit in Dambulla Cave Temple have become more than a nuisance to the visitors. Loosing fear to the humans, some Monkeys come all they way down to steps and approach the visitors until they give away food on their hand. Sometimes they boldly rob the food directly from visitors’ hand scare the visitors by snaring. Several visitors are already been attacked when they struggle to keep their belongings.  

The visitors to reach ancient rock caves have to climb over 1km by foot where they become vulnerable to this Monkey menace. There are several vendors selling food items like pineapple, mango, peanuts etc to visitors on the way and those who carry this food on hand are fallen easy victims. But sadly, there are no warning boards either to alert the unwary visitors about the mischievous monkeys.

Experts point out the whole problem starts due to the visitors’ behavior of feeding the monkeys. “No food with visitor’s means, no monkeys harassing them” said Dr.Wolfgang Dittus who has done decades long research on Toque Macaques of Sri Lanka that is also the same species making trouble in Dambulla. Dr.Dittus points out that until visitors feed the animals and bring the food, this conflict will continue. He suggested banning vendors at site from selling food to visitors and ban visitors from carrying food. But due to the pressures authorities have to allow the livelihood of the food vendors and our cultural background where visitors like to feed the animals, this conflict will get worsened, Dr.Dittus complained.

An electric wire has been setup at the top of the wire mesh to avoid monkeys intruding the ancient caves at the Peak of Dambulla Mountains. This has gained some success avoiding monkeys, but visitors are feeding the monkeys through the wire mesh. So it is required to educate the both the visitors and vendors to find a solution to this Human Monkey Conflict. 

Published on SundayTimes on 26.12.2010

Coming to town with the Tree of the Season!

December 26, 2010

Every year, come Christmas time the Vihara Maha Devi Park pavement gets busy with Christmas tree sellers who pop up overnight. Malaka Rodrigo speaks to these vendors from Heeloya, a remote village in Bandarawela, to unveil the hidden story behind these Christmas trees

“Come sir..!! This Tree is about nine feet tall – look at the perfect conical shape, it is a perfect Christmas tree”. Like any other pavement seller, Bandula tried to convince the buyer that the tree he held was worth the money. Realizing it was beyond the buyer’s budget, Bandula showed a smaller tree. After a little bargaining, the tree was sold and a happy customer went home with the tree tied to his car hood, bringing the joy of Christmas to his family.
“It is not easy to sell a Christmas tree these days. Buyers want everything for a cheaper price,” Bandula said, untying another tree to exhibit to his next customer. Along the pavement lay several Christmas trees securely tied around with ropes without damaging the tender branches. Soon he stepped to the side of the road joining several other hawkers trying to sell their Christmas Trees ignoring the drizzle.
Customers checking out the trees

It is the Cypress tree that is being used as Christmas Trees in Sri Lanka, though Pinus trees are popular in other countries. Cypress grows straight with a perfect conical shape making it perfect as a Christmas tree.

They are also long lasting, where a tree can be kept for almost one month after been cut. Cypress has been frequently planted in hedges in the hill country mostly for its beauty. They are also planted in-between some commercial crops and also at places unsuitable for commercial crops.

“People do not know the effort we have to put in to bring these trees to the city,” commented Gunathilake – another tree vendor, who has been bringing Cypress trees to Colombo since the 1970s.

He related an interesting story behind these Christmas trees. All the Christmas trees that are sold near Vihara Maha Devi Park are ‘complete trees’ (not the branches) brought down from a small village called Heel-oya in Bandarawela. Most of the Cypress trees are cultivated to be cut and sold as Christmas trees and others are picked from private gardens and hedges of the hill country. Gunathilake himself owns about half-an acre of Cypress plantation in Heeloya. The trees have to be fertilized and well looked after for about two years until they reach a good height to cut.

Christmas tree thieves

“We also have to guard these trees from thieves,” Gunathilake said. While the vendors are in the city, selling trees cut for this season, the remaining trees are guarded by his family to protect them from Christmas tree thieves. A tree can be kept for about one month without any problem, so they are vulnerable for theft since the first week of December. “We guard our Cypress trees vigilantly since December 1. The remaining one year old trees too are guarded until the 24th,” said Gunathilake explaining it is not an easy process.

Guarding the trees doesn’t stop at Heel-oya. The pavements of Vihara Maha Devi Park too are not free from opportunistic thieves looking for easy money by stealing a couple of trees. “Earlier we had to sleep on these trees to bodily protect them from thieves who wait until we go to sleep to steal them. But things are now improved,” commented Raja – another tree seller who has regularly brought Cypress to town for the past 15 years.

Family business

Most of the sellers near Vihara Maha Devi Park are upcountry farmers who become Christmas tree sellers during the December festive season. Interestingly, all those who sell the trees near Vihara Maha Devi park are from the same Heeloya village in Bandarawela living in the 69B Grama Seva Division under Ella Government Secretariat. More than 50 villagers from the scenic Heeloya village come to Colombo annually, bringing with them Cyprus trees. Some of them are family members too – for example Gunathilake’s elder brother and younger brother both come to town with Cypress during the season.

Two or three sellers usually hire a lorry together, sharing the cost, to bring these trees all the way from Bandarawela. Once they get to Colombo, they literally live with the trees – eating and sleeping at the sales site. They putup tents on beside their trees and live at the mercy of the weather gods. Come December it’s a different way of life for these vendors.

Their trouble doesn’t end with getting the plants ready. To transport the trees, they also need to get a permit from the AGA’s office and the Forest Department. This sometimes takes time and some vendors complain that they need to give tips or ‘santhosam’ on the way at some checkpoints to get the trees released quickly. Permission for the Heel-oya clan to sell their Cypress trees at the Vihara Maha Devi Park was also not initially granted, but authorities later allowed them to stay there under the condition that they looked after the vicinity.

The pricing is usually done according to the height of the tree which can range from four feet to 12 feet. On average a plant exceeds about Rs.1000 totalling all the expenses, according to the vendors. But they complain their market is also diminished by the flooding of artificial Christmas Trees.

Environmental friendly

“Using Cypress trees as Christmas trees are environment friendly as they are biodegradable. That is why I always use a natural tree as a Christmas tree,” – said Chrystopher Fernando – a buyer we met at Vihara Maha Devi park pavement, explaining his preference for the natural Cypress. “It brings a natural feeling to the Christmas – Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a real Christmas tree,” said another buyer.

Some people buy artificial trees for the convenience, but most of the artificial Christmas trees are imported from other countries. “The money spent on these natural Cypress trees from Heeloya will remain in Sri Lanka and will help some Sri Lankan in the process to survive,” said Gunathilaka the 53 year old farmer.

This year they came to Colombo on December 17 and will remain until Christmas Eve. The trees that could not be sold will be left behind while they get back to the village. These vendors are not deterred by the hardships they face. “It is not an easy job – but we will come next season too bringing Christmas to town,” said the Heeloya Christmas tree vendors wishing every one a ‘Merry Christmas’.

Christmas Trees

The Cypress tree that is being used as a Christmas tree in Sri Lanka is known as Califonian Monterey cypress scientifically classified as Cupressus macrocarpa. It is a medium-sized conifer tree that was introduced by the British to Sri Lanka’s hill country. Dr.Siril Wijesundara – the Director General of the Botanical Gardens Department said Cypress was introduced to Sri Lanka as far back as 1880. The Hakgala Botanical Gardens in Nuwara Eliya has very old Cypress trees. The Cypress tree can grow to upto 40m and the trunk can grow to 2.5m diameter.

In other countries many varieties of Pinus or fir trees are used as Christmas trees. In the past, Christmas trees were often harvested from wild forests, but now almost all are commercially grown on tree farms in many other countries. Internet sources disclose that almost all Christmas trees in the US are grown on Christmas tree farms where they are cut after about ten years of growth and new trees planted.

Published on 26.12.2010 SundayTimes

Making wishes at the symbol of eternal love

November 22, 2010
India’s capital city is a gateway to many destinations and the Taj Mahal is perhaps the most interesting day trip you can make from Delhi says Malaka Rodrigo  

“Why not visit the Taj Mahal?” suggested my Indian friend Kethan mentioning the world famous monument that is just a three to four hour drive from New Delhi. Kethan dialled the Delhi Tourism office to get me a seat on the next day’s round trip. It was over-booked but the officer finally agreed. I had to be there at the Delhi Tourism entrance sharp at 6, the next morning.I reached Delhi Tourism well ahead of time the next morning. The area which was deserted the previous night had transformed into Delhi’s flower market. Vividly coloured flower baskets were everywhere. Roses, carnations, and marigolds were sold to buyers loudly bargaining like we do in a fish market.


Inhaling the fragrance of the fresh flowers, I boarded the vehicle arranged for the tour. It was a multi-cultural crowd- two Irish girls, a Chinese, a Japanese and a tourist from Britain. A Canadian girl had just phoned the driver saying she was lost in the town. She arrived 45 minutes late and the driver took off at an accelerated speed to make up for the lost time.

Taj Mahal - Through an arch

It was about a 200 kilometre journey from New Delhi to Agra and we had to cross the border of Uttar Pradesh state. Vehicles have to get clearance when crossing the borders of Indian states so there was a queue. There were gypsies with monkeys who flocked around the waiting vehicles like vultures begging for money. Our driver warned us to keep the shutters closed.

Getting breakfast on the way, we reached Agra around 11 a.m. To avoid damage to the white marble of the Taj Mahal through air pollution, fuel-driven vehicles are not allowed close by. We got down and boarded a battery-driven mini bus to reach the southern gates of the Taj Mahal. There are also camel carts available for the tourist who wants a different experience.

The entrance ticket which is only Rs.20 for an Indian is Rs.750 for a foreign tourist. Visitors from the SAARC region however get the tickets for a concessionary rate, so check the prices at the counter before you buy them and present your passport.

After the security checks, we were allowed to go through the Taj Mahal’s Southern Gate. A special pair of disposable socks was also given to cover our shoes to avoid harmful dust on the World Heritage monument.

Through a few more passages and arches, we proceeded amidst a slight drizzle, carried along with the crowd. The Taj Mahal first appeared before us through the end of these passages and it was really fascinating to be in front of one of the most beautiful buildings of the world. But the real beauty and wonder of the Taj Mahal could only be seen at close proximity. Built of white marbles, the artwork is all done using stone. At a distance the differently coloured designs on the arches seem painted, but they are in fact made by embedding coloured small pieces of stone into the structure. No wonder it had taken 22 years to build. For me the real wonder of Taj Mahal lies in this artwork which showcases the patience and craftsmanship of the Mughals.

Intricate work on tiles at the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was constructed using materials from all over India and Asia and the labour of over 1,000 elephants as per ancient records. In all, 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble. The translucent white marble was brought from Makrana, Rajasthan, the jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China, turquoise was from Tibet and the lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, carnelian from Arabia while the sapphires were got down from Sri Lanka. I felt proud that our precious stones too become part of this masterpiece.

The seventh wonder of the world, Taj Mahal is also stands as a symbol of love. The story is famous- how the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built this monument in memory of his beautiful wife Mumtaz Mahal who died at the birth of their 14th child. The grief-stricken emperor ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal in 1632, one year after her death. Mumtaz’s body was buried in the centre of the building and later emperor Shah Jahan in the next building.

Tourists are allowed to visit the inner chambers of this tomb where the lovers rest today. Our tour guide explained a tradition that wishes made in front of these tombs of the Taj Mahal lovers come true. If you visit the Taj Mahal, be mindful of the ‘No photographs” signs to avoid arguments with security guards.

Published on SundayTimes on 31.10.2010

Saying hello to our jumbo friends

November 14, 2010

Remember Anula and Kosala – the little elephants sent to Japan in exchange for Black Rhinos three years ago? Malaka Rodrigo visits the Sri Lankans jumbos now in Nagoya’s Higashiyama Zoo… Zoos around the world is also being visited by millions of people annually and provide a great opportunity to raise awareness on the need to protect biodiversity as WAZA officers pointed out at a side event at COP10 in Nagoya…

I had a date at Nagoya’s Higashiyama Zoo and I was late. The Chief Veterinarian of Higashiyama Zoo was waiting and he accompanied me to meet my Sri Lankan friends – Kosala and Anula. A group of Japanese pre-school children were already greeting the elephants, while some young artists were making replicas of the elephants out of clay as their assignments.

Anula greeting the Japanese crowd

“Kosala and Anula have become a key attraction of our zoo,” said the Director of Higashiyama Zoo, Hiroshi Kobayashi. Kosala and Anula were brought to the Nagoya Zoo in 2007 in exchange for a pair of Black Rhinos and since then have been sharing the Asian Elephant enclosure. The Japanese zoo is proud to be custodians of these Asian Elephants.

Hiroshi led me to their elephant shed through the backdoor. It is not an open enclosure like in Sri Lanka but as Japan’s winter starts from November, the elephants need to be provided warmth. However, both Kosala and Anula seem to enjoy the snow during the short period they are allowed outside.

Obediant Kosala

“They like to play with the snow like children,” said Hiroshi laughing. The elephant shed is heated and the elephants are well protected during this time, assure the zoo officials. Being larger animals, both the Asian and African elephants seem to be able to adapt to the changing climate and do not show any particular uneasiness in facing the cold.

The elephant shed in fact took me back to the Japanese children’s film “The Little Elephant” I watched when I was a child. The elephant shed which was the original one built at the zoo’s inception looks identical to the one in the film and I wondered whether the story of the famous film too is set in this very zoo.

It was set in World War II where the military try to kill the elephants upon an order to get rid of dangerous animals and the attempt by the elephant keeper and Japanese kids to save their little elephant. In fact during World War II, the Japanese military had received orders to kill some dangerous animals fearing they would escape during the bombings. “But Nagoya Zoo is special as none of their elephants were harmed,” revealed director Hiroshi.

The Japanese government requisitioned Nagoya Zoo for military purposes during the World War and many animals died but the two elephants were able to survive through the efforts of the zoo staff. In 1945, Higashiyama zoo served as a major recreation facility in war-ravaged Japan and the surviving elephants, Makany and Held gave hope to children and boosted the popularity of the zoo. So the Nagoya Zoo considers elephants special.

“That is why we are especially proud to have both Kosala and Anula and grateful to Sri Lanka for sending these elephants,” said director Hiroshi. “Sri Lanka is negotiating to get down a Sea Lion from Higashiyama zoo and despite loads of requests from other zoos, we favour Sri Lanka because of the elephants the Colombo Zoo sent us,” he said.

Anula and Kosala are indeed special, as they can also now understand three languages said the animal keeper through a translator. They still understand the commands they’ve been taught in Sri Lanka – ‘ali bashawa’, but also know some commands in English and in Japanese. Two Sri Lankan mahouts stayed with the elephants during their first few months in Japan and helped the Japanese mahouts get used to the animals.

Anula - beloved friend of Japanese children

Enclosure that keeps elephants warm during winter

The elephants are given different kinds of grass and some fresh plants as fodder. During the winter, it is not easy to find food from Japan, but the zoo imports grass cubes from America to feed the elephants.

The keepers showed us banana plants and fresh leaves similar to our Jak that grows in Japan. Both Kosala and Anula who were about 1 tonne at the time they were shipped from Sri Lanka now weigh about 2 tonnes and look healthy.

Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya was established in 1937 – one year after Sri Lanka’s Dehiwala Zoo opened. It now houses over 500 animals ranging from koala bears and gorillas to polar bears.

The Nagoya zoo is renovating its premises to make the zoo a bridge between humans and nature. Their plan is to make social animals that usually live in a group to actually form groups, and make the exhibition area as similar to their natural habitat as possible.

According to this new plan, both Anula and Kosala will get a new enclosure five times as big as the present one. The Zoo is also adjacent to a Botanical Garden and recreational facilities, so visitors get a total experience.

WAZA presents Zoos’ contribution to protect Biodiversity at COP10

Zoos are not only animal exhibit centres, but also contribute in protecting biodiversity. The Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya breeds and conserves at least 50 endangered species such as Western Lowland Gorilla, Orangutans, Great Indian Rhinoceros and the Snow Leopard. The Higashiyama Zoo is also the studbook keeper for Koalas and Orangutans in Japan where they keep the pedigree of individual animals to avoid inbreeding.

Most modern zoos and aquariums today are attempting to move toward conservation efforts. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) presenting their strategic plan at the UN Summit of Biodiversity – COP10 held last month in Japan revealed some practical examples where zoos had helped in the recovery of many species such as the American Condor, Przewalski’s Horse etc.

They are bred and released to the wild. However this is not easy as releasing an animal to the wild needs to be done after careful assessment. If adverse conditions prevail, even the released animals can face the same fate as their doomed cousins.

Gerald Dick, the Chief Executive Officer of WAZA – a global organization which unifies the principles and practices of over 1,000 zoos and aquariums – highlights that some species only survive in captivity in zoos. “Over 600 million visitors annually come through the gates of the world’s zoos and aquariums. So zoos also have a great opportunity to promote environmental education, raise awareness on the need for wildlife conservation,” said Mark Penning – the President WAZA addressing the COP10 side event.

There are two more zoos being built in Sri Lanka – one in Pinnawala and the other in Ridiyagama, so Sri Lanka also has a good opportunity to rethink its role in conservation.

WAZA officers Gerald Dick and Mark Penning at COP10 published on 14.11.2010 on SundayTimes

Kaju Puhulam: Fading symbol of Avurudu

April 11, 2010
This Brazilian fruit, taken around the world by the Portuguese centuries ago, was part of Avurudu traditions not so long ago, but today, some young people have not seen or tasted it.
Malaka Rodrigo reports
The ripe kaju puhulam (cashew fruit) together with Avurudu symbols such as the koha and erabadu reminds us of the April festive season. The ripe red, orange or yellow cashew fruits nicely bundled together using an iratuwa (coconut midrib) were a common delicacy during the season decades ago. Now one wonders how many of the younger generation would have ever tasted kaju puhulam. Most village gardens in earlier days had one or two kaju trees, but no more.

“The cashew fruit, also known as cashew apple, has disappeared from the market. It is sad that the younger generation today is losing touch with this fruit which was in abundance when we were children,” says Dr. Siril Wijesundara, Director of the Department of Botanical Gardens.

He recalls a traditional Avurudu game played using shelled cashew nuts known as Vala kaju gaseema. A small hollow is made in the sand and a player has to try to put his cashews in it or hit others afterward. “These traditional games are fast disappearing. So are the trees bearing the fruit,” he says.

Dr. Wijesundara has a scientific explanation for the odd shape of the cashew fruit. “In fact, the puhulama or the cashew apple is a false fruit that is known as a pseudocarp or an accessory fruit. It is a modified fruit stalk (fruit pedicel).

“The real fruit of the cashew is the kidney shaped drupe hanging below the puhulama which has a single seed enclosed in a hard layer. You can clearly see this difference in a week-old cashew fruit with a large nut with accessory fruit only as a thin twig. But this stem gets fleshy and becomes very large when the fruit matures.”

The ripe cashew apple can grow to about six cm. It is juicy and tastes sweet. While eating the fruit, one should be careful not to let the juice fall on the clothes. The fruit also attracts birds, squirrels and bats, which help to disperse the seeds around. Dr. Wijesundara says the cashew apple is rich in vitamin A and C — about 150-400 mg per 100 gram of fresh fruit. “This is about five times that in orange juice.”

Though the cashew apple is rare in the market, the cashew nut is still popular largely because of its culinary value. The seed is enclosed by a strong double shell containing an allergenic phenolic resin and anacardic acid. It also has a skin irritant that should be removed carefully.

Some experts point out that the main threat for the tree comes from two main pests — tea mosquito bug and stem borer, for which the Wayamba University’s Agriculture and Plantation Management faculty has discovered methods of biological control.

“Red-ants commonly known as dimiya can be used to fight these bugs. Red ants feed on these bugs, and keep the cashew trees clean,” says Prof. S.J.B.A. Jayasekera who carried out a study on the use of red ants as an eco-friendly pest controlling mechanism. He recommends this method to people who want to keep their cashew trees healthy.

The Sri Lanka Cashew Corporation has plans to popularize the cashew as an economic crop. Commercial cashew plantations in Sri Lanka cover about 100,000 acres with the Cashew Corporation accounting for more than 20,000 acres. The Corporation’s Plantation Manager, G.D. Surendra, says more cashew plantations will be set up in the North and East because the soil and the climate suits the crop.

He says the corporation together with the Wayamba University is introducing high-yield varieties to encourage cashew growers.

“We have introduced six cashew varieties based on our common research,” says Prof. Jayasekera who advises people to plant grafted or budded cashew plants as they will have the same characteristics as the mother plants. The university with the corporation has set up six seed gardens to meet the demand in a few years.

Prof. Jayasekera also says many useful parts of the cashew are wasted or underutilized. “Cashew oil can be extracted from the shell, which is usually thrown away. The oil is used in countries like China to reduce brake fade and brake lining wear. It is also used as wood preservation substance to prevent termite attacks.

Can’t the cashew apple be used more productively? As an experiment, the Cashew Corporation has begun brewing wine from cashew apples. Nicely packaged, this product is available only at the Cashew Corporation outlet in Kollupititya. 

Snowy wonderland of Trondheim

April 11, 2010

I had just stepped out of the airport bus and started walking toward the hotel with my new-found friend from Yemen who was attending the same conference in Trondheim, Norway. It was -10oC- freezing cold, but I was thrilled to have my first experience of snow.

Keeping my luggage aside, I bent to touch the snow… and that was it! I slipped and fell. Though my finger was hurt, I quickly got up and started walking again. My friend couldn’t stop laughing, but soon it was my turn to laugh when he went rolling down with two big suitcases.

Yes, that was my first experience of snow. I learnt that snow is very slippery indeed. You need special shoes to walk on this icy surface, but everything was expensive in Norway and buying a pair of shoes for just a week wasn’t an option.

But beside the slippery part, my experience of snow, the city of Trondheim and its people this February was a pleasant one.

Receiving an invitation to participate at the 6th Trondheim Conference of Biodiversity organized by Norway in collaboration with UN Convention of Biodiversity, it was a multicultural experience for me with over 300 biodiversity experts from nearly 100 countries at Trondheim.

Trondheim was the first city of Norway and remains its third largest today. Traditional houses in Trondheim are built using timber and there are plenty of these wooden buildings in the municipality. They were painted either yellow or red and most of them stand proudly by the river that flows across the city. The harbour is located in the city’s heart reminding us that the ancient Vikings lived on this land.

Trondheim’s ancient Nidaros Cathedral built in 1070 is also an icon of the city. It has an ancient pipe organ that still works perfectly. The conference organizers had also arranged a dinner at Trondheim Archbishop’s Palace where the mayor was present. Norwegian fish was the highlight of this dinner – there were salmon, mackerel and herrings served in different ways.

We spent the day listening to biodiversity experts exploring various issues, but the cold nights belonged to us for exploring the city. Trondheim was experiencing an extended winter and was fully covered by snow which added a mystic beauty. But the freezing wind penetrated any lightly covered body parts and covering one’s face was the biggest problem.

Rizwan Irshad from Pakistan had become my buddy in exploring this unknown landscape. A wolf researcher, he would come out on our night walks clad in a light jacket. “Remember, I followed the Pakistani wolf in cold mountains. So it is not a big deal for me,” he shrugged.

There were also three delegates from Spain whom we always met somewhere on the road during our night walks. I named them the three musketeers. A group of South American delegates too joined us and we walked along the snowy roads exploring the beautiful landscapes of the city until it was very late.
There was much more to explore in Trondheim, but this snowy dream had soon to end and it was a sad goodbye to my new friends and the beautiful city of Trondheim.

Opening up a whole new landscape

March 23, 2010
Book facts: Sri Lanka’s Other Half: A Guide to the Central, Eastern & Nothern Provinces; by Juliet Coombe and Daisy Perry
“Far from the war-ravaged zones, mass graves and internment camps presented by the international media, this book reveals the other side of the story, introducing a place that contains some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, ancient jungle ruins, pristine rainforests, wildlife parks with the largest elephant gathering of the world and huge mangrove lagoons bursting with exotic flora and fauna” says the introduction to “Sri Lanka’s Other Half”.

Launched recently at a simple ceremony held at Nuga Gama, Cinnamon Grand Hotel, this book by photojournalist Juliet Coombe and Daisy Perry is an exhilarating guide for the adventurous traveller to the North, East and Central Sri Lanka, covering areas that have been shut off to tourism due to the civil war for over 26 years.

Ruins in Jaffna  

If a book can make a big difference in the minds of the tourists luring them to this beautiful island; “Sri Lanka’s Other Half” can definitely be placed in the front of the campaign. “This book makes you want to drop everything and go immediately before it all changes” says Steve Dave – BBC best selling author of ‘Unforgettable Places to see Before You Die’.

But I prefer to call the guide kahambiliya. Like you start itching when you touch the kahambiliya plant, after reading the “Other Half” you start itching to go to these places and explore them. The language in the guide is so captivating you feel like you are travelling along with the writers while reading it.

It is not only the tips on how you should travel around, the book also explores the life of the people and tells interesting stories that will keep coming to mind whenever you visit that area. The guide can be used by up-market tourists as well as back-packers for the writers with their team of young explorers had even done the bus journeys so as to have the real feel of exploring these areas.

The writers were, in fact, among the first travellers to the North soon after the war. Juliet Coombe was eight months pregnant at the time she made her road journey to Jaffna carrying her two-year-old son Samad. A well-known BBC Lonely Planet photographer Juliet is married to a Sri Lankan and lives in Galle Fort.

“The aim of the book is to highlight that travel is for everyone whether you are young or elderly, a mum, pregnant, an independent traveller or a crazy adventurer,” says Juliet. Juliet and Daisy discovered that North, East and Central Sri Lanka certainly have something for everyone.

I’m among thousands of fellow Sri Lankans who want to travel Jaffna, but have no idea where to begin. The guide gave me enough tips from preparation to accommodation to where to find the famous Jaffna ice cream parlours, giving me the confidence to visit the unknown area.

Like its language, the photographs in the book all have their own character. The ‘Other Half’ is full of photographs and interesting stories. The war is over and tourism is already experiencing a revival. “Sri Lanka’s Other Half” carries a welcome message to all those who wants to visit this beautiful island.

Peak traffic!

April 12, 2009


It was the Medin Poya weekend in March. Fearing that Sri Pada would be crowded that Tuesday, I made inquiries before setting off. “It was bad during the weekend. Most of the visitors had to park their vehicles about 5 km before Nallathanniya and some of those who missed the shuttle service had to walk to the starting point of the climb,” said a guard at the Hatton police post confirming my fears.
It was a relatively calm night with a cloudy sky. Luckily, there wasn’t a big crowd that day as the human flood seems to gather mostly during the weekends. We made good progress and without much drama reached the last part of the climb – Mahagiridamba around 5.45 a.m. The buildings at the peak were close at hand and I heaved a sigh of relief that we were only 10 minutes away from the summit. It was a mistake – for seconds later we hit the queue. The minutes ticked by as we waited, willing ourselves to be patient. The queue had not moved an inch. Nobody descended either. We were jammed at the last few yards.

In the background, the sun jumped out from the clouds making an unceremonial sunrise for those who were shivering in the queue facing the cold gusty wind. “It is absurd. We climbed this far without any trouble- why this block even when there is no big crowd?” lamented a weary pilgrim.

With frustration building up, a few people jumped to the other side which is dedicated only for those descending. The pathway at Mahagiridamba is narrow, so one side is reserved for those ascending while the other is only for those descending. The moment you break this ‘one-way’ rule, it becomes a huge block with both queues going nowhere.

Luckily, somebody in the crowd had foreseen this and prevented the impatient ones from taking this route up. An hour passed and still there was no movement. Suddenly a policeman appeared and tried to clear the impasse. Heated arguments were exchanged with those who wanted to rest at the peak longer and with those who climbed up the wrong way. The loudspeaker at the summit meanwhile was broadcasting the value of peacefulness of the mind, but even the chill wind didn’t help to cool the boiling tempers of those who were below.

Finally, the queue started moving. Inch by inch, we progressed. It took more than two hours for us to reach the summit. I wondered what had caused this unnecessary block. The sight of an unusual figure at the peak – a cameraman revealed the reason. Part of the summit – udamaluwa, was blocked for broadcasting a live bana sermon.

“Yes, it is good to have a live TV programme from the peak, but we were kept waiting in the queue in the freezing cold unnecessarily for nearly three hours. There should a proper way to manage the situation,” said Sasanka, a tired and frustrated visitor who had come all the way from Colombo.

Ven. Dampahala Seelananda Thera, the Chief Incumbent and caretaker of Sri Pada attributed the block on Medin poya to the closure of udamaluwa for 45 minutes to facilitate the rituals. Medin Poya is popular as the poya of Sri Pada, so there are many religious activities held at the summit, he said.

The Chief Incumbent also pointed out that this over-visitation becomes worse during long weekends. The 2009 season has been particularly crowded, he said, perhaps due to the many long weekends occurring this time. They had recorded nearly 100,000 visitors on some long weekends, he added.

Those who climbed on February also faced a similarly trying situation. The jam-packed queue extended upto Indikatupana, which is nearly two km away from the summit. “There were times that it took more than an hour to move one step,” commented Ranjith who works at a boutique along the way and said the boutique floor became a temporary shelter for those who were exhausted.

The OIC of Nallathanniya Police P.K. Hettiarachchie has his own explanation for the problem. Most visitors target to be at the peak to see the sunrise which is a special Sri Pada ritual. Those who reach the peak early too want to wait until the sunrise. Thus the summit – udamaluwa fills up with people and results in others in the queue to the summit who have also timed their climb to see the sunrise having to wait on the steps, he said.

“Sri Pada is a sacred place. Devotees are tired and want to rest longer at the peak, hence the police find it difficult to be forceful sometimes,” the OIC added, pointing out the difficulties they face in controlling the crowd. The police do their best to allocate more resources on crowded days, but it is a difficult task, he says.

Parking facilities are also inadequate during days when there is a flood of visitors. The vehicle parks at Nallathanniya can house about 350 vehicles, and other vehicles have to be directed to a park near Ricarton, about 5 km away.

The long holidays are still on this year’s Sri Pada season calendar. But long weekends are best avoided and if unavoidable, start your climb early to avoid getting stuck in the queue. The climb is 6 km and takes about four and half hours on average.

Healers at the top

The Sri Pada climb is not for the faint-hearted. It is indeed a journey that tests physical fitness. But, the presence of first-aid camps along the way is reassuring for those who experience sudden difficulties.
The Red Cross, St. John’s Ambulances Services, the Saukyadana Movement and Siddalepa are some of the first aid camps set up during Sri Pada season to help those in need. “People getting cramps is very common, but sometimes we get heart-patients too,” said Udaya Kumara of the St. John’s Ambulance Service, which has a base near Indikatupana.

Visitors should do the climb at their own pace and take adequate breaks on the way. If someone has any ailment, they should consult their doctor before undertaking the climb and bring their medication with them in case of emergency,” advises a volunteer first aid worker at Sri Pada.

Published on SundayTimes 29.03.2009