Archive for the ‘Urban Wildlife’ Category

Urban excitement over barn owls

April 17, 2017

Kirulapana Barn owl showing its beauty (c) Shantha Jayaweera

The barn owl is a rare bird in Sri Lanka categorized as ‘near threatened’ in the 2012 National Red List, but it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke that one was seen in Kirulapona on April 1.

It had been attacked by crows and had fallen from the roof of a four-storey building, where it had taken refuge. It was handed over to wildlife expert Shantha Jayaweera who later released it. “Even through it had been attacked by crows, there were no external injuries.”

The barn owl (tyto alba) is a beautiful owl species with a whitish face, chest, and belly, and buffy upper parts. Its scientific name means, ‘white owl’. Barn owls have adapted to living among humans. Granaries, warehouses, old buildings where its favorite prey, rats and mice, live attract the owl.

Mr Jayaweera thanks all those who ensured the owl’s safety. He stressed that owls do not represent a bad omen, but helps to remove harmful pests such as rats. According to National Geographic, on average, a wild barn owl eats about four small mammals a night. That is 1,460 rats per year.

The barn owl is about 34 centimetres in length but its long wings make it looks bigger and elegant when flying. It mainly hunts by sound rather than by sight where its acute hearing can detect the slightest movement and sound of its prey.

The barn owl’s heart-shaped face collects sound in the same way as human ears and its hearing is the most sensitive of any creature tested, according to some literature. Barn owls are faithful lovers. A pair mates for life unless one gets killed. It breeds between February and March.

Mr Jayaweera, who is a senior member of the Young Zoologists Association, recalled that the National Zoological Gardens once received an injured barn owl from a public library few years ago. Responding to a post on social media, many shared sightings in Colombo and the suburbs.

“I have seen barn owls in Duplication Road, Fife Road, and near the Golf Club,” said Rex I De Silva.

Namal Kamalgoda had seen one in Town Hall, the National Museum and also in Dehiwala.

Others reported sightings in Pettah, Fort and surburbs such as Kottawa, Moratuwa and Ratmalana.

The rescued barn owl with Shantha Jayaweera

Environment lawyer, Jagath Gunawardane, who is also an expert on birds, stressed that unlike other rare birds of Sri Lanka, the barn owl is mostly found in old buildings in towns.

Another bird expert, Moditha Hiranya Kodikara Arachchi, shared an observation of a barn owl in Kandy inside the old Electricity Board building. “This barn owl was day-roosting on fans in the office without any trouble, until it was chased away because of droppings all over the office,” he said.

Experts fear that rat poison could harm these owls. According to the Barn Owl Trust, even a rodent eating a dose is not enough to kill it, and it may carry the poison in its liver for several months. So, before a poisoned rodent dies, the weakened rat may be caught by a barn owl, which then ingests the poison. Unfortunately, no research has been carried out on the effects of sub-lethal doses on wild barn owls.

“There could be a viable population of barn owls throughout Colombo and many other urban areas. It is an iconic bird in our urban settings,” said veteran ornithologist, Prof Sarath Kotagama.

He is inviting the public to share their barn owl sightings in Colombo and suburbs. Note the date and location by or call 071- 8440144.

Barn Owl facts (c) Barn Owl Trust

Published on SundayTimes on 16.04.2017 

Colombo Croc Dies

September 23, 2015

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

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

Published on Times Online on 24.09.2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The saltie that terrorised Rawatawatte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capturing the crocodile was not an easy task

‘Gaddafi’ catcher was here to train local croc hunters

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

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

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

from the training on how to catch a croc

Published on 13.09.2015 on SundayTimes on

Youths band together to protect elusive fishing cat

August 29, 2015

On the heels of last week’s story of innocent animals dying in collisions with speeding vehicles is a positive report of young people erecting road signs to prevent Sri Lanka’s second-largest wild cat falling prey to careless motorists. The first signs went up last week at Gannoruwa and Haloluwa critical fishing cat death sites in the Kandy district.

The fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), commonly known in Sri Lanka as hadun diviya, is the second largest wild cat in Sri Lanka and grows up to two and half feet in length. As the name implies, its primary meal is fish so it is found near wetlands or river ecosystems.

The international Red List on Conservation Status of Animals and Plants lists the fishing cat as “endangered”, just a few steps away from extinction.Fishing cats die on the roads due to their territorial behaviour as they move daily through a specific area. Most forests are now fragmented, so inevitably fishing cats need to cross roads, making them vulnerable to collision accidents, explained Ashan Thudugala of the Small Cat Conservation Alliance.

Mr. Thudugala, who spearheaded this project, said that based on data gathered over the past 18 months his group identified stretches of roads at Gannoruwa and Halloluwa as extremely prone to collisions between vehicles and these wild cats.

The fishing cat is a lovely animal but has earned a negative reputation in local communities as, being opportunistic hunters, they often raid poultry farms. Local populations of fishing cats are under threat due to poisoning, hunting pressure, and habitat destruction. Mr. Thudugala released a fishing cat that had become entangled in a wire trap in Polgolla a few weeks ago, indicating wire traps too could be a growing problem for this threatened wild cat.

The fishing cat lives hidden in many habitats where they co-exist with humans, so Mr. Thudugala and the team organise awareness programme and youth camps to change the public’s views about this elusive cat that lives close to them.
The first awareness session was held earlier this year for schoolchildren and the second for a selected number of university students who later began assisting the project.

At present, the Small Cat Conservation Alliance is focusing its study and data-gathering on fishing cats in the Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Kegalle districts but is planning to expand efforts islandwide. Mr. Thudugala is thankful to those who supported the road sign project; they include personnel at the Department of Zoology at the University of Peradeniya, officers of the Road Development Authority, the police, and the in Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. Such road signs will be placed throughout the country to protect this magnificent creature.

Instead of cursing the darkness, it is always better to light a candle – so the effort by Ashan Thudugala and his team to save these threatened animals is indeed commendable.

Saving wild cats in the concrete jungle

The “small leopards” often reported to be seen crossing roads and running around Colombo’s remaining wetlands are, in fact, fishing cats – a very rare phenomenon as fishing cats are usually not found in densely populated areas anywhere in the world.

To find out how many fishing cats live in these urban areas and whether the population is healthy and, most importantly, to come up with a plan to conserve these fishing cats from rapid development, the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) launched the Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project.

The first phase of the study, in 2006, resulted in confirmation that there were, in fact, fishing cats in urban wetlands. The results were breathtaking as the camera traps set by the research team revealed a very healthy population of fishing cats in Colombo’s urban wetlands.

The project is observing and recording the movement patterns and behaviour of urban fishing cats, Anya Ratnayake, a young EFL scientist, said. Researchers are using camera traps and have placed an electronic collar on a fishing cat to track its movements.
While post-war development is rapidly turning Colombo into a concrete jungle, the remaining urban wildlife remind us that we still have a chance to become a “garden city”, harbouring green areas that give urban wildlife a chance to survive.

“The fishing cat can be the flagship species to raise this awareness among people and as an ‘umbrella species’ to conserve other biodiversity in the urban areas through good urban planning that integrates green areas,” said globally-renowned conservation scientist Dr. Eric Wickremanayake, who is involved in the wild cat conservation project.

“The research being done by Anya and Ashan [Thudugala] will provide us with insights into the ecology and behaviour of this threatened species. We can then use this knowledge to integrate the habitat use and ecological requirements of fishing cats into urban planning and try to keep some of the natural habitats such as the wetlands and associated green areas along the waterways in cities, including in Colombo,” said Dr.Wickremanayake, pointing out that carnivores are losing ground all over the world as habitat is being lost and fragmented.

If you happen to come across a fishing cat, whether it crossed the road in front of you, was in your garden, in a marsh or a national park, or dead or injured at the side of the road, email the details to

Published on 16.08.2015 on SundayTimes

The buzzing Vesak decoration on the 6th floor

May 6, 2015

Decorations adorn many buildings at Vesak – but the staff of an office in Dehiwela found a special decoration covering one of their 6th floor

The curtain of bees covering the Dehiwela office building window

windows: a close look revealed it was a swarm of bees spread like a curtain across a part of a large glass window.

The bees began arriving on the morning of Monday, April 27 around 8am. Soon hundreds, if not thousands of buzzing bees covered the window, said Rajiv Welikala who alerted wildlife enthusiasts about this unusual sighting.

“They are the giant honey-bee or ‘bambara’ in Sinhala – the same species that inhabits Sigiriya,” said bee specialist Dr. Wasantha Punchihewa who visited the site.

Contrary to the popular belief that these bees are harmful, Dr. Punchihewa said they were innocent creatures that attack only if provoked.

In Sigiriya, the occasional bee attacks are often triggered by disturbances caused by visitors but here they would be left in peace: the bee colony settled on an outside of the window of the 6th floor, so chances such as a careless boy throwing a stone etc. can be ruled out.

A closer look at the “curtain”

As the windows of the air-conditioned office are sealed off the bees are unable to come inside, so it is perfectly safe to let such hives be undisturbed, Dr. Punchihewa said, pointing out that honey-bees perform a very important service to the eco-system by pollinating flowers.

In Sigiriya and other remote areas there are enough flowers for these bees to collect nectar but this colony is in Dehiwela amidst concrete jungle, so what chance do the bees have?

“What about the coconut trees? The bees could depend on coconut’s pollen, nectar and in return pollinate the trees,” Dr. Punchihewa surmised.
A bee colony is a complex social structure in which soldier bees are responsible for the safety of the hive. They have a sting linked to a venom sac that detaches from the body in an attack, and this causes the soldier bees’ death.

Bee venom contains melittin, a histamine that is painful for many hours. If a person has been attacked, the sting should be removed without squeezing the venom sac, medical experts said.

Rajiv Welikala said the “bee curtain” looked larger on the day the bees arrived but appears to have shrunk in size as bees started concentrating to form the hive. The wax they are secreting, probably with the aim of building the hive, is visible on the window.

This bee colony could depart soon as the bees realise the difficulty of building a hive on vertical glass or they might stay there for a few months before leaving in search of a new site. Whatever happens, it is fascinating to see the bambara surviving even in populated areas such as Dehiwela, Dr. Punchihewa said.