Uditha Devapriya, in The Island, 18 December 2021, …. Review of Phantoms of the Night: Wildcats of Sri Lanka, by Thilak Jayaratne, Janaka Gallangoda, Nadika Hapuarachchi, and Madura de Silva ….. Chaya Publishers, 2022,… 160 pp…. with highlighting imposed by the Editor, Thuppahi.
The leopard is perhaps the most photographed animal in Sri Lanka. Slinking through grassy terrains and up sprawling trees, it has acquired a life of its own. Elusive and enigmatic, it tends to avoid human contact, preferring to lay low. This only belies its reputation as one the country’s most fearsome hunters, the undisputed elite among its predators. Indeed, the number of photographs and exhibitions organised every other year attest to its place in our collective consciousness. Although the lion has become the definitive symbol of the country, it is the leopard which has come to epitomise our forests and our parks.
Yet so far, we have only viewed it in isolation from its surroundings. To fully appreciate its reputation, we need to understand where it stands in the wild, what family it belongs to, and what drives its instincts, habits, and routines. Limited for so long to glossy books and lavish exhibitions, it needs to be placed in its proper context.
Phantoms of the Night is a book and an exhibition that tries to put the wild cats of Sri Lanka in their perspective. Beautifully written and elegantly designed, it delves into the origins, stories, and myths regarding the more elusive felines of the country. The leopard figures in as the most fearsome among them, but the authors desist from spotlighting only [that dimension]. As they make it clear from the beginning, while we have photographed and written about countless animals, birds, and butterflies, our wild cats have managed to escape the radar. It is that gap which this fascinating and much awaited study endeavours to fill.
Though for long the object of myths and popular culture, wild cats have never really been considered an object of serious study in this country. What the four authors do in the book is not only to chart their relationship with their natural and suburban habitats, but also trace their origins from the beginning of time. This is no mean feat. The wildest dog presents less of an enigma than the tamest cat. As the authors of the book note at the beginning, tracing their evolution has become “a fascinating but frustrating process.”
Not surprisingly, the elusiveness of their subject makes their task a difficult one. They do their best to unravel that subject, but even if they can’t give us all the answers, it’s because no one can. This is an effort that needs to be followed by other forays.
Madura De Silva
Their study conforms to a straightforward, simple enough structure. Phantoms of the Night begins by historicising its subjects, tracing their ancestry and deconstructing their anatomy. This is the first part of the book. In the second, the writers explore in detail and in depth the physiques, habits, routines, and taxonomies of four wildcats found in the country: the rusty spotted cat, the jungle cat, the fishing cat, and the leopard.
Before coming to Sri Lanka, the authors place these animals in a more global context. This helps us appreciate the enormous significance of the subjects they are tackling. The central dilemma, they note at the beginning, is that fossils and differences in the physical structure of animals have not really helped palaeontologists in their attempts at tracing the evolution of cats. In the absence of proper evidence, these scientists have come to rely on incomplete and sparse fossils to piece together what little we know. Though many of the pieces remain missing, the few they have put together give us some clues as to their genesis.
What we know is that felines are perhaps the most carnivorous animals in the planet, even more so than dogs and certainly more so than humans. The ultimate ancestor of the cat, the miacid, evolved around 50 million years ago. Adept at climbing trees, they preferred a life in isolation, much like their descendants today. Evolution and adaptation helped them hone in on their carnivorous instincts, sharpening their teeth and their hunting skills.
Rusty Spotted Cat
Over time their physique developed, transforming into “spectacularly breathtaking genera and species.” That led to a rather intriguing anomaly: while diversifying rapidly into several subspecies around three to five million years ago, they came to share the same features. In other words, though different, they also became quite similar. The most recognisable traits of the domesticated cat, including their lithe, muscular bodies, luminous eyes, pointy teeth, and retractable claws, are common to their counterparts in the wild too.
Given their rather elusive history, it is not surprising that, as the authors observe, “some feline behaviour seems baffling to us.” That may be because cats react differently to what surrounds them, or because they are aware of things we are oblivious to.
Perhaps to emphasise these points, Phantoms of the Night is filled with photographs of cats in day and at night, highlighting the double lives they lead. Mostly in colour, with only two in monochrome, the images are crucial to the book’s narrative and aims, focusing on the eyes, ears, whiskers, and bodies of several wild cats while catching them in action. The image of a fishing cat on page 20 stands out in particular: it captures the predator about to pounce on its prey, though we cannot see what it’s aiming at. Almost poised in mid-air, its teeth bared, its hind legs bent and ready to extend, it is oblivious to everything else around it.
From tracing their ancestry, the authors move on to full length descriptions of their habits, routines, and physiques. Veritable killing machine as they are, cats require a great deal of energy. Since meat is notoriously hard to get in the wild, they also need much hibernation and rest, as well as carefully demarcated territories they can return to and call their own. In this they are helped by one of the most sophisticated surveillance systems endowed on an animal or bird, which enables them to track their prey, identify their territories, know when they are trespassing on others’ territory, and even trace prospective partners.
While Phantoms of the Night desists from romanticising their lives, it evokes a rather poetic view of their routines. At times these descriptions humanise their subjects. Indeed, one of the themes of the book is how closely human beings resemble their feline counterparts. This is a striking observation, since for so long it is the dog which has been considered man’s best friend. By resorting to a language and a style suited for human beings, the writers show that we share as much with our feline as with our canine counterparts: while describing the land foraging habits of wild cats, to give one example, they liken them to a system of land tenure, no different to the sense of home which guides the most ordinary among us.
In these sections the authors reveal their fascination with their subjects, calling them one of few animals “in which beauty and utility, artistic and technical perfection, combine in some incomprehensible way.” The observation immediately recalls Ananda Coomaraswamy’s landmark essay Why Exhibit Works of Art?, in which the renowned scholar, philosopher, and orientalist describes how traditional cultures fused aesthetic and utilitarian aspects within cultural artefacts. The conclusion is clear enough: though elegant and beautiful to behold, the wild cat is an efficient killing machine. This ties in well with the writers’ attempt to “imagine” and “construct” a machine built on the capabilities, strengths, and functions of the leopard, the most formidable of the four wildcats featured in these pages.
This book is at once a historical account, scientific exploration, and photographic collection, as much a scholarly effort as a coffee table book. It brings together a team of specialists and amateurs who have collaborated more than once, whose interests span from conservation and photography to less mundane pursuits like golf and scuba diving.
Given the significance of their work, it is heartening to observe that the prose reads well, entrancing scholars and general readers alike. Less heartening, however, is the absence of references, an index, and most crucially, a bibliography. Even when quoting verbatim from colonial accounts of Sri Lanka’s wild cats, the authors fail to properly source what they are citing, and from where. For such an absorbing and intrepid study, such omissions are rather unfortunate, indeed at odds with the professional ambitions of the text.
Despite these shortcomings, Phantoms of the Night comes out as a labour of love. The authors, a group of writers, photographers, and naturalists, clearly have a feel for what they are doing. Fittingly enough, they end it on a sober note, with the point that merely studying cats is not enough, and that we must endeavour to protect and to preserve.
In the world out there and around us, what we do has an impact on everything else. Be it rising urbanisation, increased poaching, or intrusive curiosity, our actions have exposed these creatures to the possibility of extinction. In that sense the authors’ plea, that the book “not be a memorial to the last of the wild cats”, remains relevant. It is a plea which needs to be put into action, a plea we would do well to listen to and heed.
The exhibition for “Phantoms of the Night” will be open to the public on the 18th and 19th of December 2021, from 9 am to 7 pm, at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com