Sri Lanka’s Jungles: Many Attractions & Curiousities

Jayantha Jayewardene, in The Island, 20 February 2022, where the ttile runs thus  “The lure and the lore of our jungles” **

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, and even before that as Serendib and Taprobane, has different types of jungle that are of great interest to naturalists. The island has montane cloud forests, wet and dry zone forests – some of which are secondary forests – and savannahs. The coastal areas have a variety of mangroves. The extent of forest-land in the country has of late reduced to a large extent, mainly due to the demands for land from a rapidly increasing population. With three climatic zones in the island, the jungles have different types of vegetation.

Many early writers, who described these jungles or wilds, gave us an idea of what the country was like then compared with what we see today. My father, having been in government service, saw duty in many far-off places. By the time I was 12-years old we had lived in turn in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Maho, Vavuniya, Kurunegala, Puttalam and Bandarawela. This service began just after the Second World War and most of these areas were still quite wild. Our recreation was to visit these wild areas, sometimes on an evening drive or a longer trip over a weekend. Open patches in the forests, abandoned tanks and beds of streams and rivers were the favourite spots that we would visit.

My Father’s Escapade

One of the first jungle stories I heard was about my father. Soon after the war, in the late 1940s, he was stationed at Anuradhapura. A group of his friends, who had come from Colombo, had wanted to go on a hunting trip. My father, like me, was a reluctant hunter. He was a very keen wildlife enthusiast, and not bent on shooting an animal for sport. However, on this occasion he did not want to disappoint his friends, and therefore he went along with them.

In the form of shooting they undertook, the animals that were to be shot at were flushed out of a patch of jungle or thicket by beaters, who were employed to make a loud noise. Each member of the group was given a strategic position where the prey was likely to break cover when chased by the beaters. My father, who had with him a 12 bore shot-gun loaded with an SG cartridge, was given one such spot.

After a while, since he was not too interested in the proceedings, he lost concentration and began to look around and think of other things.

At one point he heard what he thought was a distant sound of a gun being fired. For a moment he wondered where the shot had come from. Soon one of his friends, hearing the shot, came running up to him to see what animal had been bagged. It was only then that my father realized that the gun in his hand, with the end of the barrel resting on his foot, had gone off. My father had felt no pain but found that he had shot off his second toe, which was literally hanging by its skin. The hospital at Anuradhapura dressed the wound and my father lived the rest of his life with only four toes on his right foot.

Animals at Home

From the time I was very small, I was acquainted with animals at my home, which at different times was in various parts of the country. My first recollection is of a female sambhur looking through the kitchen window daily at breakfast time. This was in Polonnaruwa, where we had a house near the bund of Parakrama Samudra. She was brought to my father as a small baby and lived with us for many years.

I also have a vague recollection of a pangolin (Manic crassicaudata) being brought to my father. However, it did not last long. In captivity the diet, which consisted of ants sucked with the tongue, could not be provided easily to sustain the animal.

One night when we were at Anuradhapura, the domestic aide had heard a noise in the room where I was sleeping. She switched on the light, when she discovered a very large cobra in the corner of the room. My father had a gun but did not have a cartridge to shoot the snake. He had to send a message to a neighbour, Dr. P.C. Wickremasinghe, for a cartridge. The cobra, which waited all this time, was ultimately shot. It was an exceptionally large snake.

Giant squirrels were always favourite pets of my father. He has had as pets all three subspecies (the highland, western and common) at various times. He also had a Malabar giant squirrel brought from South India by his friend, Bunny Jonklaas.

My father has had all species of wild cats, except the leopard, at home. He bred a pair of fishing cats when he was in Kandy. However, a pair of jungle cats, that he again had in Kandy, did not breed. He brought them up from the time they were small babies. He had one female of the third species, the rusty spotted cat, which I obtained when I was on an estate in Kandapola. This is the most beautiful of Sri Lanka’s cats.

He also had a pair of jackals in his back garden in the heart of Ja-ela where he lived. He was able to breed them. In Puttalam he also had an outdoor aviary of birds, consisting of purple herons, egrets, water hens, blue coot, gargeny, whistling teal and a little grebe, which initially was kept in an aquarium. These birds necessitated a visit to the fish market each morning. Fortunately, Puttalam is on the coast, and fish was cheap and easily available.

When my father was in Kandy, he had a number of birds, some of which bred. These, except for a pair each of peafowl and jungle fowl, were exotic birds, which he imported from Singapore. In those days, it was very easy to import birds into the country.

I still travel to many of these areas and wherever I go, be it Mundel, Mullativu, Mankerni, Magama or Middeniya, I have seen many changes over the years. Some of these places do not even exist now. I have come across many legends and superstitions that have had their origins in these wild places.

Camping

I found that camping in the dry zone forests was much more interesting than in the wet and cold wilds of the hill country. In the dry zone, apart from the tolerable weather, there were more animals to observe and, for some of my friends, to shoot. The dry zone villagers were very hospitable people and that part of the country was full of legend and lore. On the other hand, there were fewer villages in the wet zone with comparatively less interesting animal species and an unpleasant climate for camping.

During all our trips -to the wilds we did not necessarily camp out. We stayed in rest-houses, schools and in any convenient building that was available.

Traditions

One of the earliest writers on Ceylon, Knox (1681) strangely makes little reference to the jungles though he was captured in Trincomalee and brought to Kandy, where he was kept prisoner for ‘19 years, six months and 14 days’. Even though he was a prisoner, he had a great deal of freedom to move about within the kingdom.

Robert Knox mentions that the Sinhalese in the Kandyan kingdom used to ‘take great notice in a Morning at their going out, who first appears in their sight: and if they see a White Man, or a big-bellied Woman, they hold it fortunate: and to see any decrepit or deformed People, as unfortunate’. There were many who on hearing the sound made by a gecko at the start of a journey, will stop and wait for a little while or not undertake the journey at all.

A past practice for those who were to undertake a journey through the jungles or embark on a hunting expedition was to invoke the blessings of the spirits of the jungle. This was generally done by merely breaking a small twig and suspending it on a low branch of another tree. Another method was to suspend the broken branch or branches on a string or rope strung across two trees at a point where the traveler or hunter would enter and leave the jungle.

When I first started my trips to the jungles many years ago as a schoolboy, I noticed that our guides from the adjacent villages followed this tradition. However, in the course of time, these practices have been abandoned. In more recent times I found that some who accompanied us still carried out this practice but were secretive about it.

Purana Villages

In earlier times many of the villages were in the middle of thick jungle and the inhabitants used to live in harmony with the jungles around them and its denizens. These were called purana (old) villages. Most of the inhabitants of these villages had extended families. They lived in mud huts, which were generally crude and simple in their construction. The roofs were thatched and the walls were built of wattle and daub.

There was a large open space between the jungle and the edge of the village, which was always kept cleared of trees. It was called tis bamba (thirty chains) and denoted the area which was a communal preserve. This cleared space also helped to act as a deterrent to many animals entering the village from the jungle.

The inhabitants of most of these purana villages were constantly fighting for survival. They had to depend on the rains for their cultivation. They also had to be on constant guard against a demanding jungle and its denizens, some of which were dangerous. Apart from the elephants, the villagers had to be constantly vigilant against animals such as the leopard, bear, cobra, viper, tarantula and hornet.

The villagers cleared patches of the forest and cultivated grain, such as rice, kurakkan or millet, corn, chillies and vegetables. However, it was a constant battle to tend these cultivations to fruition. They were dependent on the rains and if these failed, so did their crops. This meant that they would have nothing to eat till the next season except what they had stored after the last harvest. They also had to watch over their crops every night to prevent the depredations of animals. Elephant, deer, wild boar and hare were a constant threat, attempting to get in and eat what was growing in these chenas.

Many villagers watch over their crops at night, some alone and others with a group of farmers who too have crops to protect. This tedium takes a heavy toll of the farmer who has other chores to attend to during the day.

In some instances, for the protection of their crops, farmers set up trap guns. These guns are also set to kill deer and wild boar, either for the pot or for sale. These muzzle loading guns are set at the level of the animal targeted, generally a deer or pig and are pointed in the direction of the animal approaching along a well-used path. A string or wire is tethered to the trigger and brought in front of the gun. The gun is set to fire when the approaching animal presses on it, and thereby discharges its load, which consists of ball bearings, metal chips, old nails and the like. It kills the targeted animal, but others such as elephant and man, who are taller may get maimed.

Loris

One of the pastimes we indulged in at night when camping, especially in the dry zone, was to look for the loris. It is a nocturnal animal, which is sluggish by day but very active at night. It looks towards the bright torch and is easily detected when its large, circular eyes gleam in the light. The coastal belt of the Eastern Province is a stretch where we have come across many lorises. I also used to encounter a number of them when I was working in the Mahaweli areas in the North Central Province. Many of them, found during the jungle clearing operations of this project, were brought to me. I used to feed them on insects till I was able to despatch them to the zoo. One unfortunate loris was given a scorpion as food. It ate this with relish but was found dead the next day.

The loris has no tail but uses all its four long and thin limbs with equal ease and dexterity to move among the trees in search of its prey which consists of insects, lizards and sometimes even small birds. It moves very quietly up to its prey and in a swift movement seizes the victim by grabbing it with its hand. It then brings the prey close to its chest and eats it. There is a belief that the loris moves so slowly and quietly through the trees that if by chance a bit of bark gets loose it will carry it all the way to the bottom of the tree, leave it there and come back to resume the stalking of its prey. This manoeuvre would prevent disturbance and possible escape of the prey. There is also a belief that the loris would creep up to a sleeping peacock and snap off its head and devour the brain.

Many Sinhalese villagers used to believe that tears from the large saucer-like eyes of the Loris, when used in a concoction, would give one second sight. Some also believed it helped their sex drive. In order to obtain tears the captured loris is cruelly suspended by its legs over a fire till the smoke makes it tear. The loris is kept like this till sufficient tears have been collected.

Pangolin

Many of the jungle dwellers, especially Veddhas, do not refer to any animal in the jungle by name but by description. Therefore the elephant is the ‘Big one’, and the bear is the ‘Black one’ or the ‘One who throws up dust’. The latter description relates to a bear tearing away at an ant-hill in order to get at the termites therein. In the same way, pangolin is called the ‘One who rolls himself up’.

The pangolin or anteater is, like the loris, an entirely nocturnal animal. It is brown in colour but the young are pale white. One was brought to me when I was on an estate in Passara by some labourers who had killed the mother the previous night. I was advised to give it low fat milk by the local veterinary surgeon. Unfortunately it died two days later.

When the young have developed to a certain degree, they move about by clinging onto the backs of the mother. Pangolins have large scales on their body and powerful curved claws. They excavate anthills for ants and termites, which they lick up with their long, sticky tongues. They walk in a waddle but at the slightest sign of danger, curl up with the head inside the coil.

The oil extracted from the pangolin was used in early times as a medicinal potion. There is a story of a medicine man who thought he had killed a pangolin for its medicinal value. He had slung the animal round his neck and started on his journey back home. On the way the pangolin, which had not died, had revived and curled itself round the man’s neck, thereby strangling him. Later in the day the dead man and the wounded pangolin were found.

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** My thanks to Jayantha somasundaram and Logan Thurairatanmfor aid in transforming the photographs to suit Thuppahi.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Sri Lanka’s Jungles: Many Attractions & Curiousities

  1. Daya Wickramatunga.

    Makes excellent reading. Many thanks.

  2. Chandra Maliyadde

    This a very interesting piece which must be thoroughly digested by Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority ladies and gentlemen to convert their interest on forward linkages to the beauty of backward linkages of tourism.

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