Skirting Sri Lanka Part 1

by David Armitage

It makes a nice change to have someone waiting for you when, after 11h, you stagger off the plane at 02.30 in the morning so I was delighted to see the friendly face of Dhanapala waiting with a card bearing my name. I then had my first taste of the distinctive style of Sri Lankan roads as we weaved in the mini-bus through the traffic, often on the wrong side of the road, placing great reliance on the use of the horn. Even the substantial concrete bumps in the middle of the road were not always sufficient to keep the traffic to the correct side. We eventually arrived at a pair of metal gates in a tall white wall in a small cul-de-sac, which was the home of my host, Rohan Pethyiagoda and to be my base in Colombo for the next 2 weeks. I tried to fool my body into the Sri Lankan time-zone by sleeping in until about 1.30 in the afternoon but was kept awake trying to count the different and new species of birds that I could hear as they started an alien dawn-chorus. In the morning I found Sun-Birds, Mynah, Coucals, Bulbuls, Magpie Robins and even a Flame-Back Woodpecker, in the small garden and watched the small striped squirrels as they chased up and down the trees and walls, defending their territories and seeing off quite large birds such as the local house crows. Later in the evening Rohan arrived home after a camping trip in the hills.

On Monday, Rohan arranged for me to visit a couple of fish-exporters in Ratmalana, just outside Colombo. Ananda Pethirana of Aquamarines Ltd. showed me his extensive marine holding tanks where his staff were unloading a large consignment of fish that had just travelled overland from Trincomalee. His huge freshwater facility was only just completed and was thus only partially stocked but outside he had breeding facilities under shading for many species including Koi while in a separate building he had aquaria where many varieties of Angels were paired and the eggs and fry brought to saleable size. His pride and joy was undoubtedly his Arapaima gigas. He pointed proudly to his 2 Presidential Awards for Industry, emphasising the economic importance to the country of exotic fish. Finally I photographed some endangered Puntius bandula, the subject of a captive breeding and re-introduction scheme.

Prema Wanniaratchchi of Ocean and Tropical Fish was my next destination where I was very taken with the colour of somePseudosphromenus cupanus with bright red eyes and pelvics and blue fins, which I was moved to photograph in my photographic tank, much to everyone's amusement.

On this little excursion, I was ferried about by a local air-conditioned taxi whose driver fortunately spoke good English. I quickly realised that this was far from the norm and also noticed that road-signs were far and few between. Navigation was definitely a case of requiring frequent enquiries as to the direction of the road- which would not be possible without Sinhalese!

On Tuesday, Rohan organised a 3 day field trip for me, based at Ratnapura. As it had proved difficult to hire a 4WD twin cab pick-up, he loaned me his, complete with Dhanapala, the driver and one of his 2 assistants, Kelum. From Colombo, we travelled first via Homogama and Avissawella, on Route 4, to Kuruwita where a narrow single-track dirt road led into the hills past tea-plantations and the former home of P.E.P.Deriniyagala, the describer ofMalpulutta kretseri, the rarest of the labyrinthfish that I had travelled to find. By the time we had found the habitat and donned fishing gear, it had begun to rain and a small crowd of villagers soon found us out and came to watch us get wet. While Kelum sensibly fished in trunks, I insisted on wearing my waders and waterproofs and probably got wetter quicker and dried slower, reminding me to put my passport and wallet in poly bags. Despite our best endeavours, we found no Malpulutta there, although normally Kelum expected to catch 8 or so, but we did find 3 Combtails and 4Pseudosphromenus cupanus before the dusk finally drove us away.

We booked into the Rest House at Ratnapura. Apparently these are government-owned and therefore very good value as I quickly found out. For the 3 of us, using 2 double rooms, including B&B and evening beer and meals, cost 40 each night.

The next morning, Wednesday, we were up at 5 a.m. to visit the Sinharaja forest, a World Heritage site and pristine wilderness area. Pausng at the village that was its gateway, Kelum introduced me to 'Stringhoppers', sort of noodle-cakes which made handling (literally) the dall and curry easier. Over the next few days on my subsequent field-trip, we ate in a variety of rest-houses and wayside cafes, inaccurately known as 'hotels' and although my companions quickly found that I could and would eat everything, even I have to admit that curry and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner does dim the enthusiasm for chilli.

Fortunately, there was no-one available to act as a guide and Kelum's familiarity with the area was anyway equivalent. Before long, we were watching Leaf-Monkeys as they crashed away through the tree-tops and Gian Squirrels, pattering along the branches, while Kelum exhibited his encyclopaedic knowledge of Sri-Lankan wild-life pointing out Layard's Parakeet, Yellow-browed, Ashey-headed and Rufous Bulbuls, Flower-peckers and perhaps Sri-Lanka's rarest bird, the green-billed Coucal. Wild jungle fowl pecked among the leaves in the gloom of the forest and I was delighted to have my first sight of Nepenthes pitcher plants (N.distilloria) dangling from their parent climber like beer mugs around a bar.

But we were here also to see some particularly nice Belontia habitats and in some of the upland streams we saw pools teaming with Combtails, their red bodies catching the dappled light filtering through the forest trees. I watched as large fish rushed out from territories under roots in the bank or among boulders to chase smaller fish in short dashes and thought how similar the scene was to the Baviaanskloof Wilderness area in the Cape where I had watched similar scenes featuring Sandelia capensis.

As the clouds gathered, we somewhat unwisely decided upon a climb to a nice vantage point. As Kelum strode ahead, occasionally scurrying into the undergrowth to collar a particularly interesting agamid lizard, I toiled behind, growing increasingly breathless and realising my fitness left something to be desired. Inevitably, it wasn't long before the skies opened in a tropical downpour. As we sheltered under a huge rock, a group of English tourists came down from the summit, complaining that it was the second day that they had left the guide behind. There was only room for him in their rock shelter! We were chased from the forest by a large green scorpion and I found my first leech, securely fastened between my fingers but we were rewarded by a last glimpse of the Blue Magpie as the sun briefly illuminated it through a small gap in the clouds before the deluge resumed.

On Thursday, we travelled south on route 18 and then toward Maragoda on the boundary of the wet and dry zones, to see some limestone caves. These proved to be down a deeply rutted single-track dirt road which tested Dhanapahla's skills and the resilience of the truck. Even in this remoteness, as we walked to the caves, we came across plenty of people waiting by the side of the road for the tractor to pick up their produce. The caves themselves were full of chirruping mini-bats and a very nice cool refuge but the stream which ran through them produced no belontids, just a few complaints from the lady washing her clothes upstream from me. As luck would have it, and as if the track wasn't testing enough, we met the tractor coming down on the way up. To make matters more interesting, it had a flat tyre but despite this handicap, Kelum was able to direct the traffic authoritatively so that our truck could pass in safety.

We returned home through Ratnapura, and via Kaluhpahana on Route 8. Here we stopped twice, first to fish a stream bordered by paddy fields where Kelum, fishing on one side of the stream, caught 13P.cupanus while I, fishing on the other, with a whole host of help, caught none, although there were plenty of cherry barbs Puntius titteya, Rasbora danniconius andLepidocephalus thermalis. Kelum expressed a lack of confidence in the small size of my net and the diameter of the perforations. At the next habitat, a stream in a wood remnant, it was therefore pleasing that while he caught only one P.cupanus, I unearthed 5 nice little Channa orientalis in shallow water under leaves, amongst roots and fallen branches.

Returning to Colombo in the dusk, I was surprised to see a monkey burst out of a plantation and run across the road but even more so when we passed one of the few remaining working elephants plodding unconcernedly in the stream of traffic.

On the Friday, I was due to speak to the Colombo aquarists, so I passed the time photographing the fish that I had caught in the morning and then set out to purchase swimming trunks for my snorkelling trip, post-cards for friends and relations and stamps. On my way home, the taxi driver took me past the Parliament, surrounded by water and accessed by a guarded causeway. Along the road, in the shade of some trees, I spied some plastic bags hanging up from the branches. These contained a variety of introduced fish, including Trichogaster pectoralis, which had been caught in parliament's moat.

I gave my talk on Rohan's veranda, projecting the slides on the wall once the light had gone. They were an enthusiastic band of hobbyists and exporters but I suspected that the good turn-out was more due to Rohan's legendary hospitality than my over-long talk comprising slightly less than 100 slides of anabantoids which took slightly more than 90 minutes despite intermittent interruptions from calling geckos! They were preparing a show of endemic fish. In the long run, only if fish are valued in their home country, will their conservation be possible.

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