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Sunday May 26th, 2024

Yala, October 2023

Saturday

Rain came chucking down. Lightning flickered and thunder grumbled. Two daddies, three mommies and four tween/teen boys faced the reality that our safari was effectively over. The approaching early dusk only deepened the gloom as we raced and skidded on the bumpy, slippery track from the far end of Block One back toward the main entrance. It took nearly an hour to reach the gate, just a few seconds before official closing time. Being late could have cost our driver a fine.

Morning on Kirinda beach near the temple had been wonderfully sunny and breezy, as the boys enjoyed their rough-and-tumble in the tidal pools, replenished every now and then by huge waves crashing over boulders between them and the surging surf. The lovely little villa we’re staying in is called ‘Boulders.’ After a leisurely lunch and a late jump-off, the good part of our safari lasted a hundred minutes. It wasn’t raining when we started but the landscape was saturated, the northeast monsoon drenching every pocket. Water flowed across the track here and there. Gorgeous views greeted each turn: flourishing green vegetation giving way to vistas of blue lagoon stretching out to the sea half a mile away.

Just before reaching the park office to pay our fees, we spotted a mugger crocodile near the road at a shallow pond edge, mouth agape. It looked to be about 10 feet long. Most scientists hold that this mouth-gaping operates in a strange two-way thermoregulatory system. A croc needs to sunbathe so as to heat and energize its cold-blooded body but also needs to keep its brain from overcooking. Basking with mouth open lets heat escape from its head.

With powerful tails and webbed feet, muggers swim beautifully, especially favoring shallow, slow-moving fresh-water ponds, lagoons, streams and marshes. It walks on water-body bottoms and drags itself over land with belly touching the ground. Sharp eyesight and hearing help it hunt fish, snakes, turtles, rodents, otters, dogs, monkeys, deer and livestock. One was observed not long ago at Yala consuming a large pangolin over the course of several hours. They kill a large prey animal by holding it under water till it drowns. Acute smell leads it to find carrion for scavenging. It will sometimes balance sticks and branches on its head to lure birds seeking nest material.

The two biggest muggers ever measured (18 feet plus) lived in Sri Lanka. Males can weigh as much as 450 kilograms. Their density is higher in Sri Lanka than almost anywhere else, numbering roughly 3000. Worldwide, however, muggers unfortunately rate as ‘vulnerable’ on the threatened species Red List posted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Human habitat encroachment is their major nemesis.

Muggers can of course be extremely dangerous. Though a saltwater croc cannot be ruled out, it was probably a mugger that seized and drowned a British journalist on vacation with his buddies back in 2017. (Muggers inhabit the area more so than salties.) The body was found stuck in mud at the bottom of the lagoon near Arugam Bay where the young man cried out helplessly before disappearing. Crocs stash a kill when they’ve eaten recently and want to stock the larder or else want to let it ripen a bit so that it can be ripped apart more easily.

Muggers fall within a strict kill ban under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance but villagers rarely inform on their neighbors. In the 2008-13 period, humans officially killed some 170 muggers (the real number may be higher) while muggers killed 12 humans. Expert Anslem de Silva investigates mugger attacks around the island. He also investigates human killings of muggers for revenge, protection and meat. He believes such crococides pose a rising threat to mugger numbers. Supported by a small grant, he installs fences in rural bathing areas to keep crocs out, thereby protecting both people and muggers as he hopes.

Monsoon is good for animals of course. Herbivores thrive on abundant vegetation, stoking excellent hunting for carnivores. But monsoon is not the greatest time for wildlife viewers. In dry months, animals cluster round the shrinking water holes, making them easy to spot. In rainy times, they disperse at will over the water-logged landscape. Nevertheless, we encounter plenty of small fry—a mongoose on a woodpile, a hoopoe bird on the jeep track, a sandpiper in a puddle near a star turtle, black-face langurs on a tree, black-neck hares huddling anxiously, strutting peacocks of course—and then some spotted deer crossing the track and a cluster of twenty sambar, some with big antlers, out on a stream ropey with sandbars. (Sambar on sandbar, hmm.)

Picture by Nate Hager

We are way down near the far end of Block One when things get more exotic. First come the jackals: one, two, three, four, trotting a few meters from our jeep in the opposite direction, spaced out in single file so as to appear one at a time, almost certainly on a hunt, like lions we’ve seen in Kenya.

The Sri Lankan Jackal is one of several sub-species of Golden Jackal, found over much of Asia and parts of eastern Europe. When hunting in pack, they engage in lengthy jogs parallel to the path of their quarry, which they will harry to exhaustion before their coordinated strike. Brits in India used to ride their horses and loose their dogs in jackal hunts when foxes weren’t available. They admired jackal stamina, with hunts lasting up to four hours. In their own hunting, jackal packs often consist of two life-bonded parents with their elder offspring. That may be precisely what we saw. In their tight-knit families, elder siblings also help mind the young.

Our driver/guide labels them ‘fox,’ since the Sinhala word (nariya) can apply to both fox and jackal. Meanwhile ‘jackal’ is a kind of loose catch-all term, more descriptive of a lifestyle than of phylogenetics. Though similar in appearance, Goldens are only distantly related to two African species also called ‘jackals.’ Goldens sit far closer to dogs and wolves, from whom they diverged roughly a million years ago. They can cross-breed with both. In Russia, jackal-dog hybrids sniff out contraband at airports.

Found in varying habitats throughout the island, our Goldens function as apex predators, at least wherever leopards do not prowl. They cull pests and vermin. Supremely adaptive omnivores, they feast on insects, birds, eggs, rodents, rabbits, small deer, even buffalo calves. They enjoy fruit, especially the berry known as ‘palu,’ beloved also by sloth bear. They scavenge on carrion and enter human settlements at night to snack on garbage. One was photographed recently at Talangama wetland in Pelawatte. They love water but can thrive in dry conditions.

In folklore, Goldens often appear as cunning tricksters. In a Jataka tale, his dearly-loved wife asks Jackal to bring some of her favorite fish. He observes two otters quarreling over how to divide one they have just caught. Offering to arbitrate, he awards the head to one, tail to the other, keeping the tasty middle as his fee. Watching as a tree sprite, Bodhisatva tsks-tsks the otters for quarrelling so counter-productively.  In the Mahabharata a Golden sets his friends—tiger, wolf, mongoose and mouse—against each other so he can eat gazelle without sharing. In Hinduism’s Panchatantra, two jackals persuade Lion to befriend run-away Bull, whom Lion initially fears. Lion and Bull get so caught up talking that Lion neglects hunts that help feed the jackals. They convince Lion to kill Bull on suspicion that Bull is plotting some betrayal. Jackals get plenty of meat and a grateful Lion who promotes them to his inner circle.

Elsewhere, Kali sits in cremation grounds surrounded by millions of jackals and sometimes roams as a jackal herself. In The Jungle Book, Kipling’s Seeonee wolf pack despises the jackal Tabaqui for his phony cordiality, his scavenging ways and his servility toward their tiger foe, Shere Khan. (By the way is ‘Tabaqui’ a joke on jackal coloration, akin to the furry brownish ‘Chewbacca’ in Star Wars?) Kipling mimics real life. Indian Goldens sometimes follow tigers unmolested to scavenge remains of their kills. With their excellent hearing, they help tigers locate prey and may sometimes assist in cornering it.

Some Sri Lankans prize rare (and perhaps apocryphal) half-inch horny skull growths called ‘jackal’s horn’ (narric-comboo). It grants boons and wishes and helps win lawsuits. Jackals find themselves poached for horns which some experts claim do not actually exist, contending that those sold in markets are clever fakes. Any such poaching is sad, though Goldens face no close extinction threat. Lanka’s under-appreciated jackal deserves better.

Picture by Nate Hager

A few minutes later, we meet what to me is the day’s highlight: the rare Black-Necked Stork. It’s a juvenile with bright yellow female eyes. Not a bit shy, she walks over right next to our jeep, poking around in a puddle. She’s stunning. Up close, her ‘black’ head and long neck turns into shimmering streaks of iridescent indigo. Bird eyes have a fourth color cone in addition to the three we use to detect red, green and blue. That fourth cone extends their color vision beyond blue into an ultra-violet range we cannot see. Our three cones working together let us distinguish around a million different colors, but birds can distinguish around a hundred million. Shall we try to imagine how our girl’s head and neck might look to another black-necked stork?

Tallest bird on the island, these storks reach heights approaching six feet and wing spans exceeding seven. They supposedly reside only in and around Yala, stalking both fresh open water and shallow marshes. Their long heavy beaks stab and snatch fish, frogs, water birds, eggs, hatchling turtles, crabs and mollusks. Parents take turns guarding nestlings and hunting. When the hunter returns to nest, they greet with open wings and bobbing heads. At other times, they may greet with fluttering wings and bills clattering against each other. With perhaps only 50 total birds on the island and a Yala nesting population of less than 10 pairs, they rate as ‘critically endangered’ on Sri Lanka’s Red List. Heavy monsoon years favor survival of chicks, light monsoons not so much. Fortunately, with maybe 20,000 total birds from the Indian subcontinent through southeast Asia, New Guinea and northern Australia, the worldwide species rates as only ‘near threatened’ (possibly vulnerable in near future).

Just before the downpour, we’re in for one last treat: a pair of Brown Fish-Owls perched on a branch above to our left and slightly behind us. (How good are these park guides at spotting wildlife?) Two feet tall with huge yellow-iris eyes, they reside in large trees near water bodies where they pick up fish with their sharp-edged talons at night. The force of their swoop and talon clutch kills instantaneously. Unlike some owls whose acute hearing helps them pinpoint their strikes, fish-owls rely on those huge eyes for their watery hunts. Fish don’t make enough noise. With eyes close together and fixed forward, unlike other birds, owls exploit excellent binocular eyesight for perceiving depth and distance. Their pupils expand to take up almost their whole eyes, allowing them to soak up any traces of light. Their vision is especially pitched to detect movement.

Like all owls, Brownies regurgitate indigestible prey matter as pellets through their mouths. While roosting, they sing penetrating deep bass duets—oomp, oooomp, oomp—with one bird on the first and third syllables, the other on the slightly higher-pitched middle.

Widely regarded as ‘wise,’ owls may indeed be quite smart. Like parrots, crows and magpies, they carry large brains for their body size. Young owls profit from extensive and prolonged parental care and teaching. Such ‘social learning,’ along with their proclivity toward playfulness, seem to go with high problem-solving ability in novel situations.

Fish-owls appear with special frequency in and around Wilpattu with its abundant water holes. A Northwest Province tale features seven fish-owls who befriend one another and go looking for a woman they can all marry. Exaggerating their prosperity, they successfully petition a human king for one of his daughters. Failing to get her pregnant in the normal way, they force-feed her on cumin seeds to help do the trick. She swells up, bursts and dies. Readers will surely grasp the moral of the tale: warning against marrying above one’s station.

Sunday

After an early-morning cloudburst, our jeep finally showed up. We issued our driver/guide one emphatic instruction: find us a leopard!! No stopping for elephants, no crocs, no buffalo, no bee-eaters. We offered an award in advance. We raced around the tracks at breakneck speed, bouncing like popcorn. Our driver began mentioning a mother and cub somewhere in the vicinity as he monitored the phone calls incoming from other jeeps.

There ahead, a cluster of jeeps. We pull up, whipping out binoculars, cameras and phones.  She’s lounging in the crook of a tree, a hundred meters off. Guides tell us they have just been eating. Everyone gets a great sighting, except for me. I’m badly positioned in the jeep with bodies in my way, looking for a while at the wrong tree, and my binoculars refuse to focus properly. I do catch a glimpse with my naked eye as she shifts position to face our way.  I’m happy for my companions: leopards normally vanish the moment I climb into a jeep. Everyone snaps merrily away with cameras.

There’s no end to interesting things one could learn and say about Lanka’s leopard. To me, the most striking item is that she’s one of three big cats who have lived here. A fairly robust fossil trove proves the presence of tiger as recently as 14,000 years ago, well after modern humans arrived some 40,000 years ago. Their presence indicates a wet jungle habitat over at least part of Sri Lanka. Their bones show up in human settlement remains, indicating they may have been on the menu. A more fragmentary fossil trove testifies that lion roamed here some 100,000 years ago, in company with some big-brained pre-modern upright hominins. They may have been here more recently as well, but we lack evidence. Their presence indicates a grassland savanna habitat. If that disappeared for an extended period, lions would have had trouble surviving. But savanna probably did persist in a long, cool arid period before warming began maybe 15,000 years ago.

Leopards arrived here at least 100,000 years ago. It therefore seems plausible that three big cats lived here simultaneously once upon a time. This is especially likely during a period when Lanka connected with India via land bridge during ice ages causing low sea levels. This was mainly the case from 150,000 years ago to 15,000 years ago when warming took over and seas rose to drown Adam’s Bridge. Migration back and forth between here and India would have been normal during that previous cold-climate period.

Big cat co-habitation became infeasible, however, as the land bridge disappeared. That locked apex predators into zero-sum competition for territory and sustenance on an island with no possible population imports. Only one apex cat could avoid falling extinct. Today, leopards worldwide command the widest range of any big cat. Because they don’t hesitate to kill any prey they can get their paws on, they thrive in widely various landscapes and climates. In Sri Lanka, they prowl in every major park and nature reserve, from sandy sea-level scrub to mountain cloud forest. In short, the leopard’s plucky success on the island owes to its smaller size and territorial needs, its survivability on small and varying prey, and its general adaptability. And that, Mr. Kipling, is how Lanka’s leopard got its ‘spots.’

Writer, lawyer and former law professor, Mark Hager lives with his family in Pelawatte.

mark.hager@gmail.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/mahager/

 

Further Reading:

Markle, Jackals: Nature’s Clean-Up Crew

Maheswaran, Ecology and Behavior of Black-Necked Stork

Stevenson, Crocodiles of the World

Kellett, Leopards: The Ultimate Leopard Book for Kids

Raggett, Remembering Leopards

Ackerman, What an Owl Knows

Duncan, Owls of the World

Organizations and Resources:

Crocodile Specialist Group (worldwide)

Sri Lankan Jackal Project

Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka

Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (Sri Lanka)

Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (Sri Lanka)

Department of Wildlife Conservation (Sri Lanka)

International Owl Center (U.S.)

Owl Research Institute (U.S.)

Global Owl Project (U.S.)

Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund (U.A.E.)

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Sri Lanka power outages from falling trees worsened by unfilled vacancies: CEB union

HEAVY WINDS: Heavy rains and gusting winds have brought down trees on many location in Sri Lanka.

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s power grid has been hit by 300,000 outages as heavy winds brought down trees, restoring supply has been delayed by unfilled vacancies of breakdown staff, a union statement said.

Despite electricity being declared an essential service, vacancies have not been filled, the CEB Engineers Union said.

“In this already challenging situation, the Acting General Manager of CEB issued a circular on May 21, 2024, abolishing several essential service positions, including the Maintenance Electrical Engineer in the Area Engineer Offices, Construction Units, and Distribution Maintenance Units,” the Union said.

“This decision, made without any scientific basis, significantly reduces our capacity to provide adequate services to the public during this emergency.

“On behalf of all the staff of CEB, we express our deep regret for the inconvenience caused to our valued customers.”

High winds had rains have brought down trees across power lines and transformers, the statement said.

In the past few day over 300,000 power outages have been reported nationwide, with some areas experiencing over 30,000 outages within an hour.

“Our limited technical staff at the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) are making extraordinary efforts to restore power as quickly as possible,” the union said.

“We deeply regret that due to the high volume of calls, there are times when we are unable to respond to all customer inquiries.

“We kindly ask consumers to support our restoration teams and to report any fallen live electrical wires or devices to the Electricity Board immediately without attempting to handle them.

The union said there were not enough workers to restore power quickly when such a large volume of breakdowns happens.

“We want to clarify that the additional groups mentioned by the minister have not yet been received by the CEB,” the union said.

“Despite the government’s designation of electricity as an essential service, neither the government, the minister in charge, nor the CEB board of directors have taken adequate steps to fill the relevant vacancies or retain current employees.

“We believe they should be held directly responsible for the delays in addressing the power outages due to the shortage of staff.”

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Melco’s Nuwa hotel to open in Sri Lanka in mid-2025

ECONOMYNEXT – A Nuwa branded hotel run by Melco Resorts and Entertainment linked to their gaming operation in Colombo will open in mid 2025, its Sri Lanka partner John Keells Holdings said.

The group’s integrated resort is being re-branded as a ‘City of Dreams’, a brand of Melco.

The resort will have a 687-room Cinnamon Life hotel and the Nuwa hotel described as “ultra-high end”.

“The 113-key exclusive hotel, situated on the top five floors of the integrated resort, will be managed by Melco under its ultra high-end luxury-standard hotel brand ‘Nuwa’, which has presence in Macau and the Philippines,” JKH told shareholders in the annual report.

“Melco’s ultra high-end luxury-standard hotel and casino, together with its global brand and footprint, will strongly complement the MICE, entertainment, shopping, dining and leisure offerings in the ‘City of Dreams Sri Lanka’ integrated resort, establishing it as a one-of-a-kind destination in South Asia and the region.”

Melco is investing 125 million dollars in fitting out its casino.

“The collaboration with Melco, including access to the technical, marketing, branding and loyalty programmes, expertise and governance structures, will be a boost for not only the integrated resort of the Group but a strong show of confidence in the tourism potential of the country,” JKH said.

The Cinnamon Life hotel has already started marketing.

Related Sri Lanka’s Cinnamon Life begins marketing, accepts bookings

(Colombo/May25/2024)

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Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.

Related

Sri Lanka state interference in plantation wages escalates into land grab threat

From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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