BOOK REVIEW: THE DIVERSITY OF SRI LANKAN WILDLIFE BY JAYANTHA JAYEWARDENE
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Book Review: The Diversity of Sri Lankan Wildlife by Jayantha Jayewardene. Montage. January 2009. Pages 58-61. Volume 2, No 12.
One of the best introductions to Sri Lankan Wildlife.
In December 2008, Jayantha Jayewardene presented me with a copy of his ‘The diversity of Sri Lankan Wildlife’. It was at least three Christmas’s too late for me. A few years ago I began to write the ‘Sri Lankan Wildlife’ for Bradt Travel Guides of the UK. Despite the significant awareness of Sri Lanka’s bio-diversity since the 1980s, I was immediately struck by the absence of ‘single volume’ books which addressed the many facets of bio-diversity. In fact the very reason why Bradt Travel Guides asked me to write such a book was the absence of a compact book which was rich in content, varied in scope and lavishly illustrated with photographs. Their target audience were visitors to Sri Lanka who preferred a lightweight book.
The only book which addressed different aspects of Sri Lankan biodiversity at that time was the magnificent volume, “Ours to protect: Sri Lanka’s biodiversity heritage’ by Rohan Pethiyagoda. This was an extra large format book which was richly illustrated with photographs, published by the Wildlife Heritage Trust (WHT) in 1998. It was an inspiring foundation. But I was left with nearly a decade of intensive bio-diversity exploration spearheaded by Pethiyagoda and his WHT team of researchers to read up on and assimilate into a compact (albeit 25,000 words plus) overview for the Bradt publication in July 2007. How I wish a book like the new volume by Jayantha Jayewardene had been available to break the back of having to trawl through research papers and multiple volumes.
Jayewardene’s book had evolved out of a series of articles he had been asked to write for the Daily News newspaper on different aspects of Sri Lanka’s wildlife. In a sense his writing and research had run in parallel with mine, but I suspect his task was pleasanter as he did not have a publisher’s deadline for a single large manuscript. He has done an admirable job in adapting his articles and filling in gaps to present a well rounded introduction to Sri Lankan wildlife. Because he has consulted many experts to make the book as up to date and scientifically accurate, it is a useful summary as of now, of our rapidly changing knowledge of Sri Lankan wildlife.
First impressions of the book are very favourable, a nice size (8 inches wide x 10 inches tall), hard cover with a very artistic dust jacket designed by the author’s daughter Amali Senanayake, good quality paper and binding. The text is interspersed with many delightful line drawings which lend the whole a book a strong design aesthetic.
The book is structured into 38 chapters and runs into a total of 229 pages in black and white which includes an index, a page each of references, acknowledgements and an epilogue. 16 Chapters cover mammals, 7 chapters are on birds and 5 chapters are on reptiles. There are chapters on biodiversity, national parks and reserves, Sinharaja, eco systems, coral reefs, freshwater fishes, butterflies, invasive species and nocturnal animals. A series of photographic colour plates are interspersed and depict some of the species covered in the book.
The reader must bear in mind that this book was not commissioned to be an even handed all round view of Sri Lanka’s bio-diversity. When you consider where the public interest lies and the availability of information on certain groups, this is still a good introduction to Sri Lankan bio-diversity. Having been though the mill of going through the current outpouring of research papers I can vouch that the chapters have had extensive background research done on them. In fact as 2008 comes to an end, wildlife enthusiasts find themselves with an abundance of riches in terms of books having become available. Although this book deliberately aims to be spartan in its visual offerings, I would confidently state that this book is likely to be one of the better investments for a student of natural history.
The traditional Sri Lankan natural history literature has been descriptive, enabling the reader to distinguish between species. In ‘A Photographic Guide to the Mammals of Sri Lanka’ published by New Holland in 2008, I gave extended accounts of some species and dwelt on their behaviour and ecology based on contemporary scientific thinking. In this book too, Jayawardene has brought in a behavioural ecology approach into the chapters when discussing species. This coupled with the background research makes this a very useful and innovative book to equip the Sri Lankan wildlife enthusiast with the current intellectual tools. The books has been written with a layperson in mind and therefore all this intellectual rigour is presented in a palatable form.
Just as the crop of coffee table books in the last few years have been a visual treat for the senses, this book is a treat for those with an intellectual curiosity. I strongly believe that this is one of the most useful books on Sri Lankan natural history to have been published in the last decade, especially as it is pitched at the public. It is not without its flaws. The coverage is un-even and it could have benefited from tighter copy editing. The line drawing have not been individually identified with the artists in the same manner as the photographers.
But these flaws should not detract from acknowledging a well researched effort to take knowledge to the public at the level of species, eco-systems and conservation issues. This combined with its easy to read style, replete with anecdotes, references to conversations with scientists and conservationists and the writings of the 19th and 20th century natural history and big game hunting writers makes for an informative and entertaining book. If the recession has begun to bite and you are cutting back, leave aside some money for this book.
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008) A Photographic Guide to Mammals of Sri Lanka. New Holland, London. 128 pages. ISBN 978-1-84773-142-5.
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Sri Lankan Wildlife. Bradt Travel Guides, UK. 144 pages. 13.5 cm x 21.5 cm. ISBN-10 1 841621 74 9, ISBN-13 978 1 841621 74 6.
Jayewardene, J. (2008). The Diversity of Sri Lankan Wildlife. Published by the Author: Colombo. 8 x 10 inches. 229 pages. ISBN 978-955-956777-2-1. Rs 4,500.
Pethiyagoda, R. (1998). Ours to Protect Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity Heritage. 156 pages. WHT Publications (Pvt) Limited, Colombo. 11.5 inches x 16.5 inches. ISBN 955-9114-17-4