TALES FROM THE BUSH – THE DAY OF THE DEER
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). Tales from the Bush – The Day of the Deer. BBC Wildlife. October 2008. Page 122. Volume26, Number 11. FSC 9-770265-365138.
Stumbling upon the elusive Mountain Mouse-deer.
It was a bitterly cold light night and temperatures had just dipped below sub-zero, on the roof of Sri Lanka, on Horton Plains National Park. On an amazingly clear night sky, I could just discern with my naked eye the nebula in the stars in Orion’s sword. I supervised a line of about a dozen park rangers taking it in turns to shine a red light into the reflectors on the back of my vehicle. This was a rather strange start to an impromptu training session I had put on for the rangers with my colleague, Nadeera Werasinghe, the naturalist of Jetwing St Andrews. The objective of pointing a red light at a vehicle reflector was to demonstrate the significant difference it makes to finding nocturnal mammals in using the right technique. Hold a light the usual way and one may miss the reflection from a mammals’s lucidum tapetum, the reflective layer behind the retina. Hold the beam as close as possible to your eyes, and the reflection is visible several magnitudes more strongly. These were techniques I had learnt from nocturnal primate researchers from Oxford Brookes University. The mission tonight was to have a stab at Mountain Loris. Predictably we failed in the short session of an hour to find this endangered nocturnal primate.
Our conversation drifted to another elusive mammal. The Mountain Mouse-deer. A British taxonomist, Colin Groves, had recently split the mouse-deer found in India, making it three species all together. One, an endemic to the Eastern Ghats in India and two more endemic mammals found in the dry and wet zones of Sri Lanka. He had speculated that a third endemic mouse-deer could be found in the highlands of Sri Lanka, based on the measurements of a single skull in a museum collection.
Park Warden Karunarathne had told me the previous night that he had once had a glimpse of one. Had anyone else seen one I asked? A dozen men, numb with the unusual cold, nodded negatively. They entertained me with tales of encounters with leopards in the dark, but no mountain loris nor mountain mouse-deer.
As I am not a researcher of highland nocturnal mammals, I resigned myself to never seeing one. The next morning, a touch of laziness descended on Nadeera and me. We felt inclined to explore the cloud forest behind the hotel rather than drive all the way out to Horton Plains National Park. But we had promised that we would be back for another informal training session on dragonflies. Promises had to be kept, and so by noon we were well into introducing the rangers to species such as Red-veined Darters, Triangle Skimmers and Mountain Reedlings.
Suddenly there was noise of crashing through the bushes and an animal came hurtling through and leapt into the pond. It began swimming towards us. I heard one of the rangers saying ‘Meemina’, the Sinhalese word for mouse-deer. I stood transfixed in a mixture of amazement and horror. Amazement because it was the elusive Mountain mouse-deer, in broad daylight, swimming towards me. In horror because I was with a 100 mm macro lens on my camera. Coming out of my state of shock I ran to my vehicle to switch to a longer lens and came back to take a series of grab shots. I heard references to the ‘other one’. Nadeera gently gestured to the cause of the Mouse-deer’s aquatic sortie. It was facing off a hunter. A Brown Mongoose, another nocturnal mammal, which is not a rare mammal in Sri Lanka, but hardly ever seen at Horton Plains. The hunter seemed to tire of the chase, and the mouse-deer left, only to return half an hour later. The Mouse-deer seemed at ease in the water and even swam underwater for short distances. I was by now armed with a 600 mm lens mounted on a tripod. The entire drama of the chase was unfolding at a pond just meters away from the ticket issuing office at the Pattipola entrance to the park. We left when they left again, but both hunter and hunter had returned later. In the evening, Nadeera helped the park staff to take the exhausted mouse-deer into temporary care. I informed a few scientists who raced up from Colombo to the cloud forest, for a rare opportunity to take measurements and blood for DNA analysis.