THE DRAGONS OF LANKA
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). The Dragons of Lanka. Hi Magazine. August 2009. Series 7, Volume 3. Page 182-183. ISSN 1800-0711.
The history behind the development of Dragonfly Watching in Sri Lanka.
We paused to look at a beautiful blue dragonfly etched with yellow rectangles on the sides of its ‘tail’. Two large chocolate coloured eyes with several hundred faceted lenses scanned a near 360 degree view for prey. Perched next to it was a dart-like object with a vivid red, abdomen and blackish head contrasting strongly red. The first, a Blue Pursuer was elegant and long, the latter, an Elusive Adjutant was chunkily built. Both were voracious predators, with a body design little changed since Carboniferous times when evolution shaped the perfect winged hunter. With me was Shyamalee Tudawe (the Editor of Hi Magazine) and Faye Ruck-Nightingale an English blogger and photographer and a TV crew from Vanguard. I explained how Matjaz Bedjanic the leading authority on Sri Lanka’s dragonflies and damselflies (the ‘odonata’ for the technically minded) had nearly struck off the Elusive Adjutant as an erroneous record. It had not been recorded for over a hundred years until I photographed one at the Hunas Falls Hotel. We now know that it is not a rare species.
Dragonflies and damselflies have now entered the public consciousness in Sri Lanka. The publication of this article in Hi Magazine will make it a mainstream topic even more. Hotels websites offer dragonfly watching. Several specialist wildlife tour operators offer expert led dragonfly watching tours. International tourism personalities such as Renton de Alwis (former Chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau) refers to dragonflies in interviews he gives to the press. More and more people are beginning to photograph them and identify them to species level. Sri Lanka is on its way to emulating North America and Europe in having an ever increasing band of dragonfly watchers drawn from the ranks of birders and natural history enthusiasts.
Two people have played a pivotal role in my crusade to take Sri Lanka’s dragonflies to the public. Karen Conniff, an American who has been resident in Sri Lanka for over thirteen years and Matjaz Bedjanic, a researcher from Slovenia. However, the dragonfly story for me, begins when I was living in the UK. After I qualified as a Chartered Account with Deloittes Touche Tohmatsu, I made it a point to participate in field visits organised by the London Natural History Society (LNHS), the London Wildlife Trust (LWT) and the Central London members group of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Between 1992 when I qualified as a Chartered Accountant and 1996 when my eldest daughter Maya was born, I was out almost every week-end with the LNHS and LWT. I learnt from them to look at wild flowers, butterflies, dragonflies, birds and a host of other things. I did not realise it then, but I was gaining the finest experience possible to become a professional in eco-tourism.
One of my field visits was with the LWT to the Lee Valley Country Park on the 17th of June 1992. It had become the first in the UK to formally declare an area as a dragonfly sanctuary and to create and enhance habitat for dragonflies in a network of flooded gravel pits connected by public routes on which people would walk, cycle and run. Also present on that field session, was the late Ruth Day, who was the President of the LNHS and a member of the British Dragonfly Society. She looked quite a stern character but was actually a kind hearted lady. Striding ahead of the group, swishing her net, she pointed out various dragonfly species. Coming to a pond, she announced that an Emperor was in residence. Various hands pointed towards the reed bed and apparently clutching onto one of the stems was an Emperor Dragonfly. I found it through my binoculars and was struck by its size, the beautiful colours and intricate patterning. Whilst the others trudged on, in search of more Darters, Demoiselles and Hawkers and the main quarry, Spotted Orchids, I stayed by the pond. I inched my way closer and closer to the Emperor, to take photographs on slides. The voices faded away and I stayed mesmerised by my Emperor. That day, the birder also became a dragonfly watcher.
I soon realised that the hard core birders were often the first to become dragonfly watchers. There were many similarities between dragonflies and birds. They are active hunters, often returning to the same perch. They are behaviourally interesting and one needs a knowledge of their habitats to pursue them effectively. Many are colourful and most of all they provide an intellectual challenge in the identification of certain species, especially with the females. Over time, with many hours in the field with members of the LNHS and LWT, I began to learn the European dragonflies and damselflies. I began to travel to places like Thursley Common, a heathland in the South of England to search for scarce species and began to put out sticks in my garden for common species to perch on.
I was in correspondence by email with Priyantha Wijesinghe, an entomologist working with the Natural History Museum. I cannot think of anyone who is more knowledgeable on Sri Lanka’s natural history. I wrote to him that it was such a pity that Sri Lanka did not have a field guide to dragonflies and said that if I ever return to Sri Lanka, that its a project I would like to work on. One day, he emailed me to say that the book I wanted may be now available. Terence de Fonseka, a Sri Lanka resident in London had compiled a book on dragonflies. I met Terence at his home on Sunday 8th February 1998 in London and bought a copy of his book (dated August 1997), specially printed for me on his desktop printer at home and spiral bound. I would have been one of the first customers for the book. On that visit, I also took with me books published by the Wildlife Heritage Trust (WHT) managed by Rohan Pethiyagoda, the man who ushered in a renaissance in Sri Lankan bio-diversity exploration. Terence was also a member of the British Dragonfly Society. Terence and I had a long chat and he explained that all he had done was to compile the available literature into a single volume. But he cautioned me that he had had no time to undertake any field work in Sri Lanka or to attempt a lay-person friendly field guide. Subsequently, in 2000, Rohan Pethiyagoda published his book through the Wildlife Heritage Trust. Tragically, Terence de Fonseka passed away a day before the book came out from the printers.
Terence’s book was a useful compilation for a technical specialist. For a layperson it was complete gobbledegook. Even for me, it was just too much work to attempt to identify species with this compilation. One was left with the impression that one needed to grasp complicated wing venation diagrams to tell species apart. I needed to develop a field guide for lay people, modeled on the bird watching field guides that explained in simple terms how to identify one species from another. But it would take a lot of time to unravel the technical literature and to transform in into a simple, understandable guide. I did make some modest attempts at popularizing dragonflies. One such example was an article in the glossy magazine, ‘Sri Lanka Nature’, in the January 2001 issue. This was probably the first popular article on Sri Lanka’s dragonflies. Channa Bambaradeniya who had done his PhD on the ecology of rice fields, assisted me with the identification of some of the species. But popularizing dragonflies was on the back burner until I could find a technical partner. However, just before the article in ‘Sri Alanka Nature’ made it into print, I did find the technical partner I needed.
One morning, on Sunday the 17th of December 2000, I was bird watching at Talangama. I had been nearly a year since I had returned after fifteen years of residence in Britain. I was amazed that day to see some North Americans birdwatching. I was surprised because in 1997 when I lead authored ‘A Birdwatchers Guide to Sri Lanka’, I had listed the Bellanwila Attitidya wetland but not Talangama. I wondered how they had heard of Talangama. At this point in time, the Talangama Wetland did not appear on any birdwatching trip reports from visiting birders. This began later, after 2001, when I joined Jetwing to run their specialist wildlife travel company. Myself and my then Manager Amila Salgado, rapidly moved the Talangama Wetland into the commercial birding circuit. I asked the Americans how they knew about Talangama and they explained that they were friends of David Molden who worked with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Apparently he lived close by. Oh well that explained it and I started the car’s engine and was about to drive off. ‘Have you met his wife Karen, she has a PhD in entomology?” one of the ladies asked. I switched off the engine again. I was very interested in hearing about Karen the entomologist. I walked with them to be introduced to Karen and David. I wasted no time in asking Karen whether she would like to work on a popular field guide to dragonflies. She had never really looked at dragonflies but she was interested. I rushed home and back to David and Karen’s home with a copy of Terence de Fonseka’s ‘Dragonflies of Sri Lanka’. That chance meeting laid the foundation for the popularisation of dragonflies in Sri Lanka.
In January 2001, I had started work with Jetwing and in February 2001 I presented a paper titled the Jetwing Research Initiative (JRI) which was accepted by the board. The JRI has over eight years been pivotal in positioning Sri Lanka as arguably the leading wildlife travel destination in Asia. Under the JRI, Leopard Safaris, Primate Safaris, Best for Blue Whale and Dragonfly Watching firmly entered the vocabulary of tourism. I was keen to bring out a scientific project on dragonflies. I approached Professor Sarath Kotagama of the University of Colombo for whom I have always had enormous respect and admiration. This is not to say that he or others in the conservation fraternity welcome my at times controversial methods of taking wildlife to the public. On Thursday 27th September 2001, I arranged a 9pm meeting at my house attended by Professor Kotagama, Karen Conniff, Hiran Cooray and myself to set up a dragonfly research project. On our part, we agreed to support the research effort by providing logistics support with food and accommodation. The idea was that Professor Kotagama and Karen would collect specimens to be lodged with the National Museums Department (in the Colombo Museum) and a working collection of specimens in the University of Colombo. One of the several outputs of the project would be a field guide.
On the 4th October 2001 I circulated an internal concept paper and subsequently Karen Conniff drafted a research proposal for Professor Kotagama. However was sent to the Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) only on 5th November 2002, a year later as three busy people had refined this further and also sought to involve the Colombo Museum. After more discussion with the DWLC, we submitted an application the DWLC’s Research Committee. It never received approval because of a simple lack of administrative capacity to process requests. The DWLC at that time could not even manage to file each research proposal in it own soft cardboard folder (costing about Rs 5). The administrative fiasco dragged on for over a year and I decided I needed to spend more time on running a business and less time wasted in correspondence and visits to the DWLC. Professor Kotagama also tried and eventually found himself drawn away into other projects which were making progress.
However the spirit of the project lived on as I continued to photograph dragonflies, scan the slides and pass them onto to Karen for identification. This was at a time before digital photography had matured and photography was seen as quite a fiddly exercise, especially when it involved SLR cameras and interchangeable lenses. It was also very expensive. It was nearly six or seven years later before Karen herself took up photography with a digital SLR and the photo documentation accelerated rapidly. The unsuccessful attempt for a joint project with the University of Colombo and the National Museum did have one very important dividend. We listed this as one of the projects on the Jetwing Eco Holidays website and Matjaz Bedjanic found us.
Matjaz contacted us he had done his Masters thesis on Sri Lankan dragonflies. We finally met Matjaz and his lovely wife Mojca also a biologist when they arrived in April 2003. I watched the master at work in the Talangama Wetland and refined my search as well as photographic techniques with dragonflies. We even walked around the highly polluted Beira Lake besides Navam Mawatha to see which species were present. Over the years, Karen referred to him for some of the more difficult identification issues and we worked towards a simple pictorial booklet in A5 size with 8 pages. The first of these booklets was published in August 2003 and Jetwing Eco Holidays took it to the British Bird Watching Fair. Subsequently, I noticed that Matjaz had cited me as the lead author of this booklet in a paper he had written. His expertise had been pivotal and in subsequent prints of this and other publications. Therefore in subsequent publications, I made it clear that Matjaz and Karen were cited as the first two authors.
In parallel to the booklet on the dragonflies we published one on butterflies. These 8 page, A5 sized booklets subsequently were branded as ‘Gehan’s Photo Softies’. The booklet on dragonflies as at 2009 had seen at least five different covers. The photos softies which featured 64 species was a tremendous start but only a stepping stone to greater things. The Dragonfly photo softie also suffered from the images being too small as twelve images were packed into the majority of the pages and as many as sixteen images on the last page. The next step up was the development of what was branded as ‘Gehan’s Photo Booklets. Three of these were published on dragonflies (March 2006), butterflies (June 2007) and birds (March 2006). The dragonfly photo booklet was now expanded to cover 78 species of dragonflies and damselflies. There were 21 plates in the spiral bound, A5 size publication. The images were clearer with just six per plate. Although the photo booklets were an improvement, the photo softies kept on being printed as it was cheaper to use as a promotional or educational item of literature.
In August 2005, we had attended the British Birdwatching Fair with a suite of stylish, A4 sized four page flyers designed by Chandrika Maelge, who then the manager of Jetwing Eco Holidays. Not only was she quite a sharp nosed corporate executive but she had an unusual combination of being a creative designer as well. One of the brochures we took opened out into an A3 poster of butterflies and dragonflies. On the back, it carried itineraries for watching butterflies and dragonflies respectively. As early as in 2005, we spoke to Nigel Jones, the Managing Director of Ornitholidays. Another of his companies, Quest for Nature, was running dragonfly tours for the British Dragonfly Society (BDS). One of the BDS committee member’s who had received our literature had suggested that he talks to us. The photo booklets which were published later confirmed to Nigel that Sri Lanka had the basic literature and expertise available to make it viable to run a dragonfly tour.
The first ever dedicated commercially run dragonfly watching tour of Sri Lanka ran between the 9th and 22nd of October 2007. The foreign leader on the tour was Dave Smallshire, the author of ‘Britain’s Dragonflies’, a photographic guide book published by Wild Guides. Accompanying the tour as a guest expert was Karen Conniff. Wicky Wickremesekera was the local licensed naturalist guide. Dave Smallshire who led the October 2007 tour had also traveled in Sri Lanka previously with wildlife photographer and publisher Andy Swash in February 2009 to undertake a recce with Wicky. Quest for Nature’s dragonfly tours have at the time of writing run in October 2007 and October 2008. These commercial tours paved the way for other dragonfly tours and Supurna Hettiarachchi together with Wicky have now been on nearly half a dozen dedicated dragonfly tours. However, on many of the other natural history tours, dragonflies are also a source of interest.
The icing on the cake for the historic first commercial dragonfly tour was the delivery of the first proper photographic field guide to the dragonflies of Sri Lanka. In the Gehan’s Photo Guide Series, the ‘Dragonflies of Sri Lanka’ was A6 in size running into 248 pages and covered 91 species. As with the photo softies and photo booklets, it was published by Jetwing Eco Holidays and described as one of its conservation projects. It was the fulfillment of a long held dream of mine to produce a popular field guide to Sri Lanka’s dragonflies. However, this book simply would not have been possible without Karen Conniff. The Boxing Day Tsunami of 26th December 2004 devastated lives and tourism. Matters worsened for tourism with the deterioration of the cease fire with the LTTE in 2006. As a result more and more of my time went into office work and marketing overseas. Karen fortunately took over the time consuming, behind the scenes work which goes into bringing a book into print. We were helped by Matjaz having had written the bulk of the text, which we only needed to slightly copy editing to make it more user friendly.
Butterflies have had the benefit of some beautiful books from the works of L.G.O. Woodhouse to Bernard D’Abrera. But the ‘Dragonflies of Sri Lanka’ in the Gehan’s Photo Guide series marked what was the first field guide (photographic or otherwise) to any group of insects in Sri Lanka. In fact it was the first such guide from South Asia for dragonflies.
In May 2006, I had begun to run field training sessions for the naturalist guides, focussing particularly on dragonflies and butterflies. We traveled to the wet zones forests of Sinharaja, Morapitiya and Bodhinagala. Closer to home we also searched for dragonflies in the Talangama Wetland and the Kotte Marshes. In fact on one of these field sessions at the Kotte Marshes, Wicky and I found ourselves surrounded by suspicious special forces personnel guarding the parliament. The publication of the dragonfly guide gave us a renewed focus and as the financial year end closed on 31st March 2009, dragonflies alone had provided over seventy days of work for the naturalist guides. Dragonflies had come of age as a tourism product.
However the science of dragonflies still has some distance to go. Two new species were described recently. Matjaz Bedjanic returned to Sri Lanka in May 2009, after a lapse of six years. He visited several sites accompanied at times by Karen and at other times by members of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle, including promising young researcher Sampath Gunatilake. The field work over two weeks confirmed that more species are awaiting description by science.
The dragonfly story once again reinforces in my mind that Sri Lanka can benefit hugely by collaborating with international researchers who can share their cutting edge knowledge of scientific techniques. They also have better access to resources from equipment to reference material in terms of type specimens as well as publications. Sri Lankans are now advancing their knowledge simply by contact with visiting dragonfly enthusiasts. Over time the knowledge of our guides will develop in much the same way as contact with foreign birders reined the field skills of Sri Lankan naturalist guides. My role, as always will be to be a publicist for Sri Lanka, to be at the interface of science and commerce and to migrate scientific know how into livelihoods in tourism. Dragonflies are beautiful and a valuable part of our biodiversity. But that is not a strong enough case for conservation with most wildlife. Using them as a sustainable tourism resource, creating livelihoods out of them will create a more compelling case to conserve dragonflies and other wildlife for future generations.
Wildlife celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne can be found on Facebook and Flickr. Almost every major wildlife tourism product in Sri Lanka has had Gehan playing a pivotal role in its research and commercial development.