de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). Creating Movie Magic. Living. November-December 2005. Pages 98,99. Volume 01, Issue 02, ISSN 1800-0746.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne goes to Yala to showcase Sri Lanka’s biodiversity for the BBC
“Bear are generally omnivorous animals, eating a wide range of food, both plant and animal. Something interesting about the Sri Lankan Sloth Bear is that it is a semi-specialist. It has lost its front teeth allowing it to purse its lips and vacuum in termites. Fortunately for our bears it is only a semi-specialist. It can still feed on a wide variety of food, which helps it to survive despite a significant loss of habitat in the last few centuries”. The camera kept rolling. The Sloth Bear obligingly began to rip out one of the many termite hills which dot the dry landscape of Yala or Ruhuna National Park. A few sucking sounds were hear as it began to vacuum out the termites. Next it was the turn of Kirsten Magasdi from the BBC. A Sloth Bear is hard to see outside the season when the Palu trees are in fruit. We could not believe our luck. Not only had we found a tolerant adult male, we were even able to take the wildlife movie makers dream sequence, a ‘two shot’ sequence. Both the subject and the presenter were in the same frame. Kirsten positioned herself and did her piece to camera whilst the Sloth Bear foraged behind.
The Sloth Bear ambled away, leaving behind a handful of elated safari jeeps which had been lucky to have had it for perhaps a quarter of an hour. Kirsten was not sure whether the rumble of the jeeps had spoilt the sound track and I obligingly repeated my wildlife presenter routine. Looking furtively over my shoulder and dropping my voice to a whisper, I pretended as if the Sloth Bear was still there. Kirsten’s beamed and gave a chuckle. She realized getting her ‘local naturalist’ footage with me would be easy. Over two decades later, it seemed my mother’s insistence that I go for speech and drama classes was paying off.
I could not have been more pleased. Film Crews can spend a week looking for Sloth Bear and not see one. To have one performing so well for the camera was incredible. It almost seemed to be greedy to ask for more. But more was what we wanted. A pair of leopards cubs at Handunoruwa had begun to perform well. They were the new stars of the park. They were not without mystery. Sometimes three cubs were seen. There was debate as to whether there were two sets, one set of three and another set of two cubs respectively or were they the same three sometimes seen as two. The details would be sorted out in due course using photographic identification. All I knew, was that I wanted to see the cubs and better still capture them on film.
I suggested that we head off to Handunoruwa and keep vigil. The jungle telegraph would alert us if the cubs were nearby. The cubs were around a year old and were brimming with confidence. If one were lucky they would sleep in view of delighted visitors. For me, filming the leopard cubs were to more than simply wildlife viewing. It was a part of an economic agenda. Part of a strategy to publicize Sri Lanka as the best chance in Asia for seeing Leopard and of the best places in the world. A study on leopards we had supported had shown that the average density in Yala was one leopard per square kilometer. A phenomenally high number. This coupled with its position as the top terrestrial predator and the open nature of the park, makes Yala one of the best parks in the world for this beautiful cat.
We drove onto the bund of Handunoruwa. A Little Egret danced through the water to spear fish. A Black Robin half uttered a melancholy song. I looked at the canopy above for Hanuman Langurs who would alert me if the cubs approached the lake. This time we did not need them. With film crews I often take in a second scout vehicle. They were tipped off that two cubs were asleep on trees nearby. One cub was dozing on the branch of a Tamarind Tree. The branch went across the road and the jeeps were actually driving under the branch to position themselves with space and due distance to the cub. I had warned Kirsten that it may take some effort. Surely it could not be so easy. It was becoming embarrassing. Once again the camera rolled with presenter and subject in the same frame. Hmmm next time, maybe we can search for elephants, they can be hard to get sometimes.
Averaging weekly media appearances, Gehan is emerging as a wildlife and tourism celebrity. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.