de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Dragonflies. Montage. November-December 2007. Pages 24-25. Volume 01, Issue 11.
Dragonflies are near perfect killing machines which evolved an aerial mastery which humans are yet to replicate with machines. The evolutionary success of the design is evidenced by the fact that the basic design has not changed much over million of years since the time of the Carboniferous era. In October 2007 I was at the Talangama Wetland with a group of people on what was probably the first ‘Dragonfly Tour’ to Sri Lanka. We have had people on nature tours before who had been using photographic booklets to look at dragonflies. But this group led by Dave Smallshire, Karen Conniff and Wicky Wickremesekera was the very first to come to Sri Lanka especially for dragonflies.
On a little ditch we observed two specialists of the dark. The Dingy Duskflyer (Zyxomma petiolatum) and the Foggy-winged Twister (Tholymis tillarga). Both fly very close to the surface of the water, at times barely inches over the water. Both can also hover and accelerate straight on at speed and then do a right angle turn and continue at speed. They can undertake these maneuvers so fast, that the human eye finds it hard to even track them. Nature has surpassed man and his machines. Although we have developed aerial machines which can hover, technology is decades or even centuries away from developing machines which can perform aerial maneuvers at the speed of dragonflies.
The term dragonflies is loosely used to refer to two groups, the dragonflies in the sub-order Anisoptera and the damselflies in the sub-order Zygoptera. Although almost all of the Anisopterans are accomplished and speedy flyers, none are so breathtakingly dextrous in the air as those who skim the surface of the water. This is nature’s solution to evading danger from below. I have watched amphibians lying in wait just below the surface of a pond and snapping at flying insects. The dizzying maneuvers of the Foggy-winged Twister and Dingy Duskflyer are designed to improve their chances of survival.
Observing dragonflies is an insight into aerial warfare (or more correctly predation) and counter-measures. It is also a pleasing aesthetic exercise as the dragonflies come dressed colourfully with lavish use of the colour palette. Some have a metallic iridescence on their body others use bold reds and blues to advertise their presence. Birders who enjoy an intellectual challenging in sorting out one ‘difficult’ species from another are also becoming absorbed with dragonflies.
There are some lessons to be learnt from Sri Lanka’s dragonflies. The first is that there are still many more species to be discovered. Scientific progress has been slow because our mis-guided state institutions use legislation to block not aid scientific progress. The government is quick to make claims of traitors. It only needs to look at how its own institutions stifle the country’s development and are in a sense the worst of the traitors. In neighboring countries like Singapore and Malaysia the natural sciences are flourishing where as in Sri Lanka it is impossible to find government people who have the basic competence to even issue a research permit for studying dragonflies. I know because I have tried. The second lesson for Sri Lanka is the importance of foreign intellectual capital. To develop a photographic field guide to Sri Lanka I needed the help of Matjaz Bedjanic of Slovenia and Karen Conniff an American. If Karen was not resident in Sri Lanka, the book would be yet to reach fruition. Singapore has a million foreigners, including over 50,000 Britons powering its economy. Malaysia has launched a policy of ‘make Malaysia your second home’. With the ever increasing attitude of resentment and hostility to foreign intellectual and financial capital, in the future there may be no scope for a Karen or a Matjaz to even assist with a book which is a tool for scientists, conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts. Sri Lankans who pride themselves as being so clever and not needing any foreigners will find a nation left with a residue like me who are not clever enough to get a job out of the country. Those who are left will find the leadeship of the nation have much in common with the amphibians in Talangama.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (gehan@jetwing.lk) is a corporate personality who is also a writer and photographer on a mission to create a million wildlife enthusiasts. E-mail him to subscribe to his quarterly wildlife e-newsletter.