de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). Dragonfly Watching. Serendipity. August 2003. Page 12.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne argues that it is time for a new hobby for aesthetic enjoyment and eco dollars
Something was decidedly odd. Why should a foreign couple and a Sri Lankan with binoculars be peering into ditches and boggy patches in the Talangama wetland? The local resident around Talangama Wewa were becoming used to a steady trickle of birdwatchers who are discovering this urban wetland jewel. But the behaviour of birders was not as strange as this.
One of the eccentric trio was myself. I had come here with Matjaz Bedjanic, a Slovenian, who works in the Slovenian Institute of Conservation. He was on a four week visit to Sri Lanka with his partner Motza, a geologist. Matjaz probably knows more than anyone else alive about Sri Lanka’s dragonflies and damselflies. He had studied them for his undergraduate thesis and has had the privilege of accessing almost all of the available literature and also examined many of the museum specimens of Sri Lankan dragonflies in European museums.
Matjaz’s interest was easy enough to explain. But why should I, working in the tourism industry use my company time and resources to be with them and host them at hotels on their travels? Well, of course, it has to be business as usual. Albeit, a long term business strategy.
The Sri Lanka Dragonfly faun needs to be conserved for its own sake and not just for business reasons. They are indicators of the health of eco systems. They are also a part of our priceless natural heritage. Whether it is for scientific, genetic, aesthetic or environmental reasons, they must be conserved for future generations to enjoy.
Popularising dragonfly watching is one way to raise awareness and to create the motivation to conserve some of Sri Lanka’s lesser known fauna. The icing on the cake is that dragonflies and damselflies are also important for eco dollars. It may seem that I am invoking the eco dollars argument as a last ditch resort to stir up interest in these enigmatic winged insects. Not so, there really is a genuine and growing interest in Dragonflies around the world. This interest has close parallels with the development of bird watching. The last few decades have seen a proliferation of field guide to birds followed by book on where to watch them. Many birders have expanded their interest in the field to dragonflies. The close of the twentieth century saw the publication of field guides to dragonflies, largely in Europe and the USA. The close of the century and the recent years have seen the publication of books on where to watch dragonflies.
Sri Lanka is well positioned to take advantage of this and tailor tours for Birds and Dragonflies. Of the 117 species recorded to date, 52 are endemic. Many more species remain to be discovered by science. Hunas Falls Hotel in Elkaduwa near Kandy and St Andrews Hotel in Nuwara Eliya have created small wetlands in their premises to encourage wetland fauna such as Dragonflies.
My interest in Dragonflies had arisen during my time in the UK when I joined the London Natural History Society and the London Wildlife Trust on field excursions. People such as Ruth Day would call out the dragonflies as we went along, “Oh look! an Emperor Dragonfly and to the right a Banded Demoiselle”. I wished desperately for a guide to Sri Lankan dragonflies and the late Terence de Fonseka made a helpful start with his Guide to the Dragonflies of Sri Lanka published by the Wildlife Heritage Trust in 2000. It was an important compilation of the Sri Lankan literature on dragonflies and damselflies, or odonata, to the technically minded. However, one had to admit that the book was quite difficult for people like me with ordinary levels of grey matter. What was needed was a guide on the lines of a field guide to birds. In the absence of one, I needed someone who could find the time and the expertise to have a stab at doing one. Rather fortuitously I met Karen Coniff on one of my bird watching visits to Talangama. Having studied both entomology and ornithology for her PhD, she was interested in the project. Subsequently Matjaz who also harboured plans for a layman’s guide got in touch enabling us to commence on a collaboration to bring out a photographic field guide. If all goes well, such a guide should be out by the end of 2004 for at least the commoner species.
Hard as it may seem to believe to traditional hoteliers, in the years to come, there will be eco-tourist who will be more concerned with whether the hotel’s wetland has Black-headed Basker than whether it has 5 star comforts. After all the Black-headed Basker had not been seen since 1832 until it was photographed in the Hunas Falls Dragonfly Sanctuary. Eco Dollars are there for those with vision.
The writer is the CEO of a Wildlife & Adventure Travel Company. To receive his free, monthly wildlife e-Newsletter, e-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk with “Subscribe Wildlife News” in the message header.
A series of colour plates depicting around 70 species of Dragonflies and Damselflies will be published as an 8 page booklet, as a pre-cursor to the photographic field guide mentioned in the article. The booklet is expected to be on sale from September at leading bookshops and priced around Rs 80.