de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). Drama on the Plains. Living. May-June 2008. Pages 36-37. Volume 3, Issue 5. ISSN 1800-0746.
Gehan chances upon the elusive Mountain Mouse-deer, with a Brown Mongoose in hot pursuit!
We could not have chosen a more beautiful day to be at Horton Plains National Park. It was just after six in the morning and the Peak Wilderness range lay in the distance, a cold blue. The ferns and grasses were encrusted with frost and through the camera’s viewfinder looked like a composition in which the colour had been drained out. I shivered slightly as the gentlest of breezes curved its cold fingers through my Barbour.
Over a hundred people armed with photographic equipment had arrived that morning with the Institute of Professional Photographers for their Nature Camp 2008. We walked to Baker’s Falls with Sarath, one of the guides. Tall and pale, he may have been mistaken for one of the Scottish planters who colonised the highlands with tea. I asked him about the Horton Plains Slender Loris and the Mountain Mouse-deer. He had not seen either.
I returned again with Nadeera Weerasinghe a day later, on a Monday morning armed with a copy of A Photographic Booklet to Dragonflies of Sri Lanka and Southern India and the recently published Photographic Guide to the Dragonflies of Sri Lanka. We had promised the Warden Y.P.G. Karunarathne to give an informal training session to some of his staff on dragonflies. At the Pattipola Gate, is a small pond. We looked at highland specialties such as Mountain Reedling, Triangle Skimmer and the Red-veined Darter. Species widespread on the island present included Wandering Wisp and Sociable Glider. A few butterflies such as the Common Bluebottle swiftly flew past. Amongst the skippers were Hedge Hoppers. The scat of an Otter was draped on a rock, with the crushed exoskeletons of crabs clearly visible.
Suddenly there was a parting of bushes and a loud splash and an animal swam towards us. Otter we all thought and then realized it was a small deer. As I ran back with a longer lens Ranjith, Nipuna, Chamind and Nadeera were discussing the identity of the deer. ‘Meeminna’ one of the Wildlife Department staff opined as I began to photograph in great haste. It was indeed a mouse-deer which swam towards us, turned back and stopped within five feet of the far bank.
I had heard references to the ‘other one’ and thought it was another mouse-deer which I had missed. The mouse-deer about 15 feet away from me was motionless in the water and not paying any attention to the five of us. Something big like a leopard must have scared it I said to Nadeera. He gestured slowly and pointed out a Brown Mongoose out of my line of sight. The ‘other one’.
The mouse-deer was now squarely facing the brown mongoose. The mongoose prowled along the pond’s edge occasionally leaping across from one tussock of grass to another. It patrolled up and down the pond hoping it would somehow stumble across a route to its prey. The closest it could get to the mouse-deer was within 5-6 feet. It made no attempt to swim to the mouse-deer. After about fifteen minutes the mongoose gave up the chase. The mouse-deer got out of the water and walked away.
I decided to wait. A few minutes later a loud splash heralded the return of the mouse-deer with the mongoose in pursuit. It initially swam underwater as if it was deliberately trying to conceal itself under the water. Another forty five minutes elapsed of it staying virtually motionless whilst the mongoose frantically prowled up and down along the pond trying to get closer to its quarry. Eventually the mongoose gave up and the mouse-deer moved away. Having waited another half an hour I left with Chaminda and Nadeera towards the Ohiya end of the park. We ran into Warden Karunarathna and his deputy Kelum Pathirana and told the story of an extraordinary morning. I could not believe we had seen the elusive highland form of the mouse-deer in broad daylight under such dramatic circumstances.
Near Ohiya Railway Station we stopped to photograph a Chestnut-backed Owlet. Blue Magpies called and a troop of the highland race of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, the ‘Bear Monkey’ moved away shyly. My mobile rang. Ranjith had fished out the buisness card I had given on the Sunday, in case something exciting like a mouse-deer or loris turned up. The mouse-deer had been spotted again at the pond. It seemed to have a wound and the Wildlife Department officials had tried to catch it for treatment. It had swum away. We decided to go back and see if it would come back. We returned and found it crouched besides the pond in short grass. It seemed to be in a bad state and the wildlife department staff decided to catch it and keep it in a relatively warm situation and safe from the mongoose which was prowling close by. The mouse-deer was exhausted from a seven hour long chase by the mongoose and offered no resistance. It was wet and I nobly removed my fleece and draped it around the animal which was shivering with cold and fear. One of Sri Lanka’s most rarely seen mammals had created a ripple of excitement which saw scientists racing up to Horton Plains to study it, before it was returned safely to the wild.