de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Wildlife of Mannar. Montage. July- August 2007. pages 40-41. Volume 01, Issue 07.
A new world opened up in 2002 for wildlife enthusiasts in Sri Lanka. Mannar. Fifteen years of war had left this strange world barricaded behind long snarling lines of barbed wire, guarded by sentry posts and the threat of ambush by claymore mines. It was a world where many of my contemporaries had never visited. When the war broke out most of us had been too young to have worked our own way into Mannar. When former Ranil Wickremeasinghe brokered the ceasefire with the LTTE in 2002, we were with slightly greying hair, pot bellies and most importantly with wheels and cash. Soon after the ceasefire wildlife enthusiasts and birdwatchers with more courage than me headed out to Mannar and began to bring back stories of wildlife which seemed to come out of a fairy tale. Thousands of Common Coot at Giants Tank, lines of graceful Greater Flamingos turning the Mannar Causeway pink, dozens of Pied Avocets and Oystercatchers. As the week-ends rolled on, vehicles of the wildlife fraternity began to slip out of Colombo and begin the journey north along the thirsty plains of the north central province, to the arid, sun-baked, seasonally dried and cracked estuarine edges of the Vankalai Triangle in the Mannar district. The exploration of a new world had begun to a generation whose transition from teenage to middle age had always been in the shadow of a needless ethnic conflict.
My first journey to Mannar was documented in an article in LMD with the following words. “The Montero gathered speed across the north central plains, on flat roads that cut across the scrub jungle. Army encampments behind barbed wire fences, guarded by sniper posts and trenches floated past the windows. Behind us, a dark column of mist, rose up into the sky. Lighting crackled across the sky as a thunderstorm bore down on us. It was mid day, but the skies had gone dark as the rainstorm gathered behind us in chase”. Dhanu Candappa who was researching captions for an exhibition by Anoma Wijewardene which explored the conflict, used extracts of this for one of the images in the exhibition.
With the ceasefire, the special wildlife of the area began to take on a new meaning to the locals. It began to generate money for the owners of local guest houses and cafes. It was not just Sri Lankans who began to holiday in Mannar for the wildlife. We began to take foreign nationals on wildlife holidays to Mannar. The money so badly needed for entrepreneurs who wished to upgrade their simple facilities began to flow in. One guest house we were using had enough money by the second year to upgrade it bathrooms. The pink flamingos were generating greenbacks.
After two visits to Mannar in 2004, I became complacent as peace seemed permanent. In 2004 and 2005 although my team arranged visits to Mannar for a few groups, I was busy focusing on growing a business and kept putting it back. Sadly, the dark clouds of war had not gone away. In December 2005, a navy convoy was blown up on the road leading to Mannar Island. Sensing that the window of peace was fast closing, I returned again in April 2006 with Wicky and Hetti. There was a palpable tension. People asked us a lot of questions. We were never sure whether they were informants for the LTTE, the army or just fearful locals. But nevertheless it was a magical few days.
At Kora Kulam, just 3.6 km from Mannar town is a stretch of paddy fields which were abandoned after a cyclone in the 60s flooded it with seawater. It is now a seasonal wetland which can at times be as exciting as Bundala. In the morning gloom we noticed a flushes of pink on the water. Five hundred pink flamingos! Further on, at Urumalai, only a handful of Heuglins Gulls, visitors from the far north of Europe were left. We were disappointed. At the Vankalai Triangle, we were again too late for the hundreds of Widgeon and Garganey which would wheel around in the sky like a cyclonic cloud. As the sun turned warm and cast a golden hue over the Vankalai plains, a Montague’s Harrier silently glided past heading to a north bound roost. Soon it will be gone, but will return later. I hope that soon war will be over and we can return to a land pregnant with promise.

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.