I first came across the work of Chitral Jayatilake when I was the chairman of the panel of judges of the Nature Photographer Competition in 2001. He had two winning images. One of the famous Chaitya Male (a leopard) crossing the road and another of a Crested Hawk-eagle which had just launched itself into the air. Both had a common denominator. It showed great reflexes and an instinct, the trademark of a good sports or wildlife photographer. The image of the Hawk-eagle in particular impressed me because this was before the advent of digital photography. In the days of expensive slide film, photographers were cautious at attempting such imagery. Only one confident and with instinct would go after shots like this.
I continued to chair the panel of judges of the Nature Photographer Competitions which ran up to 2004. I saw Chitral triumphing with winning images in 2002 and 2003. He continued to establish his profile as a leading photographer with a joint exhibition in 2003 with the late Ravi Samarasinha and solo exhibitions in 1995 and 2001. In April 2008 I was on a boat with Chitral looking for dolphins off Kalpitiya, when I saw his instincts come in to play. A Common Tern on floating debris did a 'wing stretch'. Before I could even react, Chitral had composed, focused and fired a stream of shots.
Another endearing feature of Chitral has been his willingness to encourage others, a characteristic he shares with the widely respected wildlife photographer Rukshan Jayawardene. In 2006, Chitral chaired a nature photography competition for the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society to help raise standards and encourage others. Another example of his willingness to encourage others was his 'handling' of Amos Nachoum who is featured in the book. When Amos and Chitral finished their time in the field, Chitral arranged for the other wildlife photographers to meet Amos at a half-day seminar organised at the Cinnamon Grand.
If this is a book review, why am I indulging in so much character building first, like in a movie plot. This is because this book is different and is as much about the person taking the images as much as one of superb wildlife imagery. There is enough outstanding imagery here for it to have been a stand alone showcase or portfolio of work. In fact so outstanding are his images of wildlife, that he could have published a smaller book with just those wildlife images. But this book is more.
It is also a part photographic memoir of someone who has been passionate about the jungle as well as of others who share his passion. So we find chapters revolving around the wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum as well as TV wildlife celebrity Austin Stevens. Chitral's admiration for them comes through and he shares his inspiration in working with them through his words and images. His choice of Dominic Sansoni to write the foreword, his acknowledgements and the choice of Rohan Pethiyagoda to be the master of ceremonies of his book launch provide an insight into the soul of a man. It shows that this is someone who realises that the Sri Lankan wilderness is not his, but a shared privilege which must be cherished whilst having a frank admiration for others who strive to protect what is ours.
His sense of inclusion has also resulted in his daughter Ashvini, contributing a section, 'Chip of the old block' (pages 52-56). The images of a Little Green Bee-eater with its prey a Green Skimmer (Orthetrum sabina) and the two vertically framed leopard portraits would have any wildlife photographer wishing they were theirs.
The book is not a conventional portfolio of a photographer's word. It is a series of short essays, of encounters with individual animals such as the Warahana Cubs or Suduwellimulla cubs or time in the field with people and events such The Gathering of Elephants.
The imagery is therefore an unusual melange of breathtaking wildlife imagery at times juxtaposed with images which are more documentary or photo reportage in style. The breadth of subject matter is also vast with the full panoply of Sri Lankan biodiversity featured ranging from birds, mammals, reptiles, butterflies, dragonflies, etc to landscapes and portraits of people and people doing things. It is almost too much to attempt in a single book. The designer Nelun Harasgama has exercised wonderfully creativity in stitching it together.
There are just far too many incredible images to attempt to single out any. The leopards alone, even if confined to a book a third of the page count of the present book, would have been a cherished addition to my library. I suspect that by bringing in so much, that it has diluted the full impact of the absolutely stunning wildlife imagery within the book.
The book is a wonderful showcase of why Sri Lanka is one of the top destinations in the world for wildlife tourism. What it does not show is the hard graft which goes into taking images of this quality. 'Leopard Hunters' are a peculiar and obsessive breed of people, used to long hours and a physically and mentally challenging schedule. Fortunately for all of us, Chitral Jayatilake is one of the obsessed, who is willing to share with us the fruits of his labour.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a British Chartered Accountant and Banker turned wildlife populariser.