In 1971 when a notice was read out in my A’ Level class calling for Student Guide Lecturers for the National Zoological Gardens we jumped at the opportunity. Meeting the Zoo Director Lyn de Alwis for the first time, being briefed by him and introduced to his novel idea was an unforgettable experience. I was [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

He stood tall among jumbos and other animals at our Zoo


Visionary conservationist: Lyn de Alwis with his favourites in the Dehiwala Zoo-- Elelphants

In 1971 when a notice was read out in my A’ Level class calling for Student Guide Lecturers for the National Zoological Gardens we jumped at the opportunity. Meeting the Zoo Director Lyn de Alwis for the first time, being briefed by him and introduced to his novel idea was an unforgettable experience. I was awe-struck by this dignified professional whose language skills and serious manner were interrupted only by a rare slow smile that made his eyes sparkle, especially when he was saying something tinged with humour or sarcasm. What he outlined was exciting and this I knew was my first encounter with a visionary.

The first batch of Student Guide lecturers were from many schools around Colombo. Three girls from Visakha Vidyalaya and many boys from S. Thomas’ College, Hindu College, Isipathana and  Bhuddagosha totalling 11. Mr. de Alwis told us about a group of young animal enthusiasts named XYZ at the London Zoo and their work, which was the seed that he planted in us for the formation of the Young Zoologists Association (YZA). Inspired and guided by him, little did we know then, that we would be the founding members of the YZA – now over 40 years in existence and still going strong.

Getting about our work and duties,  sometimes escorting as many as 75 to 100 kids at a time  from schools far outstation on their first or rare trip to the capital city, we would often pass our director on his daily walks inspecting display areas or animals, either with a team or alone. His walk was always stately, he held himself upright and tall and he gave us that side glance which said everything. We had a sense that there was an eagle eye watching over everything that took place in the Zoo. It was a benevolent one especially regarding the animals and minor employees.

His understanding of people and love for animals is best described by some of the following quotes off his book  ‘Footfalls in the Wild –Reflections and Writings of the late Deshabandu Lyn de Alwis.’

*Many animals positively looked forward to your passing by each morning and exchanging “pleasantries” …….

* An animal was saved from death by an all night vigil over it …..

* I shuddered when I saw the poor creature on arrival… thin , scraggy and sloshing about in its own excreta. I was even more moved when it sucked on my outstretched fingers

*Stephen the great chimp was an animal we loved. Without my being anthropomorphic we could say he waited for one of us ( Director Wienman, the Vet, or myself) to complain that Violis his keeper was neglecting him.

*I couldn’t take much more of this myself. My mind went back to 1963 when I had a similar dilemma when Mimbo one of the Gorillas lay dying (finally saved by him calling the famous paediatrician CC de Silva when all vets failed! The Gorilla too had been saved owing to our Director never giving up). ………Today we are all smiles as we watch Koko (baby Orang utan) put away a kilo of mixed fruit.

The following extract from his book reflects best his appreciation of his staff and the team effort that resulted in the successes.  He felt the public must sense that there were people out there caring for those animals , designing new lay-outs and catering to the public desire to learn and be close to nature…. “and to achieve this the zoo had to build its own character reflecting the combined efforts of a large number of people charged with certain responsibilities- the Veterinarian, the Curators, the Keepers, the Supplies officer, the Horticulturist and his staff, the Artist, The Education officer, the Administrative Officer and his clerks…. in the final analysis the Zoo is like a big family……”

First assisting Director Maj. Weinman since 1955 and assuming duties as Director Zoological Gardens in 1962 at the age of 31, it did not take Mr. de Alwis much time to bring our Zoo up to international standards. He mentions in his book that in the 19th Annual Conference of the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens at Taronga Park in 1964, much attention was focussed on himself as well as our Zoo in the Sydney press and TV. The 21st  conference was unanimously voted to be held in in the “Colombo Zoo”. A seminar on the “Ceylon Wild Elephant” was the highlight of this conference which created a lot of public interest.

One of the immediate benefits of the conference had been the assistance promised in future for the preservation of our unique fauna. The delegates had been astonished at the wide variety of animal life we possess. As a result the Colombo Zoo had been recommended to the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN to be entrusted with keeping of threatened species of the far-east. It was a great tribute to our Zoo.

Progressive changes

1966- The Walk -In Aviary : He called it a half –acre paradise which it is, in my opinion too.  It was completed before the delegates arrived for the international conference. The Aviary – his dreamchild was designed to achieve a compromise between restricting beautiful birds to unimaginative cages and making sure they do not fly away or stray and are not attacked by the more powerful .The kids we guided always loved entering it and looking out for birds who would emerge in the natural setting which was exciting for them. The birds too, often felt at ease in this enclosure and there was plenty of grooming, feeding and even nesting going on. He called birds “marvels of creation” and had an obvious love for both their vivid colouring and their song.

1967- Lihiniya Zoo Farm: As a response to rapidly increasing prices of food and fodder and their deteriorating quality his plan in setting up the Zoo farm was to aim at self-sufficiency. Twenty five acres just beyond the Ratmalana Airport was gifted to the Zoo by the Civil Aviation Authorities. It was initially secondary scrub jungle but once it was under him, soon became a flourishing farm with a few residential staff. Fruits and vegetables were soon in abundance. Grass, a main requirement was also available. Flood waters were channelled to a newly constructed pond where Tilapia were bred as food for the Zoo animals and harvested. Maize, ground nuts, sweet potatos, banana, kankun and grass among other vegetables and fruits were all supplied for the Zoo from the farm in a matter of time. We of the YZA spent many memorable moments there holding shramadanas and helping out with the farm as well. It was contributing much to the Zoo animals’ dietary needs and it is recorded that in five years time 25-30% of the food requirement came from the farm.

1973 – Min Medura: Bringing the Ocean and the rivers into one secluded-secret space….. Often the Zoo was the first to exhibit a new and beautiful discovery of fish species and even species that were hard to breed were bred by the staff.  Mr. de Alwis’ idea was to establish an aquarium of educational and scientific value. The final result was creating a sense of a journey, which was in places like being by a stream or lagoon or simply diving into the ocean observing a coral reef in all its finery. Much went on behind the scenes and we were some of the fortunate few who had a glimpse into it – both their feeding and their breeding.

In 1965 he had the unique privilege of being both the Director of the Zoo and the Director of Wildlife Conservation (Warden, Wild life Department). This dual role and his dynamism in performing both duties efficiently resulted in The National Survey of Elephants (Smithsonian sponsored) in the National Parks. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) had also assisted this survey. There were then early rumblings of human-elephant conflict owing to haphazard alienation of land and reduction of elephant habitat. The survey was followed by strengthening of laws and a complete ban on elephant capture was imposed.   At that time there were 2500 elephants in the wild. Captive breeding amongst the stock of 540 domesticated elephants was also another approach that he pioneered.

I975- Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage: An orphanage for elephants on 12 acres of land in Pinnawela was also set up under his supervision with the idea to facilitate breeding of elephants outside their wild habitat. This led to the successful mating of elephants in 1982 in Pinnawela. So those of us who throng to Pinnawela too owe a debt of gratitude to this visionary.

Other innovative ideas in his efforts to improve the animal display minimising the barrier between the viewer and the viewed  are the Butterfly Park and the Herpetarium (housing both reptiles and amphibians).

Special mention must be made of the Gibbon Island and the Lion Island to name a few more open concept areas.  Mr. de Alwis also encouraged handling of pets in the pets’ corner, with the objective of developing love for animals in children and minimising unreasonable fears and aversions which was a task allotted to us guides as well.

The Wildlife Parks Uda Walawe and Maduru Oya were much improved in his time as Director Wildlife and Wasgomuwa- which was to be completely cleared saved owing to his efforts to preserve the invaluable habitat for his favourite, our majestic elephant.

Captive breeding: Success story

Apart from breeding fish successfully many successes in captive breeding can be attributed Mr. de Alwis’ encouragement and supervision. Outstanding among them are the mating and breeding of pythons resulting in 26 out of 35 eggs being hatched successfully. It is a treat to read what Zoo staff learned in the process about the mother python’s dedication as a ‘live incubator’ in his book in the chapter titled Pythons Galore.

Birth of baby elephant Sukumalie 1984, was considered the crowning glory of the Zoo’s breeding efforts.

Enriching the wild population after captive breeding was novel then. Two leopard cubs were reared and released back to the wild- Yala Block III. This was a joint effort by the Zoo and the Wildlife Department. The objectives or the dual purpose was to improve captive breeding as well as to study the resulting success / failure of releasing them back into the wilds and fostering conservation. He understood well that this partnership was very important in the future as more and more wild animals are endangered and face extinction. Kali and Punchi, the two leopard cubs were monitored till they adapted well back to the wilds.

Trees and plants

The Dehiwala Zoo is a Zoological Garden as we know with no less emphasis on the term garden. Planting had been done along avenues and outside enclosures from the onset but these were mostly ornamental plants. It was Mr Alwis who started planting within the enclosures to try and replicate the natural setting/habitat of the different animals. There was then inclusion of the trees and shrubs into the exhibit area. He then set out in search of selected species to enrich the garden as well as the exhibits from natural environments – rain forests, dry monsoon forests, scrub jungle as well as coastal habitats such as mangroves.  It is a floristically rich oasis in the heart of the city.

His honesty and integrity was impeccable.  Even though the time was relatively brief, to be around someone of his calibre with a love and a passion for his work was special. I feel these very admirable qualities were the very reason for him to be sidelined by the state and resulting in our country missing the blessed opportunity of gaining the optimum service that he could give his motherland in his lifetime.

There were his able assistants, the Deputy Directors who also inspired us and made our Zoo one of the best in Asia in those times. They were Deputy Director the gentle and helpful Mr. Sivasambu, Chandima Alwis who was the Aquarium head, Director Bradley Fernando who also contributed to our knowledge of animals, their behaviour and distribution, Prof. S.W. Kotagama a post-graduate researcher then,  who was also a mentor for us, Vasantha Nugegoda, our good friend who helped us with the nitty- gritty of animal handling in the Pets’ Corner (we had a python and baby chimp and a leopard cub there too, among other pets). Then there was Mr White who handled the sea lion- an expert on aquatic life, Mr Ranasinghe the amazing artist, Rohan Fernando who helped uplift the aquarium, Gamini Silva, the Permanent Guide Lecturer recruited later and many keepers and heads of sections Mr Dissanayake, Jayantha Amarasinghe and staff– a long list that I will not forget.

In retrospect I feel that what he fostered and encouraged was the love of animals and their proper care. After him the Zoo seems to have gradually shifted its focus and the animals and their needs and care have been pushed back.

It is 10 years since his demise.  ‘Lyn’ as we called him in private will always stand out among the multitude of professionals and environmental enthusiasts I have known through the years. It is regrettable that more often than not they are driven largely by an underlying self-interest and are in pursuit of personal glory, whereas he earned it purely by being himself.  A little aloof, a little apart, with that unforgettable rare smile that lit up his face; he is an undeniable presence on the shores of the rivers of my memory, standing tall.

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