An auditorium built by the parents of the late Dr.Ravindra Samarasinha, a conservationist and humanist, in the jungles of Yala that he loved so much, is sadly underutilised
When Derrick and Vivina Samarasinha remember their son Ravi’s funeral, they remember the number of total strangers who came. “We didn’t know who these people were, there were busloads,” says Mrs. Samarasinha. A rough count put them at over a 1000, including humble elderly villagers from Tissamaharama.
Their presence and genuine sorrow that day comforted his grieving family and made it clear to them that Dr. Ravindra Samarasinha would be remembered not only as one of the country’s most genuinely dedicated and clever conservationists but a quiet and generous humanitarian. As the months passed, they realised they wanted to create a solid monument to him, and one park seemed the inevitable choice of location. “We wanted to do something in Yala after Ravi’s death because he more or less lived there, you see,” Mr. Samarasinha says. His mother wanted to put up a building in which people could live and conduct research in the park but they ended up building an auditorium designed by architect Ashley de Vos instead, along with new ticket counters – the first stop for visitors coming into the park.
On the table in front of us is a file Mr. Samarasinha filled with all the articles that were published to honour Ravi’s memory. Killed in a collision with a sand-filled lorry on a road close to his parents’ estate in 2007, Ravi was only 44 when he died. A quiet and thoughtful child, he grew up loving the outdoors, never happier than with his dogs or out exploring a new landscape. Eventually, he would study medicine and go to Kuliyapitiya for his internship before asking for a posting to Hambantota, just so he could be near the jungles he so loved.
It was during that time that he became involved in the BBC’s documentary ‘The Leopard Hunters’. The authorities only agreed to allow the team into the park after dark when Ravi assured them he would accompany the crew. “He was working in the hospital then and he couldn’t get leave,” says Mrs. Samarasinha. Ravi’s solution was to pull back-to-back shifts and then rush straight off for a night’s filming. So perhaps it didn’t come as such a surprise to his parents when he told them he wanted to dedicate all his time to his work in the wild.
“We weren’t so happy about him taking a break from medicine because I always felt he was a very good diagnostician,” confesses Mrs. Samarasinha, who only allowed herself to be convinced when her son said to her, “Let me take a break. Even if I have ten years of happiness in doing what I really like, then my life is well spent.”
Ravi was happiest in Yala. He would camp out for days, with only a tracker, a driver and his camera for company. “Sometimes it’s just the love of being there, it doesn’t matter if you don’t see anything, if all you hear is calls in the night. He was that kind of man, a genuine lover of nature and wildlife,” says Caryll Perera, a friend of Ravi’s parents and the person they credit with helping them get the work on the auditorium completed.
Having bought the best equipment he could afford from Singapore, Ravi took an estimated 10,000 images of leopards, elephants and deer; of birds in flight and reptiles in the undergrowth, he took pictures of insects and close ups of flowers and fruit. As with his other interests, Ravi applied a meticulous, exhaustive approach to mastering photography and it was through the lens of his camera that he first began to gather evidence for what would be a ground-breaking approach to identifying leopards – the pattern of their spots was unique to each, observed Ravi, and it was that insight that would help the authorities first count and them keep track of individual animals.
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