ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 01, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 44

Those thrilling wild escapades and memories of Lyn

Lyn De Alwis

Every blade in the field
Every leaf in the forest
Lays down its life in its season
As beautifully as it was taken up

I find this a very apposite epitaph for my brother Lyn who from his young days was always engrossed and absorbed in the natural environment, and went on to dedicate his life to its management and conservation. As a fitting but rather belated tribute to such dedication, he was awarded the title of ‘Deshabandu’ by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, shortly before his death.

Lyn received an Honours Segree in Zoology at the University of Colombo and found a perfect fit in his first posting, in 1955, at the National Zoological Gardens at Dehiwela. He served with great distinction as the Director of this much-loved institution, from 1962-1985.

Lyn’s residence, while Director, was inside the Zoo and thus my children’s destination of choice whenever visits to relatives were planned. In fact, it was always a battle to take them back home; who could compete with a zoo as a playground and lion cubs as playmates! Each visit would be a learning experience and Lyn revelled in sharing his vast storehouse of animal lore with the kids.

Lyn’s excellent work at the National Zoo also brought him to the attention of Lee Kwan Yew who requested him to help with the design, planning and establishment of the Singapore Zoological Gardens in 1970. The then Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, released him for two years so that he could oversee the construction of the zoo, while domiciled in Singapore.

Several years later, Lyn was invited to design and oversee the construction of the jewel in the crown of the Singapore Zoo, the world’s first Night Safari. It was indeed a proud moment for me when my family and I visited Lyn in Singapore and were not only escorted around the zoo by him but also got to meet with the Director of the Zoo who spoke with considerable respect and gratitude about the contributions made by Lyn to make their zoo a world class tourist attraction and educational centre.

Based on such outstanding work, Lyn was also invited to design and plan a zoo in Dubai but though he conducted a feasibility study, ill health prevented him from proceeding with the plans.

Lyn was also a greatly respected authority in the field of wildlife conservation, and particularly in the conservation of the Asian elephant. He not only established the first elephant breeding programme at Pinnawela but he also, as Director, Department of Wild Life Conservation (from 1965-1970 and 1977-1983), established several sanctuaries and national parks (including the Uda Walawe National Park), evolved the technique of elephant drives (where elephants threatening human habitations were driven into national parks), and set up a network of jungle corridors to ensure continuity of habitats and migration routes for elephants and other fauna

He was the Chairman, IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group for 10 years and was also made a Member of Honour of the World Wildlife Fund for his success in saving doomed herds of elephants from areas ear-marked for development. In this regard, I recall with admiration how he fought valiantly to save the Wasgamuwa National Park which was being encroached upon by the Mahaweli Authority. Lyn’s commitment to wildlife conservation was such that he was willing to withstand the ire of politicians and sacrifice the eminent positions to which he was elevated.

Some of my happiest moments have been spent in the wilds of Sri Lanka, with Lyn. I travelled with him several times on collecting trips for the Dehiwela zoo and had a ringside seat to watch the skill with which he and his men would capture birds, and snakes and small mammals. We once had an accident on the way back and many of these fine specimens escaped while I sustained an injury which had me laid up for over a month. Needless to say, this did not make either one of our wives very happy!

My family, along with members of my extended family, also had the privilege of accompanying Lyn on his circuits to the national parks, when he was the Director of Wildlife Conservation. We not only shared many exciting encounters with elephants, leopards and bear but also got to watch him at work - negotiating with Veddas and villagers regarding their traditional hunting and fishing rights, exchanging views with game guards and supervising the construction of yet another waterhole at Yala. My three daughters, as well as several nephews and nieces, credit these trips with fostering an abiding love for Sri Lanka’s wildlife and wildscapes which they have now passed on to their own children.

Lyn kept meticulous field notes and had a prodigious memory: he was not only an absolute wizard when it came to identifying bird calls and plants but could also recall the names and life histories of the huge staff he supervised in each national park as well as the Colombo office.

He was an excellent wildlife photographer and had a passion for orchids which he nurtured with the same love and attention he showered on his two children who have both followed in his footsteps in their own way: Chitran is a much sought after landscaper and Nirma is a skilled wildlife artist with elephants being her forte. In Lavo, of course, he could not have found a better mate and partner. She was not only his chief confidante, care giver and chauffeur but also a superb cook and an extremely talented craftswoman. She accompanied Lyn on many of his travels and survived encounters with tarantulas in her tent and black mambas in her bedroom with fortitude and humour.

Lyn was an accomplished musician and could play classical music as well as ‘oldies’ with equal aplomb. He was for many years the organist at our family parish, St Francis of Assisi, Mt Lavinia and did Indrani and me the great honour of playing at our wedding service. Every Christmas, he and Lavo would host a dinner which would end with him at the piano and the rest of the family around him lustily belting out carols till the wee hours. Sadly, that tradition has now been broken as Lyn has gone to his well earned rest in the nearer presence of the good Lord. The candles in our family are being snuffed out one by one… ave atque vale.. “hail, brother, farewell.”

By Gerald de Alwis

Top to the page

Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.