Sharing a love for both captive and wild charges

Book facts: Footfalls in the Wild-- Writings & Reflections of the late Deshabandu Lyn de Alwis.
Reviewed by Antoinette Thiruppathy

One of the perks of my calling as librarian, editor/proof-reader has been the opportunity to read and enjoy a good book, manuscript or article. Imagine my delight then, when I was asked to do the final proof reading of a collection of Lyn de Alwis’s writings and speeches, compiled under the title, “Footfalls in the Wild”. I had read a few articles by Lyn in the local newspapers from time to time, but even so, browsing through the book, I was overwhelmed by the depth of his love and care for his charges, both captive and wild.

The book is arranged according to several phases in Lyn’s life. The first section deals, not unnaturally with the Dehiwela Zoo, synonymous with Lyn de Alwis’s name. As Director of the National Zoological Gardens, Lyn enjoyed a 30-year span of service from 1955 to 1985. Here are Lyn’s encounters not only with the animals and their keepers, but also with the officials responsible for the Zoo’s destiny. Despite financial constraints and budget lines, Lyn managed to acquire over a period of time “at least one species from practically every country and every recognized animal order”.

Along with eminent zoologists like Gerald Durrell, Lyn personalizes his charges - some of the more amiable being Letchmi, the elephant matriarch; Stephen, the chimpanzee; Tony and Paulita, the hippos; Samuel and Nedge, the courting ostriches; Mimbo and Lima, the pair of baby gorillas; Suli and Sulang, the performing sea lions, and many, many more... However, it is his most intractable charges like Charlie and Eunice, the laughing hyaenas, whose escapades evoke tears of mirth.

There is also the heartwarming story of Koko, the baby Orang Utan who, according to Lyn, recovered from near death thanks to “the human kindness, determination and teamwork by a group of people who cared for an animal as though he were a family friend”.

Lyn has several firsts to his name - some of his more memorable achievements being the Walk-through-Aviary, the Butterfly Park, the Herpertarium and “Min Medura”, Sri Lanka’s first national Aquarium, displaying many forms of freshwater and marine life, including penguins. One must not forget Lyn’s attempt at cost-cutting by establishing “Lihiniya”, the Zoo Farm, which provides fruits, yams, vegetables, leaves, grass and even fish for the zoo’s diverse inhabitants.

The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage was set up in 1975 by the Department of Wild Life to hand rear baby elephants found in the jungle where their mothers had perished at the hands of poachers or cultivators. In 1978, the Orphanage was taken over by the National Zoological Gardens thus providing Lyn with the opportunity to put in place one of his pet schemes - a captive breeding centre for elephants. Here too, his charges answered to their own distinctive names, Mathalie, Vijaya, Kumari, Neela and Sukumalie and so on.

The section ends with Lyn’s account of the years leading to the Golden Jubilee of the Zoo in 1986, where he traces the origins of the Zoo from John Hagenbeck’s small menagerie of mammals, through the days of the Colonial Office to its present international status.

In 1970, Lyn was invited as a consultant to design and establish the Zoological Gardens of Singapore. In the next section of the book, Singapore and Beyond, Lyn narrates the transformation of a rainforest into a uniquely landscaped environment – a delight not only for the animals but also for the viewing public. While in Singapore, Lyn meets Jumpo, the coconut monkey and recounts with much relish and a sneaking sympathy for the adventuresome intruders, Singapore’s bizarre brush with three young tuskers who swam across the sea from the coast of Johore to Pulau Tekong, one of Singapore’s offshore islands. He pays tribute to all those who carried out the capture and translocation of the elephants to their new home with professionalism and military precision. Lyn also introduced the Night Safari to Singapore (the world’s first), where subtle lighting and careful topography enables the visitor to view animals and birds in their own jungle setting at night.

What was anathema to Lyn, as to many other conservationists, was the wanton killing of animals, particularly the elephant and other endangered species, along with the destruction of their natural habitats. Lyn’s battles to save this natural heritage are mythic. He got an opportunity to even temporarily halt some of the more pernicious development projects which threatened to destroy wild life, when he was appointed Director, Wild Life, in addition to his substantive post. His armoury consisted of persuasion, lobbying and/or persistent argument, until the battle was won or lost. But most often, Lyn won. Some of the more notable successes are recorded as the Saga of Wasgomuwa, the Elephant Corridor and others in the third section of the book, “Sri Lanka’s Wild Life: An enduring Love”. Lyn waxes lyrical in describing nature’s bounty in our wild life sanctuaries and national parks, home not only to a thousand birds and mammals, but also to the sand dunes and plains, lagoons and lakes, which to him constituted “a timeless, serene world of great beauty” a veritable “sylvan fantasy”.

Lyn’s narrative takes in both the hazards and the delights of life in the wild - Leopards at a kill, failure of the monsoons to fill the waterholes and the “dastardly crime of poaching”. On the bright side, Lyn is emotive about “Snow White” - Yala’s first pure white deer, and the leopards at Wilpattu, which he calls the “most beautiful of all the cats… its sleek spotted coat and its lissome grace add beauty to this arrogant creature”. Another animal that stirs Lyn’s admiration is the elephant, which to him is “the largest denizen of the forests with none to match its size, strength or intelligence” and relates his encounter with a lone tusker, while his staff stood helplessly by watching this “silent duel in the hot river sand”. But Lyn’s faith in the “primeval bond between man and animal” is vindicated and the elephant reverses and melts into the scrub.

The final section of the book is devoted to Wildlife Conservation at Work. This is the culmination of a lifetime’s devotion to nurturing and conserving animals and their prime habitats with the aid of scientific data gathered by researchers and institutions. Lyn’s agitation for the preservation of wildlife has already resulted in national parks and sanctuaries, buffer zones, jungle corridors and strict natural reserves, to benefit both wildlife and the people. His concern for wildlife conservation is best articulated by the World Wildlife Fund’s premise that… “If mankind lets whole species perish, when will their peril also become ours?”

The book will be available at Barefoot, Odel and other leading bookshops and also with the Lyn de Alwis Memorial Wildlife Trust at No. 30, Hotel Road, Mt. Lavinia – Tel: 2739978/0777 674103

Lyn: A legacy of hard-won battles

Born on October 27, 1930, Lyn de Alwis was the 6th in a family of five boys and two girls. Growing up during World War II, Ceylon, Lyn was his mother’s constant companion and assistant helping in their rambling farm in Mount Lavinia, and attributed his closeness to nature with these beginnings, roaming paddy fields and tending the animals.

A gifted pianist, devout Anglican and ardent animal lover, uniquely placed Lyn for what he was to achieve in his lifetime. Having schooled at S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, he graduated with Zoology honours from the University of Colombo and began his career at the Dehiwala Zoo immediately after. He was also Director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. The Government of Singapore requested his services and thus began the Mandai Zoo. Upon retirement, he was once again in Singapore to conceptualize and design the world’s first Night Safari.

He passed away on November 22, 2006, leaving a legacy of hard-won battles to preserve Sri Lanka’s uniquely beautiful wild life and natural places which we enjoy today.

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