Part 2 of the memoirs of well-known naturalist Rex I. de Silva, From ‘Ocean Depths to the stars’ Buffalo Wild buffalo were present in some numbers on the Nilgala (eastward) side of Senanayake Samudra. These were genuine wild buffalo, their blood unmixed with the blood of their domestic cousins. My impression is that they were larger and [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Encounters with ‘real’ wild animals


Part 2 of the memoirs of well-known naturalist Rex I. de Silva, From ‘Ocean Depths to the stars’


Wild buffalo were present in some numbers on the Nilgala (eastward) side of Senanayake Samudra. These were genuine wild buffalo, their blood unmixed with the blood of their domestic cousins. My impression is that they were larger and sturdier than the animals present in most national parks today. Their pelage was dark grey and many had white socks.  These buffalo looked fierce and glared at us suspiciously but usually fled as we approached. On one occasion however, things got dicey when a herd appeared to be on the verge of charging Jackson and me but a shot in the air soon dispersed them.


Leopards were plentiful in Gal Oya. The only problem was they were genuinely wild leopards with their primeval instincts unmodified by familiarity with man, so that getting even a glimpse of them was largely a matter of luck. In the many years I spent in Gal Oya I only saw two leopards. My first sight of one was in the Amparai meat market which was then surrounded by jungle. A leopard had taken to visiting the beef stall at night where it fed on scraps of meat and licked up blood on the chopping blocks. As the animal had acted in a threatening manner towards the few humans who accidentaly encountered it, there was fear that sooner or later it might injure or kill someone. Bevis was instructed by his superiors to assess the situation.

In the 1950s the Gal Oya Development Board operated a launch service on the Senanayake Samudra. This picture shows Chief Forest Officer, Dr. R. W. Sczechowicz standing at the back. The writer is in the front row at right holding a fishing rod.

So, late one rainy night we lay carefully hidden in the beef stall awaiting the leopard. We had a shotgun for protection. The animal arrived but neither of us realised it; however after a while that primeval sixth sense which all real jungle men seem to develop made Bevis switch his torch on and there in its beams was the leopard which immediately leapt into the surrounding jungle in a blur of yellow and black to be swallowed up by the night. On examining the pug marks the following morning, it became clear that the leopard was aware of our presence and had carefully avoided areas which would have brought it within our sight.

My next and only face-to-face encounter with a leopard in Gal Oya again occurred at night. Bevis and I were returning to Amparai well after midnight, when a mere quarter mile from my home, calmly sitting by the roadside was a leopard. It was transfixed by the beams of the headlights. I tried to lean out of the car window for a better view, but must have made some sound which broke the spell and the animal quickly bounded into the surrounding forest. I knew that leopard well as I had encountered its pug marks in the jungles on many occasions, but this was the only time I saw it.

Yes, these are the only really “wild” leopards I ever encountered. Of course I have subsequently seen many of their modern cognates viz. the human-habituated leopards of some of our National Parks. These modern “much-photographed” leopards are, in my opinion, behaviorally rather different from the wily and fearsome nocturnal predators of Gal Oya six decades ago. It is heartening to know that populations of “wild” leopards still exist in small scattered habitats in the hills, rain forests and jungles; sometimes even close to human habitations. These leopards are primarily nocturnal and are seldom or never seen or photographed; their occurrence in an area being inferred by their pug marks, scrapings, kills, excrement, and the rare animal caught in a poacher’s snare set for wild boar. In recent years a few of these animals have been imaged by camera traps set up by researchers. (In this article I have, for convenience, divided leopards into two categories in order to exemplify, what I perceive as, differences in behaviour between the leopards I encountered in the 1950s and the present day leopards in our national parks.  Readers should note that these categories have no scientific validity and that all Sri Lankan leopards belong to the subspecies Panthera pardus kotiya).  

Elephant trappers and electric fences

By 1956 elephants had become a major problem as they invaded the sugar cane plantation and caused severe damage to the crops. My father was against shooting and decided on the lesser evil of trapping a few elephants in the hope that it would discourage the herds. The best elephant trappers came from the small village of Sammanthurai (now a developed city). These trappers known as “Pannikyans” were all Muslims. They were tough, hardy and very brave. Like most male Muslims of the Eastern Province at the time they wore the red knee-length breeches which identified them. 

Operations commenced and I was allowed to accompany the pannikyans on the express condition that I would watch from a distance and not obstruct or interfere with the trapping operations. I was thus a witness to something that few Sri Lankans alive today have ever experienced. Having located the herd the pannikyans closed in. The victim in this case was a six and half foot adolescent. The trappers moved in as silently as shadows. The herd was listless but a trapper crept to a mere 30 feet of the victim without being detected.

He then froze and even the suspicious herd did not pay much attention to the “tree stump” which should have not been there. I did notice, through borrowed binoculars, that when a pannikyan froze, he also tended to direct his gaze towards the ground; perhaps this was to avoid eye-contact with his intended victim. After what seemed like ages, the herd relaxed somewhat and started to feed. The “victim” began to move, briefly raising a hind foot. A trapper immediately slipped a noose over the leg and quickly fastened the other end to a tree. All pandemonium then broke loose.

The trappers leapt up with loud shouts and one fired a shot in the air. The rest of the herd was frantic and charged the trappers, who evaded them with feats of agility and bravery which had to be seen to be appreciated. After some hours the captive was led away. I have read that the pannikyans in general treated their captives gently, but I think the term “gently” was relative in this instance. The trappers used ropes made of braided deer hide which often caused severe cuts, abrasions and other injuries to the trapped animal’s legs. I was informed that in more open areas trappers attached a deer antler to one end of the rope. The idea being that once the captive was noosed the rope was let free where it soon snagged itself on a tree trunk, root etc. thereby anchoring the captured animal. However, the Sammanthurai trappers did not use this device.

Trapping of elephants was soon abandoned in favour of electric fences. The first experimental electric fence was set up near our home. Unfortunately it was probably designed for sheep in Australia; not elephants in Sri Lanka as the voltage was much too low.   Interestingly this low-voltage was appreciated by the elephants and one evening I spotted Walige Kota rubbing its body to-and-fro along the wires, apparently in a state of absolute bliss. The elephant probably found the tingling of electricity soothing. Needless to say modifications were made and the electric fences eventually helped to reduce elephant depredations on the sugar cane without harming the animals although, being very intelligent creatures, some elephants learnt to circumvent the fence.

Clapping for junglefowl

Many villagers used an interesting method to hunt junglefowl. Male junglefowl are very territorial and aggressive towards rival interlopers which they challenge with a vigorous flapping of wings making a distinctive clapping sound. Ornithologist G. M. Henry states that the sound is created when the wings impact against each other above the bird’s back. This sound was easily imitated by hunters who would crouch down and taking several folds of cloth (sarong) between their palms, clap their hands a few times thus imitating the sound made by the male. The territorial male would reply to the “challenge” by flapping his wings. In this manner he could be slowly lured into the open where he was often greeted by a charge of number four shot.

Fish and fishing

Fishing in Amparai tank was prohibited in those days on account of experimental work being conducted by the Fisheries Department. Hence I did most of my angling at Kondawattawan tank. I owned a fibreglass bait casting rod with an excellent ABU reel. My favourite spot was the spillway at Kondawattawan tank. Fishing from the “tank side” resulted in catches of large Tilapia and occasionally Snakeheads, Giant Gourami and Butter Catfish. On the other side, where the water exited into a channel were Stinging Catfish or Hunga (Heteropneustes fossilis), Spiny Eels; strange eel-like creatures with a miniature elephant trunk-like appendage on their snouts and carp of one to one and half pounds. The piece de resistance for the Gal Oya angler was the large catfish known as the Freshwater Shark or Walaya (Wallago attu). I had discovered a treasure trove of large fish in the pools at the foot of the Senanayake Samudra spillway. Walaya were easy to catch there and my favourite lure was a silver spoon with treble hook. The largest fish I caught weighed in at around fifteen pounds, but larger ones were present.

(Part 3 next week)

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