Natures greatest guide! | Daily News

Natures greatest guide!

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne.  Picture by  Ajith Ratnayaka
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne. Picture by Ajith Ratnayaka

Meet wildlife expert Gehan de Silva and talk to him about where to go. His most recent book, ‘A Naturalist’s Guide to the Mammals of Sri Lanka,’ will come in handy as the island reopens for tourism

Sri Lanka is slowly opening up to tourism giving visitors a unique chance to visit the many different game parks across the island with only a handful of safari jeeps sharing these stunning places. So you can plan and get the most out of a wildlife experience, I suggest picking up wildlife writer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne’s latest book, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Mammals of Sri Lanka or any one of his fascinating guides to Sri Lankas incredibly diverse wildlife published By John Beaufoy Publishing and other British publishers. Gehan is both a writer and photographer (who qualified as a chartered accountant in London) world renowned for demonstrating not once, but on many occasions over the last three decades, that Sri Lanka is the best place in the world to see blue whales, the biggest annually recurring concentration of wild elephants (The Elephant Gathering) and one of the top locations for leopard safaris, bird watching and seeing diversity in flora and fauna.

His passion for wildlife started at a young age and has gained momentum, as he makes time outside his day job to promote Sri Lanka as the best all-round wildlife destination in the world. I asked Gehan which national parks and reserves he would recommend in addition to those which are already well known. For those in an urban environment like Colombo he recommends Talangama Wetland. It is large enough that a person with members of their own household can easily engage in a socially distanced nature walk armed with binoculars and guide books. He also recommends Baddegana Wetland Park and Diyasaru Park, both of which are within a kilometre of the Parliament. With good roads to the East and a broad range of accommodation he also recommends the parks on the East Coast which are less visited. Lahugala National Park in his view has some of the most beautiful examples of intermediate forest trees. He has even had a glimpse of a Red-faced Malkoha in a bird wave (mixed feeding flocks). Gal Oya National Park is another where visitors numbers are low and elephants can be seen. Kuamana or Yala East National Park has leopards and everything else which the adjoining Yala or Ruhuna National Park has but with much fewer visitors. In the North Central Province he recommends Wasgomuwa National Park with elephants that are shyer that those at Uda Walawe. But this is compensated by fewer vehicles in the park. For those who like the cool highlands he recommends the Knuckles which have many species found nowhere else. But he points out that a good naturalist guide is essential as the endemic specialities are small animals. The most biodiverse site in Sri Lanka is the lowland rainforest of Sinharaja. But surprisingly visitor facilities are modest and the road conditions highly variable depending on when the last round of road maintenance was performed. As a result it is not on the itinerary for the mainstream travel groups and serious nature enthusiasts will find they can spend many hours watching endemic birds and mammals away from the crowds.

His latest book covers this and so much more in, ‘A Naturalist’s Guide to the Mammals of Sri Lanka’ is a landmark publication, as it is the first portable and affordable, photographic field guide with near comprehensive coverage of 122 of the 127, 96 per cent of all the land and marine mammals recorded in Sri Lanka. The book is the seventh Sri Lankan title by British publisher, John Beaufoy Publishing, who has a long association with Sri Lanka and other countries in Asia. The 176 page book follows the standard format for the Naturalist’s Guide series and is pocket-sized at 130 mm wide and 180 mm high and light in weight. This helps the book to be a permanent addition to the ‘field bag’ for keen naturalists. The book uses multiple images with identification-focussed text to provide a compact field guide, which will be useful for resident naturalists and visitors.

Only a handful of countries in the world have a portable photographic field guide to mammals with such wide coverage as this book, and although he is the principal photographer, his book is a collective effort, drawing upon the contributions of forty-one photographers from nine countries, resulting in over 250 images being used. The section on marine mammals is probably the best so far from a book for Asia. This is not surprising given the author’s role in the development of commercial whale watching in Sri Lanka. Starting in May 2008, he began a publicity blitz stating that Sri Lanka was Best for Blue Whales. He also publicised Kalpitiya as a whale watching hotspot and a key location for pelagic seabirds. The whale watching publicity campaign that he led with the tourism industry drew the attention of film crews and photographers worldwide. This, in turn, led to local marine biologists being featured in international documentaries. In addition to his own photographs, the author has used images from both local and overseas marine biologists. An especially strong contribution is from US marine biologist Paula Olson. The introduction came through British marine biologist Susannah Calderan who has worked in Sri Lanka with colleagues in the University of Ruhuna. The introduction proved to be very useful as Olson had photographed many of the species seen, but had never been photographed in Sri Lankan waters. As a result, all but one of the cetaceans (whales and dolphins) recorded from Sri Lanka are covered in the book, often with multiple images of the animal at the surface, with identification oriented text and image crops to help observers on whale watching boats. Throughout the book, Gehan mentions the names of several researchers who have undertaken work and draws attention to academics including Professor Wipula Yapa, who has studied bats and supervised a number of PhD studies on bats. Two of his students have contributed images, with an especially strong contribution from Tharaka Kusuminda. Other Sri Lankan researchers who have contributed images include Suyama Meegaskumbura and Ranil Nanayakkara.

‘Given that Sri Lanka is one of the best all-round wildlife destinations in the world, the island needed a comprehensive, portable and affordable field guide to mammals,’ according to Charmarie Maelge, a former Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau. She says, ‘Gehan’s line of thought is to create livelihoods through wildlife tourism to provide an economic and sustainable agenda for conservation.

He has a long track record of enlisting the support of researchers, corporations and conservationists in his work’. According to Gavin Thomas, author of the Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, ‘Interestingly, leaving aside foreign visitors, a lot of Sri Lankans will be surprised at the range of mammals to be found in Sri Lanka. In this book readers will find 33 species of bats; golden palm civets; chevrotains, also known as mouse-deer but not real deer, that swim under water to escape predators; shrews, which look like mice but are not related to mice; rats; and a host of other mammals that even professional tourism guides know little about. The real power of the new mammal guide is that because it is not expensive, it will be gifted by both local and foreign tourists to local guides, building capacity and increasing appreciation of the country’s biodiversity’.

I asked him how quickly Sri Lanka’s travel market will recover. He is quietly optimistic. ‘There is a lot of pent up demand’ he says. ‘People are itching to travel again. There will come a time mid to late 2021 when many people in the G20 countries have been vaccinated. They will look for destinations to which they can travel to with the confidence that they will not find themselves being subject to quarantine on arrival. They also need to be confident that they will not find themselves locked down in a foreign country or locked out of returning to their home country. If Sri Lanka is ready, the visitors will come again’. But he adds with a note of caution, ‘A lot depends on the vaccines being effective on new variants for normality to return’. He also cautions against complacency. ‘Every destination will be fighting to rebuild their tourism industry. Sri Lanka will need to market itself against stiff competition’.

Until travel resumes, I ask him if his books help those who are isolating. ‘Yes’, he says, ‘Even in a big city like Colombo there are many species of birds, butterflies, dragonflies and even mammals which come to your garden or local park. You can start to enjoy nature by learning to put a name to the things that are around you and develop your natural history skills with these portable and affordable field guides’. He also draws attention to the plant life and in particular the trees. ‘Cities like Colombo are a gigantic arboretum with a vast range of trees from all over the world planted in gardens, lining the streets and in our parks’.

He points out that there are a few book on the trees found in Sri Lanka which people can use to learn the trees around them. In fact, ‘A Naturalists Guide to the Trees of Sri Lanka’ authored and photographed by him is a thoroughly modern photographic field guide to 125 species of trees.

Over the years Gehan has authored more than 20 books. I ask him if he has anymore in the pipeline.

He explains he is working on a pictorial guide that will have different groups such as birds, butterflies, dragonflies, birds and mammals.

The book will draw on his past books but he will also widen the participation to have guest contributor sections. Inviting guest contributors allows him to draw attention to the work of scientists who are working on other groups which may not have the popularity of birds and mammals but are just as important in appreciating biodiversity. John Beaufoy Publishing has several international titles in the Naturalist’s Guide series. The other titles relating to Sri Lanka in the series, include: Birds; Butterflies and Dragonflies; Flowers; Trees and Reptiles. John Beaufoy Publishing also published ‘A Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka’ (the first complete photographic guide) and ‘Wild Sri Lanka’.

So if you feel you can't travel right now, get yourself a wildlife book and start planning your next great adventure or just enjoying learning more about Sri Lanka's incredible biodiversity.