Sri Lanka 1982-83: The elephant charmer



Sydasien 1982-83
At sunset, this girl is collecting water in a large clay jar at the beautiful Wirawila Wewa Lake. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



On the last day of the year, my companions, Jens Holmegaard and Niels Peter Andreasen, and I board a bus, leaving from Colombo, bound for Hambantota, on the south coast of Sri Lanka. We pass through plantations of coconut palms and rubber trees, and along countless rice fields, where women, bent low, are busy planting pale green, newly sprouted rice plants. Small villages are dominated by huge, white stupas, under which sacred objects are supposedly buried, e.g. bones from some long dead Buddhist saint. (Read more about stupas – and about Buddhism in general – on this website, see Religion: Buddhism.)

As we head inland, the landscape gradually gets hillier. Near the town of Ratnapura, we have a fine view towards the pointed summit of Adam’s Peak – sacred mountain to followers of three religions. In a large rock on the summit is a depression, shaped like a footprint. Christians and Muslims alike maintain that Adam made this footprint, when he and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden after The Fall. Buddhists claim that the Buddha made the footprint when he – according to legend – visited Sri Lanka.


The great sea turtles
South of the mountains, the vegetation is much drier than in the western part of the island. Gone are the rubber plantations, villages are fewer, and large areas are dominated by dry scrubland. Getting down from the bus in Hambantota, we ask a young man if he can possibly show us the way to a modest hotel.

“Yes-yes, my uncle rents out rooms at a low cost!” he says, guiding us through town to a house, where we are received by a small dark man, Mr. Hassiem Pusana, who is a Muslim. Indeed, he has a room for rent, and he also agrees to cook for us. He lives alone with his two children, as his wife is away, working in Jordan to make money for the family. Our young guide asks us for a tip before leaving.

“Your nephew was kind enough to show us the way to your house,” we inform him.

Puzzled, Pusana looks at us, remarking: “He is not my nephew! He is just a young man from town who guides tourists to a hotel and afterwards takes commission from the owner!”

We regret that we gave the young man a tip, but it’s too late to do anything about it.

We have been told that olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) come ashore at Hambantota to lay eggs, so just before dusk we head for the beach. When we arrive, we find a single female on the beach. However, she has just finished laying eggs and is now on her way back to the sea. In the sand, we find several nests from other females, but everywhere the eggs have been dug up and removed.

In our backpacks, we have some goodies, and Niels has brought a bottle of liqueur from Denmark, which we share this warm night under myriads of stars, wishing each other – and the turtles – a Happy New Year. Our thoughts go to the large females, swimming about in the ocean. Every second or third year, when the time is near, unknown forces will guide them to this beach, where they themselves may have hatched thirty or forty years prior.

At night, they come ashore to dig a depression in the sand above the high tide line, laying fifty to a hundred eggs in it. They then cover the eggs and proceed to camouflage the place by scraping the area around the nest with their flippers. This procedure will be repeated about every two weeks throughout the breeding season.

Their characteristic ‘tractor tracks’, however, clearly marks the position of the nest, and men from nearby villages patrol the beaches at night in search of new nests, dig up the eggs, and sell them as a delicacy. The amount they get for the eggs from one single nest is equal to a worker’s salary for two or three days. No wonder they will go far to get hold of the eggs. Not only the eggs are removed, adult turtles are also killed for their tender and delicious meat.

To prevent the sea turtles from going extinct in Sri Lanka, several reserves have been established for them. The beaches in these reserves are guarded day and night against egg robbers, and on unprotected beaches turtle eggs are dug up and moved to the reserves to be buried here. Newly hatched young are kept in captivity for a period, until they have a better chance of survival. Then, one night, they are released into the sea, far from land, to prevent seabirds and other predators from eating them.



Sydasien 1982-83
Contrast on Hambantota Beach: A luxury hotel and traditional outrigger canoes. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
Visiting the village blacksmith in Hambantota. Children are gathered around his furnace and bellows. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sri Lanka 1974-75
When we arrived at the beach, we saw a single female olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), which had just finished laying eggs and was on her way back to the sea. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
The characteristic ‘tractor tracks’ of sea turtles mark the position of their nest. Men from nearby villages patrol the beaches every night in search of new nests, dig up the eggs, and sell them as a delicacy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Wildlife around Hambantota
During the following days, we roam the area around Hambantota. In a small pond in the centre of town, beautiful pheasant-tailed jacanas (Hydrophasianus chirurgus), with incredibly long toes, walk about on the lotus leaves (Nelumbo nucifera), and many freshwater turtles (Melanochelys) bask along the shore. We spot a yellow bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis), and also a rare black bittern (Dupetor flavicollis). A strangler fig (Ficus), which sprouted in a palm tree, has produced numerous air roots, which have joined around the palm trunk, hereby creating an outer ‘trunk’. The palm tree has withered and will soon rot away, leaving the trunk of the fig tree standing alone as a hollow cylinder, full of holes.

Near the coast are a number of large salt pans, in which salt water evaporates in the strong sunshine, leaving the salt behind. In these pans, many wintering waders from Siberia are feeding, such as little stint (Calidris minuta), marsh sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis), and ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres).

Inland is dry scrubland with numerous cassia bushes (Senna), which produce masses of beautiful yellow flowers. On some of the bushes we spot a species of climbing lily, which Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) found so magnificent that he named it Gloriosa superba. Feral water buffaloes roam the forest, and we find fresh dung from elephants (Elephas maximus). A troop of tufted langur monkeys (Semnopithecus priam ssp. thersites) are feeding out in the open, but flee into the trees when we approach too close. Star tortoises (Geochelone elegans) with beautifully patterned carapaces creep about, and we are fortunate to watch a pair of mating Bengal monitor lizards (Varanus bengalensis).


Lagoons and lakes
Here and there are open areas with large lagoons and littoral meadows. In the lagoons of the Bundala Reserve, we spot two large saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus). A couple of times we have been wading across shallow water without fear, but from now on we keep a careful lookout for crocodiles. The largest specimens sometimes become man-eaters. In most areas, these dangerous reptiles have long since been shot, and today large crocodiles only survive in reserves like Bundala.

Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) are feeding in the shallow water, head upside down, while they emit peculiar grunting calls. A peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) suddenly appears, scaring away all the small waders, and two white-bellied sea-eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster) pass over, emitting a mewing scream.

We board a bus to visit nearby water reservoirs, or tanks, in Sinhalese called wewa. They were constructed many centuries ago, during the reign of Sinhalese kings, to irrigate rice fields – a crop that would otherwise not thrive in this dry land. Still today, these wewa serve the same purpose.

Birdlife in these tanks is very rich indeed, the largest one, Tissa Wewa, containing thousands of cormorants of various species, dozens of lesser whistling-ducks (Dendrocygna javanica), and a few spot-billed pelicans (Pelecanus philippensis). Large areas of the lake surface are covered by the floating leaves of water lilies (Nymphaea) and lotus. On the shore, a medium-sized swamp crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) is resting, its mouth wide open. Purple swamphens (Porphyrio poliocephalus) and white-breasted waterhens (Amaurornis phoenicurus) are feeding nearby, oblivious of its presence. In a patch of tall grasses, 15 or 20 male striped weavers (Ploceus manyar) are busy constructing ball-shaped nests, weaving blades of grass together, while brahminy kites (Haliastur indus) and grey-headed fish-eagles (Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus) are soaring over the lake.

Along the shore, several species of heron are feeding, together with black-headed ibises (Threskiornis melanocephalus) and open-billed storks (Anastomus oscitans). The latter has a peculiar bill – the upper mandible is almost straight, while the lower one is curved, literally causing the bill to gape. This is an adaption to feed on the main source of food for this stork – snails. While the upper mandible holds the snail in position, the razor-sharp lower mandible is thrust into the shell to cut the snail’s powerful muscles.

A passing ruddy mongoose (Herpestes smithii) comes to an abrupt stop, rearing on its hind legs to investigate us – only to disappear in a blur. A Bengal monitor is climbing up the trunk of a large tree, in which hundreds of Indian flying foxes (Pteropus giganteus) are hanging in the branches, head down. At dusk, these large, fruit-eating bats leave their day-roost, fanning out to search for ripe fruit like bananas, papaya, and jackfruit.

Kids run after us, shouting: “Hello, money! – Where you go? – What is your name?” They very much enjoy using our binoculars and are amazed to see how close trees and houses on the other side of the lake suddenly seem to be. One boy points into the grass, exclaiming: “Snake!” – but he almost has to touch it, before we are able to spot it. It is a thin, green whip snake (Ahaetulla nasuta), a completely harmless species, which has a peculiar, triangular head and a long, pointed snout.



Sydasien 1982-83
Ploughing a rice field with a tractor, Bundala. The birds are whiskered terns (Chlidonias hybridus). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
Huge trees grow in Tissa Wewa Lake. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1978-79
Women, collecting edible water plants in Tissa Wewa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
A white-breasted waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus), walking on lotus leaves (Nelumbo nucifera), Tissa Wewa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
Hundreds of Indian flying foxes (Pteropus giganteus) were hanging in the branches, head down, on their day-roosting site at Tissa Wewa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1976-77 
A ruddy mongoose (Herpestes smithii) disappeared in a blur. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1978-79
A boy pointed into the grass, exclaiming: “Snake!” But he almost had to touch it, before we were able to spot it. It was a thin, green whip snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) – a completely harmless species, which has a peculiar, triangular head and a long, pointed snout. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
Water buffaloes, enjoying a break, partly submerged. – Wirawila Wewa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
Woman, washing clothes by beating them on a stone slab, Wirawila Wewa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
Niels (left) is busy making a sketch, while Jens is watching birds. – Wirawila Wewa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
A pair of beautiful brahminy kites (Haliastur indus), resting in a tree. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
Niels, crossing a ’bridge’, Wirawila Wewa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
Wirawila Wewa at dusk. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The elephant charmer
We are very comfortable in Pusana’s house. He has a keen interest in many subjects, and once we ask him, if it is possible to see wild elephants in the area.

“Yes,” he says, adding: “I can charm elephants with my flute! Do you want to see it?”

This sounds very interesting indeed, so the following morning he guides us into the scrubland near the salt pans. This is where his cattle pens are situated. He is the owner of about two hundred cows, which most of the time roam freely in the scrubland. Once or twice a stray leopard (Panthera pardus) has killed one of his cows.

We follow the coast, which, in places, is covered by a carpet of creeping stems of beach morning glory (Ipomoea pes-caprae). Along the way, we pay a visit to a dozen lobster fishermen, who live on the beach in small huts, constructed of palm leaves. They haven’t brought their wives and children, as this will bring bad luck, they claim. Their only company – apart from one another – is a kitten.

Pusana disappears into the bushes with his flute. Now he is going to charm the elephants, so we can see them! He is much too fast for us, and when we finally catch up with him, we only see the rear end of a large bull elephant, disappearing into the dense shrubs.

“I found it for you!” he exclaims, running after the elephant. We feel absolutely no inclination to follow him into these dense bushes, where visibility is perhaps two metres, and we don’t expect to see him alive again. But he re-appears, fit and fine, saying: “The elephants won’t harm me! I can charm them!”

We trudge behind him single-file to a nearby road, where we manage to get a lift back to town in an old wreck of a car. Enough elephant charming for us!



Sydasien 1982-83
In places, the beach at Hambantota was covered by a carpet of beach morning glory (Ipomoea pes-caprae). The boat is an outrigger, with a smaller tree trunk on one side, attached to the canoe by two branches. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydasien 1982-83
On our way along the beach, we paid a visit to a dozen lobster fishermen, who lived in small huts, constructed of palm leaves. They had not brought their wives and children, and their only company – apart from one another – was a kitten. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



(Uploaded February 2016)


(Revised October 2017)