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The cat that prowls Colombo suburbs
By Malaka Rodrigo
Sunday May 31,2009
The Sunday Time Plus

Sacheendra Deepankara got the call around 8.30 p.m. on May 13. A friend from Kohuwela phoned to alert him about a mysterious animal that had been hit by a vehicle. An active member of the Young Zoologists’ Association, Deepankara rushed to the site and called the Dehiwala Zoo.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/090531/images/Fishing-Cat.jpgZoo authorities were quick to send a team and rushed to the car sales centre where the mysterious animal had taken shelter. The torch light caught a pair of glowing eyes under a parked vehicle. With a loud ‘hissing’ noise the animal tried to escape, but the team managed to secure the nets around the ‘cat like’ creature. It had a long, stocky body and relatively short legs with a broad head. Its olive-gray fur coat with black stripes and rows of black spots made it look like a small leopard. Deepankara was quick to identify the well grown animal as a Fishing Cat, known as ‘handun diviya’ in Sinhala.
Fishing cats prefer densely vegetated areas near water - marshes, mangroves, rivers and streams. “I was amazed to see a full grown Fishing Cat in an urban area like Kohuwela,” said Deepankara. Residents said another wild cat that had fallen into a well was rescued by them a few months ago.
“There were two animals that used to roam close to the spot where the fishing cat was hit by the speeding vehicle. But they were harmless and would run away if they sensed a human presence,” said another resident. Deepankara believes the abandoned paddy fields near Green Avenue, Kohuwela could be their home.
The Fishing Cat is a medium-sized wild cat that depends on wetlands. So how can such a wild cat appear in a suburban environment? Dr.Eric Wikremanayake - a senior scientist of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) - who had studied Fishing Cats in urban environments in Sri Lanka provided some answers. “It is an elusive creature that can survive in the remaining wetlands in Colombo,” says Dr. Wikramanayake. Fishing cats were recorded in areas such as Boralesgamuwa, Nawala where little pockets of forest, marshes, and mangroves remain.
Fishing cats are nocturnal and truly secretive wild cats that avoid humans so studying them is a nightmare for researchers. Dr. Wikramanayake faced the same problem during his study of this urban fishing cat population done in early 2000 at Attidiya/Bellanwila and Sri Jayawardenepura/Kotte wetlands with the approval of Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and funding from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. The research team first interviewed the villagers and identified the areas fishing cats are frequently seen. Then they used quite an unusual method to study these wild cats, setting camera traps all around the edges of the identified fishing cat routes. The fishing cats took their own pictures by breaking a sensory beam that triggers the camera shutter as they walked past. Pictorial evidence confirmed their presence in Nawala and Attidiya.


Setting up a camera trap

This study also shed light on the behaviour and ecology of this wild cat that ironically, lives so close to human habitation. The time recorded on the photographs indicated that fishing cats are active both day and night. Although people reported seeing them very early in the morning, the photographs showed fishing cats walking around at midday. Some shots recorded more than one Fishing Cats. This indicates that mating too is not a problem and the remaining population would survive, if the urban wilderness was retained. “Being a charismatic species, we should use the Fishing Cat as a flagship species to promote the need to protect our remaining wetlands,” says Dr. Wikremanayake.
The research team had plans to radio collar fishing cats to track their movements and distribution. They also had plans to compare the behaviour patterns of fishing cats in urban areas with fishing cats living in natural environments.
The second part of the study however was halted due to security reasons as the two main sites are located near high security zones – one near the Parliament and the other near Ratmalana airport. 
During the initial study, the team found that fishing cats are often accused of preying on chickens. The Fishing Cat research team also began an awareness campaign among the local residents and in schools, to impress upon people that what they have in their backyards is something special—an endangered wild cat that needs to be conserved. The latest victim - the Kohuwala Fishing Cat was already dead by the time it was taken to the Animal Hospital in Dehiwala Zoo. So it needs a collective effort to protect the remaining Fishing Cat population in urban and suburban areas, before it is too late.
Fishing Cat – fact file
Known as the “bull dog” of cats, the fishing cat has a long, stocky body. The average weight of a male is 12 kg while a female weighs around 7 kg. Its diet includes birds, small mammals, snakes, snails, and of course fish.
The cat attracts fish by lightly tapping the water's surface to catch the fish. It can also use its partially webbed paws to scoop fish, frogs, and other prey out of the water or swim underwater to prey on ducks and other aquatic birds.

It is powerful enough to take large prey, such as calves and dogs. Listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, fishing cats are threatened by habitat loss and hunting.

Humans mainly to blame for elephant conflict : Ranawaka
By Olindhi Jayasundere
Thursday May 28,2009
Daily Mirror

Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Champika Ranawaka said yesterday that people should be aware of the threats to human life by elephants and that the problem is intense. However, having said that he also emphasised that the lives of elephant too are brutally threatened by people.
He said the main cause for the friction between people and elephants is the growing human population and limited space available for these animals. The Minister said “The ever- increasing human population has resulted in the availability of living space for elephants declining. As a result many elephant lives are in danger.”

The Minister further said that this problem is restricted mainly to the Wayamba Province where there have been several deaths of both elephants as well as humans reported.

  He added “In the province the biggest threat lies in the Wilpattu National Park where it’s hard to track the movement of the wild elephants because the park is so large.” He said they move into human habitats quite frequently and that when they do they find it hard to control their movements.

Black leopards in Yala
Tuesday, 26 May 2009
Daily News

Many years ago black leopards were seen in the Yala jungles and it is quite possible that the progeny of the melanin gene animal is still found in the Yala group of reserves.

In 1951, I was a trainee Game Ranger at Yala. K.G. Uparis, one of the Game Guards, who many and old timer and jungle enthusiast to Yala knows, related to me of him seeing a black leopard near Banawalkema in the Yala North Intermediate Zone, (YNIZ) (Present Yala National Park block III, then, a shooting block).

In 1948, Uparis was assigned to supervise the clearing of the boundary track from Rugamtota to Kalugaltota, separating, the Yala Strict Natural Reserve (SNR) from YNIZ. He and the contractor had pitched camp at Banawaltota.

On morning Uparis loaded a buck shot cartridge to his shot gun and walked a short distance along the cleared track from camp to shoot some jungle fowl, when he came upon a black leopard, behind a bush intently looking in the direction of a herd of spotted deer grazing in a small glade.

He was surprised to see such a specimen and stopped in his stride. Somehow this attracted the animals attention, who looked at Uparis, stared and snarled at him, looked again at the deer and began belly crawling, towards the herd.

Uparis being alone and unwilling to confront or disturb a hungry leopard, with buck shot, made way backwards slowly and got away from its presence.

This region is in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka. Here the vegetation is of a high closed canopy with a few open glades, ridges and outcrops with rock pools.

Many years later (almost 30 years) when I was in charge of the entire Yala Group of National Reserves, I had the opportunity of travelling many a time through this same region, where the black leopard was seen and approximately four miles away from Banawalkema at Godawalipokuna (Mahawewa) in the linch to one map (topographic map). I was fortunate to see a black leopard crossing the jeep track ahead of the vehicle and move away into the forest.


New endemic mammal found in Sri Lanka
Mountain Mouse - Deer in Horton Plains

One of Sri Lanka`s least known mammals, the mouse-deer found in the highlands of Sri Lanka has been photographed in the wild. This may well be the only occasion in which it has been photographed to a `publishable standard` under truly wild conditions. 

For many years it was believed that Sri Lanka had one species of Mouse-deer, which was shared with Southern India. Colin Groves a British Taxonomist in June 2005 published a paper in a special supplement -(No 12) of The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology whereby he distinguished three species of Mouse-deer from Sri Lanka and India. The Indian Mouse-deer (Moschiola indica) was split as a new species and is now considered endemic to the Eastern Ghats of India. The mouse-deer found in Sri Lanka was split into two new species. The White-spotted Mouse-deer found (Moshiola meeminna) in the dry zone of Sri Lanka and the Yellow-striped Mouse-deer (Moschiola kathygre) found in the wet zone of Sri Lanka. Both species are endemic to Sri Lanka. Presently this raises the number of endemic mammals found in Sri Lanka to eighteen species. 

Colin Groves in his paper on mouse-deer from India and Sri Lanka also stated that `a single skull from Sri Lanka`s Hill Zone may prove to represent a fourth species`. The `Mountain Mouse-deer` is evidently a very scarce animal. Many of the field staff of Horton Plains National Park had not seen one although they regularly encounter other nocturnal mammals including leopard. 

A Mountain Mouse-deer was seen under quite dramatic circumstances on Monday 25th February 2008 by wildlife populariser Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and Nadeera Weerasinghe the naturalist of St. Andrews Hotel. They had agreed with the park warden Mr. Y. G. P. Karunarathne to spend a few hours on an informal training session on butterflies and dragonflies for the staff manning the Pattipola Gate to the Horton Plains National Park. They were engaged in identifying some of the dragonflies at the pond besides the ticket office when an animal came running and jumped into the pond and swam towards them. It was the hardly ever seen Mountain Mouse-deer! It was being pursued by a Brown Mongoose, about a third of its size in height. The mouse-deer swam back to the far shore and faced off with the Mongoose. The Mongoose did not enter the water but at times approached within five to six feet of the mouse-deer which responded by flaring its throat and showing the white on its throat. After fifteen minutes the mongoose seemed to tire of the chase and left. The Mouse-deer left but returned soon with the mongoose in pursuit and once again dived into the pond. The mouse-deer seemed at ease in the water and even seemed to be adapted for an occasional bout of underwater swimming. Forty five minutes later the hunter and the hunted left and Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and Nadeera Weerasinghe informed the park warden Mr. Y. G. P. Karunarathne. Around 5 p.m. the mouse-deer was seen again by the park warden and his staff. Around 6 p.m., offering no resistance, it was taken in for safe custody. It had a small gash near the ear and was in an exhausted state. 

Given the significance of the live specimen, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne after consultation with the park warden informed several scientists of the mouse-deer being temporarily held captive. On Wednesday 27th February 2008, two scientists travelled up with Nadeera Weerasinghe to take measurements and to take a blood sample for analysis. Dr. Tharaka Prasad the Deputy Director (Veterinary) of the Department of Wildlife Conservation and Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando who has worked on conservation genetics of elephants and other mammals (www.ccrsl.org), examined the mouse-deer which was released back into the wild later that day. The mouse-deer was found to be a pregnant female and measured 56 cm, in length. This places it at the upper end of all specimens of mouse-deer which have been measured. 

The newly split wet zone species is bigger than the species in the dry zone. It is too early to establish whether the mountain Mouse-deer is a separate species or a sub-species of the wet zone Yellow-striped Mouse-deer. It may even transpire that it has no distinct differences from the form found in the wet lowlands. More work may need to be done to resolve the taxonomic questions by examining DNA from other specimens from the wet and dry zones. Ideally more measurements should also be taken in the field through a small mammal trapping survey in the field. A series of images of the Mountain Mousedeer are on www.jetwingeco.com. Free downloads are also available on this website of publications on dragonflies and butterflies. 

The total number of mammals endemic to Sri Lanka now stands at eighteen species. In December 2007, a new, endemic species of shrew Crocidura hikmiya, was described by a group of researchers from University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka and Boston University, USA. The new shrew is presently only known from mid montane and lowland rainforests of Sinharaja. This shrew had previously been identified as Ceylon Long-tailed Shrew (Crocidura miya). The researchers Suyama Meegaskumbura, Madhava Meegaskumbura, Rohan Pethiyagoda, Kelum Manamendra Arachchi and Christopher J. Schneider published their findings in Zootaxa on 19th December 2007. The paper was titled `Crocidura hikmiya, a new shrew (Mammalia: Soricomorpha: Soricidae) from Sri Lanka. 

It is likely that as more time is spent on bio-diversity exploration and sophisticated techniques are employed more cryptic species of mammals may be discovered. Local researchers and wildlife enthusiasts are also benefiting from further insights into species which are familiar but about whom little have been published. A case in point are Sri Lankan primates about whose ecology more awareness has been raised thanks to the interest of overseas nationals. Observational studies, even if conducted on public land by visitors, can lead to many insights. It can also stimulate local researchers into undertaking and publishing their own studies. It also opens possibilities for collaboration so that `know how` and funds can be shared for studies on mammals. Especially with taxonomic work, collaboration with foreign researchers plays an important part in meeting the requirement to examine type specimens lodged in overseas collections.


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