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Jungle memories

by H. I. E. Katugaha

I have had a long innings of jungle trips. Many of these were with my uncle, Sam Elapata Dissawe, who had an unrivalled knowledge of elephants and their ways. I learnt from him many things about the jungle and its denizens. I remember now with nostalgia the trips I shared with him. After his death, the interest in the jungle, which I acquired from him as a young schoolboy, has persisted to this day.

A walk up the Menik Ganga

It was in the 1950’s that I was able to join Sam Elapata Dissawe on a trip along the banks of the Menik Ganga during the height of the drought. There were four of us, besides Sam Elapata Dissawe, who did this trek, namely the late A.H.E.Molamure, Robo Singho our tracker, David our cook and myself, then a schoolboy. It was my privilege to be walking with them and learning the ways of the wilds.

Before we reached the riverbank, Robo stopped and pointed to the ground. I could see nothing there. He then drew the footprint of a leopard on the sand. I at once recognized it. He next showed me a leaf of a creeper on the ground. The leaf resembled the shape of the footprint. The name of that creeper was divi pahura (Ipomoea pestigridis). This botanical name, according to Trimen (1898) is a translation of the Sinhalese name, which “from the form of the leaf, (is) thought to resemble a tiger’s foot”. We were next told that it was a medicinal plant used in the treatment of tarantula bites and stings of scorpions, poisonous insects and the like. All one had to do was to crush some of the leaves, add lime and apply on the injury.

I was amazed when he showed me a brown ball, which was smaller than a marble. It was suspended from the under surface of a leaf. “Don’t touch it,” he said. It was a ball of ticks. If any animal or human being brushes past it, hundreds of ticks will be dispersed on the body. Their bites are very painful.

We reached the riverbank at about 9.30 am. The river had no flowing water at all. There were many puddles of stagnant water especially under the larger kumbuk trees. I was told to keep a respectable distance from them as they all harboured crocodiles.

We began our walk in silence. Robo was leading, followed by Uncle Sam, myself, and Uncle Hupp] (Mr. Molamure), with David, carrying our lunch, in the rear. It was cool along the river, though the drought was on. Along the river there were many carcasses of dead buffalo. We stopped at each and examined it. Crocodiles had eaten all of them as shown by the tracks. Wild boar, jackals and crows had picked up the left-over pieces. We did not find any leopard tracks at any of the carcasses. Perhaps they did not have to come to the river to get at food, as many animals died during this drought and there was no shortage of food elsewhere. It is surprising that we did not come across a single carcass of a sambhur. As we walked along, the stench was unbearable at times with so many rotting carcasses. During that morning walk, we counted 168 buffalo carcasses. I dreaded to think how many more there would have been upriver.

A female elephant quietly walked to the river ahead of us. This was what Uncle Sam had come out to see and so we stopped under a tree and watched in silence. She came to the riverbed and stood silently. The wind was in our favour and therefore she was quite unaware of the human intrusion into her domain. Within 10 minutes, as if in answer to summons unheard by us, the rest of the herd consisting of four adult females, two adolescents and two babies came down the bank to join her.

The adults then began digging the riverbed. Using their fore legs and trunks, they dug holes in the sand and waited for the water to fill up. That was the first time I saw elephants dig for water in a dry riverbed. The adults first drank, then splashed water on their bodies and moved aside. The sub adults and babies came next. One baby was too small to use its trunk and had to kneel down and lap up the water. It was an endearing sight to see one of the adults, obviously the matriarch, splash water on the babies. It took them about 45 minutes to complete their task and they went back up the riverbank into the jungle.

It was now time for lunch and we started our meal under a large kumbuk tree. Deer came down to the river and went straight to the elephant wells, but never dared to go to the pools of water under the trees. No doubt they were well aware of the crocodiles that were lurking in the stagnant water. Several peafowl followed. As we were having lunch we watched how the lesser animals made use of these elephant wells and not the stagnant pools. Two stripe-necked mongooses came along and joined the peafowl. Many birds too came over fora drink of water till some wild boar arrived on the scene. The birds scattered, and the wild boar took their turn and made the wells deeper, making good use of their snouts. Not being as patient as the elephants, they did make a mess of things. Just before we left, a solitary female sambhur came down for a drink. We started on our return journey as evening was approaching.

During the day the wild boar were feasting on the carcasses. The crocodiles were most active in the night. We did see two crocodiles finishing off a carcass. They did not move off even when we passed quite close to them. The alarm call of deer and the belling of a sambhur made us aware that a leopard was on the prowl, but with five of us walking along we did not see the leopard. No doubt he saw us and gave us a wide berth.

A lone bull elephant came upriver and we moved behind a tree to let him pass. He was a majestic animal in the prime of his life. He walked up the river. stopping now and then to test the air. We presumed he had got wind of a herd with which he was trying to make contact. With not more than fifty yards to go, another lone bull elephant was walking quickly upriver. Our tracker informed us that the two of them were certainly looking for a herd that must be close by.

We got back to camp late, but it was an enchanting walk up the Menik Ganga. Years later while camping by the Menik Ganga, there was a dead buffalo close to camp. I built a hide and tried to photograph the way the jungle disposed of the dead. Nothing touched the carcass for three days, but on the fourth day when I went in the morning to check, there was no carcass, but only skin and bone were left, The buffalo was eaten in one night by crocodiles. Their tracks revealed that it was the work of six large crocodiles.

Leopard and wild boar

One hot afternoon we were walking along a jungle path with tracker Pinoris leading, when he made us stop by raising his hand. Across an open plain about two hundred yards from us, several wild boar were busy attacking a tree. We stood still for nearly half an hour till the wild boar made off in the opposite direction. It was a leopard, which had picked up a baby wild boar and gone up the tree. In this situation the wild boar would have attacked anything that moved taking it to be a leopard. That was why Pinoris made us stand still. The leopard was lying on a horizontal branch and enjoying his delicacy.

Though they love wild boar flesh, it would be a very foolish leopard that will try to get one from a sounder with a frontal attack. They usually lie in wait and pick up a suckling as the sounder passes. Immediately the wild boar would attack the leopard, and hence it must have a nearby tree to seek shelter. There have been many instances where leopards have been severely injured or even killed after an attack on a sounder of wild boar.

On another occasion, while walking in the jungle we came across a wild boar eating a dead deer. He was so busy having his meal that he did not notice the four of us walking up. It was Uncle Sam who got us to sit down. There, under a tree not ten yards from the kill was a leopard. We belly-crawled back to a bush and got under it. It was obviously the leopard’s kill the boar had taken over. It was only after the boar had finished and moved away that the leopard came to his kill. He did not wait long. He dragged it to the nearest palu tree and effortlessly took it up to a fork where he lodged it firmly. Unfortunately it was not during a time we had telephoto lenses or video cameras.

One morning when we were camping out we had quite a surprise. A sounder of wild boar ran through the camp. They were very agitated. We remained still till they had passed our camp. I then quietly went in the direction from where they came. I had not gone very far when I heard a thud behind me. Looking back I saw a dead baby wild boar on the ground. I did not see the leopard but there was no doubt that the leopard had picked up the baby boar and gone up a tree. The thud I heard marked its inadvertent fall from a height. Quickly I made a hide, determined to photograph the leopard when he came to eat his kill. When I walked back from camp with my camera the kill was gone.

While camping in the 1980’s my children, on their way to the river, had seen a unique sight. A leopard blundered into an adult boar. They had both been surprised. Attack being the best form of defence, the two of them met face to face. They had both stood up on their hind legs before the leopard leapt over the boar and ran into the jungle.

Watching at a water hole

It was in the late 1950’s, during a drought, that Uncle Sam announced that we were going to Ranna to be at a water-hole for the day. Since all animals had to come to water for a drink, he had a hut put up on a tree near the water-hole.

Uncle Sam, together with Upali and I were up early and set off from his residence at Godakawela. We reached Tangalla rest house for an early breakfast. We had to await the arrival of Rupasinghe, who was to meet us. He came only at 10.30 am, and Uncle Sam was annoyed that he was so late. We then decided to leave after lunch, as most animals came to the water-hole in the evening. Uncle Sam then said that it was no use spending only a few hours, and therefore he decided to stay overnight. Thankfully, it was a full moon night. Hastily we got our dinner and flasks of tea ready, and set off after a heavy lunch.

We drove to a spot a few miles from Tangalla and walked the rest of the way. The driver was given instructions to bring the car next morning by 6 am.

The walk in the afternoon was not the most comfortable, but we were able to get to the water-hole at about 2.30 pm. We next had a problem to get Uncle Sam up the ladder leading to the watch-hut on the tree. As he was frightened of heights, it was not easy for him, but the thought of seeing herds of elephants made him forget his fears. The platform was about thirty feet up the tree and had a covering so that we were in the shade. The four of us settled down to see animals.

My thoughts went out to the plight of the chena cultivator, who has to stay up on a watch hut in a tree to drive away animals that come in the night to devour his crops. It is no easy task to keep up the whole night to drive off elephants from one’s chena. Many sing at night to keep themselves from falling asleep and to keep away animals. But we had come to observe wildlife and make the most of the evening and night. Biscuits and tea proved to be wonderful refreshments after that hot afternoon walk. With the wind in our faces we awaited the arrival of animals to this water-hole.

The water-hole seemed to be bare, but careful observation revealed that it was indeed occupied by no less than four fair-sized crocodiles. Their snouts gave them away. It was after four that the birds came down. Twelve painted storks were the first to arrive. They systematically probed the shallows for fish and frogs. Egrets came next; and then two pelicans came over, circled the water-hole twice and veered off to seek another source in their quest for food.

It was not until 4.40 pm that deer came out to the small plain by the pool. They came out slowly in groups of about seven. Soon we had a herd out in front of us that came to the water’s edge, hurriedly had their drink and moved off to start feeding on the dry grass. Wild boar ran straight into water, not caring for the crocodilian eyes.

They were all big adults and did not have babies to worry about. A solitary female sambhur walked slowly to the water’s edge, looked around, quickly had a drink of water and ran back to the jungle.

Elephants that Uncle Sam had come all the way to see arrived late. It was nearly six and shadows had lengthened before a herd of twelve came to water. The breaking of branches and the trumpeting made us aware that more elephants were on their way. Soon there was a congregation of well over thirty in the pool. It was a beautiful sight. The adults beat the surface of the water with their trunks before they entered. Even when they were bathing they kept beating the water. Uncle Sam whispered that this was a way of keeping the crocodiles away from the baby elephants. No sight is more endearing than that of baby elephants sporting in water. We watched them till the day gave way to twilight. The setting sun gave a golden glow to the water and its surroundings. It soon became dark and the elephants moved off back to the jungle.

We settled down for the night. The wind blowing cold made us cover up as much as possible. We had not made any allowances for the cold night that we now had to spend in the tree hut. A hot cup of tea was more than welcome. The moon came up and we were now able to see the water-hole in front and a part of the plain.

Dinner was taken and I was ready for a nap. Soon I was fast asleep curling up to the best of my ability. We took turns to watch the water-hole. Another herd of over fifty came at about 2 am. It was lovely to see them playing in the water by moonlight. At 5.20 am I felt our tree shaking. Peering down from the hut, I was surprised to see a lone bull elephant having a good rub on the very tree that we were on. I now realized the importance of having drawn up the ladder and tied it securely after we climbed up the tree. I became worried when Uncle Sam said aloud chee, aliya (a word of admonition to the elephant).

The effect was even more amazing. He stopped, looked up, trumpeted and ran off into the jungle.

The rest of the night was uneventful. When it was light we had our tea and one by one came down from the tree. It was comforting to be able to stretch our legs and walk. We set off in single file as always, and soon came to a stop. Our lone bull elephant was there in the middle of the jungle track. He seemed to have all the time in the world, but we did not. We watched him for a good half an hour and decided to take a detour. But Uncle Sam coughed. The elephant spun around and faced us. He seemed to be undecided as to what he should do. Uncle Sam walked up and said chee, aliya once again.

The elephant froze with his right front foot raised. Then he ran off to our right, trumpeting all the way. It was wonderful to see a puny man stand up and face a mighty beast. That was enough of excitement for the morning and I was relieved when we came to the main road and saw our car waiting for us. We had seen well over a hundred elephants and Uncle Sam was very happy.

The rest-house keeper provided us with a hearty breakfast. We set off back to Godakawela and reached home for lunch.

(To be continued)

(Excerpted from Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka edited by CG Uragoda)


Chandana Sesath Jayakody

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