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A weekend in the wild

January 29, 2012

A peacock’s plumage is one of the most gorgeous sights in nature, but the poor bird is cursed with a hideous shrieking call. This was the sound that woke me up this morning at the rustic house we drove over six hours from Colombo to reach.

Lovingly built by a famous Sri Lankan architect on her paddy field on the edge of the Wasgamua National Park, the house is made of wattle and thatch, and is lit by a feeble solar-powered system. I can’t charge my laptop, so unless I can finish this piece soon, I fear my computer will run out of juice.

But this is an ideal spot to charge my own personal batteries. Last night, we sipped our drinks outside, watching a growing number of fireflies on the surrounding trees. There used to be a lot of these flashing insects when I was growing up. Even as a young man in Lahore, I recall seeing thousands of jugnus in the city’s parks. No more, alas. They say fireflies are a barometer of pollution, and sadly, traffic in cities around the world has wiped them out.

Competing with the fireflies were bright stars that illuminated the sky. There is little light pollution where we are presently, so we can watch the nightly show nature puts on, but is almost invisible in our cities.

The nearby national park is home to elephants, bears, deer and leopards, among many other animals. The lake that laps against our friend’s property was full of numerous birds when we had our coffee on its bank this morning. We were told by our hosts that they had counted 188 species and sub-species of birds around their lovely weekend cottage.

Apparently, elephants often leave the park to raid the surrounding paddy fields, including the one belonging to our hosts. To neutralise the electrified fence that’s supposed to keep them in, they drop branches on the wires, and walk through the gap they have created.

Despite the protection they get in Sri Lanka’s twenty-plus national parks, wild elephants are under threat from several directions. Although the murderous civil war is over, there are still mines that regularly kill and cripple the poor animals. Then there are adult and baby elephants killed by trains; according to specialists, these deaths generally occur when trains are running late.

Apparently, these intelligent animals are aware of normal timings, and keep clear of the tracks. But often, baby elephants get scared and freeze when a train is approaching, and the adults crowd around to protect them. Drivers are unable to stop in time to save the unfortunate animals.

But the biggest threat comes from farmers who protect their fields from hungry elephants by using guns, or explosive devices that usually maim them, and cause them to die in great pain.

Nevertheless, it is remarkable that even during the long civil war, the Sri Lankan state continued to maintain its network of national parks. Millions of acres across the small country have been set aside to protect the abundant wildlife. The fact that hunting is prohibited means that even outside the parks, it is possible to see all kinds of animals and birds.

Over the last five years or so, Sri Lanka has emerged as a major whale-watching centre. I have seen several varieties of the mammoth cetaceans, together with scores of dolphins that often swim across the boat’s bow as they make playful patterns in the sea.

The biggest national park is at Yalla, towards the east of the island, about an hour and a half from our beach house. I have often bounced through it on open jeeps in an effort to see its elusive leopards. However, this has become such a popular tourist destination that every time a rare animal is sighted, local drivers call their mates on their cells, and within minutes, the spot resembles Oxford Circus at rush hour.

In their frantic efforts to show their clients a leopard and thus earn a fat tip, drivers often take unnecessary risks, and friends tell me two of the big cats have been killed as a result. Add this unpleasant scramble to the deterioration in the roads in the park, and a safari at Yalla isn’t what it used to be. So I, for one, have decided to opt out until things change. Luckily, there are lots of other parks to visit.

In Pakistan, by contrast, virtually unrestricted hunting has decimated our wildlife. The splendid markhor is close to extinction, as is the rare snow leopard. Years ago, I remember going on a fishing trip with friends to Azad Kashmir. When we cast our hooks at a spot on the Neelum River that had been described by the old Gazetteers as being abundant in mahsheer, we were told by a local that the iconic fish had been wiped out in that area. Apparently, army officers would toss hand grenades into the water to stun the fish that would then float to the surface.

Then, of course, the flagrant poaching of the endangered houbara bustard by petty Arab sheikhs with government connivance has been a national scandal for decades. Despite international condemnation, every winter these so-called sportsmen descend on Pakistan with their hawks and their Humvees and kill yet more bustards. As these birds can’t fly very far, I fail to see where the sport lies. Apparently, its meat is supposed to be an aphrodisiac for our brethren from the Gulf. I wish they’d try crow meat to revive their flagging potency.

As I come to the end of this piece, I see I still have enough battery life to quickly read the online edition of this newspaper, and to check my emails. In the distance, I can hear another peacock shrieking, while a kingfisher swoops into the lake, reminding me of the late Taufiq Riffat’s wonderful poem about a kingfisher who misses his prey for the first time. “Will they jeer you then?” asked the poet. Not me, old friend.