It is drawing close to midnight. A shower of rain has triggered the hatching of swarms of Winged Termites and the road surface is covered with the gossamer wings of the insects. I am being driven on the public roads connecting some of the game lodges outside the Yala National Park in the South-East of Sri Lanka. My initial target had been to photograph gerbils, which most people would consider to be a mouse although they are actually in a different family of mammals known as the Cricetidae. Rats and mice are in the family Muridae. Having photographed gerbils, I had suggested to my companions from the Jetwing Safari Camp Yala that we look for Jungle Cats. Despite the name, these are cats more likely to be seen in grasslands.
We had struck gold as we were not having just one Jungle Cat in view but two. They had emerged on the road to feed on the bonanza of termites that were easy pickings on the tarmacked road surface. I always enjoy watching wildlife in my holidays. But on this trip, I had a specific agenda; I was working on the ‘A Naturalist’s Guide to the Mammals of Sri Lanka’ to be published by John Beaufoy Publishing. It was eventually published in the year 2020. This article is somewhat a part of the back story but also an opportunity to share some of the richness of mammal books that have been available for Sri Lanka.
Surprising as it may seem, despite having two Jungle Cats in view, none of us attempted to take any photographs. We did not want to fire a flashgun and disturb them. Instead we drank in the view and enjoyed the moment. I knew I already had enough Jungle Cat images for a book. I had arrived in Colombo from London on an early morning flight and after just a few hours’ sleep, I had turned up bleary eyed at the zoo in Dehiwela on the outskirts of Colombo. If a photographer is taking images for a coffee-table book, an exhibition or a competition, it is often necessary to obtain images in the wild. With a field guide such as the one I was working on, it was preferable to take images of animals already in captivity. This way you minimise the disturbance to shy, elusive, nocturnal mammals. You also get better results. The other approach you have to take is to source images from researchers who under research permits have captured and released small mammals. With many species of shrews, rats and mice, bats and other small nocturnal mammals, this is a practical way to obtain good images. I was very fortunate that a number of leading mammal researchers in Sri Lanka willingly shared their images for my book which eventually featured all but five of the 127 land and marine mammals recorded in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s mammals have been the subject of two comprehensive books. In 1952, W.W.A. Phillips authored the Manual of the Mammals of Sri Lanka one of the best country-level mammal handbooks available at that time. In 1980, a second revised edition was published by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) of Sri Lanka. The book remains an essential reference even today. Sri Lankans owe a debt of gratitude to the many office bearers of the WNPS who have over the years kept this society active and maintained its publications and campaign for conservation. In 2013, Asoka Yapa and Gamini Ratnavira were the author and artist respectively of the Mammals of Sri Lanka published by the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL). This was a door stopper of a book in large format and a whopping 1,012 pages. Asoka Yapa in this book, provides very good introductory material to the mammal families and has collated many references to the published scientific literature. The Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka has over the years published many affordable and portable publications on Sri Lanka’s wildlife. In 2004, they published what was probably the first attempt to produce an illustrated pocket guide to the country’s mammals. Their Pictorial Pocket Guide 3 – Mammals in Sri Lanka authored by Sarath Kotagama was a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the quality of the illustrations limited its usefulness, since at that time very few quality images of the smaller mammals were available for use as a reference by artists. The same issue was a constraint for the forerunner for a mammal field guide to Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, A selection of the Mammals of Sri Lanka by John and Judy Banks was published by Lake House Publishing. As a young teenager their series of books which covered butterflies and birds as well was eagerly snapped up by me. These landscape format, paperback books are inexpensive and continue to remain in print. The duo who wrote and painted the illustrations played an important education role before the explosion of digital photography three decades later made it easier for artists to produce lifelike illustrations.
The first photographic field guide to Sri Lankan mammals was published in 2008 by British publisher New Holland (now a Bloomsbury title) authored by myself with the principal photography also by me. The emphasis was on the more easily encountered land mammals and the smaller selection of species made it possible to have a generous word count per species. However, Sri Lanka lacked a portable and affordable photographic guide to all of its mammals. My trips to Sri Lanka in 2017 and 2018 had such a book as a focus for my photographic efforts. For this new, near-comprehensive photographic guide, to source images, I received help from Asoka Yapa as well as biodiversity explorer Rohan Pethiyagoda who through the Wildlife Heritage Trust has published and facilitated research on Sri Lankan mammals. Throughout this book, I mention the names of several researchers who have undertaken work. One of them is Professor Wipula Yapa who has studied bats and supervised a number of Ph.D. studies on bats. Two of his students contributed images, with an especially strong contribution from Tharaka Kusuminda. Other Sri Lankan researchers who have contributed images include Suyama Meegaskumbura, Ranil Nanayakkara and Sampath de Alwis Goonatilake. Professor Wipula Yapa also published the first modern field guide to Sri Lankan bats. In 2017, A Field Guide to the Bats of Sri Lanka authored by him was published as one of the titles in a series of books published by Dilmah Conservation.
The section on marine mammals in A Naturalist’s Guide to the Mammals of Sri Lanka is probably the best so far from a book for the Asian region in a field guide format. A huge help in this regard was the especially strong contribution from US marine biologist Paula Olson. The introduction (or strictly speaking the re-introduction) came through British marine biologist Susannah Calderan who has worked in Sri Lanka with colleagues in the University of Ruhuna. I had helped to publicise a talk Susannah was giving in London at the Linnean Society for the Friends of Sri Lanka Association on the issue of Blue Whales being killed in ship strikes. I subsequently wrote an article based on the work by her and her Sri Lankan colleagues, but changed the story angle to argue that the shipping lines need to be moved to save the lives of fisherfolk who are being killed in collisions with container ships. The shipping lines also need to be moved further South to reduce the danger to shipping from the risk of collision with fishing vessels, as has been made clear by many of the international shipping associations. In Susannah’s presentation, I had noticed a picture credit to Paula Olson and I asked for an introduction. The introduction proved to be very useful as Paula had photographed many of the species seen but never or only rarely photographed in Sri Lankan waters. As a result, all the whales and dolphins with the one exception of Omura’s Whale are covered in the book.
This is not to say this was the first book to cover marine mammals. The book by W.W.A. Phillips mentioned before, covered marine mammals as well. Furthermore, in 2002, the Wildlife Heritage Trust published Whales and Dolphins of Sri Lanka by Anouk Illangakoon one of Sri Lanka’s most experienced and accomplished marine biologists. This slim book contained a wealth of detail and was an important reference book before the development of whale watching made access to marine life easy for the general public as well as researchers. In May 2008, my article that Sri Lanka was Best for Blue Whales was widely published and accompanied a publicity blitz that saw me photographing and writing many more articles. For my book, I also received some stunning underwater images of whales taken off Sri Lanka by Andrew Sutton. At a series of press briefings held in London, I had told him (as well as many others) about the ease of seeing Blue Whales in Sri Lanka. I subsequently arranged for Jetwing Eco Holidays to handle a trip by Andrew to take underwater photographs of Blue and Sperm Whales in Sri Lanka. At that time, I could not have imagined that Andrew would be contributing images to a photographic field guide by me. Given the wide publicity Sri Lanka was receiving for cetaceans, beginning in May 2008, there was a need for a more comprehensive and updated book on marine mammals. This need was filled in 2013 by Howard Martenstyn’s self-published Out of the Blue. This was a lavishly illustrated, beautifully produced, large format book of 256 pages with a wealth of background material. In 2013, Howard also produced a slimmer book of 26 pages in A5 format, the Marine Mammals of Sri Lanka. This was laminated to be waterproof and spiral bound for use at sea. As with his bigger book, the species accounts used illustrations which showed the whole mammal. Most photographic field guides including mine will typically show only the part of the animal that can be seen when they appear briefly at the surface. Howard is the brother of Dallas Martenstyn whose properties on the Kalpitiya Peninsula helped to brand Kalpitiya as a dolphin watching location. Dallas also hosted a number of field trips by me to research Kalpitiya’s potential as a whale watching destination.
Many of the mammal books have been aimed at adults. However, in 2018, Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala published the The Mammals of Sri Lanka for Children which was one in a series of books aimed at young audiences by this conservationist and educator. There have been many coffee-table books with a focus on Sri Lankan mammals which I have not covered in this article. I have also not covered books that have been focussed on a particular species or scientific order of mammals. Sri Lankan naturalists have also benefited from the many field guide type of books on the mammals of India. The two countries share many mammals in common, although Sri Lanka due to a long period of isolation has 22 endemic mammals. A discussion of important Indian mammal books will have to be the subject of another article.