What can Ranil get done? – The Island –…
by Anslem de Silva
Very little is known of the golden gecko – or the two known species of genus Calodactylodes known to inhabit this planet. C aureus was first reported in 1870 by Colonel Richard Henry Beddom (1830 – 1911) from Andhra Pradesh in India. About 80 years later, one of Sri Lanka’s great herpetologists, PEP Deraniyagala (1900 – 1976) described another species of Calodactylodes from Sri Lanka in 1953.
Though this species, C. illingworthorum was recorded nearly half a century ago, hardly any information is available on its ecology, population, distribution and the threats it faces in nature. These two species of Calodactylodes are unique to herpetologists as they represent Gondwanan relicts.
After completing a three-year study (from 1998 to 2000) in the upper montane cloud forests in the Horton Plains ecosystem, my team and I were interested in working in the dry zone lowland forests. We all felt that we needed a change to a warmer atmosphere. Working in the cold, misty and rainy weather at Horton Plains was not that conducive to comfort. Sometimes when we entered the forest at Horton Plains and walked about five miles, we were soaking wet for hours.
During an extensive literature survey of the tetrapod reptiles of Sri Lanka, I was amazed to note what little we knew of the two diverse vertebrate groups, namely amphibians and reptiles of our country. These two groups have the highest number of endemic species among the vertebrates in Sri Lanka.
My immediate attention, therefore, went to two reptiles, which were poorly known. One was the Sri Lanka golden gecko (Calodactylodes illingworthorum) known to some villagers and Veddhas as a species living in the environs of the fire savannahs and known as gal hung (rock gecko).
The other was the snake-eye lizard or panduru katussa in Sinhalese. One of the most elusive lizards, this reptile belongs to the family Lacertidae. The panduru katussa (Ophisops minor) looks a hybrid between a skink and agamid lizard. This was one of the fastest reptiles that I have observed in nearly 50 years of experience with the reptiles of Sri Lanka. It could run and hide in a fraction of a second.
On several occasions we just could not locate it though it crept into the undergrowth in front of our eyes. Now I had two specific targets, namely the Sri Lanka golden gecko and the snake-eye lizard on this trip. I was interested in studying one or both these reptiles, depending on whether I found them.
I was checking road maps and literature, and felt that Nilgala area would be our first target. Of course I knew that there would be more herpetological surprises in this little area of unexplored fire savannah forest.
Like any other weekend field trip we packed our field gear, including boots, field kits and provisions, the previous evening. I was up at the usual time I get up and start my work, which was at 3 am. By 3.45.am my driver, S. Dasanayaka and a field worker Vajira, adept at tree and rock climbing, joined me. Vajira was one of my team members of the first canopy study to have been conducted in the country, under the Zoological Survey of Sri Lanka, at Horton Plains National Park from January to December 2000.
Both of them live within a kilometre from my house in Welikanda, Dolosbage Road, Gampola. After my son Panduka and Vajira packed all our field gear and the provisions into the van, we left Gampola around 4 am on February 18, 2001. We hoped to reach Pitakumbura, a small hamlet situated approximately 17 km from Bibile along the Ampara road.
On our way we picked up Shantha Karunaratne from Geli Oya, a village situated between Gampola and Peradeniya. Shantha is my senior field research assistant in the Zoological Survey of Sri Lanka. He is a well-experienced young man with a wide knowledge of many forests, animals and plants.
The Randenigala road was closed for traffic from 6 pm to 6 am. We were the first to be at the security roadblock that morning when it opened. The road was constructed recently and very beautiful in its scenic appearance. On one side of the road are the Victoria, Randenigala and Rantembe resovoirs, while on the other is a sanctuary.
This road, being broad, flat, with little traffic and with a good surface, was ideal for fast drivers such as Dasanayaka. There was a small herd of wild elephants usually met with on this road, but we were not lucky that day, though we came across their fresh dung. Dasanayaka, in his early 40’s, was an experienced driver, who had been a member of our survey team for sometime. By 7.30 am we were at Bibile junction. We took the Bibile – Ampara road to reach Pitakumbura. From Bibile junction, it took him about half an hour to reach Pitakumbura.
When travelling about 10 km from Bibile, the change of vegetation to fire savannah was unmistakable. Though it appeared like a monoculture plantation commonly seen in upcountry areas, with ghastly-looking pine trees predominating, here it was definitely pleasing to the eye as three tree species dominated the picture. These were the aralu, bulu and nelli which are the three main basic ingredients used in the majority of ayurvedic medicinal preparations. The common belief among these very hospitable villagers was that these were the medicinal gardens of King Buddhadasa (340-368 AD).
While walking in this part of the dry zone forest we never failed to fill our pockets with mature nelli fruits. They were really good to quench the thirst when walking five to 10 km in the forest.
The high tannin content of these trees is capable of resisting fires. These are the only trees, therefore, that would survive annual fires in the savannah. One pastime of the householders of fire savanna villages was collecting fallen aralu fruits for medicinal purposes and leaves for beedi cigarettes. They dried the latter well and sold them to vendors who bought at eight rupees per kg.
Chutta at Pitakumbura
At Pitakumbura, on the main highway to Ampara, we had to turn into Seruwa hamlet, where Nihal Laxshman, known as Chutta to us, our main contact in the area, lived with his wife and children. I came to know Chutta during my pilot visit to the area in search of this gecko and the lacertid. He was a unique character in his mid-thirties, healthy, energetic and humorous, with an exceptional knowledge of medicinal and other plants. He is in fact consulted by many local ayurvedic councils of the Bibile area on identification of medicinal plants. He and his youngest daughter greeted us.
We had to walk about a kilometre to reach his house in the hamlet. It was a well-kept dwelling built by Chutta himself. Added to his other attributes, he was also a good carpenter, mason, an agriculturalist and of course a hunter. He had his own paddy field, and to reach his house we had to pass through it along a small bund. Vajira carried the heavy load of field gear, and Shantha, Panduka and Dasanayaka shared various odd items including our breakfast bag and provisions.
We gave the day’s rations to Chutta’s wife, a good cook. We shared the bread and seeni sambol prepared by my wife early in the morning. We had brought bread from Gampola, as apparently it was not easily available or of poor quality in this remote part. Chutta gave us a bottle of treacle, which his wife had made from the coconut sap that Chutta and his eldest son tapped. After breakfast we were given a drink made from iramusu.
Immediately after breakfast we donned our field kits and set out to explore the savannah and the monsoon forests in search of the Gondwanan relict, the golden gecko. Chutta, an expert on the Bibile forest, led us to massive rock outcrops surrounded by thick, dry vegetation. We counted 10 species of timber trees, including ebony, teak, nedun and halmilla. We also noted 15 species of creepers and shrubs, mostly used in traditional medicine. Of course, all these were identified by Chutta, and I later received confirmation at the National Herbarium in Peradeniya.
No sooner we came near the gigantic rocky outcrops, than we heard unusual calls. They were the extremely loud vocal distress or warning cries of the golden gecko. For a man who has been associating with reptiles and amphibians of Sri Lanka for 50 years, it was most rewarding to hear it for the first time. Cries by house geckos are not unfamiliar to Sri Lankans, even to those living in the metropolis. However, any lover of our jungle and its wildlife would love to hear the highly vocal call -of the golden gecko. Strangely, Deraniyagla did not record this aspect.
The caves are known to the villagers as gal ge or rock houses. Most of the boulders and outcrops, which we investigated had been early human dwellings. The drip ledge chiselled on top of the rock drains off rain and prevents it from seeping inside the cave. This is clear evidence that these had been inhabited several centuries ago.
For the first time, I saw a large golden gecko. It would have measured nearly a foot. Later I saw a few more. Incidentally, I have seen all the preserved type-specimens of Deraniyagla in the Colombo National Museum.
My attention was immediately drawn to another surprise finding. It was a communal egg-laying site with 52 eggs. Many species of geckos have such egg-laying sites. At this site, there were shells from previously laid egg collections. We estimated, from the number of egg-shells and their thickness, that this site would have been used for egg laying for several years.
Spotted giant gecko
As expected, another unusual finding awaited us. One of our team members yelled in excitement stating that a large gecko was seen. All gathered there with torches. Here it was, a monster gecko about two metres within the crack of the large boulder about three metres above ground. With the torchlight, it was not clear to what species it belonged.
However, it was definitely one of the biggest we had seen.
We immediately discussed a strategy to get it out, as we could hardly put our hands into the narrow crevice. With the help of a metre long iron rod, we gently induced it to come out after 10 to 15 minutes. After appearing at the surface, it immediately ran into a different crevice. This time the small-made Shantha crept under one boulder with a torch, while Vajira scaled the boulder and gently and gradually worked the gecko to go inside the cave Shantha has crept into. After another 10 minutes of manipulating, an excited yell from Shantha told us that he had caught it.
With great difficulty Shantha crept back with his prize in one hand, which he promptly handed over to me. I immediately identified it as Hemidactylus maculates hunae or the spotted giant gecko (davanta tit hung S). This is the largest gecko we have in Sri Lanka. This specimen measured 280 mm from the tip of head to that of tail. An interesting point was its girth at the middle of the body, which was about the thickness of two human thumbs We wrote down field notes about the animal, and without injuring it slowly released it back into the same crevice we discovered it in.
It was interesting to note that two of the largest geckos in the country live sympatrically in the fire savannah. This was further confirmed during subsequent fieldwork.
Chutta and Shantha, both being smaller made than I, crept between two boulders into a cave with the aid of touches. They were able to discover more golden geckos and another clutch of eggs. All of a sudden there was a big commotion when hundreds of bats, disturbed by Chutta and Shantha, started coming out of the opening where they had gone in.
I had several questions regarding the golden geckos for which I wanted to find the answers. These included what they feed on, their activities in the night and their young. By about 4.30 in the evening we returned to Chutta’s home. He hurriedly climbed a coconut tree in front of his house and brought down a fresh pot of coconut toddy containing about four bottles. As a rule I never take liquor. during fieldwork, but I was tempted to break my principles. It was such a refreshing drink in the dry zone, specially when one has walked several kilometres, and become hungry too.
Our lunch consisted of rice, a mallum which is an oriental curry made from a leafy vegetable, sweet gourd (wattakka S) and dried fish. The rice came from Chutta’s paddy field, which he had cultivated with a fine, high quality grain known as samba in Sinhalese. Mallum was made from fresh, tender thelatiya leaves. Being a mallum fan, I have tried virtually hundreds of different leaves. In fact, once I grew two acres of Bangkok kankun as a commercial venture.
The thelatiya is a large creeper that grows on the boulders and rock caves where the gal hung lives. Chutta’s wife never failed to cook it for us when we visited Pitakumbura for our studies. Each of us always had two helpings of this preparation. After our lunch, Chutta brought us some papaw as a dessert. Papaw was very cheap at Pitakumbura, being Rs. 5 a large fruit.
We rested till 6 pm and then refreshed ourselves with a cup of herbal tea. We again proceeded to the boulders where geckos were found. We heard a little different call made by the geckos. Subsequent field tips confirmed that around 6.30 to 7 pm they call aloud several times and from around 7.30 to 8.30 pm they are active and go in search of food. By about 6.15 pm the five of us took our positions encircling one boulder which had a good population of geckos. Motionless and leaning against the rocks we waited patiently, armed with our torches only. We heard a slightly different call at dusk and the geckos were extra active.
I saw one large gecko coming with quick successive movements towards me. It slowed for a moment. I was quiet and motionless. It stopped just a few inches in front of me, and ran up again. I too was excited and followed this particular gecko, scaling and climbing over a large boulder, which I would have hesitated to do during the day. When I spotted my gecko, I again remained motionless. I noticed it at once looked towards the top edge of the boulder where various creepers had run. Reward came at once when it raised its two front limbs and promptly caught a flying insect with its mouth. Though I could not identify this insect, this observation was exceptionally interesting. After some time it got lost among the creepers.
Around nine pm we all met at the bottom of the boulders and discussed our findings. Nearly all had observed the geckos going into the vegetation, but only I had observed the capture of an insect.
We climbed the rock, which was about eight metres high. The top was flat with a surface of about 40 metres by 10 metres. One side gradually merged into the thick jungle which had a scattering of elephant dung and droppings of other animals.
Before climbing to the top we searched virtually every nook and corner of the boulder system and found to our surprise that not a single gecko was seen. If we searched during the daytime we would certainly have observed a minimum of 10 to 15. We would also have heard several distress or warning cries. This suggests that all had left the boulder and gone into the surrounding vegetation that was virtually a part of the boulder ecosystem.
Karu and Chutta had observed two geckos on top of one of the surfaces of the boulder between 11 pm and midnight. However, around 5.30 and 6.30 in the morning the geckos started coming back to the boulder after their foraging spree in the night. We also observed two spotted giant geckos, including the biggest one we saw during the day. However, we were disappointed that the snake-eye lizard kept out of our view on this trip.
We all went to the stream for a dip. It was about three kilometres from Chutta’s house. After a few hours of sleep at the house, he served hot rice and pol sambol, which is an oriental dish made by mixing scraped coconut, chilli powder, Maldive fish and lime. What a tasty meal it proved in this utterly remote place!
When we again started walking a few kilometres the next day, we came across a marshy place. Karu at once observed an unusually white small flower. A similar one, pink in appearance, which was binara was very familiar to us at Horton Plains. Since this flower was white, Karu collected a sample to hand over to the National Herbarium at Peradeniya. We were later informed that it was a new species, and already it had been sent to various authorities for further investigations. Incidentally, during our wanderings in the fire savannahs, Chutta took us to many rock caves destroyed by treasure hunters.
We were back at Chutta’s home around at five pm. As usual we were given coconut toddy, followed by a tasty village meal cooked by his wife. My favourite daily requirement being mallum or cooked leaves, I always made it a point to request our host to prepare one from any type of edible leaves that grew wild in that area.
At Pitakumbura my favourite turned out to be a mallum prepared from the leaves of thelatiya, which we came across while climbing large boulders. These creepers with their luscious, tender, lemon-green leaves were common. On one of my earlier visits I inquired from Chutta what was the identity of this creeper. At once he gave its Sinhalese name and told me that it is one of the best for mallum. Being a mallum addict, every time we visited Pitakumbura Chutta’s wife never failed to prepare this dish. After the enjoyable meal we returned home via Mahiyangana.
In conclusion, I may mention that a conservation and awareness programme of the golden gecko involving the villagers in the area is being planned with the assistance of international agencies and relevant government departments.
(Excerpted from Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka edited by CG Uragoda)