From Flunking School to Trailblazing in Conservation

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Anya Ratnayaka is a wildlife biologist passionate about Sri Lankan wildlife and it’s conservation, particularly small wild cats. An Associate Scientist at Re:wild since 2017 and a Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN) Scholar for 2017, she has functioned as a Research and Projects Officer for Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL), Wildlife Carer for Blue Paw Trust, and Volunteer at WWF-Nepal. In 2014 she began the Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project, and in 2017 co-founded the non-profit Small Cat Advocacy and Research (SCAR). Also a member of the Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance, she works closely with the Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation, Urban Development Authority, and Department of Wildlife Conservation to study, understand and protect this endangered species.

Anya had always known she wanted to work with wildlife. Even as a young child, she was more likely than not to be found running after an animal and had always preferred animals over her own kind. “Like my mom’s and my dad’s earliest memories of me, even whenever I used to go to a friend’s house for a birthday or something, I was never with the kids,” she said and was instead, with “a fish tank, or if they had a dog, I was with the dog.” She adds, “I feel more natural interacting with animals and nature.” Thus Anya was quite taken aback by the irony when she realised just how much interaction with people was required of her in conservation.

Anya and wildlife: inseparable!

Her “incredible” journey with the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), the only feline species named after its lifestyle, began with a chance encounter. Having finished university, she wrote a proposal on leopards, her then chosen subject of study, when a colleague mentioned that she was looking after an orphaned fishing cat on behalf of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. With attention usually hogged by larger cats like leopards, she was not too aware of the species. Giving into an easy excuse to procrastinate on writing her proposal, she visited the orphaned animal. She fell in love at first sight: “Because it was the size of a road dog, but it looked like a leopard. It was this muscly little creature. And I was like ‘Oh my god, this is like the most incredible thing.’” Today she works tirelessly to help conserve this species before it is too late.

Anya believes that the lack of awareness for so-called non-charismatic animals such as the fishing cat is a pressing issue in conservation in Sri Lanka today, with interest mainly limited to megafauna. She sees the lack of studies on the species as a serious concern and is very vocal about this subject.

Anya views the fishing cat as a flagship species for wetland conservation and is currently researching fishing cats in Colombo’s urban wetland habitats. As the largest terrestrial predator in Colombo, she believes these amphibious animals that even dive after fish to catch them have a great deal to teach us about the health of the ecosystems they occupy. Her Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project, which also studies how the species is adapting to their habitat’s rapid clearing, was the first project in the world to use GPS collars to track these elusive animals.

Opposite of teacher’s pet

Anya’s extraordinary success, however, was not always apparent, at least to her teachers in high school. She was often bullied by many of her teachers, sent to the principal’s office regularly, and did not do well in her classes. “I think the worst thing they [teachers] ever said was when, a math teacher of mine said, ‘I’m sure your mother wished she’d aborted you if she knew the kind of student you’d become,’” says Anya. She credits her ‘hard-headedness,’ in other words her ability to brush off even the cruellest comments of others and move forward for making it to where she is today. She says she uses the negative comments directed at her to better herself.

She credits the support of other women, including her family, colleagues, and particularly her mentor, who has even travelled to Sri Lanka from South Africa to help her and her team. To young women and girls passionate about conservation and taking on the baton from Anya and her peers, she advises them not to stop no matter what people may say, reminding them emphatically that working with wildlife is not the sole preserve of men.

Colombo’s animal symbol

Describing herself as a wildlife conservationist, power lifter, mother to two huge and spoilt dogs – Sirius and Vega – and a pop tart enthusiast, Anya is an introverted, stubborn, and extraordinary woman on a mission to “Use the fishing cat as an ambassador, as Colombo’s animal symbol. Because Colombo is a city built on top of a wetland and fishing cats are heavily wetland-dependent animals. So it’s like you’re marrying the two together.” Ultimately, she envisions a union where, when “people think Colombo, they think fishing cat, or when they think fishing cat they think [of] Colombo.”

(Rikaza Hassan is a writer, thinker, and storyteller. A former journalist passionate about human rights, she lives in the suburbs with one daughter, a few cats, and a pile of books.

Rachithra Sandanayaka works as the Finance and Admin Manager at Everystory Sri Lanka and is the maiden Curator and Coordinator of the Young Feminist Network and its newsletter. Her passions are theatre and music.)

By Rikaza Hassan and Rachithra Sandanayake