A Naturalist by Passion
By Risidra Mendis
He is a naturalist, an environmentalist and a lover of nature. But most importantly he is a man with a vision for the future. For most of his life Rajika Gamage has worked towards protecting birds, butterflies, and many other species that are presently facing a crisis situation, due to the rapid development taking place in the country.
While his love for nature started when he was nine to 10 years old, his home many years ago was the place injured animals and birds were brought to for treatment. It was no secret at the time that any injured animal could be treated at the Gamage’s family homes in Baddegama and Kurunegala.
As time went by and Gamage grew older, his interest in nature and the environment grew stronger and he became interested in creating awareness among people, to protect what was left of the country’s rich fauna and flora. While working at the Tea Research Institute (TRI) Talawakelle, Gamage made sure his free time was spent researching on many species of animals and birds.
Searching for birds and butterflies
Many are the days when he has walked through jungle areas surrounded by trees and greenery, in search of birds, butterflies and other species. Gamage is a freelance researcher with over 15 years of field experience in Sri Lankan wildlife. He has completed a course in Wildlife Conservation and Management and is a good wildlife artist and a keen photographer, who has used his talent over the years for the conservation especially of butterflies. Gamage started his research on butterflies in 1998 and thought he should publish a book, as there was a shortage of books on butterflies and those published at the time.
“The books that were available at the time were too scientific and difficult to understand by those with a basic knowledge of the species. Between 1990 to 2000 there was no book published on butterflies. So I published my first book An illustrated Field Guide of Butterflies of Sri Lanka. I got a good response to my book and people interested in butterflies started asking me questions about the species. I then published my second book An Illustrated Field Guide to the Fauna of Sri Lanka Butterflies,” Gamage said.
He said this is the only book published with 208 host plants and the butterflies as the books published earlier didn’t have the names of the host plants. “Many people when talking about protecting butterflies don’t mention the host plants that are needed for their conservation. If a butterfly is found in a particular area then the host plant of the species can be found,” Gamage said.
The next book was Samanalunta Enna Kiyamu where he encouraged people to have their own butterfly gardens and encourage butterflies to come and breed. Then came An Illustrated Pocket Guide to the Fauna of Sri Lanka Butterflies. “Based on my research, the Pocket Guide and the Field Guide were then published. The butterfly guide influenced many into butterfly watching. As part of its virtues many people went on to planting host and nectar plants in their home gardens and aimed at preservation and protection of local butterflies,” Gamage explained.
All pictures in the book are drawn by Gamage by the use of a computer. The author doesn’t like taking photos because the angles that can be photographed of a butterfly are limited. “You cannot get the exact colour of some butterflies when you take photos. Butterflies are easy to recognise by their diverse colours. There are 248 butterfly species recorded in Sri Lanka and 31 are endemic. The Pocket Guide was published so people interested in butterflies could take the book to the field and identify the species. You don’t need a large area to make a butterfly garden,” he explained.
Gamage then got involved in planning a butterfly garden on a plot of land owned by Dilmah in Moratuwa. “Work on the butterfly garden was completed in 2011. This is an urban butterfly garden and the best such garden in an urban area. The butterfly garden is also used for training programmes for children and adults interested in butterflies and their host plants. The garden is open to the public every Wednesday. Butterflies lay their eggs on host plants (feeding plants) and the survival of butterflies depends more on their host plants than other factors,” Gamage said.
No data on butterfly migration
He added that not many people are interested in butterflies these days and if this trend continues many butterfly species will disappear in another 50 years. His research on butterflies also revealed that these creatures migrate within the country and it is the moths that fly up to Adam’s Peak and die and not the butterflies but people have confused the dead moths at the top of the mountain with the butterflies. Butterflies fly half way up to Adam’s Peak and then turn around and come back. Butterflies are known to migrate from India to Sri Lanka even though no data is available up to now regarding their migration,” Gamage said.
He said even though there is no evidence regarding butterfly migration between the two countries, some people have observed butterfly species in the coastal areas. It is mostly the yellow and white butterflies from the Family Pieridae that take part in the migration. Many species of butterflies are found in the dry zone and during the butterfly migration season that starts in December, the species that migrate are believed to go towards the mountain areas. When the butterfly population increases they tend to migrate,” Gamage explained.
Book on birds
His next book was An Illustrated Field Guide to the Fauna of Sri Lanka Birds. This guide mainly focuses on the general introduction to birds. “The first section of the book is dedicated to the introduction to the geography and the life history of the birds of Sri Lanka. The second section illustrates 479 species of birds with all illustrations in colour and carefully designed to show all significant and distinct plumage of each bird. All distinct features of plumages such as the breeding, non breeding and the juvenile of many species of birds are given where possible,” Gamage said.
The third section of the book describes habitats, status, distribution and nesting of each bird. “Birds too are a diverse group and with their bright colours, distinct songs/calls and showy displays add up to their uniqueness which is enjoyed by their human peers.
Birds are widely distributed in all parts of the globe in large populations thus making them the most common ‘wildlife’ around human habitations. This offers a unique opportunity for observing and monitoring of their diverse plumage and behaviours for conservation and recreational purposes. This makes the ‘birds’ the most popular among many who pursue wildlife watching,” Gamage said.
An Illustrated Pocket Guide to the Fauna of Sri Lankan Birds was published by Gamage to make life easy for all those interested in bird watching. The pocket guide can easily be put into your travelling bag and taken along with you when going on bird watching trips to any part of the country.
This Field Guide aims to provide easy identification and give an idea on what to look for in observed habitats or regions. It covers 479 recorded species in Sri Lanka. This includes 237 species of birds that are known to breed in Sri Lanka of which 27 are endemic and six are proposed endemic. The remaining 242 species are migrants of which 124 species are encountered rarely and therefore considered as vagrants.
Diversity in Horton Plains
Gamage then published another book A Pocket Naturalist Guide to Fauna of Horton Plains National Park and a Sinhala version in detail on the Horton Plains National Park. The author of eight bestselling books on Sri Lankan wildlife has mentioned in detail the number of butterfly, dragonfly and damselfly, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammal species found in the national park.
“Many of the species at Horton Plains are endemic to Sri Lanka. The book provides information on nearly 173 of the most common or characteristic species. 55 butterfly species, 20 dragonfly and damselfly species (three endemic to Sri Lanka) one fish species, the Rainbow Trout, 13 amphibian species with shrub frogs been the dominant genus, seven reptiles species, over 90 bird species, 33 mammal species and 119 endemic plant species are recorded at Horton Plains,” Gamage explained.
He said the Sri Lanka leopard, the Sri Lanka purple faced leaf monkey, wild boar, badger, mongoose, Giant squirrel and the Sri Lanka Spiny rat among others are also present at Horton Plains. The slender loris is considered a very rare species found only in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.