Sunday, 4 March 2012

A colonial inheritance

Driving from Colombo’s international airport at Negombo, through the capital and from there through miles of farmland, the hand of the British Empire may be seen everywhere. The city is beautiful and, though greatly favoured by its location on the shore of the Indian Ocean, it’s hard not to make unfair comparison with the capital of the next post-colonial republic to the north. Delhi and Colombo both, on their respective scales, have much graceful Victorian and post-Victorian architecture, but whereas Delhi has until recently been tumbledown, grimy and littered, with potholes in her streets and rhesus monkeys running riot through her seats of power, Colombo, at least the parts through which we drove this morning, is neat and brisk and polished. The streets are immaculately tarmacked with tidy lines painted on them, the gardens are full of frangipanis in fleshy coral flower and, despite the muggy tropical heat, there is an air of wholesomeness and purpose about her. She is a stylish sea-front city, with architectural wonders, old and new, including a dramatic new arts pavilion, funded by China, the old parliament building gazing out to sea, and the stylish new parliament, designed by prominent Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, housed on an island in a giant lake. What a clever idea to put all the politicians on an island. I wonder who controls the causeway: the people or the politicians?

There are natural delights here too: a spot-billed pelican perched on a lamppost over a bustling street, three painted storks feeding in a manicured urban tank right by the corridors of power, and a crowd of Indian flying foxes making slow-motion circuits over their roost in a park. Just outside the city, as we enter the rice paddies, where the harvest is taking place, weeks ahead of the crop I saw last week in the Sunderbans, a chequered keelback snake swims across a storm drain.

The second footprint of the empire is all across the landscape, in the miles and miles of rubber plantations which cover the gentle hillscape south of the city. I know this plant from the forests of Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado on the border of Bolivia and Brazil but here, in cultivation, it is a major export. Along the edges of the plantations, where fringes of natural vegetation remain, I saw southern purple-faced leaf-monkeys five times, often in the tops of distant trees, but it was all but impossible for me to show them to clients as we sped along Sri Lanka’s excellent highway south from the capital. Highways are a buzzword here, the World Bank having financed an enormous expansion programme with the cessation of violence. They also seem to have funded a white-throated kingfisher scheme as there’s one on a power line every mile along the whole length of the road.

We stopped for tea at a small restaurant whose owner had lost his entire family in the tsunami, just some of nearly 40,000 Sri Lankans alone who died in this now all but forgotten tragedy; forgotten the more because the sea-scene from the restaurant is a clichéd tropical idyll and it’s hard for us to conjur an image of such horror and terror.

Reaching our hotel in Mirissa, we made a plan to walk in the late afternoon as the heat abated. It didn’t but we walked anyway. Trees rustled with toque macaques and with more southern purple-faced leaf-monkeys, this time very easy to see and very dapper with it. Here too a big roost of Indian flying foxes, their bodies the joyous gold of demerara sugar. A male Loten’s sunbird paid a visit and brick-red resident Sri Lankan red-rumped swallows hawked overhead the while.

Tonight we’ve all stumbled early to bed and rightly so as no-one slept last night. And tomorrow we take to the high seas with leviathans in our sights.

Today’s Sri Lankan newbies


southern purple-faced leaf-monkey
Trachypithecus vetulus vetulus
toque macaque
Macaca sinica


southern hill myna
Gracula indica
white-bellied drongo
Dicrurus caerulescens
painted stork
Mycteria leucocephala

Sri Lanka red-rumped swallow
Hirundo daurica hyperthyra
Indian robin
Saxicoloides fulicatus
Loten’s sunbird
Cinnyris lotenius


chequered keelback
Xenochropis piscator

2012 Totals
Mammals: 35
Birds: 348
Reptiles: 7
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 1

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