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Memoirs of a game ranger

The life and times of a Wildlife man is unpredictable. Every day is an adventure into the unknown. Reminiscing over 35 of the best years of my life, the mind awakens memories and nostalgia of the many trails trod as a protector of wildlife and the environment.

by E. Desmond White, Former Park Warden, Yala Sunday Observer Sep 1 2002

The writer, E. Desmond White.

My first appointment as a trainee Game Ranger was to Yala (Palatupana H.Q.), back in 1957, on April fools' day. I travelled to Tissamaharama the previous day and spent the night at the Rest-house which consisted of two rooms. That night I shared my room with a travelling businessman, who on the following morning, gave me a lift to the Post Office, situated on the Kirinda road, now relegated to the status of a Sub. P.O. This was to be our meeting point with the Wildlife personnel from Palatupana and it was here that I met the lanky A. B. Fernando, similarly reporting for duty. Deptl. jeep No. C.N-3624 met us at the Post Office and took us to Palatupana. Incidentally, at that time the entire Department had only three jeeps, one stationed at Yala, one at Wilpattu and the other at H.Q. Colombo, for use of the director.

Our immediate boss was the Div. Game Ranger, the late G. N. Q. de Silva and his assistants were the late Peter Jayawardene and D. T. S. Seneviratne. G.N.Q., Peter and Percy as they were fondly known were our instructors. G.N.Q. and Peter were ex. Army officers, the former ramrod straight, was a strict disciplinarian and Peter, a tough man and a superb shot.

Siridias’ Wattle and daub house.

My contemporaries were Shirley Perera, A. B. Fernando and the late M. F. M. Izzadeen. For accommodation we had to share two cubicles with hardly any space to move about once the 'donkey beds' were placed. We had to get together and prepare our meals, and this too served as part of our training.

Our training comprised trips on foot into the jungles, routine office work, study of relevant ordinances and laws and firearms practice. A lot of effort went into changing us from ordinary lads to jungle men, and our instructor on these field trips was late W. L. A. Andiris, a veteran of the Yala jungles. Up at the crack of dawn, warmed up with a cup of plain tea and armed with a short wooden staff, we would easily walk 8 to 10 miles on any given day, studying animal behaviour, animal tracks and the jungle in general. We would traverse varied terrain and learn to crawl, walk and climb quickly and noiselessly under the guidance and expertise of Andiris. After these jungle trips we usually returned to base around 10.30 a.m. and only then had the pleasure of enjoying a solid meal. Incidentally, Andiris was a Game Guard in the Dept. at that time. His brother-in-law. A. W. Siridias was also an employee in the Dept. and was one of the original settlers at Palatupana (Godekalapuwa happens to be the name of the place now referred to as Palatupana. Palatupana is the place where the salt pans are situated. According to Siridias, Andiris and members of his family had been originally resident at Andunoruwa (close to Menikganga at Yala, Block I of the Park) and maybe for sustenance cultivated paddy in Yala-wela (beyond Menikganga, of what is today Block II of the Park).

Henry Englebrecht, the first camp Warden of Yala. (Courtesy Photo Technica)

According to available evidence the area between Yala and Katagamuwa, bordering the Menikganga had been inhabited during this period. Past Yala on the Katagamuwa road and before Komawewa there are ruins of a dagoba with a few stone pillars around suggesting a Buddhist temple. Beyond this is Kotabendiwewa with a 'murunga' grove around the place. It is rumoured that a cripple or 'atha kota' living with these people at that time had sought the help of a few others to build this 'wewa' and when their co-operation was not forthcoming, he on his own 'single handed' had constructed this tank and hence the name 'Kota-bendi wewa'.

Sites by the Menikganga, namely Paranatotupola (Yala), Kosgasmankada, Narangastota, Agiliyagastota, Thalgasmankada, Warahana, Rugamtota, Pahalahentota, and tanks such as Komawewa, Kotabendiwewa, Korawakwewa, Katagamuwewa suggest human habitation and activities in this area. To date a section of land in the Katagamuwa Sanctuary is being cultivated with paddy by a private party. Ruins of a dagoba and the 'Nandimithra sohona' or tomb are also found in the Katagamuwa area. Nandimithra is said to be a warrior of king Dutugamunu.

Andiris and his family, including Reginahamy his sister, had subsequently moved to Godekalapuwa around the year 1905. Thereafter Andiris had made Godekalapuwa his home and the watle and daub house he occupied with his family still stands there and is now occupied by Lilynona his niece, daughter of Reginahamy. Andiris together with his brothers and cousins had been cultivating paddy in an allotment of about 15 acres of land in Godekalapuwa. When we joined the Dept. in 1957 a small section of this land had been cultivated and a battery-operated electric fence had been erected by the Dept. on an experimental basis, to ward off marauding wild animals. Siridias, the only other resident at Godekalapuwa now lives there in a wattle and daub house, once employed in the Dept., now leading a retired life.

Henry Englebrecht was the first Camp Warden of the Ruhuna National Park (1907-1928). During the period of about 20 years that Englebrecht operated in the Yala area, it is said that in the course of his duties he had to cover the Panama, Okanda, Kumana, Yala, Palatupana. Tissamaharama areas finally arriving at Hambantota, where he received his pay packet from the Government authority and also bought his provisions and other necessities, returning along the same route. His mode of transport had been a double bullock cart, with a couple of spare bulls trailing behind. Being a lone man with human instincts he had left tangible evidence indicating that he did sow his wild oats on his trips up and down his domain. There is to this day a herd of neat cattle, now turned wild, seen in Block II of the Park, which people say are the remnants of Englebrecht's large - humped bullocks having mated with cows belonging to the Kumana village herd.

Henry Englebrecht had a son named Harry Englebrecht, who had been a Game Guard in the Dept. He had been subsequently discharged from the Dept. and I met him thereafter at Tissamaharama and Anuradhapura and has not been heard of since. It is rumoured that Englebrecht (Snr) used to give his son a shotgun and just one cartridge to shoot and animal for the pot. Failure to do so would result in a horse - whipping and this had made him an excellent stalker and a top marksman. It is a well-known fact that some of the descendants and relatives of the Englebrechts are residents in Tissamaharama and Godekalapuwa, while some others are employed in the Dept., while still some others have since retired from service or passed away. Englebrecht's grave with a tombstone is found in the graveyard close to the Hambantota town.

Menika was considered the patriarch of the Kumana village and was an interesting character in many ways. Whilst at Yala, I used to meet him on my official trips to Kumana. He was a regular user of cannabis and for his use grew the weed in his home plot. He had many occasional visitors from high positions both in the state as well as the private sector, who shared and enjoyed his hospitality, under his humble thatched roof and cow-dung smeared floor. No doubt Menika in return received many favours from his guests, some of them far greater than the value of money.

Menika had a family of about 10 children and in the course of time all his sons were able to join the Wildlife Department whilst his attractive daughters married Wildlife Department employees. Menika met with his death after being stung by a cobra in Block II of the Park. He had been on his way home on foot from Yala to Kumana, accompanied by Game Guard A. W. Hendrikappuhamy, who was married from Kumana.

Memoirs of a game ranger : 

Memoirs of a Game Ranger: Bear Tales

by E. Desmond White, Former Park Warden, Yala Sunday Observer Sep 15 2002

According to the information received they had been a bit high on the 'weed' and on the way, at dusk, Menika had trod on this reptile which had stung him on his leg.

The late Mr. A. S. A. Packeer, a pioneer in the Wildlife Dept., began his career as a qualified teacher on the staff of St. Thomas' College, Gurutalawa. He joined the Forest Dept. as a Junior Asst. Conservator of Forests (Fauna and Flora) in the year 1948 and branched off to the Dept. of Wildlife during its formative year of 1950, in the capacity of Asst. Warden. A man of generous proportions, humane and kind to his subordinates, he made his silent contributions to the Dept., mainly regarding legal work and earned himself the title of 'Legal Eagle' of the Dept. He passed away in July 2001 relatively unheard of and unsung, whilst in retirement.

In the good old days, the protection of Wildlife came under the purview of the Forest Department. Subsequently it was decided to form a separate Dept. resulting in the formation of the Dept. of Wildlife in the year 1950 with Mr. C. W. Nicholas being appointed as its first Warden, (now Director). Thereafter to date, this small Dept., during its existence of about 50 years, has had a total of 23 Directors of varied attitudes and aptitudes.

Bear tales

Anyone engaged in the task of protecting wildlife is bound to have varied interesting experiences, both with beast and man, and I was no exception. I will now attempt to capture some of these events as concisely as possible and let me commence with sloth bears.Bear tales are intriguing and scary as was my first experience with them. We were returning to base at dusk when the headlights of the jeep picked up reflections from a pair of eyes atop a 'palu' tree, and it was the 'palu' fruit season. The older hands in the vehicle in unions exclaimed: Bear! We decided to stop and take a closer look and keeping the jeep lights on we surrounded the tree confident that the bear would not come down, but to our horror, the bear growling menacingly slid down the tree and very nearly attacked the nearest Guard, who warded off the animal with shouts and a stout stick.

Luckily for us the bear cub that had remained concealed slid down the tree causing mother bear to divert her attention towards the little fellow and go after it into the thicket. It was obvious that the aggressiveness of the she bear was due to the presence of its cub stranded on the tree.

Andiris, who was featured in the intrductory article, as a young man

At the same time it put to rest the belief that a bear atop a tree would not come down from its perch if it saw human beings underneath. Funny though it may seem now, utter nausea was what my boss the late G.N.Q. and I felt at another point in time, when a bear with its greed for 'palu' fruits, with uncanny aim showered us ingloriously with its excreta. We had stopped to observe this bear who was on a branch of a 'palu' tree overhanging the jeep track when it unexpectedly purged, probably due to fright. 'Palu' fruit taken excessively is known to act as a purgative as must have been the case here as both of us were thoroughly drenched with this dark foul-smelling fluid. We were quite embarrassed as we made a beeline to the Buttuwa rock pond to wash the jeep and ourselves.

Bears are the least carnivorous of the carnivore. I have observed them to suck bones and eat a small quantity of flesh. When food is scarce they have been seen occasionally feeding off the carcases of animals.

In the wild their favourite food consists of bees' honey, termite grubs and ripe berries of which 'palu' is a speciality. They also feed on insects and larvae, fruits, flowers, bulbs and roots. They have rudimentary incisor teeth and a mobile snout enabling them to effectively use their mouth and snout as a suction pump to extract bees' honey and grubs as well as termite grubs. Bears drink liquids by sucking and not lapping.

When the late Percy de Alwis was in charge of Yala he reared a bear once. He used to give us amusing anecdotes of how this animal when unleashed would gorge on waste engine oil from his garage, resulting in a few days purging but with no side effects. I have seen it eagerly await the arrival of the Hoffmans who used to bring a crate of condensed milk and when given a tin with its lid pierced would lie on its back sucking the sweetened contents and whining like a puppy all the while. One day when I stopped to pet it on my way to the "wewa" for a bath this bear even munched and ate my piece of scented soap, when I had taken my eyes off it for a moment.

Bears are also very inquisitive creatures and are known to walk up to buildings and campsites. Once we were in the Yala Strict Natural Reserve on an exploratory trip when one night we had to camp on a large rock. We had a staff of about 10 persons and had three large log fires burning around us to ward off wild animals, reptiles etc. Around midnight the late 'Bedi Somapala' and I were up and heard the sound of claws on rock.

We had to shout and throw lighted fire brands to scare away a bear who had decided to stroll into our midst.

Game Ranger Felix Fernando, enjoyed sleeping on the verandah of his quarters when one night he awoke to find a bear inside the house and had to scare it away by firing his. 22 rifle which he always kept beside him at night.

There have been instances of bears being aggressive and ferocious for no apparent reason. Game Guard

"Garuwa" of Kumana had been clawed and bitten by a bear resulting in the loss of his arm. Another Game Guard Piyadasa had a narrow escape being able to ward off an attack by a bear by using his bicycle as a weapon of defence. It is very difficult to ward off attacks by bear when you are unarmed as it growls menacingly rears up on its hind legs and uses its long claws and also its teeth to attack. There have been instances of bears dislodging the eye balls of their victims when attacking.


Memoirs of a game ranger : Risky jungle encounters

by E. Desmond White, Former Park Warden, Yala Sunday Observer Sep 29 2002

Elephants are certainly one of the most talked about wild animals and can be observed for hours at a time. My first experience with wild elephants though was not the most pleasant. We as Trainee Game Rangers at Yala in 1957, had to investigate a case of an elephant ensnared in a wire noose. This place was a chena area called 'Thambarawa' and was outside the limits of the park.


This male elephant was about 7 1/2 ft. in height and had a wire noose tightened halfway up its trunk with the other end fastened to a tree trunk. Alarmed by our presence and behaviour it possibly tugged harder than before, which caused the wire to snap and the elephant to free itself. At this juncture it was each one for himself as we scattered in all directions and I am sure even the late Duncan White, my cousin, would have approved of the hurdle I cleared - a 'Katuwela' measuring 4.5' ft. in height by at least 4 ft. at the base - in my dash for safety into a chena plot. Luckily, no one was hurt and the elephant went on its way. The story however had an unfortunate ending, as a few weeks later the carcase of an elephant with a matching description, minus half its trunk had been found by Guard Robosingho in Block II of the R.N.P. An elephant unable to make use of its trunk could not survive.

Another heart-warning story was when an elephant calf had been found abandoned after falling into a rock water hole in the Dimbulagala temple premises. I was then serving in Polonnaruwa and the Govt. Agent there was Mr. Amaradasa Guanwardene who when contacted insisted that the young animal be released to the wild herd. The reason being that the majority of animals rescued earlier and sent to the Zoological Gardens, Dehiwala, had not survived. Our team comprised Ranger Jayaratne Ralahamy, Guard Seneviratne, Wilbert Kodituwakku and P. Rajadurai. We had our doubts about the herd accepting this animal, as the general belief was that they discarded animals having human scent. The young priest on rescuing the animal had tied it to two trees by the neck. This young male about 3 1/2 ft. in height was healthy and very boisterous.

It kept on tugging at the ropes and trumpeting incessantly as the presence of a herd of elephants in the vicinity was heard. The animal refused food and we had a tough task controlling and calming the animal. We watched it over throughout the night observing how it became more and more receptive to the trumpeting of elephants nearby. Early at dawn the next morning we heard the sound of elephants about 100 yards away and the elephant calf was getting more and more impatient and restless. It was then that I instructed Guard Kodituwakku to release the animal and this he did, deftly cutting the ropes. It pranced off in the direction of the herd and then we heard the gurgling sounds of the happy pachyderms who had found their 'lost lamb'.

After daylight we examined their tracks and found that our mission had been successful. The happiest person to receive this news was the G.A. Mr. Amaradasa Gunawardene.

Buffalo temperament


The buffalo is another denizen of the forest and the really wild males, especially the loners 'Madaya' can be temperamental and easily riled. At Palatupana, Game Guard Brahanudeen and Hudanchiappu, whilst returning after a night patrol at dawn, on a stretch of beach at Kudaseelawa, had observed a lone male buffalo staring menacingly at them. With no provocation it had suddenly charged at them, and with no tree to escape the attack, they had shouted but to no avail, and in desperation had plunged into the sea. Brahanudeen swam into the deep whilst Hudanchiappu had waded waist high and thought he was safe, only to be gored in the thigh by the buffalo who had got ashore and disappeared into the jungle.

Hudanchiappu bleeding profusely could not be carried the distance back to base, and his partner had propped him up against a bush and surrounded him with dry branches, twigs and driftwood, as buffalo are known to avoid even small obstacles in their path. Brahanudeen then running all the way to Palatupana H.Q. had sought help. Hudanchiappu had been carried on a make-shift stretcher and hospitalised. He was back again to serve the Dept. after about six months.

In another unfortunate incident, Game Guard Sumathipala was to find out too late and at the cost of his life the unpredictable temperament of the lone male wild buffalo. One morning whilst leading a gang of labourers in the Kumana beat a buffalo had suddenly emerged from a thicket and charged at them. Despite the loud shouts of the labourers the buffalo had continued on its way and Sumathipala who had been in front bore the brunt of the attack. The buffalo's horns, which are dagger sharp, had sliced his abdomen open spilling out the bowels. The labourers had attended to Sumathipala tenderly replacing his bowels and wrapping up the stomach contents in all available polythene and cloth from sarongs, shirts etc. and had carried him for help.

They had then taken him by tractor the only available vehicle, to Panama and thereafter by van to the Batticaloa General Hospital, a distance of about 75 miles. Here he had been operated on successfully but in a cruel twist of fate, had fallen to his death from the high hospital bed.

Leopard incidents

There had been a very rare bear/leopard encounter in Yala once. Game Guard P.P.G. Premadasa had been accompanying Mr. Anil Jayasuriya. (son of former IGP, the late Mr. Osmund de Silva), when close to the former Buttuwa tank spillway they had come across the fresh carcases of a bear and a leopard beside a large 'palu' tree. Both carcases had borne multiple injuries due to mauling as both animals have sharp claws and teeth. Sharp claw marks had been visible on the tree trunk whilst there had been signs of a prolonged struggle below.

This may have been a freak encounter with both animals meeting half way up the tree, and neither one giving way to the other. Speculation may lead us to believe that the bear had climbed this tree in search of bees' honey or 'palu' berries and was climbing down when it encountered the leopard climbing up to retrieve its kill (carcase or part of an animal) kept hidden up on the fork of the tree. Or may be vise-versa, where the animals are concerned.

As park Warden of the Gal Oya National Park, I was stationed at Inginiyagala, when towards the latter part of 1970 this incident regarding a leopard occurred. The residents of Inginiyagala made frequent complaints to the effect that their watch dogs were vanishing regularly and believed that a marauding leopard from the wooded rocky outcrop clsoeby to be the culprit. This problem reached a climax when an influential person lost a choice pair of Alsatians and the residents threatened to destroy this leopard by any means available. I pacified the aggrieved persons and promptly informed Mr. Lyn de Alwis, our Acting Director who was also Director of the Zoological Gardens of the prevailing situation, and requested immediate attention.

Thanks to Mr. De Alws, the Zoo lorry and crew arrived the following morning to capture and to remove this leopard, if possible.

The late Game Guard Arulananthan was deployed to assist the Zoo personnel and they got down to work immediately. By evening of the same day a Grey langur monkey was killed for bait and a live puppy dog obtained to lure the leopard into the baited iron trap (cage). The pupy's whining was to attract the attention of the leopard and was placed adjoining the trap surrounded by rather large boulders and made visible but inaccessible to the leopard. By evening all arrangements were completed and the inmates of the house closest to the trap requested to keep us informed no sooner they heard the crash of the iron trap doors. Incidentally, monkey and dog flesh are considered leopard delicacies and we were sure the combination would work.

This leopard had been shrewd enough to avoid the trap all night but the temptation had been too great and towards dawn had walked into the trap. We went to the spot and our flashlights revealed a healthy young male leopard in good condition. It had badly injured its face hitting the stout iron bars of the cage in making futile bids to escape. As expected it was aggressive and very restless. By daylight news of this capture had spread and the whole place was crowded with inquisitive spectators of both sexes, young and old, most of them trying to get a closer view of the leopard they had heard of but had never seen before. The jostling crowds of people irritated the leopard and I was concerned about the danger in case anything untoward happened. Police assistance was sought to clear the increasing crowds of people and thereafter operations commenced to transfer this restless and dangerous animal from the iron cage to a wooden one.

This risky task took quite some time and effort and was done carefully and expertly by the Zoo personnel.

The captive leopard was carried palanquin-wise to the lorry for transport to the Zoological Gardens, Dehiwala. Incidentally, as a souvenir, I reared the puppy dog made use of in this operation. About an year or so later I inquired from Mr. De Alwis about this leopard and was informed that this animal had been treated and cured of its injuries and was now the proud father of a pair of leopard cubs born in the Zoological Gardens, Dehiwala.

Very few wildlife enthusiasts of today would remember the very first circuit bungalow at Yala built during the days of the Forest Dept.