The Knuckles Mountain Range is under threat.
Its fragile ecosystems are being destroyed.
The unique Cloud Forest of the region is vanishing.
The rare reptiles living within the forest are being wiped out.
Project Knuckles aims to help prevent this.
By studying the reptiles and their surrounding habitats, we can understand what they need to survive.
Project Knuckles aims to provide this information to the scientific community. It can be used to conserve
We can educate locals of the value of their reptillian counterparts.
With the co-operation of local inhabitants, the Sri Lankan government and the scientific community, Project Knuckles can prevent the loss of an area rich in biodiversity.
The Project aims to report on the status of the threatened reptiles inhabiting the Knuckles Cloud Forest.
Very little is known about the Knuckles Cloud Forest and its reptile inhabitants.
The project will study species diversity in the various habitat types of the
The Project will study the ecological aspects and the status of the Leaf Nose Lizard (Ceratophora tennenti).
This is a relict agamid found ONLY in the Knuckles Range.
The project will study the status and ecological aspects of other agamids
such as the Sri Lankan Pygmy Lizard (Cophotis ceylanica) and the Crestless lizard
The project will study the status and ecological aspects of the relict monotypic
species the Four-Toed Snake Skink (Chalcidoseps thwaitesii).
This is found ONLY in the Knuckles Range.
At present nothing is known of its ecology, although our findings are currently being collated and assessed.
The project will monitor where the different reptile speices are living.
These distributions will then be collated and mapped.
The project will assess the threats posed to reptiles at all stages of development (egg, hatchling, adult).
Threats to the various habitats of these species will also be assessed.
Armed with information gathered in the field, the project will be able to recommend remedial actions for the protection of the reptile species.
Examples of such action may include in-situ and ex-situ breeding or the establishment of new regulations concerning cultivation and agriculture in the area.
The project will place high priority on working alongside and educating local NGOs.
The project aims to conduct awareness programmes for locals, targetting schools in particular.
The project will publish its research findings in Lyriocephalus.
This is the leading local herpetological journal (indexed in the zoological record, UK).
The project also aims aim to publish its findings in reputable journals worldwide.
A number of people have worked together with Project Knuckles.
Here are the team members and main collaborators:
Born in Sri Lanka in 1982, Suraj is a native Sinhalese speaker with dual British and Sri Lankan nationality.
He has been educated in both countries and graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2005 with Honours in Ecology.
Project Knuckles is Suraj's creation.
He has worked heavily on the project since 2003 and has contributed greatly
Born in the United Kingdom in 1983, John is the team second in command.
He is the project media officer, in charge of photography, video and publishing material, including the project website.
A Sinhalese student, he is also responsible for managing both English and Sinhalese components of the project in the absence of the team leader.
John also graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2005 with Honours in
ANSLEM DE SILVA MSc
Sri Lankan national Anslem de Silva is the resident herpetological expert.
He is a lecturer in herpetology at the Sri Lankan University of Rajarata and has been a guest of honour at herpetological conferences around the world.
With many year's experience he is well learned in the field of reptile study.
A fan of the Knuckles mountains he has an invaluable knowledge of their ecology,
herpetology, history and archeology.
Whilst in the field, Project Knuckles can only be contacted by email:
The Knuckles lie north East of Kandy and are separated from the Central Hill Massif by the broad Dumbara Valley. Of the three Central Hill Massifs of Sri Lanka, the Knuckles Range is the most northerly.
The Knuckles Mountain Range is a unique environment. Some of the prominent mountains of the range include:
Gombaniya (1952 m)
Yakungegala (l648 m)
Dotulugala (1613 m)
Kalupahana or Thunhisgala (1952 m)
Lakegala (1356 m)
Kehelpothdoruwegala (1567 m)
Batadandukanda (1669 m)
A rich diversity of natural and man-made ecosystems exist in the Knuckles Mountain Range.
The Montane forests of Sri Lanka are a very unusual and striking feature of the landscape.
A thick layer of fog often shrouds the forest, especially during the rainy season, giving rise to its common term: the ‘Cloud Forest’.
The term ‘Elfin Forest’ has also arisen, due to the silence, eerie nature and atmosphere of the forest.
These 'Cloud Forests' are the natural climax vegetation of areas 1300 metres above sea level.
They can be found in the hills above Thangapuwwa, Kalupahana, Gombaniya and
Due to the high winds in the mountains, some more exposed areas of the montane forest are stunted in growth, reaching only two to three metres in height. Known as ‘Pygmy Forests’, the trees are gnarled and grow very densely.
More typically, however, the trees reach to a canopy level of roughly eight metres, with a thick shrub layer beneath, reaching up to two metres.
The bases of both trees and shrubs in both stunted and taller forests play host to a wide variety of lichens, mosses, filmy ferns and epiphytic orchids.
All of the vegetation in the area benefits from the high levels of moisture
in the air.
Montane forests make up the primary catchment areas of the Knuckles Mountain Range and supply a large proportion of the water for the Mahaweli Ganga, Sri Lanka’s greatest river.
The Knuckles vegetation regulates the flow of this water through an intricate floral system, which sees the reduction of run-off in the rainy season.
As a result, the water flow is much more regular.
Conversely, in other mountainous areas which provide primary catchment for certain river systems, where such forests have been cleared, the lower lying levels witness increased drought in the dry season and an increase in flooding during the wet season.
It is generally agreed that the Montane forests are crucial in maintaining this balance.
The reptillian inhabitants of the Knuckles Mountain Range face threats from a number of sources.
The area of pristine forest has been reduced in size over the past 5 decades mainly from forest clearing for cardamom cultivation.
This loss of forest has also resulted in a fragmentation of habitats, whereby pockets of forest are cut off and isolated from the rest of the forest.
This traps species, subjecting them to greater risk from interbreeding and forest fire, as they have nowhere to escape to.
Further to this, when man encroaches into forested mountain areas, the initial damage is caused at lower levels and he gradually works towards higher lattitudes.
Whilst this process is in action, the forest becomes fragmented, as the peaks become cut off from one another.
Smaller fragments of forest at the peaks are just as susceptible to forest
fires and population inbreeding as fragments at lower levels.
Human interference (logging, grazing, etc.) has taken a large toll on reptile
populations. Dramatic losses of habitat have taken place.
Quite a few reptiles are in trade: they are hunted for food, medicine or for parts. However, since there is a lack of strong enforcement of anti-wildlife trade and since much of the trade is at the local and domestic level, trade in reptiles or their parts is extremely difficult to curb.
With humans, domesticated animals have also come to the Knuckles Mountains.
There has been increased predation on reptiles by domestic animals such as cats and dogs.
Reptiles have also been observed to predate on one another. Snakes (Boiga, Oligodon, Lycodon and Elephe species) have been observed killing geckos and geckos have even been observed killing one another.
Domesticated poultry and wild birds predate heavily on reptile populations.
Many road kills were observed en route, for example Dendrelaphis tristis- bronze back and Calotes either when crossing or basking in the sun
Pesticides and pollution are thought to be of concern to reptile survival
but the effects are not yet well studied or documented.
Much more research is required to identify the primary threats to the reptile populations of the Knuckles Mountain Range. Project Knuckles aims to address this.
Here is a brief summary of the Biodiversity of the Knuckles Range:
Ceratophora tennentii (Günther, 1861)
The Leafnose lizard / Peti Angkatussa ENDEMIC. Average Total Length = 130mm
The Knuckles Range is the only known refuge of the relict agamid and is the only agamid in Sri Lanka to have an IUCN Red listing (1990) of VULNERABLE.
Observations by Anslem de Silva and others suggest this designation should be placed under the designation ENDANGERED
The characteristic nose of the Ceratophora tennentii appears to have some sort of use, which Project Knuckles could not determine.
It was observed to change colour and move, perhaps suggesting its use as a method of communication, or perhaps it is to attract prey.
Whilst it was considered that the cultivation of cardamom in the Knuckles Cloud Forest would lead to a drastic decline in the Ceratophora tennentii populations, Project Knuckles observed the lizards to be thriving in such artificial habitats.
Lyriocephalus scutatus (Linnaeus, 1758)
The Humpnose lizard / Gatahombu Katussa ENDEMIC Average Total Length = 300mm
The species is the only representative of its genus in the world. IUCN status
NOT EVALUATED, as data on the endangered level of the species is currently inconclusive.
A living dinosaur, the Lyriocephalus scutatus is a formidable icon of Sri Lankan herpetology, and the country's leading Herpetological journal is named in its honour.
Robust beauty, eleborate texture and the best teeth in the Range makes this species a wonder to behold.
But despite its acclaim in Sri Lanka, very little is known of its ecology.
Research continues as Project Knuckles hopes to establish whether or not this lizard is endangered.
Cophotis ceylinica (Peters, 1861)
Pygmy Lizard / Kandukara Kurukatussa This species is ENDEMIC to Sri Lanka.
Project Knuckles believes that the species should be placed under the IUCN status of VULNERABLE.
Several major mass mortality events have been observed in nearby locations of Hagala and Nuwara Eliya, whereby populations dropped.
The species was not observed in the Knuckles for several years, but Project Knuckles 2004 managed to locate 3 speciments.
Cophotis ceylanica is found in Knuckles and in Nuwara Eliya and the Horton Plains central massif.
These two hill regions are separated by wide lowlands and thus the two populations have existed in isolation from one another for thousands of years.
It is believed by Anslem de Silva that the Cophotis ceylanica in the Knuckles range is different, but DNA studies will confirm whether the two populations are distinct and separate subspecies.
If this is the case, the discovery will be a valuable zoological contribution to the world as not only is this genus endemic to Sri Lanka but it is a monotypic species, the ONLY species of its genus in the world.
When Project Knuckles identified three species it allayed fears that the population had become extinct in the range.
However, as only three were discovered, it highlighted that the Cophotis ceylanica population had dropped considerably in the last few decades.
Further research is crucial in order to ascertain the status of the species
and whether or not the Knuckles population is in fact a separate sub-species.
Chalcidoseps thwaitesii (Günther, 1872)
The Four-toe snakeskink / Caturanguli sarpiyahikanala. It is endemic to Sri Lanka and has an average total length of 110 mm.
It is a monotypic species (The only species of its genus in the world) and has an IUCN classification of ENDANGERED.
Almost nothing is known of the biology or status of this sub-fossorial skink.
Very few researchers in Sri Lanka have (except Anslem de Silva) have done any investigations on its ecology.
They are commonly found living under rocks and logs.
When disturbed they wriggle very quickly and one must be very fast in order to catch a specimen.
Calotes liolepis (Boulenger, 1885)
The Whistling or Forest Lizard / Sivuruhandalana Katussa, this species is ENDEMIC to Sri Lanka
The species has been labelled NOT EVALUATED for IUCN classification.
A vividly coloured species, the Calotes liolepis can shift from deep green to black in a matter of seconds.
Their colour adapting behaviour and elusive nature meant that they were a difficult species to spot in the field.
Calotes ceylonensis (Müller, 1887)
The Painted-lip Lizard / Thola-visituru Katussa
This species is also NOT EVALUATED by the IUCN
Otocryptis wiegmanni (Wagler, 1830)
The Sri Lankan Kangaroo lizard / Gomu talikatussa, this species has an average total length of 175mm
Its IUCN status is LOWER RISK - NEAR THREATENED
Lankascincus fallax (Peters 1880)
The Common Lanka Skink / Sulaba Lakhiraluva is ENDEMIC to Sri Lanka and has an average total length of 80mm
Its IUCN status is NOT EVALUATED
The Green Vine Snake
Lycodon striatus sinhaleyus
Shaw's Wolf Snake
Limnonectes corrugatus (Peters, 1863)
The Corrugated water frog / Vakarali Madiya is ENDEMIC to Sri Lanka
This flat frog is ENDEMIC to the Knuckles Mountain Range.
Project Knuckles uses a number of different methods to analyse the reptiles of the Knuckles Mountain Range.
Visual encounter searches (VES) will be the main method used to sample all
the habitats. It is efficient, thorough and allows a research team to cover
large areas of habitat whilst still adhering to scientific guidelines.
Patch Encounter Studies will also be applied in certain habitat locations,
such as boulder clusters, whereby further analysis will be carried out in a
locality which may reveal more interesting statistics, perhaps from a concentrated
population in the locality.
Quadrat studies of 5 x 5 metres will also be applied along Line Transects where appropriate, in order to thoroughly sample the different habitat types of the Knuckles Range.
In all cases, when a reptile specimen is encountered, certain guidelines will be followed and certain measurements shall be taken:
Specimens encountered will be caught and the identified using manuals by Deraniyagala (1953), de Silva (1990), Greer (1991) and Dutta and Manamendra-Arachchi (1996).
The gender of the specimen will be ascertained where possible.
The length of the tip of the snout to the vent of the specimen (SV length) will be measured.
Whether or not the specimen is gravid will be recorded.
The presence of ecto-parasites or other defects on the specimen will be recorded.
The GPS location reading including the altitude will be recorded at all study locations.
The altitude of the specimen locality will be recorded.
The air temperature of the specimen locality at 1.5 metres above the ground will be recorded.
The soil temperature of the specimen locality at 1cm inside the soil will be recorded.
The relative humidity of the specimen locality at 1.5 metres above the ground will be recorded.
Stool samples will be collected using special vials containing 10% formaldehyde solution. These will be labeled and numbered and later taken to University of Peradeniya for investigations.
Random stomach contents will be obtained for analysis from a few reptiles and amphibians by using an intragastric cannula and distilled water.
The distilled water will be gently squirted into the stomach, while the mouth of the animal is held downwards, thereby flushing the stomach contents, which will be collected into sterile bottles.
The animals are not harmed and will be released in the same locality. The stomach
contents will be preserved in 10% formaldehyde and examined in the laboratory
under a dissecting microscope.
All data will be recorded in structured survey forms. It will later be transferred into electronic form for clearer analysis.
All specimens will be released in the same locality as they were discovered.
Project Knuckles uses the latest safety guidelines to ensure compliance with European Health and Safety regulations at all times.
Sri Lanka is currently under a status of ceasefire between conflicting interests of Tamil separatist groups and Sinhalese Buddhist unionist groups.
Violence is occasional in the country.
However, foreigners have not been targetted by this violence and the Knuckles
Mountain Range itself has largely avoided the effects of the conflict.
The research site is an hour's drive from Kandy Hospital. In addition to this helpful proximity, this hospital is extremely well adapted to dealing with snake bites and is thus well prepared in the event of such an incident. Also, the resident herpetological expert, Mr. Anslem de Silva is well versed is snake related incidents.
Safety during the Canopy Component
The three team members of Project Knuckles 2004 taking part in the Canopy Component of research have all attained the BCAT certificate, 2004 from the Global Canopy Programme. They are thus trained in safely ascending into the canopy, performing aerial and ground based rescue techniques and administering first aid.
It is the responsibility of all participants in Project Knuckles to adhere
to certain rules of conduct, ethical, cultural and professional.
Here are a few guidelines to which team members would be advised to follow. It has been provided by the Sri Lankan Forestry Department.
The Knuckles Mountain Range is a crucial natural resource. From time to time, it can also be a dangerous location in which to work. However, if one follows simple steps, both man, animal and environment can co-exist quite happily.
Since the Knuckles Range is a Protected Area, prior permission must be obtained from the Forestry Department of Sri Lanka before entering the range.
The weather in the Knuckles region is very temperamental. Be prepared for sudden change. June to August is a relatively dry period.
Avoid hiking/trekking alone
Prior to setting along a designated trail, be aware of its distance, general terrain and the time expected for you to reach the end point.
Make sure that you carry sufficient drinking water, food and a basic first aid kit. Let someone know your planned route, and when you plan to return.
Do not throw cigarette butts or matchsticks that can easily result in accidental forest fires.
A photograph of a wild animal is a rewarding souvenir, but in many instances, photographers can be disruptive intruders in the wild. Use telephoto lenses, the longer the better. Avoid flash photography when adequate light is present. Never bait animals with food.
Respect cultural differences in villages. Dress in a descent manner. Avoid behaving in an obscene manner. Refrain from bathing nude in streams, waterfalls and village wells.
Be prepared for external parasites such as leeches and ticks. Leech socks and a suitable external parasite repellent would be very useful.
Ensure that your shoes or boots are not worn out, since certain parts of trails are slippery
Start your trek at least by 7:30am
Stay on the designated trails/footpaths/roads. Never take short cuts in natural habitats, as it can lead to the destruction of a number of small animals as well as vegetation
Drive slowly, and make sure that you do not run over animals.
Do not drive too close to an animal. Getting too close to animals can lead to harmful consequences in terms of their behaviour.
Campers - use the designated area. Use existing campfire site/rings.
Avoid creating fires in natural areas.
Remember to put out all fires before leaving.
Leave the site as clean as it was, so that others who follow can derive the same pleasure as you did.
Do not take pet animals with you
Do not leave anything behind.
As you will be in a very special area of wilderness, your are kindly requested to refrain from the following:
Shouting, singing, clapping or playing musical instruments
Harassing, chasing, touching, handling or feeding of wild animals
Collecting live animals, plants and their bi-products such as shells, horns, flowers and seeds
Scattering or throwing litter in the park (especially non-biodegradable material such as plastic, polythene and glass bottles).
Writing names or slogans on tree trunks and/or rocks.
If you come across any person behaving in a harmful manner within the forest reserve, please complain to the forest authorities as soon as possible.
Source : Bambaradeniya, C.N.B and Ekanayake, S.P., “A Guide to the Biodiversity of Knuckles Forest Region”, (2003), IUCN: Sri Lanka.
A variety of instruments and tools are required by Project Knuckles to complete its research objectives.
Equipment to be used during the Canopy Sampling Sessions:
(Kindly provided by the Global Canopy Programme)
2 Zero G riggers harnesses
2 Petzl Stops
2 Chest Ascenders
2 hand ascenders
3 Gri Gris
10m dynamic rope for cowstails
16 steel, oval carabiners
2 chest harnesses
4 delta maillons
3 200cm slings
2 petzl helmets
2 small maillons
2 large (wide gate) carabiner
Forest canopies around the world are amongst the least studies environments. The Knuckles Cloud Forest canopy is no exception.
This is due to the inability for researchers to safely access the rainforest canopy.
The rainforest canopy is home to 40% of the world's terrestrial biodiversity and is the least researched area on earth after the deep oceans.
Our research hopes to contribute substantial amounts of new information about the herptofauna of The Knuckles Range cloud forest and their habitats.
The last time similar canopy research was carried out in Sri Lankan lowland rainforest (by Pethiyagoda and Manamendra-Arachchi in 1996) over fifty new species were found. These await formal classification.
The Knuckles Range cloud forest canopy has yet to be researched so we predict
that our findings will be very exciting and of a substantial contribution to
the understanding of this unique habitat.
The canopy is an important component as two of the target species to be studied, Cophotis ceylanica (Sri Lankan Pygmy lizard) and Calotes liocephalus (Crestless Lizard) are arboreal and ground based surveys would not give a good estimate of population size or their ecology.
Methods for canopy sampling
Herpetology in the canopy environment is a new science and this study is thought to be the first extensive study of its kind.
As a result there are no methodologies to systematically sample the herpetofauna in the canopy, so many of the methods proposed are modified techniques used on the ground.
This would mean that many of these techniques might not be ideal but with our improvisation, may be improved for future work in the field.
The reptiles in the canopy will be studied using modified visual encounter
techniques. Their behavioural habits will be studied including competition,
feeding, predation and life cycles using artificial habitats like water holes
with local plants as centres of focus for study.
The Canopy Training Course
In order to sample the canopy in the Knuckles range safely, the Project Knuckles 2005 team has attended a week long Basic Canopy Access Programme (BCAP).
Developed by the Global Canopy Programme alongside the RBS-IBG Expedition Advisory Centre, the course, based at the University of Oxford , the course provides basic canopy access skills training and is suitable for students wanting to carry out novel and effective projects.
The BCAP course is believed to be the only HSE compliant system of canopy access in existence providing the highest levels of safety.
One learns how to ascend, descend and move around the crown safely and efficiently, repeating these core skills until becoming confident. As well as simply learning how to climb, the BCAP course teaches all aspects of site choice and assessment, including site preparation, relevant legislation and risk assessment, pre-climb inspection, line installation, ground and aerial rescue.
There was extensive familiarisation with all required equipment.
The BCAP system uses a method more advanced than the more traditional Single Rope System. The course organisers are confident that their techniques are safer than those employed with Single Rope Systems and therefore meet the highest of safety standards.
Also highlighted was the importance of enviornmental factors which may adversely affect any climbers. The incidence of sunstroke, dehydration and infection by toxic plantlife for example were pointed out as necessary considerations for any team planning an ascent into the canopy.
Effective communication techniques were also demonstrated as crucial in canopy excursions
In the field we will be working with local honey collectors who climb the forest trees for a living and have immense knowledge. They will assess if the tree is safe to climb. These climbers are suitable for canopy sampling themselves as their methods of capturing specimens are very destructive and don't provide any information on the Ecology of such species (many of whom that have never been studied in situ before).
Other bodies that have approved this course include Royal Geographical Society and Oxford University. The HSE officer at Oxford University has approved the course and the techniques as being appropriate and has allowed students and staff from the University to attend the course and use the techniques abroad. We also have the permission from the Forestry and Wildlife departments of Sri Lanka to undertake Canopy sampling.
The system used to access the canopy has been researched and designed by the internationally recognised Andy Barrell (Access Applications). He has 15 years experience working in the arboriculture and film industry and is skilled in industrial rope access techniques, arboriculture practices, risk assessment and aerial rescue. The system has been field tested around the world (in the UK and Borneo as seen in BBC wildlife documentary series 'Jungle') and is unique in incorporating a ground based rescue system making rescue from the ground possible at any time.
Project Knuckles has realised a number of its targets already:
The provision of information for the assessment of the conservation status
of reptile species in the Knuckles Range. This information is to be collated
with information from other research bodies.
The conducting of awareness programmes for villagers in the area. Particular attention was paid to the school children in the village of Meemure, regarded as Sri Lanka's most isolated village. It is hoped that this conservation education will help protect local species in that it will reduce the misunderstandings between humans and reptiles in the area. The needless killing of reptiles by scared and superstitious locals will hopefully have been reduced as a result of our efforts.
The collaboration with local university students in the study of the herpetofauna of the Knuckles Range. This is to provide training for these students and to ensure the continued interest of Sri Lankan students in the field of herpetology. The co-operation and enthusiasm of local students is vital for this cause.
Establishing of subsequent links between the Universities of Edinburgh and the Sri Lankan Universities of Rajarata, Peradeniya, Ruhunu, Batticaloa, Jaffna and Sri Jayawardenapura. Links have also been established between the University of Edinburgh and a variety of conservation institutions in Sri Lanka. It is hoped that any further collaboration between any of these institutions will have been facilitated by our efforts.
The recommendation of conservation and management techniques to the Wildlife and Forestry Departments of Sri Lanka. It is hoped our proposals will be adopted in order to safeguard both the pristine forest and its inhabitants.
The dissemination of our findings to the local residents of the Knuckles Range, the Wildlife and Forestry Departments and the wider world. This will be achieved through the publishing of project reports and the inclusion of our findings in various relevant journals. Examples of these targeted journals include Sri Lanka's, indeed one of the world's leading herpetological journals: Lyriocephalus, indexed in the Boise Zoological record in the United Kingdom.
A wide variety of bodies have supported, advised and assisted in making Project Knuckles a success:
The Project is a part of the University of Edinburgh
The Project is a silver award winner of the 2005 BP Conservation Programme
The Project has been approved by the Royal Geographical Society
The following institutions have provided funding for the expedition:
Aranmore Memorial Travelling Scholarship
British Student Travel Fund
The Carnegie Fund
Davis Fund (University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh No. 2 Fund
Gilchrist Educational Trust
Global Gecko Association for sponsoring our sticker
Lindeth Charitable Trust
James Rennie Bequest (University of Edinburgh
Peoples Trust for endangered species
Royal Geographical Society
Student Travel Fund (incorporating the Norman K. Smith Memorial Fund University of Edinburgh).
Weir Fund (University of Edinburgh)
William Dickson Travelling Fund.
Global Canopy Programme
A key aim of Project Knuckles is to educate Sri Lankan students in the field of herpetology.
This will encourage a new generation of Sri Lankans to participate in the preservation
of Sri Lanka's reptillian biodiversity.
A University of Edinburgh project, the expedition works extensively with the Sri Lankan Universities of Rajarata, Peradeniya, Batticaloa, Jaffna, Ruhunu and Sri Jayawardenaphura.
Participants from these Universities were involved heavily in the project's research of the mountain range.
Students were taught how to search for specimens using the latest scientific
and ethical methods as approved by a variety of international zoological bodies.
Valued experience was gained by participants in recording and processing data gathered in the field.
Useful contacts have been established between various students and experts throughout academic and scientific disciplines.
Extensive terminology has been acquired by all particpants in the languages
of English, Latin, Sinhala and Tamil.
Whilst searching in the field, Project Knuckles has uncovered a series of Mesolithic cave dwellings.
These are to be studied extensively by the Sri Lankan Archeology and Forestry
It is believed that these caves are the highest of their kind in the country.
A paper outlining these findings are being presented to the Sri Lankan Archeological congress in July.
Several unusual relicts have already been uncovered by the team. They include
silver coins, which are believed to have originated in India.
A cutting blade made from jet, suspected to have been used for cleaning animal skins has also been uncovered.
A group of archeological students from the University of Peradeniya have been invited to participate in Project Knuckles to assist in cataloguing the findings. It is hoped that the experience will help in their studies.
Project Knuckles hopes that these findings will increase the public perception
of the Knuckles mountain range, stimulating support for the preservation of
a region, now both rich in biodiversity and historical interest.
Wednesday June 23rd
Today the team arrived in Sri Lanka. They drove to Gampola and to the first base – the house of Mrs Mendis, where luggage was off loaded. Next, the team climbed a nearby hill, Raksawa, to warm them up for the trekking ahead in the coming weeks.
They practised their species capture and identification techniques, then returned to the lodge of Mrs. Mendis for tea and a discussion of the practised techniques and how to improve them in the future.
Thursday June 24th
The team gave a speech to the ex-Minister of Communication and ex-Mayor. John arrived in Sri Lanka and was driven to join the team in Gampola after the speeches. Next, the team were driven to Rajarata University to attend a lecture delivered by Project Knuckles 2004 expert Mr. Anslem de Silva.
In the evening, the team gathered at the house of Anslem for a feast and a delve into his jungle garden to examine the wildlife living there. Among the species encountered was a beautifully tailed young Great Forest Gecko.
Fri 25th June
The team traveled to the Knuckles range today. A stop off in Kandy on the way allowed the team the chance to see the temple of the tooth of Buddha - the second most holy site to Buddhists in the world. Then the team travelled to the village of Kobonilla in the Knuckles. This was to become the centre of field activities for the next few weeks. Monkeys, elephants and a number of geckoes were spotted on the way, alongside some spectacular views synonymous with the region.
Sat 26th June
Today saw our first expedition into the Knuckles range forest, but the first of the target species was discovered not in the field but in one of John's socks in his bedroom. A good omen for the discoveries to come. Once in the field the team focussed on the temperature aspects of the local herpetofauna, and were pleased to encounter several interesting specimens of Leaf Nose Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii). Also secured were two Skinks, a variety of frogs and a beautiful Green Garden Lizard (Calotes calotes), here displaying its camouflage, but notable as, unlike its compatriots, it displays a single horizontal white stripe as opposed to four vertical stripes.
Today, the team also began to consolidate their personal skills in group co-ordination, photography and note taking.
Sun 27th June
The team returned to the field after a 5:00am start. Today saw the implementation of the thermoregulation study of the Ceratophora tennentii in the field, with a technique using metal models to represent the agamids. The aim was both to confirm that the Ceratophora tennenti thermoregulate and then to outline the behaviour which they display whilst doing this.On a non-biological note, the team came across a rock displaying Sinhala characters which appeared to point the way towards a treasure cache. The various characters showed what seemed to be a number of animals.
Underneath the rock, Anslem discovered this leopard (Kotiya) paw print in the sand. Local villagers continue to report missing goats. The team hopes to spot the leopard during their stay in the region.
Also on site a large collection of hatched Cnemespis eggs were discovered. It is hoped that this shows that the species is flourishing, but the Cloud Forest is a fragile ecosystem and it is possible that some day in the future images such as this will be all that remain of the little Cnemespis.
Within a few metres of this, the team uncovered their own cache of skinks and a Uropeltis snake. All were examined, measured and identified. In the evening, the team gathered at Anslem’s to photograph the collection of frogs they had acquired.
Mon 28th June
The team visited Kandy for the day for supplies. Suraj set out to find glass thermometers to enhance our thermoregulation studies. On the return journey, one of the vehicles came across a leopard. It crossed the road and disappeared into the undergrowth not far from Kobonilla village.
Tue 29th June
The team resumed its thermoregulation study today. Many Ceratophora Tennentii were discovered. Disaster struck however when the jeep broke down, costing much time for team leader Suraj who subsequently had to travel to Kandy and Colombo in search of a new vehicle.
Wed 30th June
Instead of continuing the thermoregulation studies, the team gathered at Anslem’s lodge in the morning to take photographs of the various species captured the previous day. The focus was on the skinks, and a number of hopefully successful images were taken. The team’s skills in handling, recording and photographing are improving rapidly by the day.
Shortly before lunch, the team set out to a woodland nearby Eagle’s Crest lodge to examine the herpetofauna there. A fragmented forest - a remainder of the original blanket of forestry which once covered the area. A crucial haven for endemic wildlife, these shards can be lost, either to fire, or development: a small patch of woodland is easily cleared for the growth of a tea plantation, resulting in the loss of another important habitat to a whole host of herpetofauna. Whilst in the fragmented forest the team encountered a number of Geckoellas, a brightly coloured locust and a plethora of leeches (kudella).
In the evening, the team took the van to Corbett’s gap, an abandoned house further down the road into the Knuckles range. Although it was dark the incredible view from the house was undisputed. The team was also impressed by the great variety of Great Forest Geckoes (Cyrotodactylus frenatus) in the building, living alongside a handful of nesting swallows.
Thu 1st July
In the morning the team made its way to a nearby Pygmy forest – woodland battered so hard by the wind that it cannot grow too tall. In abundance around the edges of the forest the team found some striking examples of local scorpions, dark green in colour and roughly 8cm long. Living alongside these beautiful arachnids were yet more lizards. Inside the forest, looking under rocks, the team found mostly ants, but two Spotted Bowfinger Gecko (Geckoella triedrus) were uncovered in one rotting log. Interestingly, a dark brown tarantula was found underneath a rock in the same forest.
Fri 2nd July
Today was mostly overcast, with bursts of heavy rainfall. The team set out for Hunnasgiriya (gecko rock), a small promisingly-names village beyond the Knuckles. Here, they climbed a wooded slope to an abandoned cave, believed to be a rare and important archaeological site. Searching produced a number of bones and shells, for further testing. Although unrelated to the goals of Project Knuckles 2004, it was felt that the benefits to Sri Lanka and therefore the Knuckles Range as a whole were of paramount importance to the expedition. The team then continued further up the slope where they found some impressive vistas of rock cliffs and jungle hilltops. A number of herpetiles were also collected on the excursion.
Sat 3rd July
A second excursion to a pygmy forest was undertaken today. This time it was at Corbett’s gap, the abandoned house visited on the night of the night of the 30th. It was wet and windy but the low vegetation provided shelter. Leeches abounded. On the return to the lodge the team came across some local farmers who had recently killed a snake and kept it under a rock.
Sun 4th July
Today the team prepared themselves for a break on the coast. Last minute notes were typed up, photographs were taken and specimens released back into the wild. At lunch time the team were driven to Kandy, where supplies of arrack and ginger beer were combined to great satisfaction and consumed from a platypus water bottle in the car en route to base camp at Gampola. Internet access was made use of and the team were provided with a feast at the house of Mrs Mendis.
Mon 5th July
Laura and Andrew set out for the midday sun in Colombo to repair a camera flash as the rest of the team headed South for the beaches of Bentota. The waves were spectacular and when Laura and Andrew were reunited the team gathered in the surf to watch the setting of the sun.
After dinner, turtle watch was set up in the hope that a turtle would alight at the beach to lay her eggs. Alas, nothing was discovered.
Tue 6th July
The team visited a turtle hatchery. Among the spectacular array on offer were a collection of albino specimens. Unfortunate creatures with little hope of survival in the wild, carefully protected in the hatchery environment. After this excursion, the team set out for Hikkaduwa for a lunch in the picturesque setting of a wooden floating restaurant, set amidst a mangrove swamp on the coast. Whilst awaiting the preparation of dinner, the team had the chance to explore some of the swamp, either from the wooden walkways or on the ground. They came across a snake, dragonflies and a number of magnificent monitor lizards. After lunch, the mammoth return to Gampola was undertaken. A few hairy traffic moments and five hours later and the team rolled out from the vehicle and were soon fast asleep at the house of Mrs. Mendis, awaiting a five o’clock start the following morning.
Wed 7th July
Five o’clock came and the team were hauled out of bed and dispatched to Hunnasgiriya (gecko rock) for a resumption of studies. Whilst in Kandy, the team acquired three new members, Miss Ganga Sajeewani Samarawickrama, an archaeology student from the University of Peradeniya, Miss Theja Hemamali Aberathna and Miss Tharanga Dassanayaka: two zoology students from the University of Sri Jayawardhanapura, interested primarily in the study of Monitor Lizards (Varanidae) as displayed here on the right:
The thermoregulation studies of Project Knuckles 2004 had received support from members of the scientific community in the United Kingdom. This was encouraging and further techniques were practised today to attempt to take temperature readings from observed species. Contact with the studies specimens is to be kept to a bare minimum as the heat from the student’s fingers will affect the readings. As a result, today the team practised taking thermometer readings either without disturbing the lizard, or by catching it with a handful of leaf litter, which would act as a barrier from their warm blooded hands.
Thu 8th July
Today the team moved locations once again. The repaired jeep returned to Eagle’s Crest to transport all to the other side of the Knuckles Mountain Range. After a long and rough journey (the steep descent at the other side of the range had a considerable number of sharp bends) with onlooking Toque monkeys, the team unloaded at a canal, dug centuries before by the Sri Lankan Kings to irrigate the area: the Sri Lankan ‘Dry Zone’. During the Summer months it reaches its height of aridity, whilst, merely a few miles away the monsoon rains down across the mountains. Once at the canal the team quickly jumped in to refresh themselves. The locals who were already washing in the water soon gathered to watch.
Fri 9th July
The team set out in their new location to examine the local herpetofauna. Terraced paddy fields stepped the lower slopes of the hills. Beyond that, thick forest ran all the way up to the high peaks. Whilst approaching the forests, the team encountered a Green Pit Viper (Trimereserus trigonocephalus) in a tree next to the house of a local family. In return for removing it (after examining it thoroughly), the team were presented with several bottles of local honey.
Further up the slopes in a clearing an Aspidura snake was discovered. This is of importance as Aspiduras have not been recorded in the Knuckles range before.
Whilst in the hills, Suraj, John and Dougie came across a Juggary merchant who sold them a large quantity for relatively little. Juggary is a local confection similar to Scottish tablet but with a stronger taste. The sap from local trees from which it is made is usually drunk as Toddy – an apparently heavenly beverage, to be drunk immediately on its harvest from the tree, or to be distilled to make Arrack – the popular local spirit. But whilst Liquor is quicker, for now, candy was dandy, and the team munched happily on the Juggary after lunch.
After the day’s fieldwork the team paid a visit to a house on the way back to the Hotel. Here lived the oldest man in the region. Without birth records it is not known exactly how old he is but it is thought that he is 108.
Sat 10th July
Maningala, a slope near the local forestry office was the target for study today. Unfortunately, there were very few lizards to be found save a handful of beautiful geckoellas. However, despite the lack of success, the team was rewarded for their climb with a swim in a nearby river pool, where they enjoyed the company of the small fish who came to nibble on their skin. Fresh water crabs were less accommodating and scuttled nervously into the shade at the far bank of the pool. Wet bodies then dried in the hot sun. After this refreshment the team returned to write up results and enjoy a meal at the Ibis Hotel.
Sun 11th July
An exciting day for herpetological finds. The team travelled to Riverston, a nearby hill with a terrifyingly steep path. The cloud shrouded misty peak was described as “Heavenly”. On the day it was frequented with families and Buddhist monks alike, enjoying a walk in the roaring winds. On the hill itself very little was discovered but on the return journey a quick stop off by the road revealed a vast array of lizards. A red-bellied mole snake was discovered roughly 2 metres from the verge. Usually located in lower altitudes this was the first confirmation of its existence in the Knuckles range.
Mon 12th July
A treat awaited the team today as they paid a visit to Wasgamuwa National Park. A herd of deer greeted the vehicles as they entered the park, then a few minutes later, the guide spied a camera shy wild elephant watching from the distant bushes. It kept its distance. A plethora of exotic birds marked the roadside, then the team disembarked on the banks of the Great Mahaweli Ganga. The greatest river in Sri Lanka and one of the driving forces behind the island’s past successes. It keeps the country’s agriculture irrigated, whilst supporting a variety of elephants and crocodiles. Across the water on the banks opposite, monkeys dangled from branches, shrieking in delight and occasionally falling down to play on the rocks. Next, a brief excursion to a pool revealed a plethora of pelicans, feeding elegantly on the banks and the lilied islands. Occasionally the water was broken by the gaping jaws of a patient crocodile, ripples emitting as it gulped a fish here and there. On the far edge of the pool, a baby buffalo sat up to its belly in the mud.
After the morning at the park, the team began the return journey to Eagle’s Crest on the other side of the Knuckles Range. En route, however, the jeep broke down, once again, exacerbating the fears of some members of the team that the jeep had been cursed. Andrew and the driver Sunil managed to fix the vehicle at the roadside and then drive it to a nearby town with a garage. After a considerable delay – and the opportunity for a pleasant walk across the town bridge, spanning the Mahaweli once again with a beautiful white pagoda in the background – the team resumed its return journey. A close encounter with monkeys was the only further incident up the road. The return to Eagle’s Crest was unanimously agreed to be feel like a homecoming. Tea awaited our arrival as the sun set over the peaks behind the house.
Later that evening, research recommenced as a study of the Great Forest Gecko was undertaken. Most conveniently, most of our sightings of this species have been inside our own lodge, so the study began here. We caught a number of specimens, marked them, and released them. Over the coming weeks, we were to monitor their behaviour and progress. All from the comfort of the lodge.
Tue 13th July
A short journey through a narrow gap in the mountain was scheduled to take the team to a nearby Tamil village of Tangapuwwa, nestling in a beautiful valley sloped with well kept and bright green tea estates. Unfortunately, en route the jeep went off the road into a small gully carved by a monsoon stream. A sharp wake up call the team managed to build up the gully beneath the vehicle to allow it to reverse back onto the road.
In the valley itself a whole host of lurid-coloured reptiles were uncovered. Further up the hill, the herpetofauna was less abundant.
In the cloud level at the peak the weather was reminiscent of Britain. However, one Ceratophora tennentii was discovered in the pygmy bushes. An important find for the mapping of this species’ distribution. However, the day’s goal had been to show Ganga – the archeological expert, a local cave. The cave was not located. On the descent through the village of Tangapuwwa a local informed the team that the best way to reach the cave was from a road on the other side of the mountain.
Wed 14th July
Allugalena cave was once again, our target for the day. We set off down a different road, past the striking “Sphinx rock” at the peak of a local mountain and stopped at a nearby Bungalow, deep into the monsoon forest. The resident agreed to take us to the cave. He led us into what looked natural forest, but once inside and looking more closely, we could see that in fact, the forest canopy was masking a myriad of cardamom plantations of houses. This area was very much cultivated. After a trek through the trees, the capturing of a few reptiles and the sighting of several of the beautiful large white butterflies, we reached the cave. It was a bitter disappointment. The mouth had been walled up and converted into a home. The rock surface outside was blackened with smoke. The cave floor not walled in was scattered with recent litter. Picking out any archeological relics or bones would be a frustrating and drawn out task. Ganga would not have time that day.
So that the trip was not in vain, however, some members of the team managed to climb in through the window and then unlock the door from the inside. On closer inspection, past the cooking utensils, however, nothing substantial could be isolated or collected. Such squat habitation is illegal in the Knuckles range. Such flaunting of the rules is very much of hindrance, both to our team and to the gathering of data on the history of this mountainous land.
On the walk down the hill, the team encountered local boys carrying sacks of cardamom pods. This cultivation is also illegal, however, it is the goal of Project Knuckles to verify whether or not the cultivation is actually damaging to the local ecosystems.
Instead of returning to the lodge immediately, the team travelled down the rough road to the nearby village of Meemure. Currently enjoying a status of fame and curiosity through Sri Lanka after being declared the most isolated village in the country. The connecting road on which the team travelled that day was only built the previous year. Although excited at the prospect of seeing the village, there was the overhanging worry that the trip, along with all the other trips made by various scientists, anthropologists and sight seers to the village were contributing to the erosion of its very unique and notably self-sufficient society. The people seemed pleased to meet us – Ganga had undertaken an extensive study of the village and its people the previous summer and took us to meet her host family. We gave us tea and juggary and we sat in the sun with the magnificent peak Lakegala towering over us in the background – framed by numerous palms and monsoon trees.
Thu 15th July
Suraj and Dougie travelled to Kandy to co-ordinate emails and courses back in Britain. Meanwhile, the rest of the team endeavoured to complete the backlog of photography and notes, lest the build up swamp the lodge. After lunch, Anslem decided that it would be a good day to begin our quadrat studies. We set out for a nearby pine forest, previously set fire to – by accident or on purpose, this was undefined. Despite the damage to the low vegetation, the pines themselves were merely blackened and seemed unaffected. Incredulously, almost ever rock unturned revealed at least one Skink. Being sub-fossorial they must have been able to burrow to safety when the area had caught alight. Two quadrat studies were carried out, and it was very quickly realised what changes would have to be made to our strategies in order to perfect the application of the study. The approach would have to be very methodical, and new data sheets would have to be made up to record the data uncovered.
Fri 16th July
Today saw the attempted perfection of conducting a quadrat study. The team marked off a set area and pillaged it for lizards and snakes. The focus once again was on pine forests, planted by the British in the colonial era. A large number of Skinks and Leaf nose lizards (Ceratophora Tennentii) were identified and marked on maps drawn of the studied area. The aim was to show the population densities of lizards, but the technique of performing a quadrat study on herpetofauna was experiment enough. The nature of the reptiles – basically, that they move – renders such a study problematic. Care must be taken to ensure subjects aren’t counted twice. Also, areas not yet studied within the quadrat must not be disturbed, lest the species inside run away and fail to be counted. It is all a fairly exacting process. Let it be left that tempers frayed somewhat.
Tea at the lodge, however, as always, was sufficient to calm the nerves of the field.
Sat 17th July
Laura’s birthday. Today, the team set out for Meemure, the most isolated village in Sri Lanka, conveniently located a few miles down the road. The goal today was to speak to local school children about their experiences with reptiles and amphibians.
On the way, the vehicles encountered two beautiful green Vine Snakes (Ahatulla nastus), basking by the side of the road in the blistering sunlight. This sighting was long overdue as a meeting was expected much earlier.
On arriving in the village, the team made their way to the local school. Although it was a Saturday, the headmaster had instructed his pupils to make their way there on the day if they were interested in reptiles. Half the school turned out. A promising sign if the inhabitants of the Knuckles Range hold an interest in the creatures living around them. Of course, the people of this very special village have come to accept and cohabitate very successfully with their immediate habitat. Questionnaires were handed out which the children completed. Questions were asked concerning sightings of various lizards and snakes. It turned out that many families kill snakes they come across. Also notable, many of the children knew the names and behaviour patterns of a number of the team’s target lizards. Throughout Sri Lanka, it is commonly believed that geckos are poisonous. All snakes are generally thought to be poisonous as well. The children were instructed that geckos are safe in the hope that they would in turn tell their families not to kill them. The effectiveness of this will not be known, but it would be hoped that our efforts were not to be in vain
Sun 18th July
Local geographical site Nitro Caves were the target of today’s expedition. A deep bat cave in the monsoon forest, Anslem and Suraj were confident that we would come across many reptiles on the way there. They were correct. We discovered a number of Skinks, including the elusive Nessia, a legless member of the family and a hatchling cnemespis, pictured here.
It was clear when the team reached the cave purely by the stink of ammonia emitting from the guano piled high around the entrance. The hot sun did little to allay the stench. On entering, the ominous sound of the beating wings of the multitude of bats echoed out of the shadows like distant waves. But professional, as ever, the team was resolved not to be distracted by non-reptiles for longer than necessary. Adequate photographs were taken and the team returned to the field for another quadrat study. Each time the quadrat technique is improved and the creases in the process are ironed a little further. Enthusiasm for the technique still wanes, however. It seems cold, methodological science drains the fun from lizard hunting.
After a successful study the team rushed back to the lodge for a quick cup of tea. Then it was time to return to civilisation – for the moment. Visas were to be extended and the team would have to travel to Colombo. Also, sadly, today Ganga was to leave us. She was dropped off in Kandy, after exchanging of email addresses, behind her the Kandy Temple of the Tooth of Buddha was lit up in preparation for the upcoming festival of Perahare – when the casket of the tooth is shown to the country in a grand procession. The surrounding roads had already been closed off as anti-terrorist measures.
Mon 19th July
Tea and breakfast were consumed quickly this morning and the team loaded into the vehicles and made their way across the country to the capital Colombo. Once there, the first stop was to confirm our flights out of the country. Next, visa extensions were in order. A three hour wait alongside a collection of different nationalities awaited (We overheard an Australian remarking that the bureaucracy would not have existed had the British never visited the island). We were spared the heat from outside by air conditioning and when we finally did emerge from the visa office, the sun was low and the sea air cooled the waterfront along which we walked, before undertaking the return journey to Gampola. We hit rush hour, but it has to be said, of all the rush hours in the world, rush hour Colombo was interesting enough to entertain us through the delays. Motor rickshaws teetered between swerving lorries, drivers smiling and waving to the Europeans, unconcerned by the prospect of death veering towards them on the wrong side of the road. We were sure that Sri Lankans drove on the left, but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise at six o’clock, Monday evening in the capital.
That evening we dined at Gampola at the house of Mrs Mendis and went to bed excited at the knowledge that we were to enjoy a lie in the following morning.
Tue 20th July
As promised we did not move until at least seven thirty. Luxury. Tea and breakfast were consumed at leisure and the team, minus Suraj, took the van to an elephant orphanage on the road to Colombo. On arriving in the designated village we were greeted by the elephants proceeding to the river to bathe. Many tourists had arrived to watch. We gathered by the river and watched the elephants wash. A social animal, the psychological effects of losing one’s parents and being taken away from a herd may never be measured properly, but the orphanage was at least an attempt to allow these amazing animals the opportunity to develop such bonds again – with other orphans. The eldest was fifty five years old – a tusker, who bathed separately from the others.
Next, the team travelled to a second elephant centre – one at which Suraj had worked during a previous summer. The team members enjoyed an elephant ride around the centre and then had the opportunity to wash the elephants in a river, using coconut husks to scrub their wrinkly skin. Polly and Laura were instructed to climb onto their backs in the water and were on command soaked as the elephant flung water onto them using its trunk – the most versatile limb in the animal kingdom.
A trip to the Peradeniya Royal Botanical gardens followed. Started in the thirteenth century by one of the Kandyan kings, the meticulous nurturing of the centre was continued under the British administration. The garden design today is based on that of Kew Gardens in London. All throughout the gardens, we were greeted with employees filled with enthusiasm for the well kept centre. A picturesque retreat, it backed onto the seemingly omnipresent Mahaweli river and contained a vast collection of trees, beautiful and humbling.
The fourth expedition of the day was to the world famous temple of the tooth of Buddha by the lake in Kandy centre. The second most holy site to the Buddhist world, the presence of this temple alone prompts many foreigners to believe that Kandy is in fact the capital of Sri Lanka. Its importance is not to be snubbed. Subsequently it has also suffered in the past as a target of the terrorist tactics of the Army of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelaam. A bomb detonating at the entrance in the late nineteen-nineties killed sixteen people. We timed the trip to see the unveiling of the cask of the famous tooth. After a guided tour of the beautiful site, with wooden carvings dating from the sixteenth century and Buddhist statues gifted from countries all across Eastern Asia, we proceeded to the room holding the tooth, left our donations and gifts of lotus flowers and left, satisfied at the cultural content of the day’s excursion.
Wed 21st July
Today the team returned to the Knuckles via a different route from normal, joined by Anslem’s son Panduka and an expert tree climber Vajira. A study of the region was to be undertaken near the village of Elkaduwa. The area was patched with tea plantations and pine forest. Several of the smaller hills had been completely cleared of vegetation. Although picturesque, these hills are a mark of the damage caused by cultivation in the region.
Further up the slopes, the team came across an abandoned tea factory and a reservoir. The shore of the reservoir was happily accommodating a horde of frogs.
After a study of a nearby cardamom plantation, revealing various reptiles useful for a bout of photography, the team returned down the hill to take the vehicle back to Eagle’s Crest. During the return journey, the opportunity arose to visit two religious sites. Firstly, the team stopped at a white Buddhist temple. We were shown the temple of Lord Buddha. Next, we stopped off to buy some fruit and found ourselves conveniently next to a Hindu temple, overlooking a valley on the edge of the Knuckles Range. After being shown round the temple’s collection of peacocks and deer, kept to the side, the team were blessed in a ceremony. Dots were applied to foreheads and we were presented with shimmering peacock feathers. Next, the familiar return journey to Eagle’s Crest continued. Homeward bound.
Thu 22nd July
The canopy component of Project Knuckles 2004 was undertaken today. The team was led to an area of forest near the Nitro bat caves. New team member Vajira, well versed in expert tree climbing would scale a suitable tree and attach a rope. Next, either Laura or Andrew would ascend the tree via the rope and commence a search for reptiles and snakes. The work is somewhat painstaking. The equipment takes a long time to be set up correctly and safety is a main and subsequently draining concern.
Meanwhile, Dougie travelled to Colombo to have his Visa reissued. On his return he brought presents of Betel nut and dried tobacco leaves. A South Asian favourite, its effects are somewhat intoxicating. Needless to say entertainment was in ready supply this evening.
Fri 23rd July
On the previous night, blurry eyes had spotted a pine forest burning across the valley. Whilst Laura, Andrew, Anslem and Vajira undertook the canopy component once more, the remainder of the team set out to continue Quadrat studies in the pine forest. Two quadrats were to be taken, one in the burnt area, and one nearby in an untouched area. It would be of scientific interest to measure the survival of reptiles in the face of a forest fire. It seems they are a common occurrence in the region. Indeed, when locals were asked the location of the fire they all seemed to claim ignorance, throwing their hands in the air. Deliberate starting of such fires is of course illegal in the Knuckles range. Further investigations may have to made as to why people have been setting fire to such pine forests. The burnt study quadrat revealed a barbecued great forest gecko and a surprisingly large caterpillar of a similar unfortunate fate. Interestingly enough, however, overturned rocks revealed the sub-fossorial skinks who must have buried into the soil to avoid burning.
Human activity is responsible for many wildlife deaths, in the Knuckles and across Sri Lanka. Here is a picture of a Calotes versicolor, run over on the road to Eagles Crest.
That evening, the quadrat team was suitably coated in charcoal. The family living next to Eagle’s Crest were hosting a wedding celebration. Guests adorned in brightly coloured clothes stared humorously at our shabby entourage as we passed by. Showers were taken in expectation of the arrival of Mrs Mendis and Suraj’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Goonewardene, on holiday from the United Kingdom. Dinner was more lavish than usual. A pleasant evening, a welcome break. After dinner, the new arrivals were treated to a night time drive through the surrounding hills. They were rewarded further when a leopard crossed the road in front of them. Unfortunately, the arrival of a three-wheeled rickshaw piloted by one of the drunken wedding guests promptly scared the leopard into the undergrowth. The rickshaw overtook and tottered along the road. The guests were treated once more, however, when they caught sight of a fishing cat sitting on a rock by the roadside. Such a wealth of wildlife, and all within ten minutes drive of the lodge.
Sat 24th July
Students from the University of Rajarata in Kandy arrived at Eagle’s Crest. Led by Dr. Manel Goonasekara, the group was composed mainly of first year students interested in herpetology. Also present were Ravi and Janika, participants in Suraj’s Project Hoona the previous year. The Project Knuckles team gave talks on their various backgrounds, roles and findings to date in the field. Next, all were driven to a nearby monsoon forest area to take part in research. This was both to continue the work of Project Knuckles and to demonstrate to the students the various techniques being undertaken by the team in the field work. It would be hoped that the co-operation between both groups on the day will be emulated between the Universities of Edinburgh and Rajarata in the future.
Sun 25th July
Canopy studies continued today, whilst simultaneous quadrats were mapped out and examined. The work is becoming monotonous, but each sample taken increases the validity of our results. The more data we have to work with, the more fruitful our analyses over the coming weeks. Although it feels as if these studies have been going on for an eternity, we are not even close to having enough. It would be unscientific and thoroughly unprofessional to stop now.
After a long day in the field, last minute work was put onto the computer for uploading onto the Project Website. The laptop and an assortment of team members then made their way to Hunnasgiriya, the nearest telephone line, half an hour’s drive away. Supplies of bread and fruit were bought as the updated website was uploaded onto the internet.
Later that evening, the team divided into two vehicles. One drove towards Corbett’s gap, whilst the other returned in the direction of Hunnasgiriya – the road on which the leopard had previously been spotted. The Corbett’s gap expedition saw no leopard, but it did manage to take some video footage of a flying squirrel launching itself from a branch in the roadside canopy. Later, a wild boar and a large snake were sighted on the roadside. Neither were caught, but this travesty was forgiven.
Mon 26th July
Canopy and quadrats again. Whilst in the field, John, Suraj and Panduka individually came across mouse deer in the field. These small, sleek, brown animals crept out of a nearby tea plantation and into the forest where the team was working. They had not expected to encounter humans once inside. Within the hour, however, the team was bolstered by the discovery of a Liocephalus Scutatis, a bulky green lizard with a large rounded nose. It had been basking in a bush near the tea. Meanwhile, the tea workers nearby on the Horakanda estate found a Green Pit Viper. Anslem caught it and the excellent photographs were obtained of the beautiful green beast.
Tue 27th July
Today, the team cleared up the back log of paperwork. The mound had been rising for some days now. Last minute photography was taken care of, scientific notes were typed into the laptop and the team finances were arranged into working order. After lunch, the team left Eagles Crest once again. This time, for a trip South, to Yala, Sri Lanka’s famous national park. The night was spent in Gampola, at the house of Mrs. Mendis.
Wed 28th July
An early start again and the team set of through the hills from Gampola to Katharagama in the South. This was to be the temporary base camp during the excursion to the national park. Conveniently, the Perahera festival, taking place during the build up to the Full Moon was now in full swing in Katharagama. This is a celebration of many things. Officially, it is a celebration of Lord Katharagama, but the dancers and fire players and magnificent elephants from across the country, each displaying a myriad of local costumes see to it that the festival is a celebration of the history and many cultures of Sri Lanka. Sinhalese and Tamils dance alongside one another. The festival was a success and enjoyed by all.
Thu 29th July
An early start today as the team jumped into the jeep with packed lunches and
packed breakfasts at 5am. We set out for Yala National Park. Rangers are scarce
and animals are only visible in the early hours before they escape the blazing
sun of the day. So, the team quickly hunted down a guide and set out in two
vehicles in search of the local wildlife. As we searched for elephants, leopards
and bears, the sun rose over the Bay of Bengal and the temperature began to
Crocodiles basked for much of the day on the banks of the many water holes throughout the park. Mere metres away, wild buffalo rested in the water, cautiously eyeing the seemingly immobile and lethargic crocodiles. A band of Langur monkeys ran towards the jeep at one point – as if to mug the team, but instead, their thirst was driving them towards the lake by which we were parked. In the late afternoon, the team was lucky enough to see a leopard, lying luxuriously in the bushes a few metres from the road. It paid no attention to its admirers, and sat staring nonchalantly away. A beauty.
Fri 30th July
The team returned to Yala again today. A great tusker elephant was spotted early in the day, feeding in the roadside bushes. Here, the elephants are shy – and dangerous – and he slid away into the depths of the vegetation. We drove on. A breathtaking variety of birds adorn the Yala National Park. Beautiful Bee Eaters and noisy Hornbills flit from tree to tree. On the ground, peacocks and hens run around through their wooded harems to drink with the animals at the waterside. Their calls echo throughout the park. At breakfast, the team were joined by monkeys, who ate from our hands. We were reminded that the nearby lodge was captured by the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) in 1994 and its occupants taken hostage. In the ensuing struggle a number of people were killed. Today the lodge is abandoned and a small army base sits across the fence as a reminder of the violence which still ravages this beautiful country.
On our way out of the park, we were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a bear, feeding in a tree. Already a swarm of tourist jeeps had surrounded it, but we managed to stretch out of the windows and catch some photographs. The perfect end to our day.
Sat 31st July
We were up a little later than usual today. After a leisurely breakfast, we drove North towards Kandy. We were lucky enough to drive through Nuwara Eliya. This area is often referred to as Little England. It is located high in the hills and the temperature is notable lower than the rest of the country. Golf courses, race tracks and even Tudor houses can be observed from the roadside. Extensive and immaculately maintained tea estates stretch across the area, frequented with place names such as Mackwood and Glen Loch. A theme park: a relic of the British Empire. It was an unusual change of scenery. We had no time to stop and examine. Today was the Full Moon and the climax of the celebration of the Perahera. The main event was to be in Kandy, as the relic tooth of Buddha was to be paraded throughout the city on the back of the Temple Tusker. The previous temple tusker, Raja, now dead, is in fact a national treasure. The only animal national treasure in the country. The only other animal national treasure in the world is an African elephant in Kenya. He was and is revered in Sri Lanka for many reasons – but primarily for his apparent dedication to his duties towards the sacred tooth.
An elephant is only supposed to have one mahout (minder). These social elephants form a very strong bond with their mahout, no-one else is closer. No-one else could be trusted with the elephant. However, for one Perahera procession in Kandy, Raja’s mahout fell ill. The temple custodian was adamant that he walk with the elephant despite his state. If the mahout did not attend then Raja could not transport the tooth and the procession would be lacking in perhaps its most important component. But the mahout could not attend. He was rushed to hospital. The temple custodian therefore was placed in a dilemma. How could he disappoint the people? They were awaiting Raja’s grand appearance. Already he had earned himself a name throughout the country. He was known for his grandeur, but he was also known to misbehave. His high status ensured that he could do little wrong. No harm would come to him. He was a God as far as the people were concerned. He could not be allowed to walk alone.
See there are many distractions in a parade. Understandably, the flashing lights, the spheres of fire, the dancing, the drumming, the colossal audience, tourists and pilgrims, camera flashes and shouting, all contribute to creating a very dangerous environment in which to leave an elephant. But the temple custodian saw that he had little choice. He let Raja proceed with the tooth on his back. The Kandy procession is long, and Raja had no guide or minder. But he marched perfectly. He did not differ from the set speed of the walk. He was not tempted by the fruits offered by the crowds. He did not flinch as the fire and lights careered across his field of vision. He saw to it that the tooth was transported through the city and safely back to the temple.
When the people realised what he had achieved, faultless, better behaved than most of the tended elephants, they were jubilant. It ensured Raja’s status in the long natural history of Sri Lanka.
The procession we saw was sadly devoid of Raja (he now resided in the temple museum). But the display of elephants was magnificent nonetheless. An array of dancers, shimmering with peacock feathers and flashing with flaming torches and golden flags swept past us, as the white full moon rose above the trees surrounding the nearby temple. Trepidations rose as the police searched for bombs in the crowd, but none were discovered and the event was not marred with the politics of the country. President Chandrika Kumaratunga was not present. Bomb scares had forced her to alter her plans and she was not in the country for the celebrations.
Sun 1st August
Anslem’s Birthday. Once again, a return to Eagle’s Crest. After a quick stop off at a garage to remove a nail from the jeep’s tyre, the journey ‘home’ was smooth and sunlit. On arriving, further data was typed into the laptop. That evening, chocolate cake was enjoyed over a pleasant arrack and the teams strategies were discussed. Suggestions and ideas abounded for the work to be undertaken in the rapidly shortening time available in the field. Sadly, not much of a party, but useful and enjoyable all the same.
Mon 2nd August
A foray into the village below the lodge was undertaken today. A river runs through the valley floor, were the locals go to wash. Buffalo graze along the banks and frogs erupt from the leaf litter as you walk past. The villagers were very interested when we informed them of our studies. They were most interested in our snake work. They tend to view all snakes as poisonous – they even view many geckos as poisonous – and quickly pointed out a Green vine snake (Ahatulla) to the team for inspection. After taking our measurements we re-released it. Perhaps the villagers were expecting us to remove it. Despite the peaceful and non-venomous nature of the Ahatulla, it is likely that many are killed. Across the paddy fields into a monsoon forest at the other side of the valley, we asked some school children if they had seen any snakes in the vicinity. They told of the existence of Uropeltis snakes, fossorial snakes (i.e. they reside within the soil) often seen when digging irrigation ditches in the area. Although there were no recent sightings, the children told the team that these snakes are subject to a local belief.
It is thought that if the snake ties a knot around your hand, the knot can never be broken.Thus, these snakes are never touched
Whilst conducting quadrat studies in the area we were observed by some nearby Macaque monkeys. They have not yet evolved sufficiently to appreciate the obvious benefits of herpetological quadrat studies. They quickly grew bored and left.
Tue 3rd August
A journey through Tangapuwwa village to the pristine tea plantations of Rangala allowed the team to sample the local cardamom plantations in the shady canopy of the lower cloud forest. More data was collected and later uploaded onto the laptop. That evening, two students from the Rajarata University of Sri Lanka arrived to join the team. Chaminda and Roshanta are to study Herpetology and so were very keen to take part in the Project Knuckles 2004 expedition.
Wed 4th August
Quadrats were undertaken on the slopes above Kobonilla village today, deep into the cloud forest. Access was difficult due to thick bamboo but some important findings were made nonetheless. The two new students were fortunate enough to witness two Leaf nose lizards (Ceratophora tennentii) mating. Sadly, no photographer was present to capture the moment. That evening, night work was undertaken at 6pm. Shifts of 4 to 5 hours were to be taken by groups of 3 or 4 to watch two Ceratophora tennentii overnight. The site was high in the hills (1500m), deep into the cloud forest. The teams braved heavy rain, 15 degree temperatures (excluding the wind chill factor) and 98% relative humidity. On top of this, strange crashing noises kept emitting from the nearby bushes. Wild boar are known to roam the area, but nothing was spotted. The jeep returned from a service in Kandy and drove to pick up the first team from the night watch post at 11pm and replace them with a warmer, fresher team. The first team was promptly filled with tea, string hoppers and curry. Although there was no hot water for a replenishing shower they were soon back to a healthy state and quickly retired to bed.
Thu 5th August
At 4am the second team was replaced with the third and final, who remained in the field until 9am. When they returned, those still conscious enjoyed a curry breakfast before returning to work, either in the field or on the computers. Whilst watching the two lizards, it was discovered that during the hours of darkness, they sleep. Nothing more. Nothing less. A useful observation. Thankfully, it never need be made again. For the rest of the day, the team either updated information into the computers or went out into the field, returning with an endemic species of snake: the Checkered keelback snake (Xenochrophis asperrimus). Later, a trip was made to Hunnasgiriya to update the website, send emails and collect supplies.
Fri 6th August
In the morning, the camera contingent remained at the lodge for further photography work. Fieldwork was undertaken by the rest of the team. More quadrats were completed and more data subsequently collected. The pile of notes has been growing and today was immense. The team continues to amass information regarding species locations and microhabitats. Whilst exploring a fragmented monsoon forest near to the lodge, and thus adding to this surplus of information, the team came across a second Hump-nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus). It was quickly photographed for later admiration.
Sat 7th August
The team embarked upon Quadrat studies once more today, but this time, the focus was on Riverine forest habitats. Crucial to the natural equilibrium of the Knuckles range, the trees in these habitats act as barriers to water erosion by the local rivers. These rivers are often seasonal and many are dry during the August months. Despite this, life flourishes under the stones in the dried up bed. Leeches appear the most successful and have quite a monopoly in the area. Tea and juggary was enjoyed between quadrats at a nearby house, which nestled by the road to Memure under towering peaks. Butterflies flitted around the roadside, huge creatures, some floating down from the taller trees, gliding like manta rays. The sun was out for the day, bathing the team on the way back to the lodge after a morning spent in the darkness cast by the thick forest canopy.
In the evening, the team was joined by a German film crew, Fritz and Grisha. The two were in Sri Lanka filming for German VOX television, making a programme called Tierziet (animal time). Project Knuckles 2004 had caught their attention and they drove into the hills to stay at a neighbouring lodge for two nights in order to film us at work. That evening, they joined us for dinner and a little Arrack, then it was time for an early night and beauty sleep for the cameras the following day.
Sun 8th August
The filming began as the team left the lodge. Further quadrats were undertaken under the watchful eye of the camera. John remained at the lodge to type up the backlog of survey forms and quadrat data. Whilst checking the pitfall traps in the garden, he spotted a land monitor lizard (Varanus bengalensis) basking by the tea bushes. Later in the evening, the two Germans expressed an interest in filming the expedition’s thermoregulation work conducted on the endemic Leaf-nose lizard (Ceratophora tennentii). John and Vajira were dispatched to Kobonilla, the peak next to Eagle’s Crest in order to locate some specimens. The two were reminded of the inactivity of the tennentiis after dark and locating any of the lizards was difficult. Two were caught in the vicinity of the Leopard cave spotted earlier in the expedition. As the moon emerged, the two quickly vacated the area. The feline neighbour is apparently growing quite accustomed to humans, and encounter with such an emboldened cat would perhaps not be best advised, especially high in the woods, in his own territory. Needless to say the film crew were more than pleased with the arrival of the two unusual agamid lizards.
Celebrations were sombre, however, as today saw the departure of Andrew from the team. He, Suraj and Laura set off for Gampola in the evening. Andrew carried with him his luggage as he set off for an exam re-sit in Edinburgh. We wish him luck.
Mon 9th August
The early morning light was utilised today as the film crew interviewed Anslem and caught the team practising thermoregulation studies in a nearby pygmy forest. The tennentii’s found the previous evening were used as study subjects. We hope that the finished product is a success.
The team spent the rest of the morning waiting for a new vehicle to arrive. This was to take them on a tour of the Sri Lankan ‘cultural triangle’, comprised of three cities, all previous capitals: Polonnaruwa, Anradhapura, and Kandy. The latter, the last capital of Monarchical Sri Lanka was to be avoided to save time in traffic, whilst the two former cities were to closely inspected.
Shortly before lunch, the lodge was paid a visit by an unfamiliar white van. Out from it emerged a local Buddhist monk, interested in the work being undertaken by Project Knuckles 2004. He quickly engaged in a conversation with the team, eagerly asking questions. His enthusiasm was not dampened by the absence of any translators in the lodge at the time. Broken Sinhala was attempted and the social occasion appeared to go smoothly. He was informed of the animals spotted by the expedition in the hills (which he referred to as the Dumbara hills in accordance with the refined Sinhala used by the Monks who seek to discourage the usage of casual English in the Sinhala language). Shortly after arriving, however, he returned to his vehicle, declining the offer of tea and leaving the team slightly surprised at their unexpected guest.
The next vehicle to arrive belonged to Kumari – the owner of Eagle’s Crest, arriving from to spend the weekend away from the heat of her home in the South of the country. She brought king coconuts for a parched team, and as they drank, the vehicle intended for their trip arrived. It took them away from the Knuckles Mountain range and into the cultural triangle, North in the dry zone.
Meanwhile, Laura was to return to Eagle’s Crest. As her parents are arriving in the country following the expedition, she will be set to visit the cultural triangle with them. She thus chose to remain in the Knuckles to rest for a few days, whilst dispatching the rest of the team to collect information for her for when she does visit the ancient sites. Similarly, Suraj was to stay at the house of Mrs. Mendis in order to spend time with his aunt. Polly, Al, Dougie and John were all who remained to travel North.
The first stop was the site of the Dambula Caves – where Buddhists had taken refuge and constructed a place of worship, cleaning the cave walls and adorning them with paintings and grand statues of Lord Buddha in various positions of rest, meditation, and death. On arriving at the caves via the road, tourists will find themselves confronting a vast white statue of Buddha towering over the roadside and gazing out across the flat landscape towards Sigiriya – a great monument to be visited later.
That night was spent in a less-than-desirable rest house in Polonnaruwa. Bed-bugs will be mentioned but once.
Tue 10th August
After breakfast, the team hired bikes, as they were assured this was the best way to see Polonnaruwa. It is. Many a van passed by the team, its occupants panting out through the windows, with little hope of travelling to the less accessible ruins scattered throughout the trees and scrublands. After a long day of cultural absorption, the team returned to the van and travelled to Anradhapura where they would spend the night and the following day. Suraj had booked the team into a Chinese Hotel. Excellent Chinese food was enjoyed to the satisfaction of a weary team.
Wed 11th August
Before Anradhapura, the team took a quick excursion to Mihintale, a nearby Buddhist monastery, originally built into an extensive network of caves. Now, the monks reside in nearby whitewashed buildings, on top of a hill overlooking another flat landscape, dotted with the occasional volcanic hill or gargantuan gleaming white statue of Lord Buddha. Various old buildings have survived, some only as foundations, but they give scale and impression enough. Vast troughs to be filled with rice once catered for hundreds of Buddhist monks who would gather at Full Moon.
Next, the team travelled to Anradhapura museum. Ever professional, they quickly discovered a snake in one of the ancient exhibits but it evaded them. After all, this wasn’t the Knuckles. The van then took the team around the various temples and ruins of the large city. Bikes would have been impractical here. Some of the old temples were vast, but following the decline and abandoning of the city some hundreds of years ago, they fell into disrepair. Some of the shining white domes have only recently been recovered and restored, thanks to funding, originally by the British, then in more recent times, by the Japanese and UNESCO.
After what seemed to be several hundred of these temples, the team travelled to Sigiriya, mentioned earlier. Night had fallen so a place to stay was located and team caught some sleep (four to a bed) to prepare themselves for the sightseeing and return to the Knuckles the following day.
Thu 12th August
Buns were eaten for breakfast in the vehicle as it drove to Sigiriya. In antiquity it was known as Singh Giriya – Lion Rock, as a large lion statue straddled the main staircase to the top of the rock. Today, only the paws remain, but this does not detract from the air of regal dignity they still bear. The rock is often considered the eighth wonder of the world, its flat top once served as the throne of a King who had beautiful gardens built all around the grounds, which were enclosed in thick walls and a moat, once filled with man-eating crocodiles. After being ousted, the King’s residence was converted into a Buddhist monastery, before finally evolving into a tourist museum.
Time was not spared, and after a quick tour of the magnificent site, the team jumped back into the vehicle and raced back to the Knuckles. On arrival at five in the afternoon, boots were donned and the team, now reunited, but sadly without Andrew, set off into the field once more. The home garden of Bandara, the man supplying the team with meat was to be examined. By his paddy fields, a number of frogs and skinks were uncovered. Further up, around his house several Great Forest Geckos (Cyrotodactylus fraenatus) were discovered hunting on the outside walls. Night had by this time fallen and the team returned to Eagle’s Crest for tea and dinner.
Fri 13th Aug
A black day perhaps? Most of the team were up at five. It was time to pack again. The expedition was returning to Hettipola in the dry zone to conduct research on the other side of the Knuckles Mountain range. After a drive of several hours, past the great water tanks, the team dropped off excess equipment and set out for Lakegala peak, visited previously. It was now about ten in the morning. Visual Encounter Surveys were conducted, where a set number of team members search for a set amount of time. Their findings are documented to attain a rough idea of population distribution of studied reptiles. Further quadrats were undertaken – the last, as it later turned out. Then, at five in the afternoon, half the team returned to the jeep, leaving Suraj, Dougie, John, Vajira and Chaminda to wait for darkness and conduct a night time study of the Monsoon forest at the base of the sheer cliffs at the peak. Amazingly, a rare hump-nose lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) was uncovered in the night. Beautiful dinosaurs. The team returned to the Ibis Hotel in Hettipola for about half past ten, tired but pleased at the successes of the day.
To add to the success, whilst the two drivers awaited the return of the team from the forest, they encountered a snake on the road and, following the example of their passengers, caught it and bagged it for identification. It turned out to be a beautiful flying snake (Chrysopelea ornata sinhaleya). An amazing find, especially for two who would rarely touch a harmless Uropeltis snake, let alone a mildly venomous species such as this.
Sat 14th Aug
Gammaduwa was the target of the day. A tedious four hour journey away, it was reached relatively early in the day for Visual Encounter Surveys. Almost immediately, Uropeltis snakes of the Phillipsii species were discovered under rocks by the path. An important find, this was the first encounter of this species by Project Knuckles 2004. Shortly after this, a venomous Merrem’s hump-nose viper (Hypnale hypnale) was uncovered, coiled and poised, ready to strike the inconsiderate student who had awoken it. Respectable photographs were taken and the snake was left in peace. The team then split into two. The photography contingent returned to Hettipola, whilst Suraj, Polly, John, Vajira, Chaminda and Roshanta remained in the field to conduct studies into a nearby disturbed cloud forest. Several skinks were uncovered living alongside some Nessia bipes, unusual black legless lizards. Next, a roadside pine plantation was visited. It was devoid of most life. The team subsequently returned to the jeep and embarked on the long return journey. En route a bronze back snake was spotted on the road. It appeared to have been run over by a three-wheeler. It was collected and died soon after. An hour later, a jackal was spotted crossing the road and disappearing into the undergrowth. One of the many brief rewards for fieldwork in the remote Knuckles range. The team retired and slept well, in preparation for the departure the following the day.
Sun 15th Aug
Morning brought unusual news. During the night the team had slept through an amazing phenomenon. A wild elephant from nearby Wasgamuwa national park had escaped the park and followed an irrigation channel all the way into Hettipola. If that weren’t enough, the great creature had wandered into the Ibis Hotel itself. Herders had appeared in the early hours and let off thunderflashes to try and shift the elephant away from human habitation. A few metres away, the team slept very soundly.
That day the team split into two. Anslem, Polly, Laura, Dougie and Al travelled to where they conducted a number of Visual Encounter Surveys. They then left that side of the Knuckles to return to Eagle’s Crest. Meanwhile, Suraj, Vajira, John, Chaminda and Roshanta travelled to Maningala, the forestry office visited earlier. The river and its surrounding habitat were examined. In the neighbouring Pygmy forest, another Lyriocephalus scutatus was discovered, resting against a branch. It was duly measured, for dimensions and temperatures and then released. It quickly ran away, alarmed at the sudden presence of humans in its normally empty habitat.
Whilst talking to a local corn seller by the roadside it was discovered that the river, where the team had previously bathed was the scene of ten previous deaths, as drunken revellers had jumped into the water from the high rocks and drowned. A morbid detail to taint such an enjoyable location. Next target for this portion of the team was Riverston, also previously explored. After a thorough search, it was concluded that the leeches were as numerous as before. Tennentiis also appeared to frequent the cloud forest here. The cloud lies almost permanently over these peaks. The air temperature hung at around 18 degrees. Very chilly. British weather is long gone and forgotten. After collecting further random thermoregulation data from the various tennentiis ‘basking’ in the occasional shaft of sunlight, the team returned to the jeep, scraped off the leeches and set off back to Eagle’s Crest, a trek back down to the dry zone floor, then around the top of the Mountain Range.
Thursday 7th July
Today Suraj and John began to pack for their oncoming departure from the United Kingdom. As Suraj packed his bags in London, a number of bombs went off on the London transport system. Despite the incident and subsequent disruption in the city, the project proceeded unaffected.
Friday 8th July
Today John left his home on the Isle of Mull to travel to London for the outward flight. Suraj continued to prepare for the expedition, despite a considerable inability to travel through the city.
Saturday 9th July
John arrived in London and last minute equipment checks were carried out. Lavish catering was administered by the Goonewardene family. Everything appears to be running smoothly.
Sunday 10th July
Baggage was re-checked, re-weighed and re-packed. In the afternoon, Suraj and John travelled with Suraj’s sister Anusha and her fiancé Ed to London Heathrow airport. The two Knuckles team mates checked in and took off as the sun went down.
Monday 11th July
The two team members landed at Colombo, checked out and were collected by Suraj’s aunt Mrs. Mariska Mendis in the Project Knuckles 2004 jeep with Sunil the driver, returned for another year to transport the team around the country. Also in accompaniment was Suraj’s characteristic bad luck. Having been in the jeep for a matter of hours it broke down. However, after a few moments’ reassurance and loving attention, she started again and arrived in the team’s Gampola head quarters a few hours later.
Tuesday 12th July
Activites in Gampola were undertaken, including the creation of a certificate at a local printing shop to award to the students from Sri Lankan Universities set to participate in Project Knuckles. Following this was a trip to Kandy, a thirty mile drive from Gampola. A wealth of modern but cheap equipment can be found in the city and the team stocked up on computer supplies.
That evening, Suraj and John were invited to the house of team herpetological expert Anslem de Silva for dinner with his wife and son, Panduka, who participated extensively in Project Knuckles 2004. Panduka, who speaks fluent Tamil is set to join Project Knuckles 2005 when students from the Universities of Batticaloa and Jaffna arrive later on in the expedition.
After a beautiful meal, extensive discussion and planning, the expedition looked set for action.
However, during the night, Suraj awoke with a bad fever. Having recently been bitten by a tick in the United States, he had reason to suspect that he may have contracted Lyme’s disease. Temperatures and symptoms were gathered hurriedly in the dark.
Wednesday 13th July
Today was a day of preparation for Project Knuckles to leave Gampola for Hettipola, the main location of activity during the expedition. Suraj spent much of day making phone calls to various doctors and hospitals, seeking advice and treatment for his worsening state. Contingency plans were employed for the outcome that Suraj would not be present when the expedition entered the field. That evening, the Jeep was packed and John was issued with instructions and contact numbers with which to operate Project Knuckles in Suraj’s absence.
Thursday 14th July
The team awoke at 0400 and prepared to leave for the University of Rajarata to pick up six students. In accompaniment were two British scientists, Roger Meek and Edie Jolly, armed with a series of techniques and tools with which to conduct some important herpetological experiments with the project. Also rejoining the 2005 team was Vajira the tree climber and expert lizard catcher.
Once with the students, the Jeep and Anslem de Silva’s van travelled to the Knuckles Mountain Range to Hettipola, where the project would be based for some weeks to come. The Ibis lodge was a site of project activities in 2004. Located at the foot of the mountains, it is in the ‘dry zone’ of the country and the climate can be considerable hotter and drier than the mountain tops or the ‘wet zone’ a few miles across the mountains in Kandy and Gampola.
The team unloaded the vehicles and sat down for a quick lunch before returning to the vehicles for a brief introduction to the Knuckles mountain range. The opportunity was also taken for John and Anslem to visit various individuals of importance to the project: the wildlife officers, forestry officers and police officers.
A large centipede was spotted running down the road. Resembling a brightly coloured orange and blue bracelet, it was photographed but not touched, being an extremely toxic individual.
Meanwhile, it has become apparent that Suraj must spend some time in hospital undergoing tests. He will not be joining the expedition for some time.
Friday 15th July
Today the team travelled to Lakegala, a return journey for John and Anslem. Whilst in the field some interesting experiments were carried out by Roger and Edie, whilst the team came across some very interesting specimens. A Lyriocephalus scutatus and a Cyrotodactylus soba were encountered, the most easterly recording of both species in the range. A series of Calotes calotes were also observed laying eggs in holes dug in the middle of a foot path.
At lunch time, the female Rajarata students found themselves eating in the company of a Humpnose viper (Hypnale hypnale), which was casually sunning itself next to where they were sitting.
On the return journey, a Reed snake (Liopeltis calamaria) was spotted on the pathway. A very unusual and important find, it was not believed to exist in the Knuckles mountains. Another theory disproved.
Saturday 16th July
Today the team travelled to Pitawala pathana: a strange grassy plain with few trees which stretches to an abrupt drop into thick pygmy forest. Some interesting thermoregulation studies were conducted on the Calotes versicolor species which live in pairs in the sparse bushes dotted around the plain.
In the evening the team was joined by an eco-tourism student from Glasgow Caledonian University and an eco-tourism entrepreneur also from Glasgow who were set to study the viability of the Knuckles mountain range as a suitable location for sustainable environmentally friendly tourist activities.
Sunday 17th July
A return to the Lakegala trail was in order for the day, but instead of following the usual route, the team was to climb the nearby peak of Kalupahana. John took the video camera and began capturing some interesting footage of skinks, lizards and snakes observed in the field.
An important Rhinophis snake was spotted under a stone in a dried up river bed, a first for the area, it is a newly described species and the extent of its presence is yet to be ascertained.
Monday 18th July
Today, John too has fallen ill. It is a report writing day so no field work was missed. The Rajarata students were taken back to Rajarata in the jeep and a new batch of Archeology students were picked up from the University of Peradeniya. Unfortunately, Suraj has not yet been discharged from hospital so is still unable to join the expedition in the field.
John spent the morning typing up data but then had to travel to the wildlife office in the afternoon to meet the local director.
Tuesday 19th July
John remained in the lodge today in a bid to recover quickly. Anslem took the Peradeniya students to Bathalawatte, an area known for its ancient caves and intriguing history. The hike proved extensive and the team did not return until 1900, exhausted but satisfied.
Wednesday 20th July
Today the Peradeniya students and Anslem travelled to Bathalawatte for further Archeological examinations.
In the morning John took some unusual footage of monitor lizards wrestling in a nearby river. After some thermoregulation recording in the morning, he remained unwell. On Anslem’s return in the afternoon, he was taken to the local doctor and prescribed some drugs, one of which turned out to be a sedative. John proceeded to sleep for 15 hours.
Meanwhile, the archaeology students and Anslem travelled to a nearby site where a thousand-year old inscription on a pillar was observed. Sadly, it has been scarred by graffiti in recent years.
Thursday 21st July
Another day of archeological exploration for Anslem and the Peradeniya students. Meanwhile, John, Roger and Edie remained at the lodge to conduct thermoregulation studies on the Calotes versicolor specimens inhabiting the grounds. Using Vajira the tree climber to catch the lizard and take various body and air temperatures from the specimen and its habitat, data was collected on the nature of the species. This was to be compared with data collected on the same species at much higher altitudes.
Friday 22nd July
Today John joined the archaeology team for a brief excursion to some nearby caves. On arrival it was discovered that the caves were used by Buddhist monks in the rainy season. They retreat into the caves because to remain in the open during the rains would almost certainly result in killing several creatures brought forth by the moisture levels.
In the afternoon, preparations were made to return to Gampola for a three day session. Scheduled as a break period, it looked set to be instead used for consolidating the project website, updating accounts, entering data into the computer and planning the next series of operations in the field.
Saturday 23rd July
The team were awoken at 0300 to prepare to leave the Knuckles. The Jeep was loaded and an early breakfast was quickly eaten, before all left Hettipola to return to the other side of the range.
Passing through Riverston, the lofty peak where the road traverses the range, the team stopped to take photographs. Heavy cloud was funnelled down the road by high winds, reducing both temperature and visibility. The frogs croaked loudly in the surrounding forest, encouraged by the high humidity.
The Peradeniya students sang Sinhalese songs for the remainder of the journey. They were dropped off in Gampola and presented with certificates of participation on the expedition.
Sunday 24th July
Suraj and John worked in Gampola, gathering data collected to date and transferring it into electronic form. Accounts were sorted and settled and the website design was finalised and streamlined.
In evening, the two went to Anslem’s house to discuss the plan for the remainder of the expedition. As Roger Meek and Edie Jolly had decided not to rejoin operations in the field, but instead to remain in Gampola to analyse data, beds would thus be free in the lodge for extra students to join the expedition. Ruhunu University in Matara in the south was contacted. Two students from there would now be able to join the expedition.
Monday 25th July
Last minute adjustments were made to plans. The website was checked and re-checked. Equipment was charged and tested.