Friday, December 16, 2016

He went on for the full 40 years....A Tribute to Professor Sarath W Kotagama

Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka [FOGSL] was the need of the time for a group of academics of the Zoology Department of the University of Colombo, to promote and to receive scientific knowledge of our avian fauna by attracting the general public of this country for its conservation.

The organization was started with a few likeminded academics and professionals in the field of conservation in the year 1976. Thus the pioneers of FOGSL are Dr. Sarath W Kotagama, Dr. S U K Ekaratne, Mr. P B Karunaratne, Mr. Rex I De Silva, Mr. L B Ranasinghe and Mr. G L de Silva. 

This was a time when birdwatching was to be a pastime restricted to an elite urban class in the country that took up the habit from the colonial rulers. Therefore, FOGSL was instrumental in popularizing birdwatching habit among the general public.

Commenced with just six members, the FOGSL today accounts for a total membership close to 50,000. This membership is unique due to the diversity of their professions and line of work with the wide age grouping from 8-80 years. It is common to note that a member is very active at the beginning gaining knowledge and giving assistance to the organization while making room for others to take over its functions after some time. This way the organization gets new blood for its function and thus accounting for this large membership.

However, it should be noted that there has been one person who has gone the full length of its timeline of 40 years to date and is none other than its principal Co-founder Professor Sarath Wimalabandara Kotagama.

This write up is a tribute to his commitment and application to FOGSL during its thick and thin in these 40 years.

Professor Sarath Wimalabandara Kotagama
He was born in 1950 in Bandarawela, as the eldest in a family of six siblings, four boys and two girls. Professor Kotagama received his primary and secondary education at St. Thomas’ Preparatory School, Bandarawela, and St. Thomas’ College, Gurutalawa. He passed his university entrance examination from St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia and gained admission to the University of Ceylon – Colombo campus as it was known then, where he graduated with honors in Zoology in 1974.

The siblings at a family event
In the year 1977, he proceeded to the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, for his post graduate studies, and in 1982 was awarded the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. He returned home to serve as a lecturer in the Department of Zoology, University of Colombo, in the Faculty of Natural Sciences.

His Doctoral research at the University of Aberdeen, in association with Professor George Mackenzie Dunnet on the “behaviour and feeding ecology of the Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula kramerii) in Polonnaruwa”, ensured his childhood dream had come true; to be a professional ornithologist in this country.

Early Days at Gurutalawa

St. Thomas’ College Gurutalawa, the first ever outbound school in this country paved the way to nurture his interest with birds. He entered Gurutalawa having completed his primary education in St. Thomas’ Prep school in Bandarawela in 1960. It is recorded in the history of Gurutalawa that a ‘Birdwatching club’ was formed in the year 1961 by its then Chaplain Rev. Father Canon A J Foster. Gurutalawa being in the Uva province was an ornithological paradise recording over 50 different species at any given time with the numbers increasing significantly in the migratory period.

S Thomas’ College Gurutalawa

Young Kotagama was in the first batch of boys who joined the birdwatching club at school and was an active, enthusiastic member. The school club history records that Mr. S K Bunker of Jaffna College to have recorded over 150 bird species while Mr. J W Marasinghe, a school staff member who conducted observations in the club to have recorded over 80 bird species. The school being in a location with so much bird activity, the boys made valuable notes on the nesting and the feeding behavior of the bird species found in the school premises. These records were sent regularly with photographs taken in location to the ‘Loris’; the official publication of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society [WNPS]. Students also contributed their birding experience as write ups to the school magazine that was published annually. Part of an essay titled ‘My Book about Birds’ written by young Sarath Kotagama at age 17 is as below in italics.

 My book about Birds

Most of us are interested in birds.  We like to hear their cheerful songs, to see them as they fly down beautifully through the air, to watch them walk proudly on the grass or slipping about bushes in search of food.  But like most wild things, birds are shy and if we wish to learn about the wonders of their lives we must watch them patiently and quietly.

Most bird lovers keep a bird book in which to note such things as, the day when a certain bird was seen, the food it ate, its colour and shape, the way it flew, the way it walked, when it began nesting, its song and so forth.  By keeping a bird-book and making regular notes in it and perhaps drawings as well we get the greatest enjoyment from our bird watching study.

S.Kotagama: Upper 6th, St Thomas’ College, Guruthalawa (written in 1967)

His Birdwatching Guru's at Gurutalawa

At home, during school holidays in remote Bibile, his interest of birds would diverge onto a different path. It was the 1960’s and the gramophone era was being replaced by the wireless radio. A period with limited resources where time took time to move. People improvised the discarded gramophone record  into art work.

His ancestral home in Bibile
Numerous were the handmade objects deforming them in hot water; forming flower vases to cigarette trays. But the most common use was to paint on them and mount them on walls as decorations. 

Fifteen years ago, I stayed overnight with him at his ancestral home in Bibile on the way to Colombo from Ampara and admired a set of these gramophone record paintings that decorated the old dining room. His mother prompted in my ear ‘they are the art works of the elder one’…..making sure it’s not Hemasiri the younger Kotagama who was my classmate at Gurutalawa. It was a series of the colour plates from G M Henry’s ‘A Guide to the Birds of Ceylon’ done with brilliant Chinese Lacquer from a prize book that he won at school for birdwatching.

Hemasiri narrates thus of the elder one, “him being the Loku Aiya [Big brother] had set a grand personal and social image that we brothers and sisters had to follow by having to excel in higher education, become professors, or be ideals in persona as much as possible. In all his books documents etc. from school to university he wrote as Sarath DOD Kotagama. DOD meant ‘Do or Die’. Such was his character in pursuance of what he wanted to be. I believe we too followed his moto apart from growing long hair. We had to always be simple in life following him.”

“School vacations in the early days were filled with adventures as in the Enid Blyton stories” says Hemasiri. They had tried their skills at hunting with a slingshot with Baba who was a master with it having used it to keep the birds away from the crops. Baba with his parents lived in their property and tended their lands.   However, in later years as Loku Aiya turned to be a bird lover, hunting was totally banned.

Finally, Hemasiri says thus “He was an extreme workaholic and was committed to his passion. The expense being that he was not a regular participant at family gatherings and our father would say “he is such a busy man”. A true fact that we who were close to him and worked with him will no doubt approve of.

FOGSL goes into publications

Principal paraphernalia required for birdwatching is generally said to be a good pair of seeing eyes, a good bird guide for field reference and a notebook to keep records. A simple field guide on the country’s birds was a grave need of the time in the early 90’s, when FOGSL started its field trips to birding locations. The only one of its kind available then was that of G M Henry; ‘A Guide to the Birds of Ceylon’.  However, this was a highly descriptive one which was found to be difficult to handle in the field. The one before that was the three volumes of Captain Vincent Legge’s ‘A History of the Birds of Ceylon’ and was not meant for reference in the field.

The task of producing this field guide on the birds of Sri Lanka was undertaken by Sarath Kotagama himself.  The Wildlife Heritage Trust [WHT], in 1994, published his field guide; ‘A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka’ - authored by Sarath Kotagama and illustrated by Prithiviraj Fernando. Later, an enhanced Sinhala version ‘Sirilaka Kurullo’ was sponsored by Sri Lanka Telecom and the book was distributed free to all the school libraries in the country. The name FOGSL was now common to all nature lovers and conservationists in the country. This was to follow on with publications to individual birding locations in the country and extended to mammalian guides, plant and butterfly guides as well.

There was to be another important significant recognition to FOGSL that came by around this time in 1994. The BirdLife International the world’s prominent organization on bird conservation was looking for representation in the country and FOGSL was selected as the representative of BirdLife International.

Reviving FOGSL in 20 years.

Late P B Karunaratne
Founded in 1976 FOGSL progressed slowly during the initial stages with more of academic input from its founder members. Mr. P B Karunaratne, a co-founder of FOGSL was the Curator in Entomology at the Colombo Museum until his retirement in 1970, having joined the Museum in 1953. His input in the field of conservation was immense. Since his retirement in 1970, he was active in guiding young zoologists like Sarath Kotagama in their research work at the Sinharaja World Heritage Site and other such important locations. His input in compiling the Forest Department’s ‘National Conservation Review’ which for the first time sought to map the distribution of the flora and fauna in the country is still the preferred reference on the subject.  His untimely demise from terminal cancer in June 1996 created a void in the organization and resulted in the need to revive the activities of FOGSL for its stable continuity.

By the year 1996, FOGSL had progressed for 20 years. The country has changed politically and the communication facilities upgraded. The need to gratify the services of its able co-founder Mr. Karunaratne was felt by the membership.  Keeping in line with Karu’s profession, an annual exhibition on birds was to commence named after him in memorial. The first exhibition was held at the Colombo University premises marking the 20 years of FOGSL. It was to be a great success with the awareness communicated through the electronic media, in comparison to its first call in 1976 through a four inch advertisement in the ‘Ceylon Daily News’. Young blood flowed in and the membership swelled. Activities came up on an annual calendar with field trips to birding locations being an attraction. The message of bird awareness and its conservation went all over the country.

FOGSL is the Birdlife International Affiliate in Sri Lanka

By now FOGSL was more than an organization limited to the country. In 1998, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds [RSPB], a British organization, extends its cooperation assisting schools awareness projects in the Western province of Sri Lanka. Their funding facilitated the publishing of books, posters and teaching aids to schools in the province. RSPB being pleased with the professionality and the approach towards bird conservation and awareness; FOGSL was proposed as the country’s representative to the world body, the BirdLife International and FOGSL became the national affiliate of the BirdLife International in Sri Lanka. The highlight of it being that Prof Sarath Kotagama is invited to the BirdLife International World Conference in October 1999 in Malaysia, representing Sri Lanka. This being its first conference in Asia, the then FOGSL committee volunteered to accompany Prof Sarath Kotagama to the conference. 

This conference, he says, was a turning point in his life. The FOGSL was awarded the first ever ‘Conservation Achievement Award’ by the BirdLife International which is the world’s largest and the most recognized organization for bird conservation. Her Majesty the Queen Noor of Jordan – Honorary President of BirdLife International then, presented the award to the leader of our delegation Prof. Sarath Kotagama.

Announcement of the BirdLife Conservation Achievement Award to FOGSL
FOGSL delegation to Malaysia after the announcement of the award

PASOC 2000

Late Dr Salim Ali the eminent ornithologist of India and the authority for birds in Asia had a dream to see a functioning of a Pan Asian Ornithological Organization for the ornithologists of Asia. On his birth centenary in 1996, the Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History [SACON]   and the Bombay Natural History Society [BNHS] took up the challenge to organize the first Pan Asian Ornithological Congress (PASOC) in India. The Asian representation was commendable. At its conclusion, FOGSL was nominated to host the 2nd PASOC in Sri Lanka. In the millennium year 2000, FOGSL organized a three day conference in Kandy, with the objectives to follow up and collaborate with BirdLife International in the compilation of the Asian Red Data Book and the launch of the Important Bird Area Programme [IBA] for South Asia.

Important Bird Area Programme Sri Lanka

The IBA programme Phase I was started in the year 2000 with the author coordinating an awareness programme and preliminary survey that went on for almost a year and a half covering the whole country, except for the North and some parts in the East due to the unrest in these areas at the time. Phase II continued with Mr. Chinthaka Kaluthota and the team completing site research, investigations and observations in the target areas. The research achieved immense success with three first ever sightings of species that upgraded the Sri Lankan check list.

Year 2001 marked 25 years of FOGSL and I had been with the organization for five years contributing my knowledge on birds having had my roots in birdwatching also from St. Thomas’ College, Gurutalawa where Professor Sarath Kotagama started as well. I had actively been involved almost full time in bird conservation for ten years by 2005. It was time for me to step down and let others take over, as said before, allowing young blood into the committees. However, once a member of FOGSL you are always a member and is always on call for its needs.

Looking back at the 40 years gone by, FOGSL has achieved much and given much to the country and to the academia in this field. The leadership shown in conservation in the region has been commended and rewarded internationally. It is with gratitude that we remember the co-founders who I’m sure did not expect this much in the field of conservation when they first met in 1976. There are but two of them who have been active throughout; Professor Sarath Kotagama and Mr. Rex I De Silva.

Needless to say, there is one person who will keep going to the end with FOGSL and his name will be indelible in the annals of history in the organization and in the Asian region on bird conservation. It is none other than Professor Sarath Kotagama, the principal co-founder of the Field Ornithological Group of Sri Lanka who is now honored with the highest position for a South Asian in ornithology by being appointed the chairperson for the ‘BirdLife Asia Council’ and being elected to be a Member of the Global Council of BirdLife International.

In conclusion, I am sure Professor Sarath Kotagama will agree with me when saying that the heights to which he has been elevated in the ornithological society both globally and in the Asian region, is replicated to the dedication and the commitment of the committees and the membership of FOGSL during these 40 years. However, there is Ms. Namali Kotagama, his beloved wife who has been alongside him, most of these years, letting him have the much needed time in the field and research work, away from home and family. Thus most of his books are dedicated in gratitude towards them; Namali, and the two children..... Tharini and Odhatha.

Photography credit: Curtsy The First Fifty Years ‘A History of S Thomas’ College Gurutalawa 1942-1992’, FOGSL database, Mr. Hemasiri Kotagama and the author

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Uditha. An excellent tribute to a legendary individual.