Ian Lockwood

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Remembering Martin Wijesinghe (a Personal Narrative)

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Poster of Martin Wijesinghe. The picture captures a rare mischievous smile taken in 2015 during an OSC DP Geography IA visit. The three endemic species were all photographed within sight of his guest house while he was alive. (all photos by the author).

In November last year Martin Wijesinghe passed away at the advanced age of 82. He was and continues to be intimately associated with the remarkable story of the protection of a logged forest that became the resplendent Sinharaja Man & Biosphere reserve. This large area of lowland and montane tropical rainforest in the Rakwana hills of south western Sri Lanka was a bleak and unappreciated landscape five decades ago. The forest was the site of industrial logging before a hard fought non-violent citizen’s campaign in the 1970s put a stop to that plan. Nearly 50 years later, Sinharaja has made an astounding recovery, illustrating the resilience of nature to recover after harmful human activities. Martin lived through this period of transition serving in the agency that sought to profit from timber and then becoming a guardian and voice for its conservation.

In Sri Lanka, Martin’s story is the stuff of legends. He worked in the Forest Department serving in a variety of roles. He started as a cook but when his sharp naturalist skills were recognized he extended himself into guiding and supporting researchers who were studying forest dynamics and species in the early 1980s. He had interactions with leading scientists such as Professor Balasubramaniyam, P.B. Karunarathne, Nimal and Savitri Gunatilleke, Peter Ashton and Sarath Kotagama. My understanding is that it was Professor Kotagama that encouraged Martin to set up a guest house for bird watchers in the early 1990s. Uditha Wijesena’s blog post from 2016 on Martin details these facets of his beginnings as a conservationist. By the turn of the century Martin was known as the man to go to if you wanted to know about Sinharaja.

Snapshots from my first visit to Sinharaja with Anna Lockwood in March 2000. From top: catching a ride to Sinhagala with a researcher (note the open roads that are now under the forest canopy), Ian with Martin after one of the long hikes, with the two Finnish birdwatchers on the veranda at Martin’s place. (photos taken by Anna Lockwood)

Early Personal Forays

I first heard about Martin through publications from the Oriental Bird Club (OBC). In the mid-1990s I was dipping my toes in the world of serious birdwatching and become a member of the OBC. Birding complimented my interest in natural history, landscapes and efforts to document their changes in key South Asian habitats. I had just started working as a teacher in Bangladesh and one of my first steps was to invest in a pair of Leica Trinovid binoculars (a purchase that took a good year of saving to afford). On weekends I started going on birding expeditions with the towering pioneers of the field in Bangladesh including Dave Johnson, Paul Thompson, Ronnie Halder and Enam Ul Haque. Their stories and articles from the OBC’s journals led me to Thailand and also helped me better understand the unique birds of the southern Western Ghats. In 1997 the OBC published a thin but enormously valuable supplement entitled A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (part of OBC Bulletin). The pamphlet written by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Lester Perera, Jeevan William, Deepal Warakagoda and Nirma de Silva Wijeyeratne emphasized the importance of Sinharaja as the key site to visit for most Sri Lankan endemics and notable species. In those days there was only one place to stay at in Sinharaja and it was run by a man named Martin.

In April 2000 my cousin Anna and I found ourselves negotiating rough, monsoon-gouged roads in an uncertain direction towards the Kudawa entrance of Sinharaja. Sri Lanka, its food, culture and people were familiar because of our family’s long connections in the northern areas of the island. Our grandfather Edson had been a birder accompanying Sid Bunker on many an outing in the wetlands and coastal areas around Vaddukkodai in the 1940-60s. Now a half century later the grandkids were on their own adventure in a very different part of this diverse island.

The route to Martin’s was not clear and our van driver was new to the area. At the time, Sinharaja was far off the beaten path for most tourists. The driver became quite agitated in the final few kilometers as the old logging road wound its way up through small home gardens and tea plantations from Kudawa to Martin’s place. It took 4-5 hours from Colombo (today we can do the trip in 2.5 hours thanks to the vastly improved roads). Upon arrival we were greeted by Martin and his family. His place was simple with 3-5 rooms that were grouped around his family home and a plot of tea on the edge of the forest. There was no power or solar-heated water but we were in a superb birding location. A partially covered verandah with a dining table was where we spent most of the time when we weren’t walking. It overlooked the edge of secondary forest that had been logged three decades earlier. Across the valley towering emergent trees created a wall of undisturbed rainforest vegetation. We sipped tea and waited for different feathered delights to fly over. Anna and I dedicated four days to Sinharaja and had a chance to explore the key trails to the Research Center, Sinhagala and Moulawella peaks. In the evenings we spoke with Martin, enjoyed the company of two very serious Finnish birdwatchers and tallied our lists of species seen.

In 2005, married to Raina and with our son Lenny aged 18 months, I returned to Sri Lanka to teach IB Diploma Geography and Environmental Systems at the Overseas School of Colombo. Previous to my arrival, there was low enthusiasm for conducting the required IA field work. It was an anxious time as the war was raging in the north of the island. In my job interviews I proposed conducting the field work using the safe and homey location of Martin’s as a base. Laurie McLellan, the Head of the School, seemed interested and perhaps my enthusiasm for both Sinharaja and Sri Lanka helped secure my contract. On my first visit with students in October 2005 I was lucky to be able to request Professor Kotagama and his PhD student Chaminda Pradeep Ratnayake to accompany us. That really helped as I started to establish learning and data collection routines for the students in the forest. Over the years the focus of the data collection has gone from ecology-oriented studies to looking at human interactions in the landscape outside of the protected area boundaries. The learning experiences were successful (we recently completed the 17th IA study) and we continue to come back for annual studies-usually in May at the end of the DP1 academic year.

Martin’s Forest Lodge played host to OSC classes over the final 16 years of his life. The place grew in a somewhat haphazard manner; new rooms were added and the verandah area was enlarged. Around 2018 grid electricity was extended to Kudawa. Sadly the home-made dynamos that Martin had rigged up went into disrepair. Meanwhile the secondary forest grew and today there are virtually no signs of the ravages of the logging in the 1970s. When you stay at Martin’s it is a true home stay and after a few nights you are part of the family. That family is now global and includes most serious birders and naturalists who have visited Sri Lanka as well as the many Sri Lankans who visit regularly. I always enjoy interacting with other visitors who have come to Martin’s with a similar approach to escaping the city in search of Sinharaja’s serenity and enormous diversity. I’ve crossed paths with Deepal Warakagoda, Sarinda Unamboowe, Michal & Nancy van der Poorten, Vimukthi Weeratunga, Uditha Hettige, Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana, Mevan Piyasena and many others while at Martin’s.

Martin has left us with a legacy of love and respect for Sinharaja and Sri Lanka’s rainforests. Through his life and efforts so many of us have learnt to love what previous generations might have dismissed as a leech-infested, jungle only worth its weight in timber.

Over the years OSC geography students have had a chance to speak with Martin and learn more about his experiences in Sinharaja.

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OSC students from the class of 2020 speaking with Martin. Luca asking questions next to Rashmi and Anouk. Josh and Arnav are also seen while Savi, Seth and Neha are out of the frame. Taken on the delayed IA study that happened in September 2019.

REFERENCES

de Silva Wijeyeratne Gehan, Lester Perera, Jeevan William, Deepal Warakagoda and Nirma de Silva Wijeyeratne. “A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka.” OBC Bulletin Supplement. 1997. Link.

de Silva Wijeyeratne Gehan. Birds of Sri Lanka: A Pictorial Guide and Checklist. Colombo: Jetwings, 2010. Web.

Gunatilleke, Nadidra. “Martin Wijesinghe: Unofficial ‘caretaker’ of Sinharaja.” Daily News. 1 April 2019. Web.

Raṇasiṃha, Ḍaglas Bī. The Faithful Foreigner: Thilo Hoffmann, the Man who Saved Sinharaja. 2015. Colombo: A. Baur & Co. (Pvt.) Ltd , 2015.  Print.

Wijesena, Uditha.  “Martin Wijesinghe ……of Sinharaja Fame.” Uditha Wijesena Blog.  2016. Web.

Wijesinghe, Martin. “Nesting of Green-billed Coucals Centropus chlororhynchos in Sinharaja, Sri Lanka.” Forktail 1999. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2022-03-01 at 8:20 am

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