Leaving Footprints

Taking nothing but memories!

What lies beneath

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We had another study site to visit called Biyagama and I was told it was quite a tuk-tuk drive away, which was fine by me as I love them, I’d bring one home if I could. I suppose they reflect my nature, excitable and not all together there. Our tuk-tuk driver/ field assistant, Maduranga, finds my obsession with them highly amusing, especially when I become really animated if we drive past a tuk sales lot. I can’t help it, they’re adorable and they come flat-packed! It’s like an Ikea car!

Anyway, I digress. The site is owned by a clothing manufacturer located within an industrial estate. As with everything in Sri Lanka you’re required to obtain permission, via multiple bits of signed paper, before you can go anywhere or do anything. So before we could actually get excited about faeces, pugmarks or anything colourful we had to skulk around an odd little office playing hide-and-seek with our permission slips. After the usual confusion with their nonsensical system we continued on our way. I’m not just being a jack-ass foreigner when criticizing their ‘system’ because it’s different from what I’m used to, it’s an honest observation. Neither the people that worked in the office nor Anya had any idea where to look. Only after a few phone calls and a bit of luck did we find them.

Anyway, slips in hand we rolled up to a large set of gates, had our IDs and permission forms checked, then proceeded to get lost in the labyrinth that was the industrial estate. The study site was located beyond the perimeter fence of the factory. After 10 minutes of attempting to acquire a gate key which, once again, required our hide-and-seek skills, we weaved between steaming hot machinery, scrambled down a steep hill and stopped in front of a wall of foliage. Both Anya and Maduranga’s faces were blank, how had they got into the wetlands last time? With the climate in Sri Lanka everything grows at a breakneck speed so any entry points which had been used during their last visit were well and truly grown over. It reminded me of the scene from The Two Towers where you first encounter Fangorn Forest and think ‘Holy crap that’s wild, there is going to be so much lurking in there’.

Fangorn Forest - The Two Towers

Fangorn Forest – The Two Towers

As we looked for an entrance I noticed small plants dotted among the grass. I couldn’t believe it, Mimosa pudica, I’d seen them in garden centres back home and the smallest plants retail at about £5.95 (approx 1,200 rupees). They’re endlessly entertaining as their leaves close up if you poke them. Curious as to my manic squeaking, Anya walked over and I explained that if she was ever in desperate need of funds for the project she could make a small fortune by shipping these plants to the UK. She and Maduranga both cracked up.

nidi-kummm

Mimosa/ Nidikumba

In Sri Lanka Mimosa (or nidikumba as it’s locally known) is no more than a weed, needless to say every time we come across it, and it’s as often as a dog licks his balls, we can’t help but smile. Once again I had to stop myself becoming engrossed in non-relevant things and focus on the job.

In an effort to tread down the overgrown greenery and create a new path, we resorted to taking stupid high steps and looked like absolute morons, somewhat reminiscent of a child at Christmas attempting to use those weird bucket stilt things that some clueless relative had bought for it. The plants hid a multitude of pot holes, rocks and other trippy-over things. It was amazing I managed not to break my Bambi legs. Slowly, we descended down the hill below the tree line. After many conversations mocking Anya’s short stature, it seemed she had the advantage in accessing this hidden wetland. I could only –Quasimodo style– shuffle through the garrotting-level branches. Eventually, I managed to stand up and survey my surroundings. This was a different kind of beautiful to Thalawathugoda. It was more wild and oh so quiet. The trees formed a low canopy above us hiding the sky. It felt like another world. There were innumerable streams snaking between the trees, large patches of ferns covered the ground and shafts of sunlight streamed through the breaks in the canopy. I’m not going to say it was magical because, for me, that conjures up images of glittery trees with a poncy unicorn prancing around in the distance. But I will say that it was like something straight out of a story book.

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Our objective for the day was to identify signs of fishing cats and to place six camera traps in areas likely to snap a glimpse. Once again we found ourselves with noses to the ground –it was pugmark hunting time! The substrate was great for it, soft and slightly squishy mud. Maduranga and his beady eyes came across the first set of prints. They were teeny and slightly smooshed (yes, that’s a technical term), making it difficult to be certain what they were, but based on their size, we went with civet prints. We continued to scour the area and after about 15 minutes we heard confused muffled voices. The  factory which was allowing us to conduct our study was happy for their employees to join us if they were interested and had time and it seemed that two were.

We didn’t expect them to have field clothes, but we cast horrified glances at each other when we saw they were wearing new-looking white trainers. It wasn’t just that this site was muddy, there were sections of the ground that looked as firm as the rest but as soon as you applied pressure it sucked your feet straight down covering them in smelly, brown ooze. In addition, some of the streams were quite wide, although luckily not deep, and the only way to get across was to walk through them. Man, did I love my Saloman boots! I could walk through water almost up to my ankles and still have bone dry feet. But for these guys I could foresee soggy brown stinky shoes.

No matter how delicately they hopped, skipped and stepped, like a vindictive child throwing its dinner around, the wetlands eventually covered their shoes in gunk. There was the odd yelp followed by a satisfying squelch as someone took a wrong step and had to pull their foot back out of the bowels of the earth. Despite this they were still pleasingly interested and enthusiastic. We saw some tiny fish swimming around in some of the larger streams and I came across my first porcupine prints. They reminded me slightly of the water monitor prints I’d seen at the first site as they were also very spikey toed. Then we came across porcupine prints and THEN porcupine prints and THEN, yep, more porcupine prints. I was now definitely a pro at identifying porcupine tracks. Don’t get me wrong they were very interesting but I desperately wanted to see fishing cat pugmarks.

After 20 minutes of fruitless searching Anya decided we should try the far side of site. This area was a tad trickier to get to. The streams were much wider and were a bit too deep to cross –at least, that was the case for everyone else. Good old gangly limbs here could just stretch and leap. Unfortunately my smugness was short lived, the wetland it seemed wasn’t best pleased with the ease with which I was moving about and decided to teach me a lesson. I took a mighty leap and I immediately regretted my decision. My right leg disappeared to half way up my shin, what little balance I possessed left me in an instant and I began to fall as elegantly as a felled oak. Luckily my stretch-arm-strong ability kicked in and just before my arse touched the water I grabbed a low hanging tree branch and swung myself into a pile of ferns. Hastily, I stood up, but just as I thought I’d got away with it I saw Maduranga laughing – damn, so close!

Everyone eventually made it to the far end and almost immediately we began finding fishing cat tracks. YAY! We identified 3 main areas which showed high animal activity and attached our traps to the trees. To entice the cats into the shot Anya had brought some wild cat lure, the main constituent of which is ocelot urine. From working with 2 male ocelots at the zoo I knew this was going to be potent. The small bottle was unscrewed and one of the factory volunteers took a sniff, he said he didn’t mind the smell, in fact it was quite nice. How odd. Maybe it had so many other ingredients in it that the urine was masked? I took a large sniff, rooky error! It was like someone had flushed my nose with rotten fish and held my face over a bottle of ammonia. This guy was either an evil genius or seriously needed to see a doctor.

We placed a few drops of the lure within the field of view for each camera and left. I couldn’t wait to come back within a week and check them. The reason I love camera traps is because they remind me of when cameras used to have rolls of film and you had to wait while they were developed. As good as modern cameras are, the immediate display of your pictures does take the fun out of it.

Due to other project priorities we ended up leaving the cameras for almost 2 weeks. When we came to review just over 1500 pictures we found we’d caught 1 water monitor, 3 different groups of people, 2 species of bird, a squirrel, 2 species of civet, 2 domestic dogs and porcupines. The porcupines featured in 980 of the pictures! I was no longer a fan of porcupines. We hadn’t captured any pictures of fishing cats. Although it is interesting to note that when we went back to collect the cameras, we found more pugmarks but this time they were on the opposite side of the study site to our trap area. If it hadn’t been for the heavy rain flooding out large portions of the ground surrounding our cameras, I would swear that they’d moved over deliberately just to annoy us.

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Author: The Travelling Cat Lady

Conservation field assistant with a massive passion for small cats, vultures and food

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