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A Sri Lankan rescue center races to save wild patients during lockdown

  • The Hiyare wild animal rescue center in southern Sri Lanka has reported a significant increase in the number of injured and orphaned animals brought in during the COVID-19 lockdown.
  • Conservationists attribute this both to the onset of the breeding season for several species, and an increase in farming activity as the lockdown forced people to find other means of livelihood.
  • Caretakers at the rescue center faced multiple challenges securing sufficient supplies of fresh milk and fodder for the animals, many of which they hope to be able to release back into the wild once they are rehabilitated and trained.
  • Initiated in 2008, the Hiyare center has saved and released many animals, but now faces funding uncertainty as a result of the economic impact of the lockdown.

HIYARE, Sri Lanka — Bouts of panic buying quickly cleared supermarket and store shelves with each lifting of Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 curfew to allow residents to stock up on essentials. For some of those who waited in the long lines in the southern district of Galle, the shopping list was a single line: fresh milk. Not for themselves or their families, but for the animals in their care at the Hiyare wildlife rescue center.

Sri Lanka is now easing out of the lockdown that was imposed on March 15, and food shortages aren’t a problem for the most part. But for the more than two months of lockdown, it was rough going at Hiyare, says Sampath Udugampola from the Wild Animal Rescue Program (WARP) that runs the center.

“During the lockdown, we had two sambar deer [Rusa unicolor] calves, a barking deer [Muntiacus muntjak] calf and several purple-faced langurs [Semnopithecus vetulus], all of them needing fresh milk,” he told Mongabay.

This brown fish owl (Ketupa zeylonensis) was treated at the rescue center in 2007 and released after rehabilitation, but a subsequent accident meant the owl had to be taken to a veterinary hospital 300 kilometers (180 miles) away, highlighting the need for an animal hospital for the southern region. Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society Galle.

With demand high and supplies short, the rescue center workers often had to return empty-handed or try other outlets. The sambar calves each required at least 3 liters (6.3 pints) of fresh milk daily. To make up for the shortage, and given the calves were several months old, the workers began introducing them to leafy fodder. But even finding leafy fodder proved difficult, said Sisira Jayasinghe, the WARP manager.

“The daily requirement of leafy fodder is around four to six gunny bags gathered from the area. Often we ended up collecting fodder during curfew hours to ensure our wild patients were fed on time,” he told Mongabay.

Compounding the issue, the number of wild animals brought to the WARP increased during the lockdown. “On an average, we get about 30 ‘wild patients’ each month, with a slight increase during breeding seasons. But during April and May this year, we received about 50 animals every month,” Jayasinghe said.

Orphaned baby monkeys are often handed over to the center by villagers. Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society Galle.

Lockdown coincides with breeding season

The lockdown coincided with the breeding season for many species, including hog deer (Axis porcinus), fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) and several bird species.

“The hog deer prefers abandoned paddy fields as a safe place to securely hide the litter. But the lockdown resulted in a cultivation drive and many abandoned paddy fields were being cultivated by villagers, disturbing the hog deer habitats,” Jayasinghe said.

The rescue center received one hog deer calf during this period. In late May, thunderstorms and strong winds uprooted several trees, many of which held bird nests with newly hatched chicks inside; these fledglings are now housed at the Hiyare rescue center.

A fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) cub being trained to survive in its natural habitats. Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society Galle.

The rescue program was initiated by the Wildlife Conservation Society Galle (WCSG) in 2008 on a site next to a fragmented forest patch, and continues under the guidance of the government’s Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) with support from a local bank. In 2011, the program was expanded with the establishment of an animal hospital. The facility works closely with the DWC’s field office based in another township in Galle, Hikkaduwa.

“This is not just a rescue program. We want to rehabilitate the injured wild animals and release them back to wild as much as possible,” said Madura de Silva, WCSG’s president. Most of the rescued animals are just weeks old. The caretakers serve as foster parents, feeding them by hand until they become more mature.

The rescue center received 388 wild animals in 2019, of which 188 have since been released back into the wild. These include seven of the 16 hog deer taken in last year, 19 of 73 purple-faced langurs, and 47 of 49 Indian rock pythons (Python molurus).

“Some of the animals we receive are badly wounded or too weak that they do not survive,” de Silva told Mongabay. “It is easier to rehabilitate herbivorous animals, but careful training is required to prepare the carnivorous, as they need to learn hunting skills in order to survive in the wild.”

Among the animals rehabilitated and released back into the wild are rusty-spotted cats (Prionailurus rubiginosus) — one of the smallest cat species in the world — fishing cats, and numerous species of owls and eagles. The rescue center also occasionally releases monkeys previously trained and exploited for use in street performances. The rehabilitation process can sometimes take up to six months before the team feels confident that the animals can survive in the wild, de Silva said.

This white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) was rescued at a young age and released after being trained in basic skills. Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society Galle.

Labor of love

The hog deer gets particular attention at the rescue center. This small deer species is believed to have been introduced to Sri Lanka from the Indian subcontinent during the colonial period, with the species later becoming naturalized in a region close to Galle. It was then thought to have gone extinct in the area until two decades ago. Today, the WCSG runs a special rehabilitation center for hog deer on a nearby islet.

“Each year, we receive dozens of hog deer calves, with injuries caused by domestic dogs or water monitor lizards,” Udugampola said. “They are such timid creatures and require special care in order to revive them.”

A wounded eagle being carefully treated at the animal rescue center. Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society Galle.

In 2019, the rescue center also received 21 crested serpent-eagles (Spilornis cheela), many of which had been electrocuted and bore burn injuries. These birds of prey feed mostly on snakes. But they often perch atop electricity pylons, and the snakes dangling from their talons can touch the live wires, electrocuting the birds.

Various monkey species are also vulnerable to the threat of electrocution. In many cases, it’s difficult for the rescue workers to revive electrocuted animals.

The hog deer (Axis porcinus), a naturalized deer species confined to a specific region in southern Sri Lanka, is regularly seen at the rescue center, brought in with injuries caused by accidents or attacks by dogs or other predators. Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society Galle.

Out of lockdown and into funding uncertainty

With the lockdown now easing, the problems for the Hiyare rescue center haven’t ended. Like countless other conservation initiatives worldwide, it faces funding uncertainty — a result of both the pandemic’s impact on the economy and the diversion of donor funds to other initiatives seen as more pressing.

The Hiyare center operates with a small but dedicated team — one rescue officer and two helpers comprise the permanent workforce — so it depends to a large extent on the goodwill and support of volunteers.

“It was never easy, but these animals need support and we want to ensure that recues can be carried out,” de Silva said, “especially at a time when wildlife appears to be threatened by humans.”



Banner image of orphaned baby scops owls (Otus bakkamoena) being fed by caretakers at the wild animal rescue center in Hiyare in southern Sri Lanka. Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society Galle.


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