ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 08

Back to the beginning of a botanical and zoological journey

The glorious history of Sri Lankan biodiversity - Pearls, Spices and Green Gold: An Illustrated History of Biodiversity Exploration in Sri Lanka, by Rohan Pethiyagoda, 2007. WHT Publications (Private) Limited, Colombo. 242 pages. ISBN 955-9114-38-3. Reviewed by Dr. Priyantha Wijesinghe, Department of Natural and Applied Sciences (Biology), City University of New York, U.S.A.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great Swedish naturalist and systematizer of the living world, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), often called “the father of taxonomy”, who (as every high school student knows) devised the scientific naming system for plants, animals and other organisms that we use to this day.

To celebrate the Linnaean Tercentenary, natural history museums and Linnaean Societies the world over from Uppsala and Stockholm to London and Sydney have issued commemorative publications and organized special exhibitions and lectures. Here in Sri Lanka where there seems to be little official appreciation or encouragement of that spirit of exploration of nature it has fallen upon a private individual to produce a book to mark this event.

Rohan Pethiyagoda first became known to those interested in Sri Lankan natural history with the publication of his Freshwater Fishes of Sri Lanka in 1991. Since then he and his associates of the Wildlife Heritage Trust have caused the flickering flame of zoological taxonomy in Sri Lanka to burn brightly. Over the past two and a half decades research by Rohan Pethiyagoda and his Wildlife Heritage Trust group in Sri Lanka (and collaborators abroad) has brought about a virtual revolution in our understanding of the diversity of the island’s smaller vertebrates and crustaceans and highlighted the precarious state of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. Throughout his work the author has shown a deep appreciation for the contributions of his predecessors and, in addition to his numerous scientific publications on vertebrates, has written major biographical accounts of pioneers in the field of Sri Lankan natural history and facilitated the publication of biographical accounts of many other naturalists. One cannot think of anyone more qualified to write a book on the history of biodiversity exploration in Sri Lanka than Rohan Pethiyagoda.

Oil painting of Sri Lanka’s endemic pitcher plants and Banded Peacock butterflies by Marianne North painted during a visit to the island in 1876, now in the North Gallery at Kew Gardens, London

And what a book he has produced! Pearls, Spices and Green Gold takes the reader on a marvellous journey back in time to the beginnings of scientific knowledge of Sri Lanka’s plants and animals and then traces developments in botanical and zoological exploration of the island up to about 1990. The book is divided into three main sections. The first section consists of three chapters (‘The quest for cinnamon’, ‘The search for pearls’, ‘The plantation raj’), the first two of which connect European interest in cinnamon and other spices and in the pearl oyster fishery to the origins of botanical and zoological exploration in Sri Lanka. The third chapter in this section sketches the direct and indirect impacts on biodiversity exploration of the coffee and tea plantations established in the 19th century, and the massive destruction of montane and wet-zone habitats that resulted from them. This initial section of three chapters provides an appropriate backdrop against which the detailed story of the discovery and description of Sri Lanka’s plants and animals is told in the two sections that follow.

The author employs a conventional chronological narrative in his account of the history of botanical exploration in Sri Lanka, but relies in part on an alphabetically arranged series of naturalists’ biographies to tell the story of the discovery of Sri Lanka’s fauna. The book is filled with fascinating details of the lives of the naturalists who contributed in so many ways to our knowledge of Sri Lanka’s flora and fauna and describes the historical events that made their work possible.

As indicated by its subtitle the book is profusely illustrated throughout and includes portraits of many of the naturalists mentioned, photographs of title pages and other parts of classic works on Sri Lanka’s plants and animals, and reproductions of sample pages and plates of manuscript works of historical importance, some evidently never published before. Linnaeus himself features prominently in the history of botanical exploration of Sri Lanka, his Flora Zeylanica (1747) being one of the few local floras written by the famous botanist- naturalist. This itself was based on the herbarium formed in Sri Lanka by Paul Hermann (1646-1695) who collected plants while stationed in Colombo in 1672-1677. [Incidentally, readers who wish to view Hermann’s Sri Lanka herbarium may do so via the internet, as The Natural History Museum in London (where it is deposited) has digitized all five volumes and made them accessible at the museum’s website.]

In addition to its main text and illustrations Pearls, Spices and Green Gold has a number of fascinating vignettes that focus on specific individuals or topics not central to the main narrative, such as that on Marianne North, the Victorian botanical artist who visited Sri Lanka in 1876-77, or the one explaining the origin of the name ‘Sloth Bear’.

The endemic Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, from John Gould’s Birds of Asia (1850-83)

In the final section of the book, dealing with the discovery and description of the island ’s fauna, the author remarks: “The history of scientific zoological exploration in Sri Lanka is not as easy to narrate as that of botany because zoology never had an institutional focus as botany did at the herbarium and botanic gardens at Peradeniya.” This is a valid point but does not explain why the exploration of Sri Lanka’s animal diversity has been fragmentary and has lagged behind botanical exploration. This disparity is not peculiar to Sri Lanka and is at least partly due to the fact that the methods of preservation of specimens, the morphological diversity of taxa and the systematic literature show greater uniformity in botany than in zoology. Plant specimens that are pressed and dried (still the main method of preservation) are easier to curate and less prone to destruction than zoological specimens that range from ‘wet’ (e.g. in alcohol) collections, pinned dry collections of insects, and ‘skins’ of birds and mammals, in addition to skeletons, mounted specimens, etc. Limitations of personnel and resources have strained the Department of National Museums’ ability to function even as a simple depository of natural history specimens. As pointed by the author, the expectation of the museum’s founder (William Gregory) that cultural and natural history collections and research could satisfactorily be served under one roof has not been realised.

Although the Department of National Museums does not feature in the story of zoological exploration in Sri Lanka to the extent that the herbarium and botanic gardens at Peradeniya do in the history of botanical exploration, thanks to the efforts of its early directors, and personnel such as the entomologist G. M. Henry, the museum still houses a significant collection of zoological specimens, particularly of insects, birds and mammals, and has a valuable collection of natural history publications in its library. The insect collection includes many specimens that have been identified by comparison with reliably determined specimens at the Natural History Museum in London as well as identified specimens resulting from the Smithosonian Insect Project. This collection is an extremely valuable resource that one hopes will be curated satisfactorily for future study.

The list of individuals who have contributed to our knowledge of plant and animal diversity in Sri Lanka is extensive. Sadly, we know very little about some pioneer naturalists whose contributions were very significant.

The availability of biographical information and portraits seems to have influenced the inclusion of some zoologists in this book, with the result that the space allocated to certain individuals seems disproportionate to their contributions. One could certainly wish for more information on John Nietner (died 1874), “the late Prussian-born British subject” (as one writer described him in 1887), who did so much for the study of insects and other animals in Sri Lanka, both through his own studies on beetles and on the insect pests of the coffee tree and, especially, by sending collections of various groups to experts in Europe for description and naming.

Anyone with the slightest interest in Sri Lanka’s wildlife has come across the names of Loten, Kelaart, Layard, Phillips, Henry and Deraniyagala. Few are likely to be equally familiar with the names of Pieter De Bevere, Alois Humbert, the cousins Sarasin or Ludwig Plate. Yet all of these naturalists and very many more have a place in the history of biodiversity exploration in Sri Lanka and this amazing book details their lives and contributions with profound scholarship.

It is often stated by those who are insufficiently familiar with the history and literature on Sri Lanka’s biodiversity that nothing is known, or has been published, on this or that group.

As Rohan Pethiyagoda describes in this book, a significant amount of information on the plant life and animals of Sri Lanka has been accumulating steadily over many centuries, and while it is true that much remains to be discovered, the achievements of pioneers in natural history exploration in the island should serve as an inspiration to all who would follow in their footsteps. It has clearly been an inspiration to the author himself, and one hopes that this splendid volume will inform and inspire others in the same way.

Pearls, Spices and Green Gold will be launched following the Linnean Tercentenary Lecture by Rohan Pethiyagoda at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, Independence Square, at 5.30 p.m. on Monday July 23. The event is open to the public.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.