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Mendis Wickramasinghe | (Pic by Venura Chandramalitha)

Herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe’s book ‘Repertoire’ wins accolades at the 2016 State Literary Festival

Herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe, by all means, gives the impression that he isn’t afraid of even the devil. With his hair tied into a ponytail and sporting a neatly cropped beard, Mendis breaks into a smile when approached by anyone- a smile that tells us that he believes in love and affection. He loves serpents and all animal forms of life that live in the jungle.

A few days ago, he was in the news for unearthing a serpent and a gecko. He has sent his research papers to a world renowned journal called Zootaxa which will review his findings before publishing them.

“As much as it gives a sense of accomplishment when we herpetologists make a finding, it is also equally important to get this kind of work published in an international journal,” explains Mendis during an interview with Nation.

His most recent findings were a serpent (Dendrelaphis Sinharajensis) and a frog. He says that these findings are pending a review and will take time before they are published in journals. He stresses during the interview done at his residence in Wattala that the review process takes time and one needs to have patience. He also takes the opportunity to affirm that some newspapers are rather impatient to publish findings of herpetologists and as a result carry misinformation to the public.

“This is why there are processes like the Harvard Review System. This system even encourages newspaper editors to show the article to the interviewee before it is published so that errors can be eliminated,” explains Mendis.

While Mendis chats with this scribe, a kid of about six years gets on to the sofa we are seated on without an invitation. He is one of Mendis’ two sons, both, according to him have a fair knowledge of serpents and wild animals. A few minutes later, a lady brings us coffee. Mendis introduces her as Nethu Wickramasinghe, his wife who has undertaken to do the genetic work associated with his findings.

Mendis hails from Kalutara. The love for serpents grew in him when he was very young. In 1989, he joined the Young Zoologists’ Association and by 1998, he was conducting lectures on the subject. He joined the World Conservative Union in 1999 and worked for this body as an ecologist. He is also the founder president of the Herpetological Foundation of Sri Lanka.

He says that he receives the blessings of his family, relatives and even neighbours for his work. “The serpent has been portrayed as a dangerous reptile due to lack of knowledge. Even the lines Visagora sarpaya, daka nera modaya (the one who sees a poisonous serpent and doesn’t avoid it is a fool) from the popular poem give a distorted message regarding serpents. There are other lines to this poem which give a larger picture of the world of reptiles in which not so venomous serpents too exist,” says Mendis.

He is not the product of the popular education process where university education is considered as a great achievement. He does his own studies and is in a group comprising six to seven herpetologists who make it a point to share knowledge. At present, he also plays the role of visiting lecturer in selected universities.

In his quest to step into places people have never been to Mendis has been successful in making 23 new descriptions to date. He has discovered 11 frogs, seven geckos, three skinks and two snakes. He also rediscovered three frogs. In these instances, the amphibians were rediscovered after a lapse of over a hundred years.

He talks about the serpent having its pride of place in places of worship like temples. Mendis opines that even during the time of the Buddha, there was a story that a great snake had once arrived and given shelter to the Enlightened One during adverse weather conditions.

“Even from a spiritual perspective we say that bad qualities in a human must be suppressed like the subduing of a serpent,” he says.

Mendis, due to his love for serpents, has made an identity for himself in his chosen profession. The book penned by him under the title Repertoire won awards for the Best Publication in the category Science and Social Sciences and Best Layout and Design at the 2016 State Literary Festival.

As for people like Mendis, there is nothing yucky about the world of serpents. Here is a man who can make the study of reptiles interesting like renowned filmmaker Stephen Spielberg turning anything ordinary into a film that generates interest.

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