Microbes, Tigers, and Elephants
By Mohamed F. M. Fairoz
My story of this research began when I first met Dr. Rohwer at the Edwin Pauly Summer Program “Assessing the Health of Pacific Corals” at the HIMB in Hawaii as international student researcher. This was the first time I started to think about the microbial aspect of Coral reef ecology and the microbial involvement in the life and death of coral reefs. Immediately I was envisioning a new study in the Indian Ocean along the coast of Sri Lanka which would surely yield some interesting results! From this date on Forest and I had regular discussions about the role of microbes, the carbon cycle, and how both might govern the ecosystem as a whole. After my first visit to San Diego in 2004 I returned home equipped with new ideas and a set of scientific tools to test them. Shortly after, me and my field assistant Shihan Ahamed set out for the first time to collect microbial and waterchemistry samples and to document the benthic cover at eight strategic sites around the island of Sri Lanka. Although we received immense support from the local fishing community that lives right by these reefs the task proved harder than expected. During this time of reignited civil conflict, after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ended the peace talks in 2003 and boycotted the presidential election later on, we had to pass through jungle, land mines, and rebel camps to get to our sampling sites.
Trincomalee was one of the more remote locations targeted by our sampling approach. We decided to take the southern route through the Jungle of “Buththala“which is part of the Yala Wild Life Sanctuary. As we lost considerable time on the way because of an unexpected encounter with an elephant we had to spend an additional day in Kalmunai city. Travelling by night was not allowed in this area. With one day delay we continued our Journey to Trincomalee. Once we left “Kalmunei” city behind our progress became slower and slower as most of the roads were severely damaged by military activities earlier that year. Located half way from “Kalmunai” city to our final destination was Pasikuda reef, a site which was also on my list to sample. Shortly before we reached the site we got stopped by warning tapes informing us that it was neither safe nor allowed to travel any further as the land ahead of us was strewn with land mines. With this way blocked we had to turn around and take route through Batticaloa city to Trincomalee. To reach the city we would cross an area controlled by rebels. As we knew that an encounter with rebel groups was a likely possibility during this trip we tried to get information from the Sri Lankan army ahead of time on how to avoid potential conflicts. Their general take on this question was that we would likely have no problems if we convincingly told them we are scientist and that we want to examine the reef - which seems rather plausible as our van is full with diving gear and sampling bottles. With this in mind we drove up to the rebel camp check point where we showed our identifications and explained our intentions for travelling this way. Although we had a third travel companion – an armed member of the rebel group - from this point on until we left the rebel controlled land through another checkpoint, it was much quieter in our van on this stretch. From there on we had no further problems and I am still thankful to the community in Trincomalee (Eracakandi village, Nilaweli) which helped us organizing boats and other equipment necessary to reach and sample these reefs.
After I had my set of samples together which spanned all of Sri Lanka on a gradient of anthropogenic disturbance and showed the data to my collaborators in San Diego and it became clear that we saw the same trends of microbial and carbon responses towards human impact across the sites they had sampled in the meantime in other parts of the world. This had to become an interesting story! With all the trouble and hardship in mind I am already looking forward to my next trip which brings me to these remote reefs and their microbial inhabitants around Sri Lanka, particularly on the northern coast which was until recently not accessible due to 25 years of civil war.