Here is a story to freshen the fins and gild the gills even if you are not piscatorially predisposed. I heard the tale from the young Zoologist and Doctor who made the discovery.
Sri Lanka has a fish called Kami or Kami’s Barb or to give it its Linnean name Puntius kamalika. It is an unremarkable, small, silver-grey, fresh-water fish first recorded by Georg Dunker, a German ichthyologist, in 1912. He thought it was the same as a fish found in India, Puntius amphibius, first identified in the early 19th century near Bombay or Mumbai by a German naturalist.
My friend, Anjana Silva, told me how the fish came to be called Kami’s Barb or Puntius kamalika. He, Anjana, was a medical student at the time and spent his weekends being a naturalist splashing around in the rivers, bogs and wetlands of South West Sri Lanka examining fish, frogs, toads, crocodiles, snakes and any life that came his way.
A New Species
He was familiar with Puntius amphibius, it is common enough in Sri Lanka, until he looked closely. The markings were slightly different from those of the Indian fish, the number and disposition of the scales was not the same and there were internal differences in the bone structure when he came to dissect specimens.
Back in the lab, DNA analysis showed it to be unique and rigorous taxonomical analysis revealed it to be a different species.
Tradition allows the discoverer of a new species to name it and most name the new animal after themselves; Puntius silva would seem a good name as the fish is silver coloured but this is the story of how it came to be Puntius kamalika.
Near Tangalle, site of the finest beaches on the South coast of Sri Lanka there was a serious road accident in 1998. Dr Kamalika Abeyaratne, a paediatrician known as Kami, was driving to conduct a clinic for disabled children but found herself air-lifted to hospital in Colombo with multiple fractures and internal bleeding. During life-saving surgery she needed a blood transfusion but pulled through and began to recover.
One month later she became ill with hepatitis; confirmed by a blood test. Unknown to her, the blood was also tested for HIV/AIDS.
Someone leaked the positive result of the AIDS test to the public such that Dr Abeyaratne was one of the last to hear about it. ‘It was,’ she said ‘the beginning of the end of my life.’
Hospitals refused to treat her, doctors to help her and parents would not allow her to care for their children. She was ostracised by her former colleagues, her career as a paediatrician over.
During the enquiry into how she came to have been given contaminated blood, for that was the source of the hepatitis and AIDS, the hospital concerned suggested that she already had AIDS before the transfusion. The hospital was found guilty of neglect for their supply of contaminated blood. The President was sympathetic and funded her expensive drug treatment.
The Only Limits
She was forced to give up her practice. ‘It left a large void in my life, an emptiness that nothing can really fill.’ But fill it, she did. Not one to quit, she had had death threats from the JVP political party when they ordered doctors not to work in a bid to cripple the government during an uprising in 1988. She continued working, others who disobeyed the JVP were shot.
Dr Kamalika Abeyaratne became a champion of AIDS sufferers in Sri Lanka. ‘The only limits are those I impose on myself,’ she decided. The disease had been denied by the authorities, then hidden and because of the stigma attached, patients were reluctant to be tested and come forward for treatment. She found out how many patients Sri Lanka had, where they were, set up clinics and treatment regimes and gave them a voice with the Health Authorities.
She received accolades and honours towards the end of her life in 2004, aged 70, when her brother-in-law, Hilary Abeyaratne, wrote her biography ‘A Life in the Round’.
Anjana Silva, still a medical student and learning about AIDS and other infections, read the book and was as encouraged by her determination and dedication as he was ashamed of the negative and hostile attitudes of his professional colleagues to a fellow professional. How could he honour and perpetuate her name and redress the injustices she had suffered? When the fish he discovered was given the status of a new species he knew what to call it.
Anjana is a remarkable naturalist, he has discovered five new species of fish, two previously unknown lizards and is currently studying a snake called the Hump Nosed Viper of which two forms are known and he has some evidence of a third variety.
Now we have a fish called Kami – when you see a small silver fish, think of Dr Kamalika Abeyaratne and her determination against the odds; allow some of her courage and perseverance into your own life.
ANJANA SILVA, KALANA MADUWAGE & ROHAN PETHIYAGODA (2008) Puntius kamalika, a new species of barb from Sri Lanka (Teleostei: Cyprinidae). Zootaxa 1824: 55–64 www.mapress.com/zootaxa