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Bell Tower Magazine | Arts and SciencesJanuary 01, 2021

Kannan Studies in Sri Lanka

Written By: Dr. Judith Hansen

This was supposed to be a different story, one about a distinguished UAFS professor embarking on not one, but two prestigious Fulbright awards. Instead, it is a reflection on making the most of the circumstances in which one finds oneself and a lesson in counting one’s blessings.

In late 2019, UAFS biology professor Dr. Ragupathy Kannan, prepared for his second and third Fulbrights: a six-week gig as a Fulbright Specialist in India at Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, followed by a six-month semester at the University of Ruhuna teaching climate change biology.

But 2020 and the novel coronavirus had other plans.

Kannan arrived at Matara, Sri Lanka, in February. After what he described as “seven weeks of bliss,” COVID-19 turned his world topsy turvy. The Fulbright program was suspended worldwide. Although  they were strongly urged to return home, Kannan and his wife, considering the relatively stable health conditions in Sri Lanka and deteriorating circumstances at home, decided to stay put.

The situation is dreary, he says, and the global death toll unspeakable. Prolonged lockdowns have brought misery to many people. But for himself, things could be worse.

“Here I am in a comfortable house, at the end of a winding wooded lane, perched atop a cliff over the clear blue Indian Ocean,” he wrote for the publication Indian BIRDS. “I have a stocked pantry, Internet access, and above all, I am surrounded by abundant birdlife.”

For the lifelong birder, the experience is rich. Kannan has documented 88 species from his balcony, including 7 endemics, unique species found nowhere else in the world.

The balcony, from its height, offers what can only be called a bird’s eye view. On either side of the balcony, he wrote, “are towering trees whose canopies are at eye level.” He is treated to “spectacular aerial displays,” and can record birdsong he might not hear at ground level.

Kannan started at Westark College in 1994 and received his first Fulbright in 2007, teaching at G.P. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in India. After that experience, he brought a faculty member to UAFS under the Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence program and five students from his host university to the University of Arkansas for graduate studies.

Proud of the awards, Kannan said, “It’s a recognition of my more than 25 years of pursuing international research initiatives in the area of environmental biology and climate change.”

He notes the role UAFS has played in his scholarship. The university “has always encouraged me to travel widely to hone my expertise in global ecology and environmental biology. I could not have become an internationally recognized scholar without their constant investments in scholarly activities.”

Today Kannan is grateful to UAFS for allowing him to teach his classes remotely from Sri Lanka.  He is also thankful to the University of Ruhuna for enabling him to extend his stay in Sri Lanka as honorary visiting professor.   

For now, Kannan said, he feels safe. Sri Lanka has had a strong, effective response to the virus, with just 12 deaths in a country with 21 million people.

And there are the birds.

In July, Kannan wrote, “The death toll worldwide nears 600,000 (more than 900,000 at press time). It is hard to shake away the blanket of sadness.”

Late at night, when thoughts about his son “in faraway Arkansas” and his indefinite stay in a foreign country crowd out sleep, he tries to keep his mind on his birding.

“One night it was the magnificent White-bellied Sea Eagle … soaring over my balcony with a snake-like eel in its talons …; another it was the beautiful White-tailed Tropicbird … drifting like a fairy over the ocean,” he wrote.

In dark and uncertain times, his “hobby-turned-profession” is therapeutic. “For that, I am grateful to the birds around us.”