Meet the Staff
We are an extraordinarily dedicated and experienced staff, internationally recognized for our expertise as scientists for field studies of primates. We are also known for our educational expeditions and for helping to popularize knowledge about primate societies through globally televised documentary films.
Our permanent staff includes the director, senior and junior field research assistants, office assistants and support staff. With the exception of the director, all personnel are born and raised in the local communities in which they are the stakeholders. We regularly supplement our personnel with professional collaborators and laymen volunteers from the local and international communities. Learn more about our collaborations
Wolfgang Dittus, PhD: Director
As the director, Dr. Dittus sets the scientific aims, trains others in the research methods and protocols, oversees the work, procures funding for the project, and invites students or collaborators to assist in the research effort. He also assumes responsibility for the dissemination of new scientific knowledge from the research through publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals, scientific meetings, and by way of nature documentary films. He is also active in outreach nature education and conservation programs.
Dr. Dittus had his undergraduate training and experience in geology through McGill University and the International Nickel Company (INCO) in Canada. For his graduate work he switched disciplines to biology, and his graduate education at McGill gave him a foundation in the fields of Physiological Psychology, Behavior and Zoology. He had done experimental studies on the behavioral development (nature vs. nurture) of song in cardinal birds (Richmondena cardinalis). In the USA he graduated with a Ph.D. in Zoology (Behavior and Ecology) from the University of Maryland, College Park based on his field research of toque macaques in Sri Lanka. As a post-graduate he did brief population surveys of sloths and howler monkeys in the forests of Panama.
The early years of his childhood were spent in the Black Forest region of south-western Germany where he acquired an appreciation for nature. This was developed further by life on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and later by many summers camping in the wilderness of the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec. He volunteered and worked in Canadian social welfare programs (Red Feather) as a boys camp leader and instructor. Throughout most of career Dr. Dittus has devoted his studies and teaching focused on nature and the outdoors.
The Primate Biology Program that he leads probes questions of the roots of primate behavior from a multifaceted and interdisciplinary perspective. The long-term studies of wild primate populations that he and his co-workers engage in provide unique and original contributions to our understanding of the adaptive nature of primates and their societies.
Dr. Dittus is Chairman of the Association for the Conservation of Primate Diversity (ACPD) and is a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Conservation Ecology Center, Washington DC, USA (http://nationalzoo.si.edu/default.cfm). He is also a Visiting Scientist at the Institute of Fundamental Studies in Sri Lanka (IFS)
Research Coordinator: Sunil Gunathilake
Sunil joined the program in May 1986 as a Field Research Assistant. In his present position he oversees the running of the project at the field site and supervises the research of other field assistants. He has university training in zoology and is well versed in the biology of primates and of the dry zone forest with its wildlife. He works mostly with toque macaques and can relate the interesting details about the personal life-histories of more than 500 of them. He also does census and ecological studies of the gray langur. Sunil had broadened his experience internationally, having participated in Dr. Rudy Rudran’s (Smithsonian Institution) wildlife course in Uganda. At Polonnaruwa, he deals almost daily with real-life issues of conservation, and this experience has motivated him to engage proactively in nature education in and around Polonnaruwa especially.
In addition to his interests in conservation and primates, he is a keen student of Buddhism and the ancient history and archaeology of Sri Lanka. He plays a key role in the production of documentary films about primates, elephants, and other aspects of natural history.
Mr. Gunathilake is Co-Chairman of the Association for the Conservation of Primate Diversity.
Senior Research Assistant: Chameera Pathirathna
Chameera started work on this program in March 2003. He has since then mastered the art of monkey studies and regularly censuses over 300 toque macaques, all of which he can distinguish individually. Chameera also has taken the effort to follow up on lorises in the forest surrounding our research station. This small patch of forest is known to have a high density of lorises. As a true nature lover, Chameera has nursed many of the patients in our animal hospice. He assists in teaching about monkeys and nature in the Singhala language.
Chameera holds a Certificate in Wildlife Conservation and Management from the Open University of Sri Lanka. He also does a part-time job in the local branch of a major Government bank of Sri Lanka and assists with the financial and logistic dealings of our research station. He has acquired many technical and mechanical skills and he helps to keep our vehicles and other equipment running in good condition.
Research Assistant: Sunil Rathnayake
Sunil came to this program in March 2008. He records and monitors the demographic shifts and behavioral highlights among purple-faced langurs. These monkeys live in the tree tops, where they are often difficult to observe and therefore can pose a challenge to study. Sunil was raised in a rural village near the Mahawelli Flood Plains (Polonnaruwua), where wildlife (especially elephants) and humans often come face-to-face in potential or actual conflict. Sunil brings the experience and skills of this background to the program. He is also skilled in computer technologies.
Research Assistant: Buddika Gunasekera
Buddhika began his position with the program in November 2008. His primary task is to carry out regular census of gray langurs, whose social groups are large and wide ranging. He also helps with some ecological studies of toque macaques. Buddhika, like Sunil, also has a rural background close to nature. He is doing degree studies of Buddhism and History.
Office Assistant and Records Keeper: UHL Chandra
Chandra is in charge of our data bank. She has earned diplomas in Software Applications and Computer Programming. She began her work in July 1991, assisting in the office and doing data entries into the computer. She also transfers our field data from Polonnaruwa into digital files and re-organizes the data with the latest software. She works with records of more than 4,000 individual macaque monkeys, keeping track of their birth-dates, fates and other relevant life-history information. In the last few years she has expanded her work to include records of about 1,000 individual gray and purple-faced langurs. Her husband is our resident photographer, Palitha Handunge from the University of Peradeniya.
Program Administrator: Vatsala Wijekulasuriya
Vatsala is the friendly voice at the other end of the telephone when you call our project. She has several years of successful experience in the airlines industry where handling clients helped to hone her inter-personal skills. She is with the Primate Program since 2005 and she assists with the logistic arrangements for visitors. She had modernized our personnel and general management routines. Her additional skills with IT procedures are an asset for our record keeping, communications and financial accounting procedures.
Chief Cook: Ukku Banda
At our field research station (camp) our cooks make all of our meals. Ukka Banda is the longest serving employee in the program working as the chief cook since 1978. He acquired a repertoire and skill early on working for foreign families in Kandy. He has built up an enviable reputation as an excellent cook of both western and Sri Lankan meals. More than 500 foreign visitors have hailed his cuisine as a “vegetarian’s paradise.” Ukku Banda is also on charge of some logistic needs of the Field Research Station at Polonnaruwa, and he is the “head nurse” for monkey patients in our animal hospital. Ukku Banda is the “heart beat” of the Monkey Camp!
Second Cook – Malini Kumarihami
Malini started with the program in March 1999, and has since then further developed her skills as a cook. Malini also takes command of many other important tasks that keep us and our visitors comfortable at our Research Station at Polonnaruwa.