This Other Eden Is Second To None


by Lakshman Ratnapala
Global Tourism Executive,
Author and Journalist

Photos By Isuru Dayananda

Wildlife and Nature Photographer of Wilpattu Wilderness Journeys

It is nearly half a century since I transferred from the Dept. of Wildlife Conservation to the then Ceylon Tourist Board and was posted to the U.S.A. In the intervening years, I have trudged the concrete jungles of the capital cities of the world, but my love of the natural jungles of this other Eden has remained undimmed. So it was that having retired to domicile in Sri Lanka, I was determined to explore the land, check out the new developments, especially in tourism and identify what has changed for the better in the intervening years, albeit handicapped in mobility by being confined to my electric scooter or a wheelchair.

Although I have been South recently, I avoided visiting the Ruhuna (Yala) National Park and postponed it to a better day as I had read about too many problems there including over visitation and I decided that in fairness to everybody concerned, problems such as these would necessitate a closer look, rather than a cursory glance.

Adult and juvenile leopards (Panthera pardus kotiya) at Wilpattu: Photo by Isuru Dayananda

In late March, I was in a remote village, way beyond the old farming settlements, off the left bank of Kalawewa. The village is so off beat that you wouldn’t find it even on the latest 2019 edition of the Road Map of Sri Lanka. It has however acquired a sort of healthy notoriety as the location of an amazing veda mahattaya who prescribed herbal medicines for neurological disorders. Whereas some of the best specialist doctors in the West usually took about an hour meticulously checking out the symptoms before diagnosing my case as a neurological disorder, atypical Parkinson’s Disease, this indigenous physician did so within seconds by merely checking my pulse! He did not name it, because he probably had not heard of Parkinson’s Disease which is alien to Ayurveda and is unknown to the Sinhala pharmacopoeia. But I digress.......

 On the return journey we took a different route via Nochchiyagama because I wanted to check out the  much ballyhooed hotel developments off Kandakuli at the virtual tip of the Puttalam peninsula.  However, as we passed Maragahawewa, I changed my mind again as the call of the jungle rang in my ears and I ordered my chauffeur to turn right and head towards Hunuvilagama, the entrance to the Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka’s largest, located at the Northwest corner of the island and world renowned for leopard sightings in broad daylight.

Mamma bear and baby bear (Melursus ursinus inomatus) at Wilpattu - Photo by Isuru Dayananda

It was Wednesday, 27th March, 2019. At the Park Office, the senior staff, recognizing my disability graciously came out to greet me in the car and received me warmly as a former member of their fraternity. Some of them remembered me as the Editor of the Department’s popular Wildlife Bulletin.  On enquiry, I was told the Park bungalows were all full. I told them to book the best guest house closest to the Park. We reminisced for a while about the "good old days", when we had committed ourselves to improving the infrastructure inside the Park, such as construction of a new wewa which we named Percy Bendi Wewa in honor of the legendary Park Warden, Percy de Alwis and the work of improving visitor facilities and staff welfare.

It was well past noon and we retired to the Dolosmahe Guest House, a superb air conditioned facility with a glass frontage, well hidden in a thicket of natural and planted trees one of which laden with papaya seemed awkwardly stunted. I was told this was because recently an elephant had chomped off the top part of the tree! The Guest House is owned and operated by a young couple, the husband, Susil Kumara always busy as a bee and his charming wife, Shamindra, versatile, always sporting a smile good for any toothpaste advertisement. On our arrival at her hostelry it was she who met us, offered us local fruit juice to cool us from the burning heat of the day and arranged for a safari vehicle for a tour of the Park.

Sri Lanka’s national bird, the junglefowl (Gallus lafayettii) takes flight: photo by Isuru Dayananda.

It was well past the lunch hour when my wife Barbara felt it would be more appropriate to take our noonday siesta, rather than set off on a safari in the blazing sun. But, we did, with only 3 ginger biscuits, small cup of yogurt, 3 slices of Kotmale cheese and a bottle of water each. The best safari vehicles had apparently gone ahead of us with other visitors, mostly foreigners.  We left in an older vehicle, with no shock absorbers, or so we felt as we trundled along literally being thrown from one side of the vehicle to the other as the driver negotiated pot holes and ridges on the dirt tracks inside the Park. However, we felt compensated by the very knowledgeable driver who served as our self-appointed guide and companion.

Soon we passed Percy Bendi Wewa, which I was delighted to see was full of the life-giving water with lilies floating on the surface. But there were no animals in sight, not even a jackal or spotted deer, usually plentiful in the Park. The driver seemed frustrated as he maneuvered the vehicle, from one waterhole to another.We saw the Maradanmaduwa bungalow reconstructed after its destruction by the Tamil Tiger terrorists. It can now accommodate up to 60 guests in dormitory style.

Then there appeared the first signs of life in a villu with a small islet of raised ground with several trees on it. At the water’s edge were two pairs of adult painted stork and opposite them on the nearer shore was a pair of juvenile pond heron. We moved on and staring at us was a large grey-brown serpent eagle perched on a fork on a tree by the road, on both sides of which the dense underbrush had been cleared to enable growth of fodder for ungulates and for better viewing of animals.

 Other residents of Wilpattu we met are: clockwise from top left -- painted stork ( mycteria leucocephala) crested hawk eagle (nisaetus cirrhatus), star tortoise (geochelone elegans), serpent eagle (spilornis cheela), peacock in full display (pavo cristatus) and spotted deer stag about to shed its velvet antlers (axis axis ceylonensis). Photo credits to Wikipedia.                                                                                                                                        

A half mile or so further on, our catch of the day was awaiting us. A leopard, having had a full meal was enjoying a restful siesta, stretched out at the root of a banyan, impervious to human intruders and the purring engines of their vehicles. Occasionally it would raise its head and look straight at us, posing invitingly for photographs as it were, or yawn wide to display a full set of healthy teeth. Afterwards, it would go back to sleep contentedly. About half an hour of watching the sleeping beauty was enough for us and we left him, leaving behind two jeep loads of incredulous European shutterbugs.

It was late and we had to exit the Park by 6 p.m. On the way back, the major siting was a pair of sloth bears, probably mother and her young off spring, with their noses to the ground foraging for insects. The wisdom of the Park authorities clearing the undergrowth from the sides of the road was apparent as these two animals were seen unhindered even as they strayed quite close to our vehicles—the mother bear always nudging the juvenile away from getting too close to us. This proved for me the highlight of the visit as I had seen several leopards before, both here and in Yala but never a bear in the long years of my scouring the jungles, except a fleeting glimpse of one scampering across the road caught in the headlights of the jeep driven by the late Lyn De Alwis who was on a "night drive" as he called it. He was, at the time, Director of Wildlife and I, a young cub reporter at the Lankadipa.

We saw many another of  Nature’s children on this brief safari of Wilpattu—crocodile, herds of spotted deer, mouse deer, milk tortoise and star tortoise, once seen in profusion in the dry zone but now so rare,  wild buffalo, a crested white eagle on a tree branch just above us feasting on a pond heron it had hunted, probably a juvenile we had seen on the way in, peacock and pea hens and several of Sri Lanka’s national bird, the very colorful junglefowl.

An advancing tusker, (elephas maximus maximus) a rare sight in Wilpattu: Photo by Isuru Dayananda.

That we saw so much wildlife in the limited time span of a mere 2 1/2 hours is testimony to good Park management, despite criticism from some quarters. It also reinforces what the Sri Lanka tourism promoters including myself, have been saying for years; that Sri Lanka is second only to Africa as a destination for wildlife viewing. In Asia, Sri Lanka is second to none and surpasses even the more publicized destinations when it comes to the ease of viewing a variety of wildlife in a relatively short space of time, thus saving the tourist time and money to do other things in the destination.          

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