Sri Lanka is famous for many things, culture, religious diversity, high literacy, wonderful beaches, blue whales, dolphins…..and of course the of the myriad of inland wildlife. It is particularly famous for its National Park, Yala, which is reputed to hold the highest density of leopards in the world. More on that later……
Our two week tour started in Negombo, very close to the capital and international airport. A quality beach hotel, with comfortable accommodation and excellent food was just what we needed after nearly 18 hours of travelling. The Jetwing Sea Hotel fitted that bill admirably. The following day we took a boat trip to explore the vast Puttalama Lagoon; a good place to see a variety of water birds, pied and common kingfishers, and even the odd Langur Monkey eyeing us from the tree lined banks. This eased us in nicely in to our varied wildlife adventure.
Next was the bigger boat trip into the open sea with the hope of seeing Dolphins. As with most places we were to visit, this short trip did not disappoint. The Dolphins are almost guaranteed and genuinely seem to enjoy interaction with human beings, swimming quite close to the boat on and off for quite some time. Quite amazing, considering they are genuinely wild and have a choice, unlike the ‘shows’ one sees advertised in so-called wildlife parks.
We moved on to Wilpattu National Park, which is one of the largest and, in our opinion, the best of the wildlife places to visit. there is an abundance of birdlife which would be difficult to better anywhere except maybe tropical rainforests. We even had two Leopard sightings although not good photographic opportunities. Our experience of national parks is mainly India, where at this time of year, apart from the sal and teak trees, the vast majority of the vegetation and ground scape is dry, yellow /brown and arid. Here in Sri Lanka it is all green and lush, and this was the case in all the parks we visited.
Next was Wasgamuwa, another beautiful park with elephants, many bird varieties again, Wild Buffalo and even a great sighting of the elusive Sloth Bear. Well worth a visit.
Moving on to Madurai Oya, yet another lush green and fertile wilderness. I believe we were the only visitors, and looking at the untouched state of the tracks it was clear that virtually no one ever goes here. Apparently it was an area hit by the ‘troubles’ just a few years back, and tourism just hasn’t recovered. The few animals we did see were very wary of us and either turned tail very quickly or stayed at a distance where they were difficult to photograph. As they see so few humans this is not surprising. The forest commission needs to invest in building a better track /road infrastructure to allow more of the park to be accessed and to compartmentalise the animals more. Good, well managed tourism is beneficial in so many ways, not least in keeping down the poaching problem.
Whilst we had few photographic opportunities here, we did see the rare Giant Squirrel and the Paradise Flycatcher, notoriously difficult to find.
Finally, on to Yala which was supposed to be the highlight……sadly not.
The National Park authorities allow any number of jeep-type vehicles in the park with no control over speed or etiquette as we have come to expect in India. The jeep drivers race on the approach road to the park, totally ignoring warnings of the likelihood of wild animals on the road. Once in the park at opening time, it is like an unruly procession of up to a 100 vehicles vying for position on the main tracks…..we were told this is where the leopards favour, but not when we were there….surprise, surprise! After a short period of trying to avoid the melee, we came to a T-junction where 150 yards away we could see a number of jeeps zooming backwards and forwards, almost circling a large male elephant. Unlike those particular tourists, who were clearly not sympathetic to wildlife and nor were their drivers, we could see a travesty waiting to happen. Within a few minutes, watching from afar, the elephant got so agitated that he gradually moved into charge mode looking quite aggressive. Fortunately we were all able to get out of the way before a serious incident occurred.
We did see some wildlife but it was abundantly clear that all the drivers were primed to look for leopards and nothing else, with little care or respect for all the other inhabitants.
We would never return to Yala or even recommend it to anyone….but all the other National Parks we visited had considerable charm, much wildlife and great photographic opportunities for genuine animal lovers.
Finally, we travelled on to Marissa…. and now for something completely different…… Blue Whales we were told were on the menu, and after travelling a few miles in a double decker boat out to sea, we were treated to some fabulous sightings of these wonderful creatures, plus a bonus of even more Dolphins on the return journey. The crew informed us that the whales are domiciled here with food a-plenty…. thus sightings are almost 100% guaranteed. This is almost unheard of in wildlife circles!
Everywhere we went, the people were friendly, helpful and seemingly always smiling. Our driver /guide that we hired for this bespoke trip was really first class, with a matchless historical and wildlife knowledge. We would thoroughly recommend his company for organising a holiday such as ours, but Sri Lanka has so much to offer that there are many combinations of culture, beach and wildlife to cover all tastes.