Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Journey to the Land of many lakes

The first weekend of April was a time when the country was griped in cricket fever with the Sri Lankan team qualifying to play the grand final on the 2nd. Yet few of us opted to go “wild” during that weekend and spent two halcyon days roaming in the Wilpattu National Park, which can be literally called as the land of many lakes or villus. The main topographical feature of this park is the presence of large number of flat basin like depressions that are filled with rain water.

Wilpattu is one of the oldest and the largest “modern day” protected area in the country. Its origin can be traced back to 1905, a time when big game animals were being indiscriminately hunted by the “sportsman” of that era. As a mitigation measure, two Game Sanctuaries (Yala in 1900 and Wilpattu five years later) where shooting of wildlife was strictly prohibited were established under the provisions of the Forest Ordinance No.10 of 1885. Steps were also taken to demarcate and reserve “surrounds” to each of these two sanctuaries as “Resident Sportsmen Reserves”.In these areas shooting game animals were permitted under a license during the open season, which lasted for about four months. Government Agents of the area were in charge of protecting these reserves. With the passing of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in 1937, the Wilpattu Game Reserve became a National Park in 1938.

Presently the park spans for 131, 693 ha spreading in to Puttalam, and Anuradhapura Districts and also include a coastal stretch extending for nearly 50 km. As stated in the administrative report of the 1967-68, admittedly Wilpattu does not show up its animals as easily as Yala National Park, but it has its compensations. Its proximity to Colombo, the varied landscape so full of the right jungle atmosphere, its chain of picturesque villus and its abundant bird life are sufficient to draw more and more visitors. Surveys undertaken in early 1950s revealed that the number of bears and leopard were much higher at Wilpattu than Yala National Park. Leopards were the pride of the park, not so much numerically, but because so often met with by day. In this respect the leopards of Wilpattu were unique, as nowhere else in the world were there such excellent opportunities of viewing leopards, not even in Africa. Presently the situation has revered somewhat, with Yala now becoming the hotspot for leopard viewing while at Wilpattu the number of daytime observations has become less. Although we observed many leopard tracks during our many rounds in the park we didn’t spot the king of our jungle, which was a huge disappointment. Later when I talked to a friend, he told me that they observed five leopards including two cubs during the previous week, indicating that you need luck as well as patience to see them.

Our disappointment was compensated somewhat with a sudden encounter with a five member elephant family at a waterhole near to Talawila bungalow, our home for the weekend. They simply vanished into the gloomy jungle as our vehicle approached. Large resident herds of elephants are rare in the park, but smaller herds have been recorded in the borders of rivers and abandoned tank areas. On both days we also came upon a lonely old bull elephant feeding in the same villu at dusk and dawn.

We managed to observe around 83 species of birds that included several migrants such as the Eurasian Golden Plover. The endemic Sri Lanka Jungle fowl was plentiful while White-rumped Shamas were observed in several occasions. The Shama is a highly territorial bird and the voice of this species is rich and melodious with wide-ranging songs and notes. They are known to imitate the calls of other birds. Our guide’s sharp eyes managed to spot a nesting Indian nightjar which was well camouflaged amongst the sandy vegetation. The jeeps engine disturbed the nightjar exposing two vulnerable eggs to the hot sun. There was no specific nest, but the eggs were just laid on the sandy terrain. As soon as we left, the bird returned to its eggs. The multi-coloured Chestnut Bee-eaters were found basking on the hot sand while species such as Eurasian thick knee, and water associated birds such as Pond herons, Egrets, Little Cormorants and Lesser whistling ducks were very common. Raptors including Brahminy kite, Crested Serpent eagle, Changeable-hawk eagle and White-bellied sea eagle were also encountered in the Park.

The park and its surroundings are also associated with much legend and history. The remnants of the early history of the country, starting from King Vijaya who landed in the Kudrimalai point, and the palace that is believed to be of Kuveni the jungle princess is still in existence. Pomparippu is an archaeological site where sealed urns containing human remains that are dated to pre-Vijayan times have been found. Wilpattu is also a place where new legends are made. For example, an unfortunate incident of an unlawful killing of a sambur by a visiting Nepalese king Mahendra , lead to the total ban in game hunting in early 1960s.

Wilpattu was out of bounds for tourist for more than two decades due to civil war and several unfortunate incidents including the killing of park officials occurred as a result. The park was officially opened to public in late 2009. Few years back, the major threats to the survival of the Park were poaching and droughts that lasted for months and killed many animals. Yet presently haphazard development initiatives have bypassed the previous threats. Two roads are being developed dissecting the protected area and restricting the home ranges of the wildlife, while the incidences of road kills is now mounting up. Even a helipad has been built, but not to rescue the injured wildlife. Sand mining is recorded from the rivers, which in turn will affect the mangrove development and fishery of the Puttalam estuary in the near future. Further land grabbing by affluent people is also being reported. Concerned Environmental activists have filed a case against these illegal activities and are waiting in anticipation for a justifiable court ruling.

In conclusion, it could be said that the Wilpattu National Park should be protected not only because of its multitude of ecosystems that renders services to the survival of humans and animals, or not because of its rich biological and archeological heritage which will provide us with revenue in the form of tourism, but also because our great grand- children need to see the leopard and the elephant which were born to roam free!

Many thanks to Ayanthi , and other team members Madu, Cheryl, Carl, Thushara and our Guide Bandula.

Report and Photos: Nishanthi Perera

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