Jumbo-size treats on safari
Of Sri Lanka’s national parks, Uda Walawe is the closest to Colombo, at a distance of some 115 miles. Declared a national park in June 1982, the virgin jungles of Uda Walawe were subject to encroachment and the illegal felling of trees to create space for chena and other cultivation. Over the years, thousands of acres of dense jungle were destroyed, resulting in serious damage to the environment and widespread destruction of the jungle’s fauna, flora and bird life.
At the time, the Walawe region was under the administration of the now defunct Gal Oya Development Board/River Valleys Development Board. Staff of the Lands Branch (Embilipitiya) and the Department of Wildlife Conservation, stationed at the office of the Uda Walawe Park, served quit notices and evicted the encroachers. The more deserving of the encroachers were offered alternative lands in the Kiri Ibban area.
|A young tusker poses for a photograph.
Even after the creation of the national park, 60 per cent of the area’s forest cover was lost to the slash-and-burn ways of chena cultivation. It took between I0 and 15 years to reforest the area and restore it to parkland status. Uda Walawe today teems with elephant (the elephant population is estimated at between 200 and 250) and other animals, as well as indigenous and migrant birds. It has become one of the country’s most popular national parks.
Uda Walawe boasts three park bungalows built by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC). These are located at picturesque riverside spots such as Thimbirigasmankade, Sinuggala and Veheragala. Visitors wishing to stay at the bungalows should make their bookings at the department’s head office in Malabe. Camping sites too are available for wildlife lovers, who are expected to bring their own camping gear.
The park covers an extent of 119 square miles, including the 13 square miles that constitute the surface area of the Uda Walawe reservoir.
I was fortunate to recently join a holiday party to Uda Walawe organised by two of my cousins –Sunil G. Punchihewa, of Mount Lavinia, and his brother Mahes, who has been living in Britain for the past 25 years and is presently based in Scotland. Other members of our party were Sunil’s wife Kanthi and a family friend, Pushpa.
The sky was overcast with dark clouds when we arrived at Uda Walawe. Riding in a safari jeep with an open hood, we made our way to the DWLC barrier office, located at the 7th mile post on the Uda Walawe-Thanamalvila Road, where we were assigned a smart, youthful tracker, Lionel Gunatilake.
A seasoned wildlife man, Lionel proved the ideal person to show us the park’s “hot spots”. He was especially knowledgeable about birds, and identified local and migrant species with both their local and English names. Driving along all the park roads, Lionel gave us a running commentary on all that we saw.After a delicious breakfast of stringhoppers, white potato curry and katta sambol, prepared for us by our hospitable bungalow-keeper Mr Munasinghe, we set out on on the first leg of our safari, travelling along Samson Mawatha, named after the late park warden. I had known Mr. Samson well from previous visits to the park.
Our driver Saman was a pleasant young man with an ever-ready smile. Lionel sat in the front seat while the rest of us stood in the rear of the open jeep, holding on to the side and overhead bars. From our secure and elevated vantage point, we enjoyed a clear view of animals and birds, and the dense forest cover of illuk and other vegetation receding into the distance.
Our first sighting of elephant was of a herd grazing quietly in a patch of jungle by the roadside. Seeing the jeep, the elephants started to move unthreateningly towards us, almost as if to say: “Feel free to take as many photos as you wish!” Mahes was ready with his camera. We enjoyed a very close-up view of the jumbos.
Our next stop was Tekkas Weva Handiya. The pool there, according to Lionel, was dubbed Ariya Weva after a park official named Ariyadasa. During his time at the Yala Park, Mr. Ariyadasa built a small tank to serve as a watering hole for elephants, deer, sambhur and water birds. The tank’s presence was especially appreciated in times of drought.
At one point in our drive, Lionel stopped to point to a decayed tree. Perched on its spreading branches were a number of Malabar Pied Hornbills, their loud cries shattering the stillness of the forest. Lionel said the bird was not to be confused with the Grey Hornbill, which is smaller in size and does not have a “double decker” beak.
These birds have some very peculiar ways. They will select a tall forest tree with a crevice or hole halfway up the trunk, usually about 30 feet above ground. Both male and female assist in building a nest in the hole. The female enters the hole and seals it with her droppings, leaving a space in the mud-walled nest for a beak to enter. While the female incubates the eggs, the male feeds her through the nest hole with fruits, large insects and lizards. When the chicks hatch, the female flies away and returns later. Both parent birds help to feed the chicks.
The afternoon was hot when we made a detour and headed towards Sevanagala junction, where the sugar factory is located, by the Sinuggala tank. Here, we came upon a majestic elephant, about seven feet tall. The loner seemed to sense a photo opportunity, and like the elephants we had met earlier slowly edged up to us.
The magnificent tusker stood about six feet from the jeep, and Mahes immediately reached for his camera and took some classic photos.
It was late when we returned to the bungalow. Mr. Munasinghe, the bungalow keeper, did not disappoint us: he had ready a dinner that was as delicious as the breakfast he had served up that morning.