15th June 1997


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How green Yala was then

By Chitral Jayatilake

In 1978, I was an eleven- year-old eagerly asking my father where we might go for the vacations when my father said, "son we are going to Yala." His good friends, the late Mr. Sumiththa Amarasinghe and D.B.Nihalsinghe with their families were to join us. Ever curious to find out what Yala might be, I packed up the only camera equipment I had at the time, a Konica C35. At a time when cameras were hard to get in Sri Lanka - the C35 was pretty sophisticated for an eleven-year-old. The ten nights we spent at Yala with all the exciting memories still vividly comes to my mind every time I drive up to the gates of the Ruhunu National Park.

Sri Lanka’s wilderness is fast dwindling and access has been heavily restricted with the escalation of the troubles in the north. With Wilpaththu and Kumana closing down, Yala became the main attraction among the remaining parks in Ceylon. With my natural love of the dry zone jungles, Yala drew me like a magnet every time I could get away from the chaos of urban living.

The jumbo: Yala offers the finest collection of tuskers one could see in Sri Lanka
As we drove up to Palatupana, the friendly faces of my guides, Somapala and others greeted us and at times we were given a quick update of where a leopard or a tusker had been spotted recently. This skill of knowing the terrain in depth has on many occasions helped me in capturing moments of eternal value on film, for which I admire and respect my friends in the jungles.

Of the choice of bungalows available in the park, Yala was one of the finest, with its elevation offering a brilliant view of the surrounding plains on a moonlit night in the jungle.

Ironically, Yala was the first bungalow I stayed in the park almost two decades ago. Very little changed in the park bungalows over the years other than the introduction of a few solar powered lights in the premises. Sadly Yala took the brunt of the destruction caused by a group of armed people who infiltrated the park several times in the recent past - though it is widely believed that it was the rebels.

The leopard: colours of nature at their best
Old Buttuwa was another favourite little bungalow perhaps not as cosy as the others but preferred by many who strove to see a leopard on their visits to Yala. When the final round for the day began late in the evening with the sun almost hiding behind the vegetation, a drive along the Uraniya stretch towards Buttuwa rarely failed on a chance of seeing this beautiful-elegant and deadly predator, The Ceylon Leopard.

As dawn broke over the eastern horizon the early morning beams of the sun spreading through the forest, we would scamper out of our beds trying to be the first to reach Vepandeniya - (the leopard rock). At this time of the day, almost everything the light touched would turn to gold with Weera, Palu, Siyambala, and Kohomba tree tops and some rocky hillocks like Vepandeniya shaped and sculptured by the wind over centuries being the first to catch the rising sun.

If you have had the good luck to see a leopard at this time of the day in such a location, you may have seen the colours of nature at their best as the first light creates spectacular scenes when it hits a leopard very early in the morning. As the day unfolds, one might see numerous varieties of birds from the sheer elegance of a dancing peacock to the speed and skill of a common kingfisher. The power and stealth of a crested hawk eagle to the elegant design of a paradise fly catcher.

Though over 240 varieties have been recorded in the park one might see well over 50- 75 varieties, depending on how keen the visitors are in seeing these feathered inhabitants.

Yala also offers the finest collections of tuskers one could see in Sri Lanka. Persecuted elsewhere for the precious commodity they carry, these majestic animals roam the Yala jungles in the early part of the year perhaps attracted by the large herds which move into the park at this time of the year.

The bears, though not so commonly seen, take refuge deeper in the jungle but one individual named ‘Ataya’ an older citizen, is a resident quite close to the Buttuwa bungalow. Whenever we stayed at Buttuwa, I would climb the Buttuwa rock late in the evening, lie down at the peak with the sea waves breaking at one end of the rock and stare into the evening sky and the different shapes the clouds take before the stars came out for the night.

Many times have I been there sometimes by myself just breathing in the purest jungle air until my father screamed from the bungalow - "it’s too late to be out there." It never came to my mind what may have happened if the resident bear had come out from the adjacent rock, perhaps the belief that nothing bad would happen to me at Yala made me brave.

But in recent times, Patanangala became my favourite getaway for many reasons but mainly for the unbelievable hospitality and the most delicious cooking of my dear friend Dharmadasa. This little man with his unique charm and friendliness made our evenings as pleasing as it could ever be.

It broke my heart when I heard the news that Dharmadasa along with a couple of others who had been abducted recently. His wife later related to us what exactly took place with tears in her eyes. She is hoping that one day he would return - and I hope too as I pray for him and for the others who were just innocent folk with no grudge or affiliation to any party or part in society. They were barely making ends meet working for the State.

Those who insisted that the park was safe after the first incidents took place would perhaps now explain how these men went missing and take care of the plight of their families.

Gone are the days where the guides knew where the animals would be. The expertise of David Ralahami in identifying birds even by the calls, the instinctive knowledge of Somapala, Kumarasinghe and Hewage of where you would most probably see a leopard are now lacking. I could think of a few other names of guides who would almost walk up to an elephant.

Since over 30 senior guides were transferred out of Yala as they asked for more security, the park is now manned by inexperienced staff who would barely know to get around the restricted area. There is absolutely no training for these guides about the natural habits of animals or even to identify a tusker. As the administrative structure is breaking down, Yala is being run by Nature - perhaps the ideal situation if not for the poachers and other intruders.

The green bee catcher: elegant
When will we learn or what more should happen for the authorities and nature lovers to get activated? Or is it that we in Sri Lanka are quite happy letting Yala go the way of Wilpaththu? Perhaps we’ll now take to Udawalawe as Yala is unsafe. But can anyone draw parallels or compare Yala to any other park in the country? Only deep in the southern jungles is there enough wilderness to give sanctuary to such a diverse collection of birds and animals.

Recently I participated in the Nature Walk conducted by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Ceylon.

There were banners and voices of concern walking behind a tame elephant along the Parliament drive. This march ended without any particular object achieved.

As much as it is admirable to see any efforts to muster the support of the nature-loving citizens, I believe we must do this kind of activity with a more focused goal in mind as to what is happening at Yala today or as to the environmental pollution created as a result of polythene. A march or a demonstration with a single theme is far more effective than a thousand voices screaming in different directions. May be a hundred thousand signatures collected around the country could be handed over to the minister or even the President requesting for more meaningful steps to be taken. If we do not change our attitude towards nature, we will certainly become a nation which might have to walk behind tame elephants sooner than later, thinking of the times we saw them roaming in the wilderness of Sri Lanka.

It is said that civilization began when the first tree was cut but we in Sri Lanka may have forgotten that it will certainly end when the last one falls.

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