A CONTINENT’S WILDLIFE ON AN ISLAND
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). A Continent’s Wildlife on an Island. Serendipity. November 2004. Page 8.
Facing the cameras with me was Dr Ravi Samarasinha, who has been researching Leopards in Yala, and James Fair, a staff writer for BBC Wildlife Magazine. This was a pleasurable press conference for many reasons. For one, the hard work in organizing it had been done by someone else, the public relations division of Sri Lankan Airlines. Secondly the topic was very simple, why was someone for BBC Wildlife Magazine in Sri Lanka ? The informal venue, under a large Kon tree of the grounds of the Habarana Lodge added for a relaxed atmosphere as well. Explaining what James was doing in Sri Lanka was simple. Sri Lankan Airlines had negotiated for BBC Wildlife magazine, one of the most prestigious nature magazines in the world, to carry a special 18 page supplement on Sri Lanka . This would be an important stepping stone to establish Sri Lanka as one of the top eco-tourism destinations in the world. The role of myself and my team was to ensure that in the space of less than two weeks, James would leave Sri Lanka convinced that it was one of the top eco-tourism destinations in the world.
Fortunately, the bio-diversity of Sri Lanka made it an easy task. James had begun his tour by visiting the lowland rainforests of Sinharaja and the Talangama wetland. This was followed by the altidudinally graded rainforests of Kithulgala and the cloud forests of the highlands around Nuwara Eliya. Accompanying him was Chinthaka de Silva one of the top naturalists guides or Master Naturalists of the country. It was his job to ensure that it was abundantly clear to our visiting journalist that the Sri Lankan rainforests is one of the eleven bio-diversity hot spots in the world. Indeed, when measured in terms of endemic species per 1,000 square kilometers, for several faunal groups including birds, reptiles and amphibians Sri Lanka ranks amongst the highest in Asia . Frogs and birds are not everyone’s cup of tea. So I wanted to play the Big Game trump card. Sri Lanka is one of the top big game safari destinations in Asia , on par with India .
There are two reasons for this, one very large and other very sexy. The large reason was one we would soon see in the nearby Minneriya National Park . Sri Lanka is the best place in the world to see Asian Elephant. The seasonal “gathering” at Minneriya, peaking in September and October, is one of the largest concentrations of elephants anywhere in the world. The other reason is that the Leopard has tremendous sex appeal in terms of big game safari viewing. Sri Lanka is your best chance in Asia for seeing Leopard, especially in Yala and Wilpattu which have high concentrations of Leopards. Ravi ‘s studies at Yala show that there is on average one leopard per square kilometer, an astonishingly high destiny.
In the evening we watched with awe as hundreds of elephants gathered on the receding lake bed of Minneriya. The point was driven home, Sri Lanka is tops for Asian Elephants. In the evening Ravi , Chinthaka, James and I retired to the Teak Forest for a spot of dinner, nightjars, Loris spotting and sleep.
The next two days would pass in a blur. The giant stupas of Anuradhapura , the largest brick monument in the ancient world. Half a day in Wilpattu driving around the beautiful villus and treacherous stretches of white sand, waiting to trap a vehicle that was not up to being off road. Muntjacs, flocks of birds and as dusk was setting a leopard cub. The mediaeval art of Polonnaruwa was next. More stupas and the beautiful sculptures of Gal Vihara, the apotheosis of Sri Lanka mediaeval art.
Amidst the ruins, a spot of serious primate watching with Sunil Gunatilake, assistant to Dr Wolfgang Dittus who has conducted a thirty four year long study on the Toque Monkeys of the ancient city. Sunil would lead us off to the scrub forest and call out “darf darf darf” like a modern day Dr Dolittle communicating with animals. We caught up with some of their well studied groups. To our delight, we had an evening show put on by one troop which relaxed in front of us ands went through some of their grooming rituals. Better than watching it on TV. Things began to get better when another endemic primate, the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, joined in.
More searching for the Grey Loris in the evening, listening to Jerdon’s Nightjar and Indian Nightjar and a few hours sleep to catch Sigiriya at dawn. Then we went onto Kandy to catch the Diayakapana or “Water Cutting Ceremony”, marking the culmination of over a week of grand pageants of the annual Kandy Esala Perahera. As we watched dozens of brightly caparisoned elephants march by with drummers and dancers the intimate relationships between people and wildlife was clear. The challenge remains whether wildlife can earn its way, to remain wild, in our national parks and forests. The move by Sri Lankan Airlines to commission a special supplement on Sri Lankan wildlife is an important step for wildlife to be seen as an important economic resource for Sri Lanka .
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