CALL OF THE WILD IN A RAINFOREST
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). Call of the Wild in a Rainforest. LMD. November 2003. Page 180. Volume 10, Issue 04. ISSN 1391-135X.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne proposes Galle as the Rainforest Tourism hub of Sri Lanka
“Rainforests, here in Galle?” the reaction is predictable. Almost everyone I met at the Lighthouse Hotel & Spa was incredulous that I had arrived in Galle to visit rainforests. How extraordinary, after all no one had mentioned before that Galle could be a base for rainforests. The Dutch Fort…. yes, but rainforests?
The next morning I slipped out quietly. Stealth serves two advantages when you are travelling with your family. Firstly, it avoids disturbing those who don’t wish to be up at the crack of dawn. Secondly, it avoids a string of instructions. My plan was to visit what I refer to simply as the Hiyare Rainforest Park. The official name is somewhat longer and is something on the lines of “Hiyare Biodiversity Study Center and Botanical Garden”. Hmmm…. no mention of the rainforest. The advantage of Hiyare being so close to Galle, is that one can even have time for a quick cup of coffee and a slice of toast, before departure.
Quite by chance I had been fortunate to meet a member of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle, at the Galle Archaeological Museum. He had given me a fact sheet on Hiyare written in Sinhala and English. I read with astonishment that a rainforest goodie of six hundred acres was waiting to be discovered by Joe Public. Even more pleasing, the Wildlife Conservation Society, a band of amateur naturalists, had been entrusted with the task of educating the public of its riches. The icing on the cake was that it was a project of the Galle Municipality. If one is looking for role model of a municipal council doing some good with its rate payers money, here is a superb example. Congratulations are in order to the Mayor of Galle and his councillors.
I had come back, specially to visit Hiyare. I was not disappointed. Arriving late in Galle, I had gone with Hasantha Sanjeewa the Lighthouse naturalist to orient myself with the site. Just driving up to the ticket gate was adequate to convince me for a more thorough visit the following morning.
The Hiyare rainforest is set around a 55 acre reservoir, which at one time supplied water to Galle. The rainforest is a part of the Kottawa Kombala Rainforest Complex. The Forest Department had erected a sign board clearly stating it was so. I was not able to find anyone who could sufficiently clearly explain the varying jurisdictions of the Forest Department versus the Galle Municipality. It did not matter, the most important issue had been sorted out. Access.
The success or failure of a site for tourism, especially eco-tourism hinges on this crucial factor. Access. Make it easy and straightforward and you will be guaranteed visitors. Make it awkward and no amount of NGO funds spent on publicity will result in visitors. Here, the Galle Municipality had got it right. Locals Rs 10, Foreigners Rs 100. Tickets sold from 8.00 am to 5.00pm. Simple and straightforward. You don’t wish you had a a PhD in Nuclear Physics to understand the itcket pricing structure. The kind of feeling you have when you are confronted in the Department of Wildlife Conservation administered National Parks. There are exceptions to the rule on time. A nice exception is that if you are nice to the gate keeper, they will allow keen birders in, even earlier. Great!
As the light stole across the lake and illuminated the forest canopy, Hasantha and I scanned the tree tops. An Imperial Green Pigeon grunted sonorously. An endemic Brown-capped Babbler’s call drifted in faintly, from the deep forest. Yellow-browed Bulbuls twittered nervously and the White-browed Bulbuls joined in exuberantly. A pair of the endemic (according to some authors) Black-capped Bulbuls chased each other.
A harsh rattling call announced the arrival of a pair of Red-backed Woodpeckers. Typically they did not wait long and flew off agitatedly. The manicured grass besides the reservoir was a viewing platform to look onto the forest canopy against a hillside. The nerarby Kottawa Rainforest and Arboretum, is probably a better place to actually see the ‘inside’ of a rainforest. This is because the arboretum has a wide road which runs thorough it giving easy and relatively leech free access. At Hiyare there are trails into the forest, but they are not easy. However, there is no doubt that Hiyare is better for birds. The grassy strip by the reservoir is a good place for anyone to use as a bird watching vantage. Orange-breasted Pigeons and Imperial Green Pigeons vied for the vantage points atop the trees. A shaking canopy alerted us to a Grizzled Indian Squirrel or Giant Squirrel. This was the wet zone race, dressed in black upperparts and yellow underparts. The race in the dry zone is paler.
We moved outside the ticket gate onto the dirt track from the main road. Only about a few hundred meters long, this runs besides a forested ravine. The musical notes of a Spot-winged Thrush alerted us to the presence of another endemic. A party of four Grey Hornbills flew in and performed acrobatics on the trees as they attempted to feed on berries. I reckoned they were a pair of adults with two young. The females can be told apart from the males by having less yellow on the beaks. A small feeding flock of birds moved through the trees. In the mid canopy were a pair of Black-naped Monarchs. The deeply shaded interior failed to show off their gorgeous blue. A small party of Dark-fronted Babblers foraged, moving to and fro in little bursts of activity. Small Minivets and Oriental White-eyes kept in contact by calling softly.
Across the lake, a rising crescendo began and fell away. This was repeated several times. Sri Lanka Spurfowl, one the hardest of our endemic birds to see. Soon, the call was picked up from across the lake and deeper in the forest. It appeared there were at least three territories of this endemic bird within hearing range of the lake. That morning we saw around thirty species of birds. Had we focused on the flora or other animals, we would have found it just as interesting.
The close proximity of Hiyare and the Kottawa Rainforest and Arboretum, both about 18 km from Galle, give Galle another ace in its hand. Galle, will in my view become the hub for rainforest tourism in Sri Lanka.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at email@example.com with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.