de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). Of Fruits and Flowers in Yala. LMD. September 2004. Page 182. Volume 11, Issue 02, ISSN 1391-139X.
Exploring the abundant variety of flora that this game park offers, in addition to fauna it is well-known for.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne explores the plant life of Yala
I scanned the wildlife news board at the Lodge with less than my usual interest in ascertaining the location of the most recent sighting of Leopard, Bear and Tuskers. The usual regular sightings were documented, Leopards at Wilpala Wewa, Padikkema, etc, Bear at Welmalkema and so on. This visit was going to be different. The pressure to photograph the big stars had eased off with us having given sign off that week in July for a new coffee table book titled ” Yala, Leopards and other Wildlife “. I could now focus on other aspects of wildlife, other than Leopards, Bears and Elephants.
I decided I would take a closer look at the plant life and capture on image those in fruit or flower. Photographing plants seems a relatively easy proposition. Plants don’t move around like animals and once an interesting subject is located it remains static. But in fact it is easier said than done. It is quite difficult to show an entire tree in the manner of a hand drawn illustration. Inevitably other trees intrude into the composition, making it hard to make out an individual tree. The other enemy of the photographer is the wind. Leaves and flowers gently swaying in the breeze are soothing to the soul, but don’t appear sharp on film. A third factor is the lighting. The harsh overhead light of the tropical sun creates lighting which is too contrasty. As with almost all photography the softer lighting early in the morning is best, unless a thin veil of cloud masks the overhead sun.
As we entered Yala, the prospects for photographing flowers did not seem too good. Most of the flowering in Yala takes place around February and March after the North-east Monsoon has discharged its precious cargo of rain on the eastern plains. A veil of dust spewed out by safari vehicles cloaked the trees beside the jeep tracks. The Pethi-thora, a herbaceous plant which dominates the undergrowth had died down allowing good visibility into the scrub jungle. The grass had turned an anaemic yellow and the scrub jungle looked wilted and forlorn.
The shrub layer in Yala and much of the dry zone is dominated by a few species of plants. One of which is the Kukurumana . The Kukurumana had by now shed almost all of its leaves, exposing a few rotund green fruits and robust thorns. This annual shedding of leaves by some of the dry zone plants explains why these forests are also described as seasonal monsoon forests. Katupila is another thorny scrub which dominates the shrub layer. It has small leaves with a trace of a waxy coating which helps it to reflect the harsh sunlight, enabling it to minimise the loss of water. Many trees in the dry zone have this feature. The availability of water and its conservation is an urgent theme for plants in the dry zone. A common feature are that the upper surface of the leaves have a waxy coating and are a darker hue in colour and the under surface is a paler colour and softer to the touch. The Debera Trees are a good example. When the wind turns the leaves, the undersides which are pale in colour contrasts strongly with the dark green uppersides. Extreme adaptations for conservation of water are found in succulent plants like cacti. Two species, the Daluk and Heeressa are dominant in Yala. The Debera and the Maila are two of the trees which dominate the mid canopy of the scrub forests. Another dominant tree in the mid height range is the Maliththan. The plain around Wilpala Wewa and the Buttuwa Plain is dominated by these trees, often in splendid isolation surrounded by grass. I examined closely the tiny purple berries, which looked like precious stones inlaid on flowering stalks. The berries are an important source of liquid and energy for many animals during the dry season. The Maliththan with is tolerance for saline conditions is particularly preponderant close to the sea. At Wilpala Wewa, the forest scrub is dominated by another tree. The Weera has a fluted trunk and a habit of several branches emerging from a few feet above the ground. Some of the trees looked like they had been decorated for a festival. The branches were festooned with hundreds of small red berries. Fruiting Weera trees livened the otherwise drab drive through the Uraniya road and the Buttuwa Wewa – Gonagala Road .
A month earlier the fruiting tree which outshone all others was the majestic Palu tree. This is the dominant tree of the dry zone. With a strong, deeply fissured dark trunk and a dense canopy, large individuals of this tree are un-mistakable. On my last visit, the green canopy was studded with yellow berries. June 2004 had been one of the best seasons for Palu. But surprisingly it had taken some time for the traditionally good round of bear sightings to materialise. In late June, Wicky Wickremsekera accompanied Peter Evans, the author and photographer of a book on photographing wildlife around the world. They had managed twelve sighting during eight days in Yala. I was not averse to my fair share of bear sightings. I was not to be disappointed. At Welmalkema, we encountered an adult female whom I have called “One Eye”. Sadly, she is blind in her left eye. A group of vehicles had spotted her, about fifty meters off the road. We waited patiently and she ambled away and crossed the main road towards Siyambalagas Wala. Priyantha headed away from the other vehicles and parked in front of a grass clearing in anticipation that she would come all that way. The gamble paid off and we had one of the best Sloth Bear sightings I have ever had, as the bear nonchalantly strolled along. During the Palu season, the Sloth Bears become more diurnal in habit and are unusually bold. Local myth has it that the bears are intoxicated by a gluttonous feasting on the Palu.
There was one more grand daddy of the plants I had to photograph. This was the Kumbuk tree, a lover of water. We headed to the alighting point near the Menik Ganga, not too far way from the Yala Bungalow. There was another reason to visit the river. I knew that a troop of Tocque Macaques hung out here, feeding on food scraps left by visitors. The Kumbuk had set seed and a mass of flat sheaths encased the seeds. Some of these float along the river, establishing saplings on the river’s journey to the nearby sea. A rustle in the tree alerted me to the presence of a male Tocque. My close approach was warned off by a yawn, which showed off its fearsome canines. At safe distance I photographed what seemed to be a male in its prime. Overhead, a troop of Hanuman Langurs hurried away, nervous at my presence. I was ready to head back to the lodge after a morning’s plant watching, pausing only to photograph an Agil tree, festooned with temptingly luscious, blackish purple berries.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife & luxury travel company who has written and photographed several publications on wildlife. With weekly appearances in the media, he is one of the most visible wildlife & tourism personalities. To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.