de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). Wild Sri Lanka. November 2003 – January 2004. Discover Sri Lanka. Volume 1, Issue 1. Sri Lanka Tourist Board: Colombo. Pages 10-17.
A good overview of what Sri Lanka has to offer for ecotourists as a bio-diversity rich island.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne argues that a continental biodiversity can be explored in the island of Sri Lanka
The poet Blake wrote about seeing heaven in a flower and the world in a grain of sand. A loose analogy for biologists would be to see a continent in an island. In Sri Lanka, the dream is possible. The climatic changes and wildlife one would normally come across in a continent have been compressed into the confines of an island which is just under 66,000 square kilometers. But is this an exaggeration? Not really. The island really does have a distinct array of climatic zones which even results in some species of animals having distinct sub-species confined to a particular climatic zone. The whole island is a complex and fascinating laboratory for studying the processes of evolution and speciation.
The richness of the island’s diversity of island results from its topography comprising of a mountainous core in the southern half, fringed with scrub jungle in the lowlands, edged with sandy beaches, lagoons and estuaries. Two monsoons, the south-west monsoon and north-east monsoon, blow diagonally across, creating a wet zone in the south western quarter of the island. This wet zone holds biodiversity rich, lowland rainforests and as one ascends up in the mountains, cloud forests. In terms of a per 1,000 square kilometer measurement basis, Sri Lanka is one of the richest in Asia for several animal groups including birds, reptiles and amphibians. The rainforests have been described as one the richest in South Asia.
So how does one visit these rainforests. Fortunately, access is becoming easier, with Galle becoming a gateway to the rainforests. Traditionally, visitors had to make the difficult visit to Sinharaja, where both road access and accommodation facilities are poor. However, once one had made the tortuous journey to Kudawa (About 2.5 hours from a beach resort such as Beruwela), one had a former logging road, to gain relatively easy foot access to the rainforest. In Sinharaja, the local Forest Department guides are well versed with handling eco-tourists and will expertly point out the birds, butterflies and mammals. In time to come, with the recent publication of a photographic guide to dragonflies, they too will be added to the spectrum of interpretation skills. In rainforests such as Sinharaja, interpretation is critical. Many visitors come away disappointed that they have seen nothing but trees. This is why it is essential to take one of the local guides or to visit with a competent naturalist guide arranged from one of the Sri Lankan Tour Operators.
For example, imagine a keen birder who wishes to see the Red-faced Malkoha. Birders usually rely on their ears, to locate birds. Once again to see a bird such as the Red-faced Malkoha, you would listen out, but not for your ‘target species’, but for the Orange-billed Babbler. This, another endemic, which forms the nucleus of a well studied phenomenon called a mixed feeding flock. Sometimes in excess of twenty species of birds will comb through the forest like a giant vacuum cleaner, devouring plant and animal prey, in their path. The Babblers keep up a constant medley of raucous call, alerting observers to the presence of a feeding flock. A skilled guide will ignore the distraction of the more vocal birds such as the babblers, the endemic Yellow-fronted Barbet and endemic Layard’s Parakeets. Instead, the guide, will peer intently at the shaded mid and upper canopy. Furtively, clambering amongst the canopy, are the Malkohas, who are discrete and unlike to betray their presence easily.
Take a walk in the rainforest in the night and you are transformed into another world. An aural world. It is the time of the Frog King and his subjects are out in full chorus. Every tree, liana and epiphyte seems to be filled with the calls of amphibians. They squeak, grunt, bellow and bark. It is serious business, they are seeking territories and securing mates, so that the game of chance called evolution can go on. Evolution has served Sri Lanka with a good hand of amphibians. Tree Frogs of a genus (Philautus to those technically minded) have developed a technique known as ‘direct development’. They by pass the tadpole stage which is dependent on water, and instead allow a fully formed frog to develop within the eggs. This means some species of frogs may develop from egg to adult in the damp confines of its nest without contact with a pool of water. This has allowed a significant ‘radiation’ of species to develop. Consequently, Sri Lanka may have a higher number of frogs than even Costa Rica.
So much for frogs, what about the big sexy glamorous animals like the Leopard? Once again we see that Sri Lanka truly is a continent in an island. According to classical bio-geography, small islands don’t have large animals. Therefore for an island of Sri Lanka’s size, it should not have Elephants and Leopards. But it does, thanks to its geological history with mainland Asia. In fact Sri Lanka is the best place in Asia to see both the Leopard and the Elephant. The only surprise is that so far the Sri Lankan tourism industry has failed to fulfill the island’s potential as one of the top Big Game Safari destinations in Asia. But with the launch of Leopard Safaris and Elephant Migration Tours, all that is beginning to change.
In the south east of the island, is Yala National Park, one of the finest National Park’s in the island. It has a variety of habitats permitting up to a hundred species of birds to be seen in a day, during the migrant season. In Block 2 of the park, research by Ravi Samarasinha suggests that it may have one of the highest densities of Leopards, anywhere in the world. At one leopard per 1.1 square kilometers, it is a staggering density. This coupled with the open terrain of the park and the Leopard’s role as the top predator, allows good opportunities for seeing this normally elusive cat. Eco-tourists on Leopard safaris should aim for at least five game drives, which give a ninety per cent chance of a sighting.
Leopards are found throughout the island and recorded in the other well known national parks such as Wasgamuwa, Uda Walawe, Minneriya, Maduru Oya etc. But they remain very elusive in these parks. They also hunt on the roof of Sri Lanka in the Horton Plains National Park. An explosion in the population of Sambar, a large deer, has resulted in a corresponding increase of Leopard. More and more visitors are reporting Leopard from the park. Horton Plains is popular with day visitors, especially from the hill town of Nuwara Eliya founded by the British explorer, Sir Samuel Baker. The park has rolling grassy plains, perhaps from an ancient history of cultivation, interspersed with precious cloud forests. Quite often, a veil of mist surrounds these forests, creating a moisture rich, wet forest, where endemic orchids, hug stunted trees draped with lichens.
In the lowland, every year in September and October, one of the great events in the international wildlife calendar takes place. What I have dubbed the “Gathering”, an annual, local migration or influx of elephants into the receding shores of the gigantic Minneriya Lake within Minneriya National Park. Small family units of elephants gather around the lake to feed on the grassland which has sprung form the exposed lake bed. Three of the essentials, food, water and shelter are available here and elephants seem to gravitate radially inwards from the surrounding scrub jungles, perhaps tens of kilometers away.
The family units are dominated by females and often will comprise of mother and daughters and perhaps the grandmother as well. They coalesce into larger family groups and into larger clans. At times, they may coalesce into a group of over hundred elephants. Several observers including myself have seen over three hundred elephants in total, on the lake bed. Although Minneriya is seasonal, elephants are virtually guaranteed year round, in Uda Walawe National Park. It is safe to say, of the thirteen countries in which the Asian Elephant is found, Sri Lanka is the safest bet for viewing them.

Whether it is for the serious naturalist looking at endemic butterflies, dragonflies and frogs or a family looking for a big game safari in search of Elephant, Leopard and Bear, Sri Lanka has something to offer. This is set against a panorama of breathtaking landscapes from the sea pounding on scrub jungle fringed sandy beaches, spectacular ravines and peaks and tall dipterocarps looming from the dark forest floor. Truly Sri Lanka is a continent in an Island.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is CEO of a wildlife & luxury travel company. With almost weekly appearances in the print and television media, he has emerged as a wildlife and tourism celebrity in Sri Lanka. To receive a free copy of his free, monthly, Sri Lanka Wildlife e-Newsletter, e-mail him on gehan@jetwing.lk with ‘Subscribe Wildlife News” in the message header.