Mention the word “safari” and I’m instantly transported to the wilds of Africa, and to game reserves containing lions, tigers and giraffes. So I was surprised to recently find myself on safari, not in Africa, but in Sri Lanka. I had gone to Sri Lanka for a week’s yoga holiday and preceded the yoga with a week’s tour travelling around the country visitng the cultural sights rather than having gone to the country to see wildlife. However a couple of days of the ‘cultural’ bit of the holiday I found myself on a safari in an open topped jeep, binoculars to hand, eagerly scanning a wildlife park for signs of leopards.
The wildlife park was called Wilpattu National Park, on the North West coast of the island. Although Wilpattu is the largest national park in Sri Lanka, it is also a lot quieter than the other national parks. My guidebook told me that before the Civil War, it was one of the most popular parks but was shut down in 1985 following an attack on the wardens by the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). It reopened briefly but then shut again until 2010.
I started to get very excited when I read that the star attraction of the park are the leopards and also the sloth bear. But then I also read that wildlife in the park suffered greatly at the hands of poachers during the Civil War and is still recovering, and the vast expanse and thick undergrowth keep animal sightings few and far between, although it is great for birds, so I went into the park with little expectation of seeing anything. And with low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised at how much we did see, even though the sloth and leopards, sadly, remained elusive.
However, the one animal I didn’t see in Wilpattu that I was expecting to see was the elephant as deforestation due to a rise in population in recent years has dwindled elephant numbers considerably. The British are not covered in glory either with regard to elephant conservation in the past. During the reign of the Sinhalese kings, no elephant could be captured, killed or maimed without the King’s permission. But when the British came to power, this protection was withdrawn. The British saw elephants as agricultural pests and paid a bounty for each elephant killed, leading to the slaughter of thousands of elephants in the 19th century. But the next day I went to another park, the “Elephant Ecopark” where our guide said that we were “guaranteed” to see elephants. And although the trip into the park got off to a bad start as our jeep broke down, this turned out to be fortuitous as we lost the line of tourist jeeps all jostling to be at the front to see the elephants and found ourselves on our own in the park. Not long into the park I saw my first wild elephants, followed by lots more just eating the vegetation and walking out right in front of the jeep, including a two-week baby elephant. At one point everyone was watching the elephants to the left of the jeep and I just turned around and saw the most beautiful sunset on the other side of the jeep which I nearly missed!
But it wasn’t just in wildlife parks that I saw amazing wildlife – the country is teeming with it! There are monkeys everywhere, some of them incredibly daring and we had warnings of monkeys stealing mobile phones or sunglasses. In one park I saw thousands of fruit bats, and even in town centres like Galle there were kingfishers, other birds and the ubiquitous monkeys. And on the South coast you can go whale watching, where I saw a pod of dolphins and two huge blue whales that were like elephants of the sea. So although I didn’t go to Sri Lanka specifically to see the wildlife, I was amazed by the variety of the Sri Lankan wildlife and it would be enough to make any wildlife enthusiast very happy indeed.