Friday, February 28, 2014

Dolphin & Whale Watching Sightings at Mirissa: 24/02/14 - 28/02/14

Sightings at Mirissa from 24th - 28th February 2014

2014.02.24 - 3 blue whales & 300+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.25 - 2 humpback whales & 300+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.26 - 2+ blue whales & 40+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.27 - 4 blue whales & 50+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.28 - 2 blue whales & 300+ spinner dolphins

 Data courtesy of Mirissa Water Sports Pvt. Ltd

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Safari guide to big cat behaviour - Why Sri Lanka is so good for leopards

Safari guide to big cat behaviour

Big Cats are Big Business. The lions in the savannas of Africa, the tigers amongst ruined palaces claimed by the jungle in India, the Jaguars in the Pantanal, the livestock raiding Pumas in North America and the leopards brazenly hunting by day in the thorn scrub of Sri Lanka, are worth tens of millions of US dollars every year. They are the focus of an international safari industry. They are iconic, they have come to represent continents and countries. They are the football stars of the animal world. On a journey in the London Underground, I may be confronted with a wall poster of a Tiger advertising ‘Incredible India’ or a digital advertisement from British Airways with a leopard enticing the commuter to book a holiday to Sri Lanka. People love cats. The magic is bigger with the Big Cats, they enthral, mesmerise and entertain with whole TV programmes centered around them.
When I was commissioned to write Wild Sri Lanka for John Beaufoy Publishing, I realised that there was much in the scientific literature on the behaviour of wild cats, especially the big cats which translate into tourist dollars. But much of this information was not available in an easily digestible form for the casual safari goer. On safaris in Africa, India and Sri Lanka, I had also been disappointed at how little many local guide know about the behaviour of wild cats. This is not their fault, the knowledge tends to be buried in the more scientific publications. To address this knowledge gap when writing Wild Sri Lanka I introduced a chapter on the behaviour of leopards. Leopards like many of the species of wild cats are solitary animals. Much of what I wrote for that book and have adapted for this article holds true for many of the big cats that people go on safari to see. There are notable exceptions. Lions for example are social not solitary. However, other behavioural aspects such as scent marking, flehmen, defending territories etc., hold true for all cats.
This article also has a section on why Sri Lanka is so good for Leopard. Although it is specific to Sri Lanka it carries a general message to wildlife reserve managers all over the world. If you want to conserve an apex predator in good numbers, first address how you increase the population of its prey. Quite by chance, the Department of Wildlife Conservation in Sri Lanka has become a world leader in conserving and sustaining high wild population of a big cat.
Leopard Safaris – why Sri Lanka is so good
Yala National Park in Sri Lanka has now gained acceptance as the best place in the world to see and photograph leopards. This is particularly satisfying for me as I began the mantra that Yala is one of the best, if not the best place in the world to observe leopards. I had been on leopard safaris since the age of three when my Uncle Dodwell de Silva used to take me to Yala and Wilpattu to see leopards. But it was only in 2002 that I began to brand and market it as a mainstream tourism icon. Unfortunately it has suffered the law of unintended consequences with the leopard centric marketing building up to a level where the visitor experience can be spoilt by people behaving badly. But this is a solvable problem and I hope with education and better discipline, it will be resolved.
A main plank of my efforts to market the leopard was the work by the late Ravi Samarasinha, a medical doctor. When he was stationed at Hambantota, inspired by the work of the late Harith Perera he began to meticulously photograph and record the location of leopards in Block I of Yala. We would have meals together and thumb through his books which were a personnel file of each leopard in the park. He had marked each encounter with an individual leopard on a map with dates and times. Samarasinha was of the view that in certain parts of Block 1, the average density was as high as one leopard per square kilometre. In this measure, he included all individuals including cubs and sub-adults. Certain observations by me and that of other observers support the view that such a high density is plausible in certain prey-rich pockets. In April 2010, I observed 6 leopards within 600m. This is bettered by photographers who have had 6 leopards in the field of view at the same time at waterholes in the dry season where a carcass had drawn in leopards. However as leopards can be drawn to water and carcasses, this should not be confused with densities, although the presence of so many leopards close to each other is indicative of a high density. Andrew Kittle and Anjali Watson, two other researchers who were supported by Jetwing at the former Yala Safari Game Lodge believe the density of leopards is more likely to be one leopard per three square kilometres.
The actual number I suspect will lie somewhere between one leopard per one and three square kilometres. But whatever it is, leopard safaris have come a long way since I began to publicise it as a commercial product and raised eye brows in the tourism industry about whether there were enough leopards to show tourists.
This leads to the question as to why Yala (and Wilpattu) is so good for leopards. In 2002 there were a series of factors which had remained true for centuries and now there is an added factor; habituation. The original factors fall into two broad classes. The natural underlying density and secondly, the encounter rate.
The density of a carnivore will be correlated to the availability of its prey, water, denning sites, lack of hunting by humans and predation from other hunters. Yala is a perfect habitat designed for carnivores because it is ironically a man-modified habitat which maximises the population of its prey. The higher the prey the higher the number of predators. Spotted Deer is the preferred prey for leopards in Sri Lanka and Yala has an astonishingly high mass of protein on hooves per square kilometre. If you ever spend an hour at a waterhole in Yala during the dry season this will become obvious. Deer are abundant because Yala is former agricultural land which was farmed centuries ago and has subsequently reverted to thorn scrub forest. The forest cleared for farmland has resulted in grasslands. Furthermore, the park has a number of man-made lakes and waterholes. Given the abundance of foraging and water, the density of prey is very high. The recent focus on leopard safaris means that the park management also do more to maintain water in the waterholes. Management measures include de-silting waterholes, expanding them and even lining some of them with concrete bottoms to hold water. At the interventionist end of the management scale is the regular filling of waterholes with water brought in by bowsers. This will reduce the mortality of deer in the dry season resulting in an even better year round supply of food for leopards. Despite the many criticisms levelled at the Department of Wildlife Conservation, they have become a world leader in managing a park for leopards.
I have explained why there are so many leopards in Yala in terms of density. This is not the same thing as being able to see them or their encounter rate. There are three key reasons for seeing leopards easily in Yala. Firstly, in Sri Lanka it is the top terrestrial predator. To explain further, it is not at risk of being hunted by other animals other than crocodiles who will only take leopards opportunistically when they come to drink water. In India, they will be at risk from Tigers. In Africa they are at risk from Lions and Hyenas. This means in Sri Lanka they can be bold and lie about fairly fearlessly. Secondly, the thorn scrub terrain is open and provides better opportunities to see a leopard than if it was dense forest or tall grassland. Thirdly, and increasingly increasing in importance is habituation. As far as I can remember the leopards in Yala and Wilpattu were always used to vehicles. To be more specific there were always a few individuals who were more tolerant than others and provided a lot of the extended sightings whilst other individuals were shy.
Thanks to the work of Ravi Samarasinha, starting in 2002 I was able to thrust into the international media specific individuals such as JRMC1 and GMC5, using the coding he used for them. However, in the early years it was a case of one or a pair of cubs who would entertain the cameras. As leopards attain adulthood they become increasingly nocturnal. The intense leopard watching has now ushered a change. There is no doubt that with so many vehicles now targeting leopards, the cats are becoming more blasé about the company of vehicles. I use the term 3G leopards derived from a conversation with conservationist Ruskshan Jayewardene. He noted that for the first time we have a generation of leopards who are growing up with parents and grandparents who have been the focus of leopard safaris. They the third generation of 3G leopards are less likely to inherit a fear of visitors in vehicles. Before long there will be a 4G generation and so on.
I have been in leopard watching log jams in Yala where people have behaved more badly than if they were in a zoo. It has annoyed serious wildlife enthusiasts who would have liked to enjoy a sighting without having to hear others shout across and have conversations with occupants of other vehicles. But it has not disturbed the 3G Leopards who have continued to doze atop a rock. But as I said before, visitor discipline is needed. For those who prefer their leopards without crowds, consider having your safari organised by one of the specialist wildlife tour operators. They can arrange for safari vehicles to take you away from the main circuit travelled by general visitors. They will be happy to give you a longer game drive. But note that they are subject to the same opening and closing hours. Therefore a longer game drive means you stay later on the morning game drive or go in earlier for the evening game drive. The specialist wildlife tour operators also provide specialist naturalist guides. You may still have to take the mandatory park guide, but the good naturalist guides provided by the companies in Colombo speak good English and are good all-round naturalists.
Understanding the behaviour of leopards and other cats
Leopards are easy enough to see at times. But this section will help you to understand some of the behaviour you may see.
Age profiles: Generally the term cub is used to describe the age period from birth to about 18 months when they are totally dependent on the mother. From this age to about 2.5 to 3 years they will be described as sub-adults when they are beginning to fend for themselves and are acquiring a territory.
Eye sight: Contrary to what most people think, humans have higher visual acuity than leopards. However cats have a large number of light sensitive rods in their eyes which enable them to see in the dark, unlike us. Their eyes are six times more sensitive than ours although colour may play a limited role in their eyes. So although they can see in the dark, humans have sharper vision.
Flehmen: A grimace made by animals to draw in breath sharply and deeply. This breath together with the scents in the air is sampled in their Jacobson’s Organ which conveys a wealth of information which is not available to humans.
Jacobson’s Organ: Leopards in common with many mammals (but not humans) have an organ at the base of their brain called the Jacobson’s Organ. A duct on the upper jaw is connected to nerve centers on the brain to allow for sampling of the air to take place. By smelling the urine of another leopard they can probably sex and age it and even gauge the physical condition of it. Thus leopards can maintain territories by using a form of ‘chemical warfare’ and avoid physical contact which could lead to fatal injuries.
Nocturnal: Many carnivorous animals are nocturnal hunters. In Sri Lanka, leopards have become habituated in certain parks and young adults have been seen to hunt during the day. But as they become mature adults they switch to nocturnal hunting. This could be because hunting is very energy consuming and hunting at night in cooler temperatures is less energy intensive. Where they are at risk from people, most carnivores will prefer to hunt at night when disturbance is minimal. Studies on wild dogs in Africa have shown that the time needed to hunt goes up exponentially (not linearly as expected) when hunters are subject to disturbance.
Sawing: A Leopard’s contact call sounds like a saw cutting though wood. This is usually heard when leopards are making contact with each other. They may occasionally use it for intimidation. I have observed a leopard sawing and pawing at the base of a tree to panic a troop of Hanuman Langurs in the hope that one animal will misjudge a leap and fall to the ground.
Scent marking: Leopards have scent glands between the digits of their feet, on their face in the mystacial areas and they also have an anal scent gland. Opinions differ as to whether a secretion from the anal glands is mixed into the urine spray. The scent glands on their feet are probably used when they scratch or scuffle the ground. This probably leaves a visual mark as well as a scent mark. They often rub their faces on favourite branches, etc and leave scent marks by doing so. They also rub against each other and thus scent mark each other.
Most often, the scent marking by leopards is done by spraying urine. They urine spray by pointing their penis backward and upwards. Marking the underside of the leaves may leave the scent more durable as it reduces the effect of being washed off by rain.
Scratching: Cats also lean up and scratch trees. Leopards don’t do this very often. Tigers are more likely to do this. The height and the extent to which an animal can gouge a trunk with its claws may be a signal to other leopards of the size and physical condition of the leopard making the marks.
Sexual dimorphism: This refers to the sexes being different in appearance, this could be a difference in size or colour patterns. In most cats this is a difference in size although with lions the males are also distinguished by having manes. By the age of 15 months a male leopard cub is the size of an adult female and at 18 months it can be larger than its mother. Many reports I receive of a courting pair are in fact of a mother and her male cub or a pair of cubs of different sexes. Even in the 21st century, this is poorly understood by many of the safari drivers and guides in the national parks.
Solitary vs. Social: Most cats are solitary animals. A male will hold a territory which will encompass that of a few females. The male has little physical contact with the female other than to mate and does nothing to help with the upbringing of the young. They will remain in contact though their scent marking. Lions are a notable exception amongst cats who have adopted a social strategy. A few pride males will guard access to the females. If they are overthrown by other males, the take-over males will often kill any cubs (infanticide) so that the females become ready to mate.
Territory sizes: In Yala National Park, the territory size of a female leopard could be as small as 4-6 square kilometres. A male's territory may be 4-5 times that and encompasses the territories of 4- 5 females. The small territory sizes in Yala are unusual and arise because of the high density of its preferred prey animal, the Spotted Deer. Female cubs when they grow up usually occupy a territory close to the mother. Males disperse far, which helps reduce in-breeding. Male mortality can be high as they compete with territory holders. I have seen a leopard sub-adult in Yala which had been killed by another leopard.
This article has been adapted and expanded from Wild Sri Lanka by John Beaufoy Publishing, written and photographed by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne.

Published: Thursday, 20 February 2014
Article by:  Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

Images by Gehan de Silva Wijeyratne

Monday, February 24, 2014

Dolphin & Whale Watching Sightings at Mirissa: 16/02/14 - 23/02/14

Sightings at Mirissa from 16th - 23rd February 2014

2014.02.16 - 4+ blue whales & 50+ bottlenose dolphins
2014.02.17 - 2 blue whales & 200+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.18 - 10+ blue whales & 300+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.19 - 6+ blue whales & 500+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.20 - 5+ blue whales & 10+ bottlenose dolphins & 50+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.21 - 3 blue whales & 100+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.22 - 4+ blue whales & 100+ spinner dolphins

2014.02.23 - 4 blue whales

Data courtesy of Mirissa Water Sports Pvt. Ltd

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Elephant birth at Minneriya National Park - 17/02/14

Jetwing Eco Holidays client Andrea Rainer was lucky to capture an elephant birth while on safari at Minneriya National Park on 17th February 2014.

Images courtesy of Andrea Rainer

Friday, February 21, 2014

Dolphin & Whale Watching Sightings at Mirissa: 13/02/14 - 15/02/14

Sightings at Mirissa from 13th - 15th February 2014

2014.02.13 - 2 blue whales & 300+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.14 - 4+ blue whales & 300+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.15 - 5+ blue whales & 50+ spinner dolphins

Data courtesy of Mirissa Water Sports Pvt. Ltd

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Birding around Jaffna 11/01/14 - 15/01/14

These images were taken by Sanka Wijeykulasuriya from Jetwing during the Jaffna exploration tour he went from 11th - 15th January 2014.

Asian Openbill

Black-headed ibis

Black-headed Ibis & Asian Openbill

Brahminy Kite

Crested Hawk Eagle

Crested Hawk Eagle & House Crow

Crested Serpent Eagle


Grey Heron (Female)

Intermediate Egret

Little Egret

Painted Stork

Painted Stork

Wildlife Sightings 03/02/14 - 15/02/14

Jetwing Eco Holidays naturalist chauffeur guide Shanthha observed the following main sightings after his last tour

188 species of birds out of which 28 were endemic birds
3 leopards at Spill Road & Meda para in Yala National Park
Jungle cat on the way to Jetwing Yala near Laya Safari hotel
Stripe Necked Mongoose

National Parks Covered
Kelani Valley Forest Reserve
Horton Plains National Park
Yala National Park
Bundala National Park
Sinharaja Rainforest

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Dolphin & Whale Watching Sightings at Mirissa: 03/02/14 - 12/02/14

Sightings at Mirissa from 3rd - 12th February 2014

2014.02.03 - 20+ pilot whales & 100+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.04 - 3 blue whales & 50+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.05 - 6+ blue whales & 200+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.06 - 3 blue whales & 200+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.07 - 2 blue whales
2014.02.08 - 6+ blue whales & 100+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.09 - 6+ blue whales & 1 bryde's whale & 100+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.10 - 6+ blue whales & 300+ spinner dolphins
2014.02.11 - 5+ blue whales
2014.02.12 - 6+ blue whales & 200+ spinner dolphins

Data courtesy of Mirissa Water Sports Pvt. Ltd

Images courtesy of Diane Cinquine, Mirissa Water Sports

Forest attraction: Can Sri Lanka use ecotourism for sustainable forest management?

By Kanchana Wickramasinghe

Tucked away amidst a tea plantation and bordering the Deniyaya side of the Sinharaja rainforest is a unique ecotourism venture that could hold valuable lessons on the future of forest-based ecotourism in Sri Lanka.

The ‘Rainforest Eco Lodge’, owned by a unique consortium of respected Sri Lankan corporates such as MAS, Dilmah and Aitken Spence, has been able to bring a new appreciation to the value and preservation of the Sinharaja Rainforest - both locally and globally – while ensuring that the highest principles of sustainable ecotourism are maintained. Ecotourism based on natural forests has been receiving much attention recently and in Sri Lanka, natural forests such as Sinharaja are a key tourist attraction.

Ecotourism, when planned and implemented based on its sustainable principles, can generate a number of economic and non-economic benefits. So, what is Sri Lanka’s status in terms of forest-based ecotourism and how can we maximize the benefits that ecotourism can offer?

Eco-tourism and forests
Ecotourism, by definition is a ‘sustainable’ concept. Accordingly, the concept of ecotourism encompasses consideration for the well-being of local communities, conservation of the environment, socio-cultural integrity of the areas and environmental education to generate awareness and the inculcation of attitude and encouragement towards environmental conservation among the visitors, as well as the host communities.

Although the global ecotourism market is growing at a rapid rate, ecotourism in Sri Lanka is still at its infancy, particularly forest-based ecotourism. Forest-based ecotourism is a non-consumptive, market-based approach to forest utilization and can be used to portray the economic benefits of forest conservation.

In Sri Lanka, the principles of forest-based ecotourism are especially applicable because it possesses an enormous potential: together with the Western Ghats in India, it is listed as one of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots possessing a natural advantage that can be utilized for the development of forest-based ecotourism.

What hinders the potential?
Lack of awareness and understanding of the true concept of ecotourism among the relevant stakeholders remains a major obstacle. Due to this, various agencies involved in forest-based ecotourism have different definitions of ecotourism.

Ecotourism, in most cases, is viewed as synonymous with conventional nature tourism. Nature tourism involves travel to natural places but it does not necessarily include aspects such as benefits to local communities, positive contributions to natural environment, etc. that are pivotal for ecotourism. 

Understanding of the sustainability concepts of ecotourism is vital in order to offer true ecotourism products and to gain ‘win-win’ benefits, in terms of conservation and economic gains.

In addition, there is no coordinated effort among the relevant government stakeholders of ecotourism. The forest resource managing agencies have not given enough emphasis to the favourable benefits of ecotourism, particularly on the contribution it can make towards conservation. From the tourism sector also, there is no national level initiative to promote ecotourism.

Since forest-based ecotourism has both environment and tourism components in it, coordinated activities are necessary for the development of forest-based ecotourism. However, at present, the environment and tourism agencies are operating within their boundaries, with minimal or no coordination.

The natural forest resources of the country are legally owned and managed by two state agencies, namely, the Forest Department (FD) and Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC). The agencies do not possess the required resources and skills to manage forest-based ecotourism. As a result, the role of the private sector has become pivotal, as they have the required skills, investment capability, links with tourism networks, as well as previous experience in tourism, which is a considerable advantage when promoting forest-based ecotourism. However, bringing together these two categories of stakeholders is a challenging task.

Some of the businesses that attach the moniker ‘eco’ to their names do not comply with the sustainable concepts of ecotourism. This leads to the creation of a mismatch between the demanded products and the actual products offered and consequently the ‘ecotourists’ are likely to lose confidence in the Sri Lankan ecotourism industry. This might also lead to the deterioration of the country’s image as a future destination for ecotourism.

Moreover, the present legislative framework is not comprehensive enough to provide legal regulations for forest-based ecotourism. Since forest-based ecotourism takes place in fragile natural environments and socio-cultural set-ups, a legal framework should be in place to assure sustainability. Present environment and tourism policies are not adequate to address the issues of the possible negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts of forest-based ecotourism.

What needs to be done?
There is a need to establish a well-coordinated mechanism among the tourist agencies and environment agencies. At a ministerial level, this could be facilitated through an Inter-Ministerial Committee to identify the existing conflicts among tourism policies and initiatives within environment policies.

This has to be followed-up by assignment of clear roles for relevant stakeholders. Formulation of required rules and guidelines, setting required standards, effective law enforcement, monitoring and facilitation and marketing, can be undertaken by the state agencies.

The private sector will have to play an important role in managing the businesses as entrepreneurs. NGOs can play the role of assisting local communities engage in forest-based ecotourism, and facilitate the achievement of community benefits. The role of provincial councils is also important in the effective allocation of resources for the development of forest-based ecotourism, at local level.

At the same time, private sector participation in forest-based ecotourism should be enhanced. Partnering with the private sector is a pre-requisite in forest-based ecotourism, since the resource managing agencies (FD and DWLC) do not have experience in managing tourism. Private entrepreneurs can engage in ecotourism, under the rules and regulations imposed by the state, in order to avoid possible negative consequences. Private-public partnerships can play an important role with regard to this.

Finally, the establishment of a certification programme for forest-based ecotourism is essential in order to avoid the ‘fake’ ecotourism businesses. It will help to ensure that existing businesses are adhering to true ecotourism principles and genuine forest-based ecotourism products are offered and thereby, secure Sri Lanka’s potential as a future ecotourism destination.

(Kanchana Wickramasinghe is a Research Officer at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. To comment on this article, visit the ‘Talking Economics’ blog -

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sri Lanka. The Ultimate Island Safari

Whales, Elephants and Leopards, the best all-round wildlife destination

What can I actually see if I am on a two week trip? This is a question I often ask myself when thumbing through a beautiful wildlife book or a tour operator’s brochure to a country. For my book Wild Sri Lanka, I decided to adapt an article I wrote based on 12 days in the field during an incredible holiday in Sri Lanka in April 2012. I felt an actual example would be the best way to answer the question that a would be traveller would have. My holiday with family and friends in rotation was planned with garnering more material for the Wild Sri Lanka book. But it was the type of trip anyone can arrange through a tour operator. I cannot think of a better way to say what a truly magical destination Sri Lanka is for wildlife other than to invite the reader to share the adventure I had on a real trip.

April 2012, Sri Lanka
“Daddy, they are watching us” asks Amali my youngest daughter her voice slightly tense. From the inky black depths of the sea, where there is no light and some predators hunt using sonar, the hunters have gathered behind us. They are spy hopping, lying vertically in the water with their eyes above the surface. They are talking in a language, a coda, a series of clicks. I wish we could talk to them and ask how old they are? I imagine them to be as much as two hundred years old. They may have been around when whalers arrived here and their relatives were slain. In the 21st century they seem to know they are safe. Even safer with me because they have profiled us with their sonar and realised I am with two children. The whalers never had children on their boats. So perhaps these whales sense that we are no risk at all. They swim up to us and ‘scrum’ with each other, writhing bodies churning the water into a froth. They are engaging in what marine scientists dryly describe as ‘active socializing’. They are now only a few feet away from us and we are just gob smacked at how tactile they are and how they have accepted us. A mature female is with them. Perhaps she is excited at the prospect of male company. A bull may be visiting having travelled a few thousand kilometers from a more northerly or southerly latitude. She signals her interest. Forty metric tonnes of Sperm Whale hurls itself out of the water and lands on its back.

We are 35 kilometers east of Trincomalee on the 'East Coast' of Sri Lanka on a whale watch hosted by Chaaya Blue, a John Keells Hotel, one of the top two hotels in Trincomalee. My wife Nirma, and children Maya and Amali together with a friend Tilak Conrad are busy data logging as I call out details on a spectacular repertoire of surface behaviour. There is a special relationship between Sri Lanka and Sperm Whales. Sri Lanka is the best chance in the world to see a super- pod of Sperm Whales on a commercial whale watching trip.

Chitral Jayatilake the head of Eco Tourism for John Keells is pioneering the use of quieter engines for responsible whale watching. Besides a fast, quiet boat and his best boatman, he had also supplied me with a back up GPS, satellite phone and the Trincomalee admiralty charts for my whale watching research trip. I was out in April 2012. A few weeks earlier in March, a group of underwater photographers on a tour led by Amos Nachoum had encountered a super- pod of Sperm Whales. The super-pod had, not far from where we were watching, a pod of 20 Sperm Whales. Andre Steffen a German Researcher who had studied them in Dominica wrote to me that there were at least a hundred and Nachoum estimated the number between 60-80. John Keells naturalists B. Dayarathne and Nilantha Kodithuwwaku estimated that there could have been over two hundred whales.

The grand family adventure for us had begun with a luxury tented safari in Yala National Park, the best location in the world to see and photograph leopard. Mahoora the pioneer of luxury tented safaris, offers visitors the privilege of staying inside the park. On the first night, as we dined over a five course campfire meal, the eerie howl of a Jackal drifted through the darkness that had shrouded the trees. I fell asleep listening to the soft 'ugh' calls of a troop of endemic Toque Monkeys that squabbled in the riverine tree canopy over the tents. During the night, Nirma woke me up; she had heard voices. The staff were chasing a tusker elephant away. Leopards come close to camp as well. A Sloth Bear sometimes walks through the camp which means of Sri Lanka's Big Five, the terrestrial three are all seen close the to the Mahoora camp. One morning, just yards away from the camp, we stopped to photograph butterflies in a little open glade where the sun snuck through an otherwise impenetrable tall canopy of luxuriant riverine trees. A Common Crow, a butterfly was flying with its hair pencils everted from the tip of its abdomen, wafting pheromones to be caught by the jungle breezes which curved around the gnarled trunks of ageing kumbuk trees. In those few minutes a Sloth Bear walked through the camp. We missed it and my popularity took a dent.
Without even trying hard during a three night stay we saw over 137 species of birds in the park and close to 30 species of butterflies. On the first evening game drive, we sat by a waterhole and watched three families of elephants with babies coming to water. I was writing some notes down when a shuffling noise drew near by as if someone was walking with loose rubber slippers. Two adults with a juvenile brushed past the vehicle.

We left the waterhole as the evening was wearing off. Priyantha, the Mahoora driver was experienced and kept his distance when a short while later, a male leopard marking his territory emerged from the thorn scrub. I imperiously gestured to another safari vehicle that we should all hang back. Good behaviour has it rewards and we watched it do a belly crawl up to the flimsy cover afforded by a leafless line of thorn bushes. It locked a steely gaze on a buffalo calf under the care of a vigilant mother. Priyantha whispered that it was getting late and we need to head back to comply with the park rules to return before sundown. We drove off leaving the hunter and passing another a young female leopard bravely carving out her territory. The late Ravi Samarasinha in his conversations with me always maintained that in some parts of Yala's block 1 the density of leopards could be as high as one per one square kilometer. This seemed plausible as I have had sightings of six different leopards once on a 600m stretch of road and others have observed six leopards in view at a waterhole in the dry season. Andrew Kittle and Anjali Watson, two leopard researchers, believe that an average density estimate (not to be confused with home range sizes) is more likely to be one leopard for three square kilometers. Where ever the true figure may lie, it is high and Yala remains as the top spot in the world for leopards. Yala can now have its bad days of safari traffic, a victim of its success as a result of leopard-centric branding by people such as myself.

A tsunami warning from volcanic activity in far away Indonesia resulted in us driving back to the capital Colombo past Uda Walawe National Park, the only park in the world where a wild elephant is guaranteed on a game drive. You don’t even need to enter the park as sugar junkie elephants line up behind the electric fence which divides elephant country from farmland.

Two days later, with Ashan Seneviratne of Little Adventures, I skipped down to Mirissa for a day trip on the newly built southern expressway. Ruwan the skipper of my favourite boat crew (Mirissa Water Sports) greeted me warmly before we headed out in search of Blue Whales. The crew of tsunami affected fishing youth who were set up for pleasure sailing in 2005 now operate three boats for whale watching. South of Mirissa is the best location in the world for Blue Whales, first publicised as recently as May 2008 me. Within an hour we had seen a few Blue Whales. Then something magical happened. A pair surfaced so close to the boat that we could hear the whoosh as they exhaled. One side-fluked. This is where it swims on its side exposing the tip of one tail fluke like the dorsal fin of a patrolling shark. This was unusual. A series of unusual surface behaviour suggested we were watching Blue Whales in courtship. The boat crew have run over 500 whale watching trips and they had not observed similar behaviour until a fortnight earlier.
I took detailed notes and watched. The minutes ticked by as Ruwan kept the boat out for me. There was a time when I would be the only person out at sea with them and they would run the boat for me for the cost of diesel. Just me and them under blue sky and the vast Indian Ocean looking for Blue Whales that no one seemed to know about. Now the boats are full with tourists and I hang back letting the tourists take the prime spot at the front. But it does not matter as Ruwan and the boys always keep an eye on me and position the boat so that it is always best for photography from where I am. When whales have been seen well, as was that day, the whale watching boats turn back. We were now the only boat left. The sun beat down, desiccating us in the heat. Out in the vast featureless ocean, tour guides leading groups with onward itinerary legs or night flights to catch, grew anxious.

We left the courting Blue Whales. But Ashan and I had another sea adventure ahead of us at Kalpitiya, one of the top spots in the world for Sperm Whales. A few weeks earlier, Ashan had arranged for a boat from our hosts at Bay Watch Eco Resort Village. Two other boats were to join us to sweep the Sperm Whale Strip between E 079 35 and E 079 38 in a north- south traverse searching for the whales. This was planned several weeks ahead as emails criss-crossed the ether between London and Colombo. But by a fortunate coincidence two days before we set out, the Sri Lanka Navy stumbled across a super-pod of Sperm Whales and put out a press release accompanied by footage which ran on local television. We caught up with the super-pod and left a peninsula where the dolphin watching boatmen had become converts to whale watching.

Sri Lanka is the Best for Big Game Safaris outside Africa. No other place outside Africa offers an opportunity for mainstream tourism to see five large potentially dangerous animals on holiday within a reasonable time frame and at affordable prices. Ganganath Weerasinghe is a manager of Jetwing Eco Holidays, the specialist wildlife subsidiary of one of the largest destination management companies in Sri Lanka. According to him more and more wildlife photographers from India (another good alternative outside Africa) are coming over to photograph Leopards, Sloth Bear, Blue and Sperm Whales. They are also coming over to photograph elephants at The Elephant Gathering, the largest annually recurring concentration of elephants in the world. Sometimes on the lake bed of Minneriya in August and September, as many as 300 elephants may gather in an event labelled by Lonely Planet, as amongst the Top Ten wildlife events in the world.

Sri Lanka is the best for some of the most enigmatic animals in the world. It’s best for Blue Whale, Leopard, Sloth Bear, Sperm Whale super-pods and the concentrations of wild elephants. Entrepreneurs like Anuruddha Bandara of the Eco Team who own the brand Mahoora are leveraging this and have launched campsites under the Big Game theme. The island is also rich in biodiversity with many plants and animals unique to the country in its rainforests. 900 species of vertebrate animals have been described newly to science by biodiversity explorer Rohan Pethiyagoda and his team at the Wildlife Heritage Trust. The Sinharaja Bird Wave in the lowland Sinharaja rainforest is the biggest, longest studied and offers the best viewing of a tropical bird wave.

As my holiday in Sri Lanka draws to a close, with my family I explore the mangroves near the busy Bentota River on a mangrove safari organised by the Avani Bentota Resort and Spa. Soon we find our quarry, the Water Monitor, a gigantic and fearsome looking reptile, sunning itself on the banks. In shadowed streams we find baby water monitors growing up in the shallows. My final trip is to the Talangama Wetland, a biodiversity rich site on the suburbs of Colombo. The water's edge is busy with brightly coloured Scarlet Baskers and Crimson Dropwings, aerial hunters whose basic body design has remained unchanged for 300 million years. They arrived before the dinosaurs and have outlived the dinosaurs. Meanwhile, children leave for school watched over by endemic and endangered Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys whose alpha males boom from the tree canopy. My field days add up to less than two weeks and yet I have seen the kind of wildlife most travellers would be thankful to see in a lifetime.

Gehan’s Guide to Wild Sri Lanka’s Top Spots
Horton Plains (cloud forest)
This place is spiritual if you get away from the crowds. One for the serious naturalist who takes pleasure in listening to the tinkling of frogs when a cold mist shrouds the wild landscape in a white blanket. Birders cannot avoid it to get their montane endemics.

Kalpitiya (inquisitive Sperm Whales)
Kalpitiya is the top site for Spinner Dolphins; sailings between December to mid April. Sperm Whale watching is still in its early days.

Minneriya and Kaudulla (the Elephant Gathering)
The biggest annually recurring concentration of wild elephants in the world. So many people I have taken are entranced when the elephants approach the vehicles and feed nonchalantly close by. If you are lucky you may see an entire herd go to water.

Mirissa (Best for “Blue Whale” in the world)
Sailings best between December to mid April. Top location in the world for Blue Whales. Huge variety of accommodation in strip from Hikkaduwa to Mirissa. The Galle Fort has many luxury villas and boutique hotels. Unawatuna has cheaper accommodation and beach cafes which are wonderful for wrapping up a tropical evening.

Sinharaja Rainforest (Sinharaja Bird Wave)
Home of the longest studied and largest bird wave, which also offers the best viewing of any tropical bird wave. A wide former logging track allows a chance to experience a tropical rainforest. An awesome place for any serious naturalist or photographer. So many birds, butterflies, dragonflies, fish, lizards and plants; many of them found in no other country, offer easy opportunities for viewing. Ah but remember for the untrained eye the rainforest is an empty place. Fortunately, the mandatory local guides are good.

Talangama Wetland
30-45 minutes from any of Colombo’s city hotels. Colombo is blessed to have such a bio-diverse wetland. I go there often to watch birds, dragonflies, water monitors dragging themselves laboriously across the road, to hear the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey boom and for a flash of blue from a butterfly dash past me.

Trincomalee (Blues and Sperms)
Whale watching season runs from March to September. March and April are the best. Blue Whales occasionally even offer pool-side viewing and land-based watching from Swami Rock. But there is no substitute to going out to sea in a boat. A chance for a Sperm Whale super-pod.

Uda Walawe (sugar junkie elephants)
The only park in the world which guarantees an elephant on a game drive, especially so as the elephants have taken to taking goodies from people on the road. Beats feeding the ducks in London. But go inside as there are some wonderful encounters to be had and great social behaviour to be observed.

Yala National Park (the big spotted one)
Year-round for leopards. The best for photographing leopards and Sloth Bear in the world. Only the core zone of Corbett matches it in Asia for seeing mammals on a game drive. Terrific for dry zone birds.

This article has been adapted from ‘Wild Sri Lanka’ written and photographed by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne published by John Beaufoy Publishing