Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Leopards and elephants supply the animal magic on safari in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park

ON THE LOOKOUT: A watchful leopard.

The park claims to have the highest density of leopards in Asia. Source: Supplied

IT MUST sound strange that the whiff of musty animal dung can send shivers of anticipation up the spine.
But there’s no denying the excitement as we jump into the four-wheel-drive to set off on a safari in Yala National Park, 300km south of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.
We are on the lookout for wildlife in Sri Lanka’s premier 14,000ha national park where 32 species of mammals can be found, including elephants, wild buffalo, wild boar, spotted deer and the prince of cats, the leopard.

A safari vehicle at main gate of Yala National Park.
A safari vehicle at the main gate of Yala National Park. Source: Supplied

We follow the ochre coloured track, one of several that crisscross the park, as it cuts through the thick low-lying scrub, open plains and forest.
Its perfect camouflage even for animals as large as the elephant, with vegetation so dense, even when the massive creatures are 10m away, I only see them when our guide Sanesh points out three adults and two calves feeding on thorny shrubs.
The Asian elephant, which is fairly widespread in the undeveloped areas in the north, east and southeast of the 65,610sq km island, seem unconcerned about their audience of three 4WDs loaded with tourists and continue to feed contentedly, flapping their massive ears.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that while the animals are wild, since the park was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1938, 4WDs and tourists are a common sight for these natives.

Yala National Park, also known as Ruhunu National Park, sits on the southern tip of Sri Lanka and is the country’s showcase of conservation and home to the densest population of leopards in the world.
This semi-arid region is now dotted with waterholes after recent rains, attracting an amazing array of animals. I mentally tick them off: macaques, peacocks, mongoose, rabbits and even wild buffalo and boar enjoying mud baths despite there being crocodiles in the vicinity.
Tiny birds such as the bee eater, one of over 250 species of dry zone birds, flit among the bushes while a rare find of an eagle perched on a tree branch is a joy to capture on film.
Both my guide Sanesh and driver Sami have eagle eyes themselves and point out a herd of perfectly camouflaged spotted deer among the bushes and the tail of a land monitor poking out from a tree hole some 10m above ground.
An hour into our ride, as we take a corner I suddenly spy a leopard walking nonchalantly along the side of the track. We come to a sudden stop and round the corner I hear a screech of brakes – another 4WD has sighted this magnificent animal as well.
I hold my breath as we follow behind him, the leopard stops, turns around to look at us and continues his slow walk along the track before disappearing into the thick scrub. Within minutes, another four vehicles turn up with camera lenses jutting out, all anxious to capture this secretive animal that is one of almost 40 in this national park. A leopard sighting is today’s trophy – and the thrill of witnessing this rare creature is palpable.

Crocodiles have the right of way
Crocodiles have the right of way in the park.Source: Supplied

Spotted deer often stay in large groups.
Spotted deer often stay in large groups. Source: Supplied

The next trophy is the sloth bear. With four vehicles stopped ahead of us, there was obviously a creature worth seeing. We joined the queue and notice the bear quickly cross the road and disappear into the scrub. Not a great photo opportunity but we were witness to an elusive creature.

After a three-hour safari where we have hit the jackpot with the variety of animals sighted, we head back to our lodgings at Cinnamon WildYala, located adjacent to the national park. The eco-friendly resort has its own lake with jungle or beachside chalets and bungalows nestled in light shrubbery. As a result, the opportunity to see monkeys, lizards, squirrels and even the resident wild elephant Short Tail is always close.
Appropriate signs are everywhere warning guests not to venture too close to the animals. And once twilight settles, visitors are also advised to wait for staff to escort them on their walks between the bungalows and the main building in the event of an unexpected encounter.
Our comfortable jungle bungalow rooms with ensuite were simply but tastefully furnished with today’s basics of TV, Wi-Fi and deck.

The dining room was on the second floor of the main building for good reason – it prevented the wildlife from helping themselves. Even so, with open verandas making a quick jump from nearby trees no obstacle to the resident monkeys and squirrels, staff had to be quick to clear the tables.

The resort pool, which had a view of the scenic lake, offered wonderful relief from the humidity. There was enough activity at the water’s edge with water buffalo and water birds, and while poolside we were fascinated to see a crocodile glide effortlessly to the bank of the lake within 50m of where we were sitting.
We had chosen to go on two safaris and while full-day tours and night safaris are available, we opted for an afternoon tour and a morning session the following day.
The two trips were enough to offer a glimpse of most of the wildlife in the park. While the prince of cats has been described as elusive and shy, two days spent on safari will almost guarantee a sighting.

The park claims to have the highest density of leopards in Asia and as a result, an ongoing conflict exists between farmers and these majestic felines. There is a strong movement to save the animals through research and conservation groups have helped build steel cages and electric fences to protect farmers’ livestock.

Yala was in the direct path of the 2004 tsunami and suffered severe but localised flooding with some 250 people killed while two park resorts were destroyed by the tidal surge.
On our first safari, we stopped at a clearing by the beach where a memorial stands by the remains of one of the hotels.
Interestingly, there were no sightings of large-scale animal deaths, with reports that research done on two radio-collared elephants showed their movements were prompted by cues generated by the tsunami waves rather than a sixth sense.

The appropriately named Elephant Rock, a limestone outcrop in the park.
The appropriately named Elephant Rock, a limestone outcrop in the park. Source: Supplied


Getting there
The writer flew Singapore Airlines to Colombo. Other airlines that fly to Sri Lanka include SriLankan Airlines, Malaysian Airlines and Emirates. From Colombo, it’s best to hire a car with a driver for the four to five-hour drive to Yala. The journey used to take 6-7 hours but the new highway between Colombo and Galle has improved travelling time.
Another option is to fly into Mattala International Airport, which is 60km from Cinnamon Wild Yala and a 1hr 15min drive.

Doing there
Yala National Park is open from 5.30am to 6pm daily and closed in September during the dry season.