Already a balmy hot day, we ensure we have enough water and our camera equipment before we go to meet the smiling and very affable Chamara Amarasinghe, Jetwing Yala hotel's naturalist with five years service to Jetwing. Acting as the guide for our safari, he immediately furnishes me with some binoculars, and also to meet our expert driver Tharanga from Nimal Safari.
Often safaris consist of a driver who doubles as your guide and in some cases a trekker too, but Jetwing are keen to furnish you with a qualified naturalist to help you get the best out of your trip by providing you with a greater knowledge of the resident wildlife, an understanding of how animals at Yala fit into the national context, a deeper understanding of animal behaviours and some comparisons of Yala with other parks and habitats.
Home of Mammals and Birds
After a short drive and stopping for an elephant by the road gracefully dusting itself and us with a lot of dry direct, which acts as a natural sun block we arrive at the park where we stop to pay the necessary fees to get into Block 1. Block 2 being away from the maddening crowd but twice as long to get to and twice as expensive as you must hire two vehicles.
Whilst waiting I'm immediately approached by a very large black bumble-like bee with giant grey eyes which buzzes absolutely still a few feet from my face and appears to be checking me out. I half expect it to ask me for my papers before it moves on to check out the next vehicle whilst we move on and enter through the Palatupana entrance.
Yala is part of the dry zone of Sri Lanka, a total of 979km and is home to 215 bird species and 44 species of mammal as well as many diverse species of insect. Within a few minutes we have already spotted a couple more elephants with a six month old calf ambling slowly about near a watering hole or tank as they are sometimes known as a harking back to a time when parts of this park were worked by farmers prior to becoming a hunting ground and then a nature reserve in 1903 and then the national park it is now, from 1938.
The park has many other diverse features such as rangelands including grasslands, forests, sand dunes, coastal stretches along the Indian Ocean, lagoons, mangroves and chena lands, the last of which can be seen along the buffer zone of the national park and are beneficial through creating an additional habitat for grazing animals. I'm immediately struck by how gracefully these wonderful elephants move despite their great weight and slightly bow-legged gait and also how amazingly old and wise their eyes seem to look, reminding me of their incredible memories and how they never forget a face, so you better behave and not get too close.
Chamara tells us how during the mating season a male will follow a little way behind the group and with that, one immediately shows up as if on cue, following exactly the path of the others around a hundred yards behind.
Up, down and lurching
As they lumber slowly out of sight we go on past some 'spotted deer' sitting peacefully in the open until a stag amongst them bolts, disappearing through some bushes and we quickly scan for signs of the well known predator. But nothing appears as we are instead treated to a wide array of beautiful birds such as the small and ubiquitous bee-eater, egrets, whistling ducks, cormorants, storks, parakeets, pelicans and many more that wade, glide or flit from place to place throughout our trip as reminders of the often effortless grace and beauty of the wild things.
With little warning the road turns into a gyroscope, thrusting us this way and that, up, down and lurching forwards then backwards. Fortunately we are in exceptionally capable hands and the driver negotiates these very rough rocky roads almost with his eyes closed and we are in such comfortable seats that lend themselves to the odd fairground bonanza.
Then a sudden stop as Tharanga's door opens, and then he appears head down studying the ground. I peer over for a closer look to see paw prints that look familiar but much larger than what I'm used to, might we get lucky today? Further on the same thing happens and this time it's the prints of a sloth bear, which we follow for a while before realising he ducked, or should I say went lazily, into a thicket never to return, sadly not slow enough for us and certainly not up for the frolics Chamara tells us of, when once one tried to mount the bonnet of his jeep and only slid off because he couldn't get a good grab handle.
The park is very dry for this time of year, uncommonly so, Chamara tells us, and there is nothing to be done about it if the park is to be kept wild.
He explains that there has been a problem with the water buffalo interbreeding with farming stock so losing the wild gene combined with the fact that the farming stock has spread intrusive plant species within the park as a result. He also tells us that water buffalo are the only animals that will threaten in defense of their young, the king of Yala predators, the leopard of which there are around 30 to 40 of in Block 1. So further drought could be a problem if the watering points are reduced and dominated by the water buffalo but luckily we're not there yet.
Lord of the Jungle
Further along we see more elephants passing by another herd of spotted deer and a mass of gray langers clambering all over a small tree like naughty children. Then I look down and right there a few feet from the wheel is a land monitor, turning its head from side to side like it was a mechanical hinge then remaining absolutely still with its prehistoric raptor-like head held proud.
So much more to Yala than the wildlife. Even the crocs are talking about it
Then it happens the highlight of our safari, we are driving up through a tree-lined forest road, fortunately at a slow speed, and out pops a leopard only about 10 yards in front of us behaving as if we simply didn't exist. First it crosses the road nonchalantly, tail swishing in the wind, then walks a few yards down the road and semi collapses for a short rest, a lazy observance of the bushes and a quick scratch before jumping up again, ambling slowly onwards again before stopping and standing in a rather less dignified way. Held for a moment in time we see her/him defecating before moving further away and disappearing into the bush not to be seen again despite the best efforts of Tharanga to get us to the spot and then another possible exit spot in the next road. All this is over in two minutes but what a magical scene to see such a creature in the wild going about its daily business.
When I ask Chamara what have been the most extraordinary things he has seen he doesn't have to think long before telling us a few things. He told us about a family of leopards where the male had not left his mate to bring up the three cubs and had in fact taken an active role in their upbringing over an 18 month period and was regularly seen playing with the cubs, very unusual indeed for the male of this normally very solitary species. He also told us about watching two leopards, known as the sex maniacs of Yala copulating no less than ten times over the course of one hour. What Olympiads I think.
Over all this is the best safari I've ever been on, made so by the professionalism, deep knowledge and enthusiasm of Chamara, the skill and professionalism of the driver that Jetwing had chosen, the diversity of wildlife we saw due to their joint experience and the sheer numbers of animals we observed in an unspoilt wonderfully varied series of habitats as we avoided following any of the other vehicles in the park.
I go on a night prowl and find myself learning all about the monkey business of the jungle court jester
The moon vanished behind the clouds and a thin whistle like call indicated the male Slender Loris is around, an adorable monkey with a clown like over sized head and big saucer like eyes that probably got its name from The Dutch that saw the species as the jungle jester. The quiet whistle, I am told by the naturalist, can be heard between 75 to 100 metres away by the male Loris in search of a jungle mate. Despite the fact that in April/ May, the female Lorises are giving birth after five and a half months pregnancy, there is still plenty of monkey action on the natural Loris trail that has become Jetwing Vil Uyana's hotel's star attraction. With the likes of the BBC and National Geographic spending two weeks in the Jungle Red Light District documenting the lives of the Slender Loris. With so much media interest the Slender Loris is only going to grow in interest as we learn so much more about their fascinating jungle lives.
Hotel takes agricultural land back to its rural wildlife roots
A night lizards
Chaminda with the infra red light guiding the night tours
Loris watching every night
Forest and Bamboo
Finding them requires patience as the only other clue is the bright red eyes that look back at me through the trees when spotted with red head lamps and a torch with a red filter, or night vision goggles all of which are used, to avoid frightening the incredibly shy animal and are the only sure way to spot these elusive creatures. By turning this fascinating forest and bamboo area into an infra red zone you study the island's smallest recorded primate in more detail and the local lizard population as well. Unlike the other monkeys the Slender Loris is tailless so there is no Tarzan and Jane swinging action more like a 15-minute cuddle.
An average Loris grows to about 8 inches in length and weighs between 170 to 230 grams. It has incredible hearing and it's spindly like arms allow them to walk across even the smallest branch, twigs in some cases without snapping them. Vil Uyana is considered as such an outstanding wetlands project that each year, you will see from the nature stats it is attracting more wildlife back into this agricultural dry zone, once the playground of the Kings, whose great rock Fortress Sigriya dominates the surrounding area.
Chaminda Jayasekara, Jetwing's youngest naturalist has studied these adorable monkeys for the last five years and converted his research into an outstanding photographic educational guide and a fascinating nocturnal safari tour that takes us into the mysterious world of these shy, reclusive creatures, that live off insects and small geckos, and mark their territory with putrid scented urine to put others off and hide behind foliage if disturbed. As they have acute hearing it is imperative to stay quiet at all times, not smoke a cigarette and switch off phones so not to disturb them in any way. This way you might even see the 'Silent killer' in action catching an insect, which is nearly as exciting as a leopard kill. In the nocturnal world their slow motion movements always give the element of surprise to kill a grasshopper or moth is incredible to watch and the reason they received this name. Their nightly activities start around 6.45pm, when they come out of their ball like sleep, with their heads between their legs to eat. For around two hours they are at their most active.
Having given birth around April/May, as recorded by the naturalist, female Loris's carry their young under their abdomens in the belly area for 2 months and in nearly all cases have only one baby a year, although Chaminda has been lucky enough to see twins and document their lives first hand.
One baby a year
The area of Loris activity has expanded in numbers from only a couple of Loris observed in 2010 to over 16 Slender Loris today. At the end of a night tour, that takes in nocturnal bird life, wild cats including the civets, lizards and bats, one can enjoy the excellent Loris conservation centre, covering all the facts, set in the most iconic eco resort ever created and for me a fascinating journey as I first came to the site when it was abandoned agricultural land and so to have achieved all this in ten years is to me personally almost unimaginable.
Jetwing Vil Uyana was created out of 24 acres of abandoned agricultural land, three acres of which are now entirely designated as a Loris conservation area with clearly marked trails. Information stands can be found at key points and fascinating facts on these charismatic creatures are, as I discovered on a night walk, mesmerising to watch.
Vil Uyana, I learn from the naturalist who also does early morning wildlife tours is home to 20 species of mammals, 116 species of birds (this has gone up by four new types of birds have been sighted since last year's count showing how the environment is continually improving for the natural world) and 35 species of amphibians and reptiles including a very big crocodile that migrates from the river by the hotel restaurant to cooler areas during the windy dry period.
He is a popular sight, jumping in the air to eat his fish whole and snapping his jaws in spectacular ways that have given him star status in this 30 dwelling hotel that has a mixture of luxury unique habitats for the guests to stay in ranging from being situated on water, or in the forest, paddy fields, marsh or garden. Each one highlights how Jetwing is all about protecting our natural assets for future generations and Tourism For Tomorrow.