Wednesday, December 14, 2016

In awe of a bird’s world

Birds have always delighted people all over the world because of their beauty and their power of flight, but for members of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) birding is a quest that brings immense happiness. Many are groomed to be bird enthusiasts from an early age and birds in cages do not count anymore, having seen them master the wild.
“I had an interest on nature and birds from my young age. But there was no proper environmental organization that I could get guidance on birds in Matara where I went to school. Then one day I read a note on “Vidhusara”a Sinhala tabloid that a Sinhala field guide on birds was published. I rushed to book shop and got a copy of Sirilaka Kurullo, it was the first comprehensive field guide book on birds written in Sinhala, published by FOGSL,” said Malaka Rodrigo, a member of FOGSL.
It was the platform for Rodrigo to learn the joyful pastime of Bird-watching.
“I still remember the joy of identifying a bird for the first time on my own only using this field guide. So for me; FOGSL is the organisation that provided me with a gateway to nature. This later led me to study wildlife seriously, step into environmental journalism which had led to a positive change in my life,” he added.
Bird Fair
FOGSL is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and they organised a Bird Fair at Thalawathugoda wetlands on November 20 with more than a hundred bird lovers participating in the event. The event comprised of ‘Guided Bird walks’ and ‘outdoor lectures on birds’ and that was a great opportunity for the public to participate. There was also a programme for kids - an Arts Campaign titled “Save Wetlands for a Better Tomorrow”.
A group of children with binoculars and DSLR cameras hanging around their shoulders were accompanied by a senior bird watcher. They were busy looking for winged trophies. The Thalawatugoda wetland the famous spot for bird watching is a novel experience for any person who is an admirer of bird life. The bird watchers themselves are an interesting group with many hailing from different walks of life; for some it was their hobby but for many it was their passion. Small children between the ages of six and eight showed remarkable knowledge of the nature of birds and their features. One smart boy even volunteered to teach the younger crowd who were totally new to the field of bird watching. He was very proud to talk about his passion for bird watching.
This enthusiasm is the work of FOGSL which was formed in 1976 by four bird enthusiasts P.B. Karunaratne, S.U.K. Ekaratha, S.W Kotagama and R.I de Sliva took the concept of bird watching to the general public, an area previously limited to an elite circle. It is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation attached to the Department of Zoology at the University of Colombo. The Objectives of FOGSL is to bring together people who are interested in the study and conservation of birds in Sri Lanka, generate interest among laymen and students of natural history on the study and conservation of birds. The institute, direct and carry out island wide programmes of field study, on various aspects of bird biology and establish links with other groups in other parts of the world with similar interest.
“We witnessed many new people who were interested in Bird Life last Sunday,” said Rodrigo who is also the Editor of FOGSL and added that many kids were also interested in this venture.
Bird watching skills
“We taught the kids and the people who were new to the field how to identify the birds. An average bird watcher can identify at least 10 birds. Anyone who has an interest in bird watching can join FOGSL to witness the real joy of it,” he said.
According to Rodrigo once Bird Watching was limited to a certain class but FOGSL has taken it to a different level and he was very proud to say that he himself bears testimony.
“Bird Life’s chief executive was here in Sri Lanka for the first time and the most interesting thing is that the bird’s migratory season has started. Once bird watching was restricted to the elite strata of society but after FOGSL was formed the whole idea took a different form,” he said.
According to Rodrigo, Bird Life International is the umbrella group for all the bird conservation organisations of the world and their Global Council met in Sri Lanka last week.
Another significant event was, the Bird Life Asia partners too met in Sri Lanka and along with them.
“An organisation dedicated towards birding, ornithology and conservation of nature, FOGSL provides a platform on which people from all walks of life interact. FOGSL also aims to establish and strengthen links with similar organisations in foreign countries,” he said.
“Birdwatchers observe wild birds in their natural habitat. Birdwatching means learning to identify the birds and understand what they are doing. Life suddenly gets more interesting when you become aware of the varied bird life all around you,” said Uditha Wijesena an engineer by profession who is in his 60’s now.
Observing birds in their natural habitats
Wijesena started watching and observing birds at a tender age. He was part of his school bird club and that groomed him to become an enthusiastic bird watcher even in his 60’s.
“I lived in the Uva Province and that was a great advantage for me. There were many rare birds that I could watch, observe and enjoy,” he said.
However, he exclaimed that the trend of bird watching is different now compared to his own generation.
“The young people who are into bird watching today are more interested in taking a picture of the bird. I do not blame all but that is an unfortunate reality that I see. Many have failed to realise that bird watching is a serious scientific study,” he said. According to Wijesena, a successful birdwatcher needs good eyesight and a sense of questioning.
“But today for many a pair of binoculars and a camera would do and I think that perspective of the younger generation should be changed,” he emphasised.
He further said that for a person to become a bird watcher, he has to have a note book and a good bird guide and added that the advantage of new technology is that if one cannot identify the bird, the photo taken would help him research on the bird.
“I used to take notes when I observe a bird. I take down the time, name only if I know and sketch the bird for future reference. There are possibilities to see a migrant bird, therefore I later search about the origin of the bird,” he said.
Wijesena had also participated in the bird fair last Saturday and sharing his experience at the Thalawathugoda wetlands he said, “I got a chance to see an orange- breasted green pigeon last Sunday at Thalawathugoda wetlands. Scientifically that bird is said to be seen in the dry zone but I happened to see it in the wet zone. The habitats of the birds also have begun to change with the difference in the climate.”
Calvin Fernando another bird watcher said that he was very glad that he joined FOGSL as a life member.
“I am very pleased to mention that, I have now gathered so much valuable knowledge about various kinds of birds, their behaviour, and their long distance travels. I never knew all this information about birds before. I always make it a point to attend the monthly lecture whenever time permits. The lectures are so interesting, informative and so very valuable. I have read several books that are published by the FOGSL. They are very well written and so interesting. l love to join the field trips too, because I gather so much of valuable knowledge and practical experience. during these trips. Most of all I love the happy crowd and their great company and the fellowship of all participants,” he said. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Growing pains on Sri Lanka's secret coast

Until recently the spinner dolphins that congregated off the Kalpitiya Peninsula hadn’t seen many tourists

The thrill should have been undiluted, for when the dolphins came they came in numbers. The outboard had been running full-throttle for an hour before we found them, their arrival announced by a stippling of frothy waves and a grey-blue crescent flashing into my peripheral vision. Then came another, this one corkscrewing wildly, then five more. Within seconds the Indian Ocean was brimming with the creatures I had come out here to see; a super-pod of spinner dolphins, the ocean’s great acrobats, had replaced resignation with wonderment.
Yet through the elation, something gnawed. While my fellow passengers cooed, I couldn’t shake off memories of another part of Sri Lanka, where a week earlier I’d been on another boat searching for blue whales. That trip had set out from Mirissa, one of several Sri Lankan coastal villages in the south to have changed beyond recognition since 2009 when the end of the country’s civil war sent tourist numbers rocketing by 30 per cent a year.
Now, Mirissa’s whale-watching flotilla sallied forth from a coast thick with hotels and reggae bars. How different to the beach we’d left this morning, which was all but empty. An image of this patch of ocean’s future bubbled up unbidden: of a hundred fibreglass hulls harrying these dolphins. And part of me just wanted to head back to shore.
Until recently the spinners that congregated off the Kalpitiya Peninsula hadn’t seen many tourists. A spit of land sprouting from Sri Lanka’s west coast like the lever on a one-armed bandit, bracketing the Puttalam Lagoon on its eastern shore, this 30-mile-long isthmus is a land apart. In modern history books, it fell within the inverted U claimed by the Tamil Tigers as Tamil Eelam, their longed-for homeland.
For the latter half of the 20th century, modernity bypassed the fishing villages that lined its somnolent shores; regular roadblocks on the 80-mile journey north from Colombo were the norm. However, when the three-decade-long conflict reached a bloody conclusion in 2009, developers, scanning the coast for opportunity, turned to Kalpitiya with dollar signs in their eyes.
Over mojitos, Dallas Martenstyn, the man who claims to have “created the Kalpitiya destination” was telling me his story. “No one came here for 30 years because of the war,” he said. “People in Colombo didn’t know where Kalpitiya was.”
Growing pains on Sri Lanka’s secret coastTraditional colorful fishing boats in Mirissa harbour
Behind us, flickering under the flames of paraffin candles, was the place he established in 2009: Bar Reef Resort, the first of what is now a sprinkling of small hotels on this stretch of seafront. As a holidaying experience, its stucco-walled cabanas are understated but embellished with boutique touches. The infinity pool is surrounded by loungers made from age-worn railway sleepers; the beachside shower is fed through a whale’s enormous skull. Walk along the beach past the hotel and you’d hardly know it was there.
Yet the question of how much longer this marooned atmosphere might endure is subject to whims far beyond Dallas’s control. The prospect of bigger, brasher newcomers has cast a shadow over this part of Sri Lanka.
First mooted as long ago as 2003, the Integrated Tourism Resort Project outlined the government’s ambition to coax tourists to Kalpitiya’s overlooked coast. The first piece of the jigsaw – the initial chalets belonging to the five-star Dutch Bay Resort – opened in 2013, but the plan includes concessions for much more.
Concentrated around 14 islands off the peninsula’s tip, the Sri Lankan government’s blueprint includes 17 hotels with 5,000 rooms and all manner of amusements: shopping centres, entertainment complexes – the whole package-tourism circus. Collectively, it represents the biggest  tourism development plan in the country’s history.
But behind government talk of jobs and progress lurk controversies. Earlier this year, human rights groups reported that tourism construction projects were leading to environmental destruction, and were restricting local access to the sea. Amid court challenges from dispossessed families, investor interest waned. Several building projects have stalled indefinitely.
Growing pains on Sri Lanka’s secret coastA low-key brand of tourism is thriving
And while Kalpitiya waits to see if the bulldozers will begin their work in earnest, the low-key brand of tourism championed by Dallas is thriving.
As my second day on the peninsula drew to a close, its tourism potential was already clear. First, there had been those dolphins, the ocean full of the spinners that I’d seen that morning. Then there was the beach, an endless strip of sand empty but for the lines of turbaned fishermen hauling in their nets, and an incongruous row of wind turbines chopping lazily in the haze.
Before my chat with Dallas, I had taken a bike ride out on to the new road that transects the peninsula from south to north. At the 20km post, the road swung east to skirt the lagoon, a jade-coloured expanse of water, the near shore clawed by mangroves.
My plan had been to ride six miles north to the Catholic shrine of St Anne’s – but it proved impossible to get that far, so often was I waved down by locals eager to say hello. Among some palm trees, a shirtless carpenter insisted on shimmying up a trunk to fetch me a coconut. Two hundred yards further, on a chalky bank of the lagoon, fishermen beckoned me over to show off the fistfuls of prawns they’d just trawled from the shallows.
At one village, I came across 20 or so children playing cricket in a clearing. Promptly, I was handed the ball and instructed to bowl.
The batsman, a slight teenager with arms like twigs, ruthlessly blasted my first three deliveries back over my head. But the fourth took a lucky bounce off a divot and landed improbably on middle-stump, provoking jubilation from my team-mates, who ran up for high-fives. We played until dusk.
There is something uplifting about a place that is yet to lose its curiosity about outsiders, and as I rode back for my drink with Dallas I couldn’t help but wonder whether the region would still be like this 10 years from now.
As Kalpitiya’s 80,000-strong population grows, there is a pressing need for the local economy to diversify. In the lagoon, home to dugongs and rare pink dolphins, fish stocks are already being depleted. But the government’s master plan for the peninsula also seemed emblematic of that depressing global story, where the temptation to capitalise on tourism potential comes to jeopardise the very riches that make it so alluring.
“Our ambition was always to create something here that is unlike anything else that Sri Lanka has to offer,” Dallas enthused. “What we have here is something different.”
The next morning, I took Kalpitiya’s most souped-up tuk-tuk – “newly serviced”, beamed the driver – and headed north past acres of old prawn fisheries, a lattice of embankments and palm wickerwork, the smell of fish and salt thick in the air.
Down a sandy lane from the village of Kandakuliya, on the main peninsula’s northern shore, we skidded to a halt at the gate of Kitesurfing Lanka (KSL), one of several kitesurf camps on the peninsula, here to exploit the same trade-winds that turn Alankuda’s wind turbines.
Growing pains on Sri Lanka’s secret coast
The set-up was simple and laid-back, with roomy tents under palm-frond awnings and paths delineated by quartered coconut husks, the seafront accessible over a thin finger of lagoon. In the large communal area, young travellers with tattooed arms were complaining of “feeling kitish”, and checking the form on Windguru. “Six knots for the next few days,” groaned one, flicking her smartphone on to the table in disgust. Optimal conditions for kitesurfing demand at least double that.
For the next couple of days I took things at the slow pace the peninsula demanded, with hours of beach loitering and mini-excursions to explore the headlands. During the Dutch ascendancy, Kalpitiya was a toehold for colonial expeditions before they headed for the Ceylonese interior. But what was once a staging post for change is now defined by stasis.
In Kalpitiya town, outside the echoing nave of the Dutch Reformed Church, families lolled listlessly in the shade of strangler figs. At a dockyard bobbing with time-worn trawlers, old fishermen sat in circles repairing shocks of orange netting. Barefoot women sorted through the catch.
Growing pains on Sri Lanka’s secret coast'I took things at the slow pace the peninsula demanded'
Even the architecture spoke of a certain poignant tranquillity. At one roadside junction I found a sky-blue mosque mere yards from a cemetery of plain white crosses: coexistence between the faiths in a country where religious harmony has often been found wanting. Remarkably, while Sri Lanka’s civil conflict raged on the mainland, the disease of violence barely afflicted this melting-pot peninsula.
Back at KSL, the last day of my stay brought better winds to Kalpitiya’s west coast for the first time in days. But the waves were choppy and the gusts sporadic – too perilous for a novice like me to take to the water. So as some of KSL’s more proficient guests hit the water, I was left to sit on the sand and look on with envy. Because when they went – when they caught the wind and hit a line – you could tell, even from afar, that there was euphoria to be had out there.
One of those whose kites were criss-crossing the horizon was Dilsiri Welikala, KSL’s Colombo-born owner. Stocky and ever-smiling, Dil left a high-flying job in the capital to pursue his dream. It has been a challenging journey – when Leo, Dil’s French business partner, first surfed here, a still nervy navy, wary of Sea Tigers, took pot shots at him.
“I went to Boracay [in the Philippines] and saw what unregulated tourism could do to an area,” he told me later, expressing his fears that the government’s master plan threatened to turn this sleepy backwater into a foreigner’s playground. “The indigenous people were begging in the streets.”
Looking out over the beach, where local families mingled with KSL guests, it was hard to disagree. While decision-makers in Colombo envisage a flashy package-holiday centre, a better model for tourism is already here.
“There is still a great opportunity to set Kalpitiya on a better course,” Dil insisted. As I prepared to leave, I joined him in hoping that “something different” would prevail.
Growing pains on Sri Lanka’s secret coastSpinner dolphins congregate off the coast


Getting there
Sri Lankan Airlines (0330 808 0800; flies direct to Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport from London, though cheaper fares are often available with one-stop flights via the Middle East. From Colombo, or direct from the airport, regular buses take around two hours to reach Palavi Junction. From there you can take a tuk-tuk on to the Kalpitiya Peninsula. Alternatively, expect to pay around £50 for a private transfer from the airport arranged through your hotel.
When to go
The best time for sun-seekers is November to April. The arrival of the prevailing winds that accompany the monsoon from May to October turns the peninsula into kitesurfing heaven. The sheltered waters of the lagoon are perfect for beginners.
Where to stay
Accommodation among the boutique resorts on Alankuda Beach include Bar Reef Resort (0094 777 219218;, where cabanas start at £52 per night. In the north, Kitesurfing Lanka (0094 770 038467; is a popular surf-camp. Full board from £25 per person per night.
What to do
Spinner dolphins accumulate off Kalpitiya for most of the year. Sperm whales join the party from November to April. Most resorts run boat trips, costing from around £75 per six-person boat.
Kitesurfing on the peninsula is at its best between May and October. Beginner lessons with Kitesurfing Lanka cost from £20 per hour.
Scuba Diving is possible along the Bar Reef, Sri Lanka’s largest coral reef. Best from November to April. PADI courses are available.
Wilpattu National Park, just across the lagoon from the Kalpitiya Peninsula, is home to leopards, elephants and sloth bears. Entrance from £20 per person.

Sri Lanka Leopard

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Yala Block 1 has one of the highest densities of Leopards in the world

Yala Block 1 has one of the highest densities of Leopards in the world. Yala therefore offers one of the best chances in Asia to see Leopards.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Field Notes: Yala from the Katagamuwa Entrance

[This articles was first published in the Autumn 2016 Quarterly Newsletter of the UK-based Friends of Sri Lanka Association].

On a visit to Sri Lanka in August 2016, I was an invited guest at Mahoora’s tented safari camp in Yala. It allowed me the opportunity to compare the two options for entry. The traditional entrance gate is via Kirinda and Palatupana. The larger tourist hotels by Jetwing and John Keells are just outside the buffer zone from the Palatupana gate. A large number of safari vehicles also arrive with guests from other hotels in the South-east, especially from Tissamaharama. On a diagonally opposite corner of the park, the route to the Katagamauwa entrance shares the public road to Sithulpahuwa, a well known Buddhist complex with a long cultural history and of archaeological interest. The accommodation that is presently available from Katagamuwa is mainly small guest houses and private bungalows, situated about half an hour’s drive from the national park entrance. Most of the properties which are permanent constructions (as opposed to being mobile) are not big enough to handle large tourist groups. Furthermore, most of them are not of a standard to be offered to tourists by the better known tour operators. The only facility that is presently available for large tour groups is the Mahoora tented campsite. Up to 70 tourists can be accommodated in luxury tents in what are actually two adjoining sites each accommodating around 30 plus tourists. Because the numbers are split between locations, and the tents are screened by thorn scrub it does not feels crowded. Mahoora has been operation for over a decade and is one of the pioneer tented safari camp operators. Their operation is well oiled with staff and facilities that emulates a tented safari experience modelled on offerings in East and South Africa. The tents have beds with fans and en-suite toilets. The meals were delicious with local produce and the presentation was good. Starters are followed by a main course and dessert with coffee or tea. 

The camp service was good and mirrored African tented safaris with a wake-up call. You had the option to a breakfast pack on a safari. Most of the safari vehicles are booked by them through a local safari vehicle operator. They do have two of their own vehicles. Standards across the safari vehicles are fairly consistent with comfortable forward facing seats. At the time of my visit, they had two naturalists in residence who will need to be specially booked in advance. The Mahoora experience is not cheap and the clientele is almost entirely foreign tourists as many locals for that price prefer the hotels on the Palatupana entrance. Mahoora is however not the most expensive either, as other tented camp operator now provide air conditioned tents in an even higher price bracket.

There have been a number of criticisms raised recently that the park is over-crowded with safari vehicles. As the person who led the publicity to brand Sri Lanka as a destination for Leopard safaris and branding Yala (and more generally Sri Lanka) as a multi-day safari destination, I continue to receive a lot of criticism. My view always has been that the existing traffic can be managed and in fact substantially increased without over-crowding by managing the entire Yala Protected Area complex of 1,500 square kilometres for conservation and tourism in a strategic way rather than the present system of funnelling all visitors to Block 1 which is only 140 square kilometres. That is a topic I have discussed elsewhere. In this set of field notes, I want to discuss the ‘Katagamuwa experience’.

Entry from the Katagamuwa side has two advantages. Firstly, it is much shorter to the Talgasmankada-Meda Para area which I used to dub ‘Leopard City’ when I used to take journalists in the beginning of the 2000s when I was branding Sri Lanka for leopard safaris. This area still remains outstanding for leopard sightings and the much shorter access time and distance is a terrific advantage.  Some of the much complained about heavy traffic from the Palatupana side has petered out somewhat by the time one reaches Talgasmankada and this also helps as one does not feel that you are in a race with other safari vehicles to get to the best area. The second big advantage is in the evenings. As the Katagamuwa entrance is closer to Talgasmankada and Meda Para, one can leave much later improving the chances of a leopard sighting.  

Yala always seems to have a cub or sub-adult or pair of them that perform for the cameras. In August 2016, a pair of cubs were being seen at a small waterhole, about 15 minutes plus after the entry gate at Katagamuwa. On one game drive we saw the pair, followed by a sub-adult stalking a troop of Hanuman Langur at Warahana followed by another sub-adult which crossed the road past Ehelawala, all within a few kilometres of each other as the crow flies. Yala is always rewarding and besides leopard I enjoyed observing crocodiles hunting in Korawakka Wewa, the first of the man-made lakes encountered when you enter from Katagamuwa. This was the first time I had stayed on the Katagamuwa side and I am a convert to its advantages. 

Useful links



de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2016).  Notes from the Field: Yala from the Katagamuwa Entrance. Friends of Sri Lanka Association (FOSLA). Autumn 2016 Quarterly Newsletter. Pages 9-10. Issued 2 October 2016.
Yala National Park from the Katagamuwa entrances and staying with Mahoora in their tented safari camp. Encounters with leopards and crocodiles.

Via Wildlife and Travel Blog by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

Friday, October 14, 2016

Wildlife Safari at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka –Leopards, elephants and more!

Posted on September 21, 2016 by roland
Wildlife Safari at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka, Image Credit: hikenow

The elusive Sri Lankan leopard is one of the most well-known and sought after animals in the country, second to elephants, and the best place to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures is at Yala National Park. The second largest national park in the country, Yala is located in Sri Lanka’s southern province and covers over an expansive 979 square Kilometers of land. The park is famed for its extensive variety of wild animals such as the Sri Lankan elephants, sloth bears, aquatic birds, reptiles and one of the largest concentration of leopards in the world.

The leopard is the largest predator in the park and as a result, they are extremely comfortable out in the open, offering amazing photo opportunities that you won’t find anywhere else in Sri Lanka. Tour packagesorganized by safe and trusted operators, such as the eco-friendly Jetwing Eco Holidays, are the best way to arrange a wildlife safari.

The national park is made up of a variety of diverse ecosystems; from dense forest vegetation, patches of open grasslands to freshwater and marine wetlands, and long stretches of sandy beaches. There are several rivers, streams and lagoons that play a vital role is sustaining the surrounding flora and fauna. There are over 215 bird species found here, with 7 endemic to the island.

Apart from leopards, from are around 44 species of mammals that includes the Sri Lankan sloth bear, golden palm civet, toque macaque, red slender loris, endangered wild water buffaloes and many others that can are seen roaming through the wild. The wild elephant population varies on a seasonal basis but it is estimated that an elephant herd in Yala contains around 300 to 350 elephants on average. All five varieties of sea turtles can be frequently seen near the parks coastline and the two common breeds of crocodile, mugger and saltwater crocodiles live near the rivers.

Be sure to spend a full day roaming through the wildness with an experienced guide who can take you to the best spots for seeing elephants, monkeys and of course, leopards!

Roland Lefevre is a travel writer who specializes in creating features on leisure as well as business travel destinations across the globe.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sri Lanka’s Five Sea Turtle Visitors


Weighing in at around 916 kg and taking on the dimensions of a king sized bed, the Leatherback sea turtle is considered to be one of the biggest and heaviest living reptiles. Living entirely in the ocean, with huge migration paths, the males of these giants never come ashore. It is only the females who do, for the exclusive purpose of making their nests and laying dozens of eggs. The Leatherback, and four of the six other species of marine turtles that roam the world’s oceans, come ashore on the beaches of Sri Lanka for this singular purpose.

Here is a rundown of these five special animals that visit our island:

1. Olive Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea)
Image Credit : © Ingo Arndt/Minden Pictures/Corbis Image Credit : © Ingo Arndt/Minden Pictures/Corbis

This is the smallest and lightest of the sea turtles that nest on our shores. Their name comes from the smooth, olive-green/olive-grey colours of their shells, and they are about 80 cm in length. They sport a hooked upper jaw. Found to nest in many parts of coastal Sri Lanka, they form large ‘arribadas’ or nesting aggregations which involve several hundreds or even several thousands of animals. They produce clutches of eggs of between 50-160 in number, each 3.0 – 4.5 cm in length. These eggs then incubate for 6 – 8 weeks, after which the hatchlings race towards the ocean.

2. Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)

Image Credit: © Ron Offermans/ Buiten-beeld/Minden Pictures/Corbis
Sporting an olive green shell, the Hawksbill is a relatively large turtle of about 1 metre. Its name comes from the narrow, elongated and forward projecting jaw which forms a bird-like beak. They are often found in reefs, bays, estuaries and lagoons, and are thought to generally dine exclusively on sea sponges, although they have been found to consume algae, coral and shellfish as well.
These turtles come ashore to lay clutches of up to 175 eggs which take approximately 2 months to hatch.
Luckily for them, the flesh of the Hawksbill has been found to be poisonous, with several cases of fatalities having been associated with the consumption of its meat. However, they have been driven to a state of endangerment due to the commercial appeal in the production of turtle shell items such as combs, jewellery and trinkets.

3. Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

Image Credit: © moodboard/Corbis
Reaching lengths of around 1.2 metres, the Loggerhead is a reddish brown turtle who has a massive head. They too live in lagoons, bays, and estuaries, and consume molluscs and crustaceans (its large jaws have been adapted to break the shells of these invertebrates). These are the rarest of the Sri Lankan marine turtles, and are known to nest on the south and south-eastern shores between September and March. They lay as many as 175 eggs in each clutch, and the hatchlings emerge around two months thereafter.
4. The Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)

Image Credit: © Jay Fleming/Corbis

Named after the colour of its fat (which was once used for making turtle soup), this large sea turtle sports a heart shaped shell which is olive or brown. The adult males are smaller than the females, and their jaws lack the hook-like appearance that the other turtles display. Green turtles roam far and wide in tropical waters and are common around oceanic islands with wide sandy beaches. Nesting occurs all year round, with each nest containing between 100 – 170 eggs. The hatchlings appear after an incubation period of about 2 months.

5. The Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)

Image Credit: © Wayne Lynch/All Canada Photos/Corbis

And finally, the behemoth of them all, the impressive Leatherback is the largest of all sea turtles, and indeed, is one of the largest living reptiles in the world. It is also the fastest moving reptile in the world, and they use the thrust of underwater currents to push them along. They are the most widely travelled of any turtle, and dive as deep as 1,200 metres. As their name suggests, Leatherbacks don’t have a hard shell, but instead, their 2.5 metre long, elongated bodies are covered with a leather-like skin which bears 7 ridges.
They dine on squid, algae and jellyfish, and in fact, are crucial in the control of jellyfish populations in the ocean. They dig the deepest nests of any sea turtle, and each clutch comprises of as many as 130 large eggs, each around 5 cm in length.
All five of these sea turtle species are protected by law in Sri Lanka, as each is considered endangered. Regardless, they continue to fall prey to poachers, as well as suffering the consequences of ocean pollution and fishing nets. But more on this in our next article ‒ stay tuned!

Information sourced from : A photographic guide to the Snakes and other reptiles of Sri Lanka by Indraneil Das and Anslem de Silva (Published by New Holland Publishers, UK);Creature Report by Grosset and Dunlap (Published by the Penguin Group)
Cover Image Credit:


Friday, October 7, 2016

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Yala National Park

Leopards and Crocodiles

Leopard cubs interacting © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

2 OCT 2016 
Ripples danced away concentrically on the surface of the water. I hear the ripples ringing out like musical notes against the harsh backdrop of the dry zone in drought. The cooing of Spotted Doves and the punctuated song of Black Robins provide the characteristic acoustic signature upon which the intermittent rippling is superimposed. This is not a soundgram of nature in harmony, but one of the balance of predator and prey. The rippling is caused by fish and in particular frogs which are breaking the surface and scattering in alarm. This is a dance away from death from the depths. Lurking underneath is a creature from the past. Its design has not fundamentally changed in millions of years. It looks prehistoric and it is easy to forget that it looks the way it does because there is no reason to change from what has proven to be an optimal design. A Marsh Crocodile is hunting at Korawakka Wala (translated literally as the waterhen waterhole).
This is a waterhole which many visitors to Yala are unaware of because of its location at the opposite end of the park entrance at Palatupana which is used by the majority of visitors. On this visit I am staying as a guest of Mahoora who operate a tented safari camp near the lesser known and less used Katagamuwa entrance. My route into The Yala National Park requires us to drive on the embankment of Korawakka Wala. At the wheel is Amarasiri who reminded me that he was one of a handful of safari drivers I used in the early 2000s to establish Yala as a multi-night destination for international tourists and especially to come in search of leopards.
Amarasiri is used to my ways of spending time on anything from flowers to animals and he kept watch patiently for hunting crocodiles without any pressure to go after a leopard. In 2012 whilst writing a paper on the potential for reptile watching tourism in Sri Lanka, I came across a paper by Anslem de Silva and others in which they had noted counting 300 Marsh Crocodiles in Katagamuwa after dark using spotlights to pick out crocodiles from their retinal reflections. I have never seen many Marsh Crocodiles in my travels in Asia and I asked Anslem if this could be the greatest concentration of Marsh Crocodiles recorded. A flurry of emails with international experts initiated by Anslem failed to produce a reply with knowledge of a higher count anywhere else in the world. Katagamuwa Tank is outside the National Park entrance although within the bounds of the designated Katagamuwa Reserve. Most visitors do not stop by it and may well be missing a wildlife spectacle. However, the dried out Koma Wewa further in from where we were, had an impressive daytime concentration of crocodiles with over 30 crocodiles in view.
I heard a large splash and Amarasiri drew my attention to a crocodile that had emerged. A large Indian Green Frog was dangling out of the crocodile’s mouth. It had nearly got away, but the crocodile had just about grabbed it by one of its legs. Both predator and prey balefully stared at me as they assessed their options. The frog would want to make a jump for it when the crocodile opened its mouth to manoeuvre it into position. The crocodile was only too aware of this risk and carefully in a series of movements, consolidated a better grip on the frog. A shake of the crocodile’s head and the frog was gone disappearing in a gulp. Another splash and another crocodile broke surface, this time gripping a large fish.
The leopard is the most charismatic predator on the island and is the top terrestrial predator. But from a young age it respects and fears crocodiles. They know that even the smallest waterhole seemingly devoid of any life can conceal a crocodile that can grab them by the snout and drown them. I have seen time after time how warily adult leopards approach water to drink. The next morning, I was able to see how this wariness was ingrained in a pair of cubs.
The rising sun had not yet melted away the calls of Jerdon's and Indian Nightjars at 5 a.m. when we sipped tea and coffee at Mahoora's reception tent before a line of safari vehicles throbbed away into the park. At 6 a.m. the vehicles were allowed into the park and with my family we joined vehicles at Gerimas Pokuna, a waterhole, where a pair of young cubs had been seen over the last few days. Flakes of dust, brown and yellowing leaves coalesced into two moving shapes and one cub walked up to the other and performed a lazy stretch. To reduce its profile and to avoid detection from any lurking crocodiles, one cub belly crawled into the waterhole for a drink of water. A short while later at Warahana, a line of vehicles was trying to take a peek at what was thought to be a bear. In the shaded undergrowth an eye gleamed fiercely like a jewel and an older leopard; a sub-adult, stalked across the forest floor. A medley of indignant barks and chatters and panic in the canopy announced that its quarry had seen it. A troop of Hanuman Langurs scrambled higher up to where forest meets sky and the alpha males gnashed their teeth in warning to the predator.
On Meda Para, famous for leopards, a Sambar bolted across. Nirma suggested we pull over and wait for the author of the panic. Soon Maya spotted another subadult which proceeded to cross the road in a measured gait. A team from Mahoora pulled up and reported another two leopard sightings. A few days earlier Wicky Wickremesekera, a top naturalist guide, had told me of two clients whom he was taking around on a 45 day wildlife safari. Things have come a long way since my initial efforts to brand Sri Lanka for leopard safaris was greeted with incredulity. However, its success has a downside and there are many complaints now on the number of vehicles. There are practical solutions for this, which I have covered elsewhere. The Katagamuwa entrance is one option for those who want to avoid the mad rush from the Palatupana gate and perhaps in the future the whole 1,500 square kilometres of the Yala Protected Area Complex can be managed as the world's premier leopard reserve instead of focussing the visitor traffic into just the 140 square kilometres of Block 1 of the national park.