Eagerness and anticipation engulfs the traveller upon entering any national park in Sri Lanka. As one bounces along in a hired ‘safari jeep’ (a label given to any brand and model of 4×4 open top or open sided hire vehicle that shuttle tourists within the parks),eager eyes scan the scrub jungle for an elusive, spotted feline shape, a shaggy black ‘ball’ of fur with fearsome claws or a giant grey shape ambling along. I of course, refer to the magnificent Sri Lankan leopard, the Sri Lankan Sloth Bear and the Sri Lankan elephant; the ‘big three’ of the Sri Lankan national parks and the animals that provide the greatest ‘wow factor’ if one is fortunate enough to have an encounter that lasts several minutes.
Exotic birds swirl overhead or swoop and dive to catch an insect on the wing as they escort the vehicle on the dusty (sometimes muddy) gravel roads. Various types of eagles and smaller birds of prey will ‘fix’ you with an unwavering stare as they scan the land (or water) below for any sign of a meal on the move. Storks, Egrets and water birds flock on the lagoons and waterways. Land Monitors scuttle into the scrub as the vehicle approaches and the endemic, vibrantly coloured Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl will do the same. One might stop a while to watch peacocks trying to woo a pea hen by spreading their marvellous tail feathers into a giant fan, glittering and shimmering in the sunlight. Invariably, Fresh Water Crocodiles languish on the banks of water holes, some with their mouths agape seemingly oblivious to the spectators and the cameras trained upon them. Herds of spotted Deer will leap and bound for the cover of the jungle or just pose for the camera. A sounder of wild boar may cross your path and their piglets flash across the plains with ‘the speed of light’.
Depending on which national park you are in, you may come across a small family unit of elephants grazing or splashing in a muddy waterhole. The observant traveller will note they always keep adults between the calves and the vehicles. They do the same when they cross the road – always protective of the young ones. As they cross the road one adult may turn to face the vehicle and put on a small display of warning. Then again, you may get to meet an ‘old gentleman’ male Tusker, one of the most majestic creatures to grace the parks. Mostly loners (unless seeking a female in oestrous in a herd) they may be only metres away from your vehicle and treat the ‘snappy tourists’ with a haughty insolence.
The driver may come to a sudden halt and your guide will, in a hushed whisper, tell you that a leopard is up ahead or draped on a tree branch watching you! Or; you will see one of the most beautiful big cats in the world sprawled on a rocky out crop resting in the heat of the day. If the Gods are with you there may be a pair of leopards or a mother and cubs. Either way the sheer potential ferocity or sleek beauty of this animal will embed itself in your memory for years to come.
After you have watched this graceful beast and move on a kilometre or so, down the road you may also see a black ball of fur ‘vacuuming’ fallen fruit on the ground or using their fearsome claws to scratch and search for tasty morsels. The Sri Lankan Sloth Bear is one of the most feared animals in the jungles of Sri Lanka to those who travel on foot. The bear may raise its head to observe the intrusion, its long snout which acts like a vacuum cleaner pointed in your direction and, it may emit a short grunt and ‘shuffle’ away into the scrub. The mother bears carry their cubs on their back and again, if the Gods are with you, the sight of a cub riding his mother as she forages for food is a great and endearing sight.
But: let’s not be disappointed if the ‘big three’ have decided on the day of your visit to take a ‘day off’ and not pose for you as if they are compelled to do so in order to add to the revenue of the nation. Stop a while; in the great historical attractions to be found in parks like Kumana, Wilpattu and Yala. Visit the ancient stupas and temples; contemplate the history in stone carvings and the stone ruins lying in silent testimony of an ancient culture; seek out the amazing rock paintings attributed to the ancient Sri Lankan Aboriginals – The Veddah. Ask your guide of the legends that swirl around these ancient places. Ask of the rituals and customs of the local fishing communities that may reside within the park boundaries, on the coast. Pay heed to the red sands of Thambapani in Wilpattu and the red sands of Pathirajaya in Bundala National Park and wonder how nature prescribed those geological rarities. Ask of the legendary ‘Nittaewo” a small human like species that allegedly roamed the jungles of Sri Lanka and were the ‘sworn’ enemy of the Veddah. Visit, with great respect the tiny shrines deep in the jungles and note the reverence paid to symbols of other religions. Disrespect will surely bring misfortune – and there are plenty of stories to attest to that belief. And if you are interested in Botanical marvels you will surely find a variety of exotic plants, wild flowers and precious timber trees to add to your photographic collection.
SO: the next time you plan a visit to one of Sri Lankas most popular attractions – think beyond the obvious- seek out the eclipsed- do some research and I am certain a whole new experience awaits you.