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Sri Lanka – The Emerald Isle

Sri Lanka – The Emerald Isle

Surgeon Rear Admiral Lalith Ekanayake is among Sri Lanka’s best-known wildlife photographers. His images have won numerous awards and prizes, including first prize in the Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Photography Awards 2013. He is the author of two books, The Untamed Road: A Visual Miscellany of the Sri Lankan Wilderness (2010) and Animal Verses: The Unseen Wilderness of Sri Lanka (2013). Although photography is for him an amateur pursuit (in the strict sense of that word), he has fast become known as a leading exponent of sustainable wildlife tourism in Sri Lanka. He serves as Director of Medical Services of the Sri Lanka Navy, working also as a specialist in gastroenterology, with a special interest in diving and hyperbaric medicine.

The most famous denizen of the Yala National Park is the leopard. This image of the cat atop a tree was taken at the moment it leaped towards a langur. Photo: Dr. Lalith Ekanayake.

Wet weather is the bane of the wildlife photographer. Occasionally, however, it pays to persevere. I had spent much of the morning by a waterhole in the Yala National Park. As it began to rain, I wondered if I should head back. Suddenly, despite the drizzle, I spotted a slight ripple in the water. Through my 600 mm. lens I noticed a large mugger crocodile lurking in the distance and several smaller ones fretfully trying to approach it (smaller crocodiles usually stay well clear of larger individuals). Suspecting something unusual, I fixed my camera on it and waited, not taking my eye off it even for a second. After a vigil that lasted three hours, with no warning, the giant mugger swept its prey (a chital) out of the water and, in a single swipe, skinned it clean. Having made its kill, it had been guarding its prize under water, soaking it through, and now it was time to feed. The photograph I took went on to win the first prize in the Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Photography Awards in 2013.

Yala has always delivered. Perhaps the most famous denizen of all in this amazing forest is the leopard. Once I spotted a leopard lying innocuously on the grass by the side of the road. It was an unexceptional sighting for Yala except that the animal was clearly restless, working its jaws as if chewing on something and periodically flicking its tail. It was not at ease and, sensing something was amiss, I set up my camera and watched it. The leopard then stood up and jumped on to a nearby tree, after which it returned to its original position on the ground. Over a period of some minutes it repeated this manoeuvre several times. Then, with no warning at all, a wild pig, its razor-sharp tushes blazing, charged out of the forest, straight toward the leopard, whereupon the big cat, without missing a beat, ran to its tree and leapt on to it. It was this escape it had been rehearsing all along. Confused, the wild pig looked around (but not up) and, not sighting the leopard, withdrew into the scrub. With the coast clear, the leopard gingerly descended from the tree and returned to its place on the ground.

The author was watching this pachyderm on the banks of the Kala Wewa reservoir in Anuradhapura, when a sudden movement startled the tusker. Photo: Dr. Lalith Ekanayake.


Sitting as it does just 30 km. off Kanyakumari at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, and having been connected terrestrially for almost half a million years until just 10,000 years ago, one would think that Sri Lanka’s biodiversity is much the same as that of South India. One would be wrong.

While the island does indeed share most of its avian and large-mammal fauna with the subcontinent, and while its landscape superficially resembles that of Kerala, much of its fauna and flora have evolved independently, with little evidence of exchange with that of the mainland. Almost 1,000 species of higher plants, for example, are endemic to Sri Lanka. Though most of these have relatives in the Western Ghats, several show close affinities to plant species in the Malay peninsula and even Madagascar, though completely absent in India.

Such biogeographic conundrums notwithstanding, Sri Lanka contains remarkable endemism. At least 16 mammal and 26 bird species are restricted to the island, but this is the least of it. In other groups of small animals, endemism can be astonishingly high: for example, 90 of its 106 amphibian species, almost half of its 208 reptile species and all 50 of its freshwater-crab species are endemics. Even when it comes to viewing charismatic large mammals such as leopards that the island shares with India, Sri Lanka offers opportunities that are as good as or better than those anywhere else. There is thus much to see and the island’s exceptional network comprises some 500 conservation areas, including 22 national parks, which account for almost 27 per cent of the country’s terrestrial extent. Let me highlight three of my favourite parks, each of which exemplifies a different vegetation and climatic region of the country.

Further reading

Sri Lanka’s biodiversity benefits from a rich literature that dates back to the 18th century. Carl Linnaeus, the “father” of taxonomy, published a (then) comprehensive account of the island’s flowering plants in his 1747 Flora Zeylanica, and this was itself preceded by two earlier books by Paul Hermann (1717) and Johannes Burman (1737). The current literature is no less impressive, with Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne’s 2013 Wild Sri Lanka (John Beaufoy, Oxford, 208 pp) giving prospective visitors a sound overview, while several others deal comprehensively with several elements of the fauna, e.g., Deepal Warakagoda et al. (2012) Birds of Sri Lanka (Christopher Helm, London, 224 pp); Asoka Yapa & Gamini Ratnavira (2013) The Mammals of Sri Lanka (FOGSL, Colombo, 1,008 pp). Several out of print books can also be downloaded free from www.wht.lk.


The main attraction for wildlife tourism in Sri Lanka is the Yala National Park, situated in the arid zone of the island’s southeast corner. This 141 sq. km. ‘Block 1’ of the 980 sq. km. Ruhuna National Park complex has become famous for its leopards, its low-density dry monsoon-scrub vegetation and rocky outcrops offering exceptional viewing opportunities. Spotted deer, sambar, elephants and sloth bears too, are frequently seen in the park which, despite its modest size, has an extensive network of roads. Much of the national park’s vegetation is secondary, less than two centuries old, the region having been cultivated as part of Sri Lanka’s ancient Ruhuna civilisation. As a result, the park is also of great historical and archaeological interest.

Although leopards are plentiful here, photographing them isn’t always easy because of the logjam of vehicles that ensues whenever one is spotted, thanks to the miracle of mobile-phone communications. The driver of my jeep slowly wormed his way through just such a traffic jam near Rukwila in Yala one evening, when three cubs were in pursuit of some grey langurs on a tree. The sun was behind them, and although photography seemed futile in the circumstances I changed my camera’s settings to spot-metering and through the sunroof of my jeep took a photograph of a young leopard silhouetted atop a tree pouncing at a langur – an image that was very well received.

It is best to visit Yala during the drier months, May to September being ideal, and also to avoid weekends, when it tends to get very busy. Visitors should note that in most years the park is closed between September 1 and October 15 so as to reduce pressure on the animals during the peak of the drought. Good quality accommodation is available close to the entrance of the park, much of it with beach access, and at Tissamaharama nearby, in addition to luxury tented camps.

The author won the first prize in the Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Photography Awards 2013 for this image of a mugger crocodile ripping the skin off a hapless spotted deer in a single stroke at the Yala National Park. Photo: Dr. Lalith Ekanayake.


Perched at around 2,100 m. above sea level (a.s.l.), Horton Plains is Sri Lanka’s loftiest national park and, at just 32 sq. km., also among its smallest. The park itself occupies a plateau bounded on two sides by Sri Lanka’s second and third-tallest mountains, Kirigalpotta (2,389 m. a.s.l.) and Totupolakanda (2,357 m. a.s.l.) and by the spectacular Worlds End precipice on its south-eastern perimeter. Its rolling grasslands and tropical montane cloud (shola) forest offer some of Sri Lanka’s most spectacular landscapes, with many visitors undertaking the seven kilometre circuit via Baker’s Falls. This is one of the few national parks one is permitted to tour on foot (keeping to designated footpaths), including the moderately difficult climb to the peak of Totupolakanda; the peak of Kirigalpotta, however, is only for the fitter and more adventurous tourists, especially in wet weather.

Most visitors try to arrive at the park in time for the six a.m. opening, since dawn is the best time to catch the rare and endemic Sri Lanka Whistling-thrush, best seen at Arrenga Pool, close to the entrance. That done, they trek to Worlds End before the morning heat causes rising clouds from the lowlands to obscure the view. Herds of sambar dot the grasslands in the early morning, moving into the forest undergrowth as the day warms. The weather tends to be clearest during the dry months of December to February, but this being a tropical montane cloud forest, its atmosphere is best captured during the wetter months, when the landscape is shrouded in mist. Most visitors choose to access the park from Nuwera Eliya, a charming colonial sanatorium-town 32 km. (an hour’s drive) to the north.

Horton Plains is probably the best site at which to get good sightings of many other rare or endemic birds, including the Dull-blue Flycatcher, Sri Lanka White-eye, Sri Lanka Wood-pigeon, Black-throated Munia, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Sri Lanka Bush-warbler and Sri Lanka Whistling-thrush. The park is also renowned for three dragon-lizard species, including the rhinoceros-horned Ceratophora stoddartii, the live-bearing Cophotis ceylanica and the brilliant green Calotes nigrilabris. More than a dozen endemic species of frogs occur in the park, including members of the endemic genera Taruga and Pseudophilautus. No native fishes occur in the Belihul Oya stream that meanders through the park: any that existed were extirpated by the introduction of rainbow trout in the late 19th century (the trout are still plentiful).

This leopard had practised its escape manoeuvre several times to outwit a wild pig that charged out of the forest at Yala National Park. Photo: Dr. Lalith Ekanayake.


Although Horton Plains and Yala receive many more visitors than this pristine 89 sq. km. lowland rainforest, this UNESCO World Heritage Site brilliantly exemplifies the unique biodiversity Sri Lanka contains, especially for the birding community. It offers reliable opportunities to see spectacular rarities such as the Green-billed Coucal, Red-faced Malkoha, Sri Lanka Spurfowl and Sri Lanka Blue Magpie. A speciality among the reptiles here is the remarkable dragon-lizard, Lyriocephalus scutatus. Several endemic amphibians too, are easily seen here, including the endemic genus Lankanectes, as well as the combtail fish Belontia signata, a biogeographical mystery because of the absence of the genus in all of India and Myanmar, occurring (as a different species) once more only in Malaysia.

Sinharaja is most frequently accessed from its western boundary, near Kudawa, though especially keen enthusiasts also visit its eastern side, via Suriyakanda, the Morningside plateau, around 1,000 m. above sea level. This, however, is accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicles. There are several three and four-star eco-lodges in the vicinity of the forest, of which Martin’s Lodge arguably offers the best access (and often has Blue Magpies feeding in the garden!).


No article on Sri Lanka does it justice without mentioning elephants. Sightings are possible in Yala, Udawalawe, Lunugamvehera, Wilpattu and Minneriya National Parks. However, I have had one of my best and most exciting sightings outside the Protected Areas on the banks of the Kala Wewa reservoir in the Anuradhapura district. I was on foot and when I saw a large tusker, I stayed at what I thought was a safe distance and lay prone, shooting without quite realising that the animal had begun to slowly walk toward me. When it was barely an arm’s length away, my wife, in the jeep, yelled out to me. Unthinkingly I scrambled hastily to my feet, startling the poor elephant which, equally panicked, withdrew to a position exactly between me and the jeep, blocking my retreat. After what seemed like an eternity, shouts from my wife and colleagues in the jeep drove it away.

No introduction to Sri Lankan wildlife would be complete without a mention of the wealth of marine mammals that offer excellent viewing off Mirissa, Kalpitiya and Trincomalee. Guided boat tours operate (seasonally) from all three locations, offering superb sightings of blue and sperm whales and large numbers of dolphins.

Sloth bears are frequently seen at the Yala National Park, the main attraction for wildlife tourism in Sri Lanka. Despite the park’s modest size, it has an extensive network of roads. Photo: Dr. Lalith Ekanayake.

The island then, is a wildlife-watchers’ paradise, made ever more accessible by daily flights to Colombo from most major Indian cities.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 2, April 2014.


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