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Millennium Post

Safari across SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka offers an unforgettable concoction of wildlife experiences, ranging from big mammals to colourful avian species – a treat to your senses and camera lenses

It was a spectacle of a scale I have rarely seen in my life – standing at the back of our jeep we gazed in wonder at the sight of about 250 elephants gathered together at Minneriya Tank, one of the numerous tanks built by King Mahasena who ruled Sri Lanka from 277 to 304 CE. The subjects living in his capital city of Anuradhapuram called him Minneri Deviyo (God of Minneriya) because of this tank which helped create an irrigation paradise in Sri Lanka. The irrigation network supported the growth of Trincomalee harbour which became one of the busiest in South Asia with the opening of trade with the East Asian countries.

Today, Minneriya is a pilgrimage of a different kind – one that wildlife enthusiasts and photographers make between July and October to see the Great Elephant Gathering, one of the best events to photograph wild Asiatic elephants.

Elephant spotting

Central Sri Lanka is called the Cultural Triangle because of its historical sites as Sigriya, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla. During our tour of these historical places, we were also fascinated by the natural history – birds were abundant, we saw reptiles like water monitor, crocodile, rat snake and banded kukri, squirrels ran around in the gardens of the Sigirya Village Resort, bats were aplenty at night, and we also saw mongoose.

We set aside one day to enjoy the natural heritage of Minneriya and Kaudulla National Park during the dry season when elephants gather to drink water, bathe and feed on the fresh grasses along the lake shores. From Habarana, where we hired our jeep, we set out on the road six kilometers away to the national park entrance. After the checkpost, the deciduous and semi-evergreen forests with rosewood, satinwood and other trees were occupied by primates like the Tufted Grey Langur and Toque Macaque. We also saw mongoose, monitor lizards and a rat snake. A sambar herd gazed at us from behind thick foliage.

Presently, we came out of the forest zone to an area of grasslands and scrub. Here we saw elephants, mainly cows and calves, walking towards the tank. Jeeps were also trailing the elephants, looking for photo opportunities for the tourists. As they sensed their proximity to water, the elephants were visibly excited and quickened their pace. Soon, all groups had gathered together, an unbelievable sight of hundreds of elephants.

Our guide explained, "Minneriya forms a part of the elephant corridor that joins up with Kaudulla and Wasgomuwa national parks'.' Apart from the elephants, the tank is also excellent for watching birds – we saw pelicans, storks, herons and huge flocks of cormorants at wetlands surrounding the lake.

As the sunset painted the grasslands golden-yellow, we started back for Sigiriya. We were told that there are chances of seeing civet, rusty spotted cat and the elusive mouse deer on the road back but as it started raining, this was not possible.

Travel from here to the Hill Country-Horton Plains National Park justly famous for fabulous views, the rainforests of Sinharaja Forest Reserve and the Uda Walawe National Park are among the main attractions for wildlife buffs. Uda Walawe National Park is one of the best national parks in Sri Lanka for wildlife spotting and a round-the-year elephant paradise. Herds of elephant can be seen, and leopard and sloth bear are also possible sightings.

Leopard spotting in Yala

Travelling south from the hills to the sea coast, you come to Yala National Park, Sri Lanka's best known wildlife reserve and one of the top places in the world for leopard spotting. The jeep safari takes you past scrub, light forest, grassy plains and brackish lagoons very rich in wildlife including mammals, birds and reptiles.

Considered one of the best places in the world for leopard spotting, Yala is also good for elephant, sloth bear, deer, primates and lesser cats. It is also a birdwatching paradise. The park also has a coastal area where there are salt-water crocodiles. Sea turtles also visit the beaches.

Whale watching at Mirrisa

Travel along the coast from Yala to Mirissa, one of the world's best places to watch whales. Mirissa came into thespotlight of marine mammal watching tourism when a biologist Dr Anderson was discovered that whales migrated from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea passing Sri Lanka. The top site for spotting whales is Dondra Point where the Sri Lankan continental shelf is narrow, creating an ideal whale habitat with low ocean depths just a short distance from the shore.

Boats take you out on the open sea where you could see the Blue Whale which is the largest of all mammals, Sperm Whale and other species like Bryde's Whale and Fin Whale. Look for dolphins too – Bottle-nosed Dolphin, Spinner Dolphin, Risso's Dolphin and even the Striped Dolphin could be seen in Mirissa.

Softer Sri Lanka

As you take the road from Mirrisa to Colombo, you can visit a number of places working for sea turtle rescue and conservation. Five of the eight species of sea turtles in the world come to the beaches on the Sri Lankan coast to nest – Green Sea Turtle and Olive Ridley are the most commonly seen, but the massive Leatherback Turtle, the Hawksbill and the Loggerhead also come to the beaches here. These marine turtles are slaughtered for their flesh and their eggs are also in demand. Nylon fishing nets are lethal for marine turtles, causing injury (I had seen one at a rescue centre of Bentota that had lost all its four legs) or even death. Marine pollution is taking its toll on the turtles. Beach resorts with their bright lights are also disturbing turtle nesting activities. Turtle hatcheries can be visited at Kosgoda and turtle conservation centres can also be visited at the popular Bentota Beach.

From Colombo, the highway to Kandy leads past the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which takes care of orphaned unweaned wild elephants found in the forests. A coconut plantation adjacent to the Maha Oya River has become home to these elephants. The female and young elephants in Pinnawala range freely as a herd during the day, but the best place to see the herds is at the river where they are brought for bathing. While Pinnawala works for wild elephants, Millennium Elephant Foundation (MEF) is a family run non-government organisation (NGO) which is dedicated to improving the welfare of domestic elephants in Sri Lanka. You can walk with an elephant and bathe it too. Elephant dung paper products are a popular souvenir at Pinnawala.

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