As the sun sinks toward the distant horizon, the elephants begin to emerge from the scrub vegetation and move solemnly toward the water of a lake. It is September, towards the end of the dry season, and most water sources have long since disappeared. The Minneriya tank, however, retains water throughout the parched months and the now-exposed tank bed is flourishing, the fresh growth attracting herds of elephants from near and far.
The gentle, charismatic giants congregate here every year at this time, their numbers sometimes exceeding 300. To see so many together –playing, eating, swimming, looking for mates –is nothing but breathtaking. That this occurs very near to the physical centre of a fairly diminutive, densely-populated and compact island is symbolic of the elephant’s indigenous importance.
The crowded ecological stage
Elephants may be the most celebrated of Sri Lanka’s diverse wildlife, but they actually represent just one actor on a crowded ecological stage. For instance, this is one of the best places in the world to see the elusive leopard, and one of the only places where the big cat is top predator in the system – the king of the Sri Lankan jungle. With striking markings, a sleek, powerful body, and graceful movements, the leopard is thrilling to observe – try Yala National Park in the south-east coastal and zone.
The final member of Sri Lanka’s ‘big three’ is the sloth-bear, a shaggy, shambling denizen of the dry zone forests whose elongated snout and scimitar-like claws are ideally adapted for extracting termites from their mounds. In May and June they take to the trees – a fantastic if incongruous sight! – to feed on the sweet yellow fruits of the palu tree. Wasgamuwa National Park is one of the best places on the island to have the pleasure of a sloth-bear encounter.
Furry, scaled and feathered creatures
Sri Lanka’s varied forests abound with a dizzying assortment of other furry, scaled and feathered creatures. There are five species of deer, ranging from the diminutive mouse deer – just 30cm in height and armed with elongated canine teeth – to the sambar, a large, stately species in which the bull grows impressively large antlers. The latter are best seen in the high, open area surrounding Horton Plains,where they gather in the crisp evenings to feed on the long grasses – and gain protection in numbers from leopards on the stalk.
Civets, mongooses, porcupines and three species of small cats roam the forest floor, while up in the trees primates reign. The widely – spread toque macaque is an archetypal monkey – active, acrobatic and not a little mischievous in Polonnaruwa they live among the ruins of ancient temples and palaces, where the young gambol on stone walls 1,000-years old. Grey langurs, members of the tribe of the monkey-god Hanuman of the Hindu epic poem, the Ramayana, inhabit the dry lowlands and are often to be seen in large troops, pigeon-toed as they cross open ground, their long tails held partially erect in unintentional mimicry of a question-mark.
Often heard reverberating across the forested upper slopes of the central hills in the early morning is the booming call of the ‘bear’ monkey, a sub-species of the purple-faced langur, whose name derives from its shaggy bulk. The loris, smallest of the island’s primates, is also the most unusual, an enigmatic nocturnal hunter with spindly legs and large, luminous eyes. It possesses a unique, high-pitched call that pierces the stillness of the tropical night, sending shivers down the spine.
Even more evocative is the blood –curdling shriek of the Spot-bellied Forest Eagle Owl, locally known as the ulama or “devil-bird”. This is the largest and one of the rarest of Sri Lanka’s dozen owl species and part of a rich avifaunal community of 482 species that are either residents or visitors to the island, including 33 endemic species (as an island, Sri Lanka is home to numerous endemic species that evolved in isolation from mainland populations and thus developed their own distinctive characteristics).
Sri Lanka’s birdlife is astonishing, which is why ornithologists and amateur bird watchers worldwide flock here to take in such dazzling encounters as a flamboyant peacock strutting like a courtier, trying to impress the hens with his upright shimmering tail feathers, and a White-bellied Sea Eagle swooping from his perch on a half-submerged tree, diving low over an inland tank to pluck a fish from the glittering water. And not forgetting a Sri Lankan Paradise Flycatcher flitting from perch to perch its amazingly long tail feathers bobbing behind it like a chestnut ribbon.
Hornbills are seen nesting in hollowed tree trunks, completely sealed in except for a small hole sufficient only for their partners to insert food while noisy flocks of parakeets speckle the blue sky green. In Sinharaja Forest Reserve and other wet Zone forests, mixed feeding flocks feature prominently, with many species travelling together through the forest plucking insects from the air, pulling grubs from tree-trunks and sipping nectar from flowers.
On a similar scale, the island abounds with a wonderful diversity of creatures seen from the comfort of a poolside lounger or as one strolls through town. Butterflies dip and flutter on delicate wings vibrantly hued to draw attention or painted in more muted tones to deflect the same. Gaudy dragonflies hover on rigid, translucent wings while ethereal damselflies dance amid the foliage. Spiders, like tine gemstones, wait patiently in gauzy webs that shimmer, dew-drenched in the early morning sunshine.
The underwater world is kaleidoscopic array
On a breezy, tropical night, the coastline, illuminated by the light of the full moon, a small section on of a beach begins to gently quiver. Suddenly, from amid the shifting grains of sand, emerges first one, then another and another tiny black form, and their curved carapaces glinting softly.
These creatures are the leatherback sea turtle hatchlings, perfect miniature replicas of their parents, which immediately scuttle down the beach towards the sea, so beginning a remarkable battle for survival that, like the island upon whose shores they begin life, represents a perfect blend of ocean and land, water and earth.
Further out from shore the wildlife diversity is no less extraordinary. The underwater world is a kaleidoscopic array of fish and coral. Electric blues, incandescent purples, radiant yellows and everything in between can be seen in deep sea caves, hovering around ancient sunken wrecks and on sheer rock walls that drop into the endless blue depths. This treasure trove of life can be visited throughout the year since the conditions are always ideal on at least one of the coasts!
Above the waterline whales breach the surface, offering tantalizing glimpses or longer, lingering views. To share into the eye of one of these mysterious, huge animals, regarding it as it regards to you, is to look back to the beginning of time. Blue whales, the largest animal on the planet, are seen off south coast Mirissa from November to May, as are Humpback and sperm whales, while on the north-west coast, off the Kalpitiya peninsula, dolphins by the score cut through the brilliant blue sea, leaping, spinning, frolicking – and even allowing lucky onlookers to share the warm waters with them.
Sand dune to cloud forest, tree frog to elephant
Sri Lanka is like a children’s story book creation: palm-fringed beaches ring a heavily-forested interior, which in turn rises majestically to form a rugged, mountainous core. Monsoon winds lash this island twice a year, the orientation and the rains they bring are responsible for determining the eco-regions that characterize the island.
Most of the broad lowland plain is the dry zone, with tall monsoonal evergreen forests composed of a canopy overarched with magnificent emergent trees. Despite the relative scarcity of water this dry zone harbours a surprisingly large complement of wildlife.
Notable among them are large mammals in the south-east and shorebirds in both regions – the latter flock here to forage in the rich tidal shallows and salty lagoons. In the south-west, the rains nurture some of the finest lowland tropical rainforest in Asia. Sinharaja Forest Reserve – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – encompasses the largest single swath of remaining lowland tropical rainforest in the country and rewards visitors with differing hiking trails alive with butterflies, birds and lizards, and rocky viewpoints offering spectacular forest vistas.
Climbing up into the central highlands, the slopes not carpeted with emerald fields of tea are instead blanketed with thick sub-montane forest that gives way to stunted montane forests above 1,500m. Waterfalls are numerous here.. Mosses, lichens and ferns – including some above head-height – proliferate here, as does an abundance of flowering plants including orchids.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this biological cornucopia – sand dune to cloud forest, tree frog to elephant – is the accessibility of it all. All ecological zones and the bounteous wildlife that inhabit in them can be comfortably experienced in a week.
There are 12 National Parks on the island and 52 Sanctuaries, which together account for over 12% of Sri Lanka’s land area, so visitors are not restricted to a few over-visited locations. For an island of such modest size, Sri Lanka is blessed with a truly startling diversity of forests and wildlife. This ecological jewel is a nature lover’s paradise that offers truly a wonderful experience.