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In Search of the Jungle Cat- By Rajiv Welikala

In Search of the Jungle Cat- By Rajiv Welikala

When one thinks of wild felines of Sri Lanka the leopard may come first into ones mind. But there is a more elusive and secretive cat out there. The Jungle Cat is a small species of cat found in scattered populations in the dry zones of the island. Along with the Fishing Cat and Rusty Spotted Cat this is one of the three species of wild cat found in Sri Lanka while the Leopard being categorized as a Big Cat. Known as “Kola Diviya” and “Wal Balala” this smaller species is known more by reputation than by actual sightings. The sightings themselves are known to be very brief given the shy nature of these felines.

One of the best places which I have heard of to have a fair population of Jungle Cat is Udawalawe National Park. With determination to somehow photograph one of these shy cats I set off on an expedition. I was joined by Lionel an expert tracker and seasoned ranger of the park. We scoured the land with sharp eyes looking in all directions, when suddenly our safari driver hit the brakes and we turned left to see a small cat running away into the bushes. The cat had been sitting out in the open, when it panicked and ran for cover on sight of our jeep. We decided to wait patiently with a hope that the Jungle Cat might come out. Lionel taught me the signs of the cat’s presence which are the loud alarm calls of small birds which often fall prey to these silent predators. After a long wait, we spotted some movement in the bushes, and out came not one but three jungle cats. From what we understood it was a mother with two semi adult kittens. Being from the cat family the kittens were playful, but all three were quite shy and skittish to our presence and upon noticing our vehicle ran back for cover.

The next day while moving around the same road we came across another cat sitting in the bushes. After reversing back to the spot we saw it slowly got up and walked away, giving us a few glances. This was a larger cat and probably a male, and stood around 13 inches on the shoulder. With long legs the Jungle Cat is a streamlined hunter and has a unique feature of having ear tufts on the tips of its ears.

In the afternoon while on safari, Lionel spotted another cat fast asleep under some bushes. Like any house cat who sleeps after a meal this Jungle Cat was oblivious to our presence. Quietly we observed it in slumber. After some time it slowly woke up and stretched itself, suddenly realizing our presence which startled it. After staring at us for a few seconds the cat made a retreat deep into the bush. In the evening we saw another cat long a safari trail walking along the road. We followed it for over 1 km before it went back into the bushes.

I never expected such luck in my sightings which were thanks to my trusty tracker Lionel and our safari driver Sanath who both worked together to scour the land in search of these elusive felines. From this tour it is evident that there is a fairly high number of Jungle Cats found in Udawalawe which is a welcome attraction in addition to the large number of elephants seen throughout the year in the park.

Words and Photos by Rajiv Welikala

An unforgettable experience with crocodiles in Matara- By Rajiv Welikala

An unforgettable experience with crocodiles in Matara- By Rajiv Welikala

The saltwater crocodile, the largest reptile on earth, is one of the most dominant apex predators found in Sri Lanka. Despite its reputation, they are seldom seen but known more by reputation. Growing to a maximum of over 18 feet in length seeing these primeval predators has always been my dream. The most number of records of this iconic species comes from the Nilwala River in Matara on the South Coast of the island. Sadly due to people living close to the water’s edge, this river has reported several crocodile related deaths.

For many years I researched on the possibility of creating a unique experience with these crocodiles. Finally I managed to find someone committed enough to venture out into these waters in search of these aquatic predators. Chandika Doshan is an inspiring man from the shores of Matara, a former fisherman who lost everything in the 2006 Tsunami. After realizing the potential for tourism in this river, he decided to hang up his fishing nets and develop a boat for river safari’s on the Nilwala.

Setting off from an embankment close to the Matara Bridge, Chandika’s operation is well thought of and professional. The boat is around 20 feet in length and complete with comfortable seating and an overhead canopy for the shade. Upon boarding we were handed chilled bottled water and at the end of the river a refreshing King Coconut is served by Chandika, which is a great way to beat the heat and humidity. The river safari is carried out both in the morning and in the evening.

With camera’s ready and bubbling with excitement we set of on our adventure. Ten minutes into the boat-ride we came across our first crocodile, which was a mid sized animal who surfaced for a brief moment and went straight under. Moving down the river it’s amazing to see the varying habitats of mangroves and forests along with areas of human habitation. We came across many crocs along the way, most were shy and went underwater when approached, but the larger ones remained afloat. Chandika had the eyes of a hawk and spotted the crocs from far off, as I realized it takes some getting used to in order to spot them while in the water.

About midway into our journey we came across the King of the River, a monster male croc around 16 feet in length. It swam across the river in front of our boat, back and head raised high along with his “dinosaur like” tail raised above the water to show his true size. It was one of the most amazing and exciting experiences of my life. I have been inches from elephants, bear and leopards but nothing prepared me for what was in front of our boat that day. This was a true aquatic predator in peak condition and we are in his element at almost eye level and it was a feeling like no other. The big croc started swimming in front of us along the river and we followed. For over a mile we followed the big male who Chandika claims is known to swim in front of his boat. This was a perfect hunter which was evolved over millions of years to what it is today, the largest reptile on the planet, and I was fortunate to witness them in their natural habitat. Along the way we came across a baby croc settled on top of one of the mangrove roots.

The boat ride took us across a vast riverine habitat with mangroves, marshes and human settlements. There were many interesting birds along the way, such as Purple Heron, Common Kingfisher, White Bellied Sea Eagle, Brahminy Kite and Stork Billed Kingfisher and the waters and mangroves were abundant in Water Monitor Lizards the largest species of lizard on the island. This riverine cruise is a unique and different form of safari which covers a one of a kind aquatic habitat which is home to a great number of species.

In total we spotted over 12 crocodiles from small hatchlings to giants like the “River King” who is over 16 feet in length. This river system has a healthy population of Saltwater Crocodiles, which causes conflict with people who live by its waters. Along the way we witnessed many crocodile proof fences which are set up for people to bathe in safely. Education and awareness is key to a successful co-existence with these predators.

Our river safari opened our eyes to a whole new world of opportunity. As an experience “off the beaten track” this sits high up in the list, as its originality and excitement is hard to match. This is an amazing outing in the heart of the Southern Coast and a great way to get out and experience an unknown part of Sri Lanka.

Words and Photos by Rajiv Welikala

Buduruwagala- “An off the beaten track discovery”

Buduruwagala- “An off the beaten track discovery”

On the way back from a tour in Arugam Bay and Kumana National Park we decided to explore the ancient ruins of Buduruwagala. This is one of the least known and seldom visited archeological sites in the country. The name Buduruwagala literally means “Rock with an image of Lord Buddha”. Although there is no documented information about this site in the ancient scriptures, Different historians have dated these statues from the 6th centuary to late Anuradhapura period. (between 8 – 10 Century). These carvings are of the Mahayana Buddhist style and belongs to the Pallawa- Sri Lankan art tradition.

This site can be accessed through Wellawaya, but for visitors coming from the Bandarawela and Haputale areas would need to come via Ella. The best route if one is coming from Colombo is to go via the Ratnapura-Balangoda Road.

Along a well paved road we came across the stunning beauty of the Buduruwagala Lake. The setting was almost unreal, with soothing waters lined with rocky hills and many trees. Crossing a bridge we noticed the waters are rich with fish, and given the setting it should be ideal for birdlife, but as we are visiting during the heat of the day there were non to be seen.

Passing the lake we reached a car park from where it’s a short walk up some ancient stone steps through a shady forest grove. We are not expecting what lay ahead as though images on the internet showcased what we would see, nothing can give you the real feeling of awe that seeing the site in person. I felt like I am at a set of an Indiana Jones movie with a discovery of a lost temple. The site was isolated and serene with nobody in sight. I just stood at a distance for a few minutes in awe, admiring the beauty of the rock carvings that lay before me. The site is a massive granite rock which has a central statue of the Lord Buddha which is flanked by three statues each of Bodhisathva’s and their consorts. The detail in the carvings are amazing, and one of the Bodhisathva statues has remnants of the white plaster it would have been covered in back in the day.

The sun was burning hot, but I had to get some great angles of this site to bring out the true effect of these carvings. As respect it is important to remove ones footwear at the site and best to wear clothing covering the legs such as trousers or a sarong.

The intricacy and detail in which the carvings are done are astounding and the setting, surrounded by large trees is calm and serene. One can spend hours in peace and tranquility in this location.

This is one of the best kept secrets of Sri Lanka’s historical heritage and is a fitting example of the skills of the artisans and craftsmen of ancient Sri Lanka.

Words and Photos by Rajiv Welikala