Trip Report- Wildlife Safari in Sri Lanka’s last frontier
The Classic Destinations- Sri Lanka Team, headed to explore some of the lesser-visited wild corners of the island this October, starting with Nilgala, Gal Oya, Lahugala and Kumana National Parks. We seek to showcase the true essence of Wild Sri Lanka in more secluded, less crowded locations to our valued clientele.
Starting from Nilgala Conservation Forest, located in the Uva province of Sri Lanka. Being one corner of the giant Gal Oya National Park, Nilgala is one of the most unique ecological habitats on the island. Consisting of a tropical dry evergreen forest.
Nilgala forest is also important as a major watershed for Gal Oya and Panmedilla Oya throughout the year. There are several peaks within the Nilgala forest area with “Yakun Hela” being the highest (700 m).
This is a birders paradise, with many unique species seen nowhere else on the island.
The most famous is the Painted Francolin or Painted Partridge, a beautiful bird with a distinctive call. Further, this region is known for the Yellow Footed Green Pigeon, Racquet Tailed Drongo and the ever-elusive Blue Eared Kingfisher.
The drive from the main turn off from the tarmac road begins your birding quest, as one is surrounded by forest and grassland. The drive which is usually 5-6 km to the park entrance itself boasts of some very productive birdlife.
Despite hearing the call of the elusive Blue Eared Kingfisher our group was unable to have a confirmed sighting. Despite this, we did manage to get a glimpse of a small flock of Yellow Footed Green Pigeons.
This is elephant country, and we did come across three individuals by the side of the trail. Peacefully feeding, we managed to pass them by as we continued on our journey towards the Wildlife Department office.
Finally entering the park, we explored the trails in our trusty 4×4. Despite our continuous patience, we were unable to hear the distinctive call of the Painted Francolin, which was the main target species of the day. En-route back out, we managed to come across a pair of Racquet Tailed Drongo close towards the park gate. Some of the more common species encountered during the venture were – Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Thick Billed Flower Pecker, Common Iora, Scarlett Minivet, Small Minivet, Ceylon Small Barbet, Brown-Headed Barbet, Lesser Hill Mynah, Crested Hawk Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Common Kingfisher, Oriental White Eye and Sri Lanka Swallow.
Few butterfly species identified – Sri Lanka Birdwing, Blue Mormon, Dingy Lineblue, Chestnut Streaked Sailor, Golden Angle and Baronet.
Despite our short time in Nilgala, this truly is a park that required further exploration and study. It holds a place as one of the most important ecological sites in the country and is excellent for all-round birding.
For accommodation, we inspected the up and coming Wild Glamping- Gal Oya, a new venture by Theme Resorts which is a 30-min drive from Nilgala.
The property will be completed by the end of November 2021 and will consist of 10 glamping tents complete will all modern amenities.
The camp will be facing the majestic hills of Gal Oya and will employ members of the Indigenous Veddah Tribe of Rathugala.
We were honoured to meet one of their elders Gunebandara Eththo. He explained the significance of the forest to his people and how they continue to preserve their “hunter, gatherer” lifestyle. The property hopes to introduce many hikes with the Veddah people in the surrounding forest along with culturally immersive experiences. We are excited and honoured to be the first DMC to visit the property and look forward to showcasing the wonders of this region to our clientele.
The next day, our group journeyed towards Arugam Bay, located on the far South-Eastern corner of the island. Passing through Gal Oya National Park and the giant Senanayake Samudraya Reservoir which borders the park, the drive was very scenic and beautiful.
Arugam Bay, known as the surfing capital of Sri Lanka, is a wild country, with two amazing national parks nearby, Lahugala Kitulana National Park and Kumana National Park.
Arugam Bay itself is located bordering the wilds of the South East, and hence seeing wild elephants on the beach, and mere meters from the hotels is a very common occurrence. Our accommodation for the next two nights was Blue Wave Hotel a lovely 3-star property located in Arugam Bay. Consisting of 30 beautiful rooms, the hotel is an ideal location to base oneself while exploring this region.
The objective of the day was to visit Lahugala Kitulana National Park for an afternoon game drive. Known primarily for its large 3 lakes which attract large herds of wild elephants who gather to eat the succulent Beru grass found here, the park has a largely unexplored area with many forested roads which are home to a vast array of wildlife.
What we discovered was this park is one of the best-kept secrets of Sri Lanka. The jeep tracks in the forest are very scenic and full of bird and wildlife from large herds of spotted deer, grey langur and toque macaque, along with birdlife especially Little Green and Blue Tailed Bee Eaters, Grey Hornbills, Malabar Pied Hornbills, Greater Racquet Tailed Drongo, Red Vented Bulbul, Common Iora, Sri Lanka Jungle, Forest Wagtail, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, White Rumped Shama, White Bellied Sea Eagle, Whiskered Tern, White-winged Tern, Gull bill Tern.
The biggest surprise came when we took one corner of this forested road when a large owl flew across being chased by Greater Racquet Tailed Drongo while carrying some sort of prey. Initially thinking it’s the more common Brown Fish Owl we took the bend and scanned the tree line. We spotted the bird perched on a tree, but the view was obstructed to get a clear ID. Using the binoculars, I managed to identify it immediately as a Forest Eagle Owl, or Spot Bellied Eagle Owl, one of the rarest and most sought after birds to see in Sri Lanka. The prey it was holding in its clutches was a Black Naped Hare. Elated, we observed the bird being chased from its perch to another one by the aggressive Drongo.
Thereafter perched in a clear area, we were able to get a good view of the bird and capture some amazing pictures. The owl was a young individual as from the observations it wasn’t fully grown. Being the largest owl species in Sri Lanka, they are imposing individuals. Local folklore states the owl known as the “Ulama” in the native tongue is the open of death, and when the village hears its eerie call at night, they fear someone in the village would die. Hence the owl was given the title of the “Devil Bird” in local folklore.
While heading to our final lake on the forested jungle roads, while taking another bend, we came face to face with a young Leopard seated in the middle of the road. In shock as not expecting such a sighting, given the park is not known for leopards, we managed to capture a few photographs of the elusive cat as it paused to look at our vehicle before slinking into the bush.
In disbelief, we were overjoyed with this sighting. Predicting the cat would come back to the road again, we reversed back keeping a large space between us and waiting. After over 20 min of waiting, we decided to pass the spot where the leopard went in, and drive ahead before turning back and slowly returning. Hoping the cat would come back to the road, this is a tactic which I have used very successfully in other parts of the country. As we were driving past the spot where it slunk in, I noticed the leopard seated under a bush by the roadside. Pausing for that moment, we managed to observe the leopard for a good two minutes before it went back into the bush. This was a young male leopard, and from our encounter with him, it seems the animal is not too fearful of people of vehicles. Overjoyed and in shock we discussed our encounter with the park officials, who confirmed good sightings of leopards in the park along with Sloth Bears, which was very promising news for us. Being a park visited by no one, this could prove to be a haven for Classic clients for private and intimate wildlife safaris. The potential for this park is immense, and we plan on working with the park officials in visiting regularly and further studying its wildlife potential and sightings.
Lahugala has proved to deliver beyond our expectations, and we hope to include the park in all our future tours to this region of Sri Lanka.
The following day, to reach the Kumana National Park gates by 6.00 AM we set off from the hotel at 5.00 AM sharp with packed breakfast from the hotel. Reaching the village of Panama (pronounced Paanama), we switched to our safari jeep and headed towards the park gate. The drive to the park itself is a safari unto its own. Being on the East Coast of the island the sun rises earlier than the rest of the country. As we drove past the buffer zone of the park, we came across some amazing sights such as two Brown Fish Owls beautifully perched atop a rock in the open plains, large herds of Spotted Deer, troops of Grey Langur and even a lone Elephant. Given the sun rises at approximately 5.45 AM this gives enough light for good photography during this drive.
Reaching the park gates at 6.00 AM sharp, after purchasing our tickets and permits, we were joined by a seasoned tracker from the park office, and we set off on our full-day safari.
Kumana National Park which was known back in the ’70s and 80’s as a prominent bird sanctuary has grown to be an excellent Leopard viewing park. With many individuals being identified in recent years, the park has an excellent habituated leopard population, and unlike the more mainstream national parks, Kumana has very few crowds and visitors, with some days where one’s jeep being the only visitor in the entire national park. This gives the perfect backdrop for some secluded, private game watching, ideal for the discerning clientele.
Our tracking of leopards began immediately, as there were fresh tracks even in the park office where the tracker mentioned there is a female with semi-adult cubs roaming around. Taking a by-road that borders the park office, we searched the area. Returning back on this track we heard the distinctive alarm calls of the Grey Langur, but the Leopard/s seem to be deep in the bush.
Continuing on our safari, passing the Bagura Plains, we turned inward to a jungle road which while driving we came across a large bull elephant with ivory known locally as a “tusker”. As bulls with tusks are very rare given that only 3% of males produce tusks in Sri Lanka. The Tusker was quietly drinking water from a small pond, before slinking quietly into the bush. Known as “Kalinga” this is a prominent bull elephant in the Kumana landscape.
Continuing towards Kumana Villu, which is a natural marshy lake that is fed by the overflow of the Kumbukkan River which flows into the Indian Ocean at the estuary is located in the park. The villu is home to a large number of nesting Painted Storks, Black Headed Ibis and Asian Open Billed Storks. The number of birds has lessened over the years, as those who recall the 70’s and 80’s mention thousands of nesting birds in this villu.
Kumana was once out of bounds for visitors during the long civil war when terrorists roamed these lands back in the late 80’s and 90’s.
Our tracker mentioned that the water levels of the villu (local word for natural lake), was very high a few weeks before our arrival and was host to a flock of Knob Billed Ducks, also known as Comb Duck and also a large flock of Glossy Ibis. But as the rains ceased, these birds seem to have moved on.
Stopping over at the watchtower in the Villu provides an excellent vantage point to scan the entire area.
While exploring the park, we came across many species of birds as follows Richards Pipit, Paddy field Pipit, Wood Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Gull billed Tern, Great Crested Tern, Lesser Crested Tern, Brown Headed Gull, Common Hoopoe, Indian Pitta, Jerdons Bushlark, White Rumped Shama, Jerdons Nightjar, Black Headed Ibis, Greater Thick-knee, Eurasian Spoonbill, Black Necked Stork, Lesser Adjutant, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Greater Egret, Little Egret, Pond Heron, Crested Serpent Eagle, White Bellied Sea Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle, Grey Headed Fish Eagle, Brown Fish Owl, Red Wattled Lapwing, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Lesser Sandplover, Rose ringed Parakeet, Alexandrine Parakeet, Blue Faced Malkoha, Sirkeer Malkoha, Sri Lanka Redbacked Woodpecker, Black Headed Cuckooshrike, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl, Indian Peafowl, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Little Green Bee Eater, Blue Tailed Bee Eater, Sri Lanka Small Barbet, Brown Headed Barbet, Jerdons Leaf bird, Painted Stork, Wooly Necked Stork, Asian Open billed Stork, Little Cormorant, Indian Darter, Purple Swamp hen.
From mammals, we observed Spotted Deer, the most common herbivore found in the park, Grey Langur, Toque Macaque, Black Naped Hare, Sambhur, Sri Lankan Jackal, Asiatic Wild Water Buffalo, Stripe Necked Mongoose, Ruddy Mongoose, Wild Boar (very numerous), Sri Lankan Elephant and Grizzled Giant Squirrel.
We drove all the way up to the Kumbukkan River close to the Kuda Kebilitte Devalaya. The park is home to ancient shrines which devotees visit during certain times of the year.
Heading back towards the park gate by afternoon, we heard the alarm calls of a Grey Langur and immediately came to a halt. This is when I observed a leopard slinking through the bush away from the road deeper into the bush. Circling around on by roads we hoped to encounter the leopard but to no avail, as we believe due to the harsh sun by afternoon, the animal was resting in the shade of the bush.
Continuing towards the park office, we were welcomed to a lovely picnic lunch arranged by our local supplier from the Panama Village. The Park office is the ideal location for lunch given the proximity to the leopard habitat, and suitable picnic tables and summer huts available for clients to relax and enjoy a good view of the nearby waterholes filled with life while enjoying a meal. Meals can be arranged either from the village or brought fresh from the hotel to be served ready at the park office. The park office washrooms were well maintained and clean, which is excellent for our clients.
After a well-earned lunch, we set off on our safari once again by around 2.00 PM. As we circled the Bagura plains and returned back towards the office, Hetti our seasoned naturalist spotted a leopard in the plains a distance away. The leopard was very relaxed as it started grooming itself, and from our binoculars, we observed it was a male leopard. He was very relaxed as it rolled on the grass and was taking short naps as we observed. It was quite relaxing to be the only vehicle a sighting and to observe the behaviour of this majestic predator at leisure. This was an amazing sighting, and it was less than a Kilometer from the park entrance.
Our search continued as the light was fading. Heading towards Kirigal Ebbe which is a point that leads to the Indian Ocean, we observed a family of Sri Lankan Jackal by the beach was an interesting photographic opportunity.
Returning out of the park as the light was fading, we observed yet another leopard perched high atop a rock outcrop. This time it was a larger male, who was quite calm and relaxed as it sat atop the large rock. As time was running out, and the light was fading, after taking our share of pictures we headed back towards the park office.
The full-day trip was very productive and gave us three individual leopard sightings as well as some amazing overall wildlife and bird sightings.
This concluded our reconnaissance tour to this region, and we are very happy with the experience and product of Lahugala and Kumana both very viable national parks for our discerning clientele.
Both locations are isolated and remote enough to have very few visitors, giving private, secluded wildlife experiences, and the wildlife and bird density very productive with great photographic opportunities.
We would like to offer both locations to our list of products and tours and hope to see you all on safari on the last wild frontier of Sri Lanka.