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Exploring the Saltwater Crocodiles of the Nilwala River

Exploring the Saltwater Crocodiles of the Nilwala River

Not everyo ne wants to check these fearsome creatures out, but as a photographer, I find saltwater or estuarine crocodiles quite fascinating to watch. The largest reptile on Earth, the saltwater croc (Crocodylus poros_05A1540us), known as Geta Kimbula in Sinhalese, can grow to lengths surpassing 6 meters (20 feet). This prehistoric creature is the apex predator of riverine ecosystems, found in a vast region around the world, including Sri Lanka, India, Papua New Guinea and the Indo–Pacific, all the way to Australia.

In Sri Lanka, they’re not as common as the Mugger Crocodile (Crocodylus Palustris), also known as the Marsh Cro codile. Saltwater Crocodiles are found in est_05A5885uaries and riverine systems mainly on Sri Lanka’s south, west and eastern coasts. Sometimes they can even be found in urban areas such as the nation’s commercial capital, Colombo, moving around the canals and wat erways in the city. Some specimens have been seen out at the ocean and even in locations such as suburban Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, as the crocodiles move between rivers using the ocean as a connector.

In Pappearance they are easily identifiable from the mugger crocodile. The head of the mugger is much wider, while the saltwater crocodile’s head tapers toward the snout. The neck of a saltwater croc or “saltie” doesn’t contain any prominent scales compared to the mugger. The mugger is usually greyish in colour, while the saltie has a yellowish hue on the body, especiallycontrast, salties are aggressive and there are many cases of deaths recorded due to their attacking behaviour.

the belly. The sides of the belly have rough scales similar to the texture of a jackfruit.

It’s in their temperament where the two species differ the most. Muggers_05A1683 are generally timid; only a few attacks on people have been recorded. In

Fables about crocodiles swimming in the Nilwala River in southern Sri Lanka’s Matara district are legendary and have influenced both folk tales and folk songs. Of late, the Nilwala and the crocodiles that inhabit the river have been the subject of news, with people being attacked and killed by the riverside.

Such is the saltie’s unparalleled reputation, I took off to the island’s southern coast in search of these magnificent reptiles myself. With the help of local boatmen, I embarked on my first self-styled “crocodile safari” in 2016. The boat ride did not take too long to yield up the first saltie_05A8117.

It was a small individual, rather shy, and went quickly underwater before we could draw close. We soon realized that there were many crocodiles hiding in the riverbanks and mangro

ves, mostly in plain sight, but they would quickly go underwater whenever we drew close to them, most of them semi-adults or juveniles.

Going further upriver, we were amazed at the vast variety of birdlife that formed part of this unique ecosystem, ranging from stork-billed kingfishers (Pelargopsis Capensis), common kingfishers (Alcedo atthis), striated herons (Butorides Striata) and purple herons (Ardea Purpurea), to white-bellied fish eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster), Gray-Headed fish eagles (Haliaeetus Ichthyaetus) and many more.

The further ups

_05A1540tream we went, the less populated it became, and there were some areas covered in fast reed beds with no humans in sight. It was in one such area that we came across a large male crocodile swimming across the river. This giant individual measured about 4.5 meters (15 feet) in length. He displayed his dominance over the river by swimming with his head and tail raised high above the water. It was amazing to witness this top predator of the river in its natural habitat, proud and strong. Being in a boat almost at the croc’s eye level gave me an uneasy feeling.

The boat people told me about an even bigger crocodile often seen in the Nilwala, more than 5.5 meters (18 feet) in length. Though we didn’t see him during my first tour, I continued to visit the river over the years and, on one occasion, came across this legendary reptile.

He’d crawled up to a riverbank to bask in the afternoon as crocs do, and could have easily been mistaken for a massive log, given his tremendous size and the colour camouflage. This croc was spellbinding, and I felt privileged to have seen such a giant croc, a rarity these days.

He was as wide as our boat, and as we approached closer, he slid calmly back into the water and disappeared, without trying to overpower us. During my many tours to Matara, I also came across many hatchlings, indicating a healthy population in this ecosystem. One tour up the river gave me a count of 21 individuals.

More croc attacks are being reported, but local people told me that 20 years ago this wasn’t the case. Boatmen have told me that they used to hold swimming competitions in the river without any fear. It’s quite possible that the crocodiles from neighbouring rivers such as the Walawe might have moved to the Nilwala as they gradually lost much of their habitat.

Locals told me there are now more crocodiles, and also that people throw their rubbish, fr_05A7878om fish parts and meat, into the water, attracting these giant reptiles and making them lose their fear of humans. This, in turn, imprints in their brain the link between easy food and people, making them swim toward human-habituated areas.

I heard some uncanny tales about how meat shops and even funeral parlours disposed of their waste into this precious water resource, which is now bearing the impacts of pollution and also giving rise to conflicts between man and crocodile.

To prevent crocodile attacks, there are several “croc-proof fences” set up on the riverside, enabling people to bathe in the river. But most that I saw were derelict and in need of repair. Still, I saw people bathing outside the fences, at ease with the river and the lurking dangers.

There are also some barriers across the river upstream using sandbags, an attempt to contain the flow of brackish and saltwater upstream with the tide. The effects of this project need to be assessed along with its environmental impact on the wildlife and fish in this river ecosystem, as well as the livelihood of the fishermen living downstream, and the impact this barrier has when rainfall is at an all-time high and large volumes of water flow downstream.

The Nilwala ecosystem has prevailed and persisted over centuries without disturbance. But its survival and continuity into the future depend on the sustainable strategies adopted by the authorities. The conflict between humans and crocodiles need to be carefully studied and addressed to avoid human deaths while the largest reptile we have known is allowed to survive in the fabled river. The call is for coexistence and not extinction.

A Marvellous Birding Tour

A Marvellous Birding Tour

Sinharaja _MG_0973 February 15, 2014After initiating the first COVID lockdown in the island, inbound tours had to take a considerable break amidst the pandemic. But during the post-lockdown period, we were able to initiate some incredible adventure and wildlife tours, which were mainly targeted at the Sinharaja _MG_2559 June 18, 2012locals.

Among them was the birding adventure to Sinharaja National Reserve.

We ventured into Sri Lanka’s largest tract of lowland rainforests and UNESCO World Heritage Sites in search of the beautiful endemic birds found in this region. Sinharaja arguably is the most important ecological site for the island with the highest rate of endemism seen in both flora and fauna. The island has 34 endemic species of birds, IMG-20200914-WA0050and outIMG-20200916-WA0049 of which over 22 can be seen here. Our group was led by our head naturalist who with over two decades of field experience excelled in showcasing to the client’s 26 endemic species of birds, and 67 species of birds, 5 species of mammals, 6 species of reptiles, 14 species of butterflies and 5 species of dragonflies. Among the highlights of the tour was the sighting of two Serendib Scops Owls, arguably the most sought after bird in Sri Lanka. These amazing owls are very difficult to find especially given their nocturnal nature. The use of the best local trackers helped in locating a roosting pair deep in the jungle and enabled the tour-goers to witness an unforgettable sighting.IMG-20200916-WA0031

IMG-20200916-WA0053A venture into the natural world is truly enhanced by its storytellers, and a world-class naturalist brings out the wonders of nature in a whole new light!

New Species of Snakes Discovered in Knuckles, Sri Lanka!

New Species of Snakes Discovered in Knuckles, Sri Lanka!

Here, with an intriguing bit of news!

The incredible discovery of two new species of snakes was recently made by Mendis Wickremasinghe, in the Knuckles Mountain range, Sri Lanka. These two particular snake species (Aspidurai desilvai and Rhinophis gunasekarai), can only be found in Sri Lanka, and so they are said to be critically endangered.

Mendis Wickramasinghe is one of Sri Lanka’s leading herpetologist, who have been responsible for the discovery of a considerable number of species of reptiles and amphibians, including species that were believed to be extinct for more than a century. He gives us an interesting explanation about the nature and behaviour of these two new species, while also taking a moment to stress the importance of working tirelessly to re-discover more incredible wildlife and understanding the best ways to protect and preserve them. Check-out the video below, to learn more on this brilliant discovery!

 

Youtube Link – https://youtu.be/W8_g7G8tyEI

Ceylon Wild Safaris

Ceylon Wild Safaris

24 - The Team Located at the border of the Katagamuwa side of the famous Yala National Park, this luxury camp encompasses the concept of “Glamping” perfectly. The drive to the camp itself is an adventure, as you are escorted by jeep, through thick bushes, as the camp is located in the Kochchipaththana sanctuary and hence teeming with wildlife.12 - Morning Set Up The owners of the camps are all seasoned safari guides and experts in bush-craft and tracking giving visitors a world-class wildlife experience. The camp itself is beautifully designed, blending nature with minimalist style. The tents are very large and spacious, with large king-size beds, lounge sofas, air conditioning and so much more. The tent opens out to a large verandah with each having their own private plunge pool, a perfect way to relax and rewind after a long game drive. The cuisine in the camp is made in-house with an expert chef and serves some mouthwatering cuisine right in the heart of the wilderness. 17 - Bonfire Set UpThe safaris are the highlight of your stay in Ceylon Wild and guided by seasoned wildlife professionals you see nature in a whole new light. From wonders of the termite to the various medicinal uses of plants and trees, reading the tracks on the ground all which brings one a whole new perspective to a wildlife safari, only possible thanks to the seasoned rangers/guides of the camp. In the evening, at dusk, once you exit from the park gates the safari is not yet over, as the journey to the camp can reveal some surprises like a leopard on the track or a sloth bear or even an elephant. Once back at camp, sitting by a bonfire and listening to the calls of the wild and discussing with fellow guests and your hosts about the tales of the wild almost takes one back in time to the hunters and explorers of this wild land hundreds of years ago.CWS25

You can also enjoy a morning bush walk with your guide/ranger, which gets you much closer to the wild experience rather than being on a safari jeep. Your guide will teach how to read the jungle signs such as the mud on the bark of the tree signifying an elephant has rubbed its back or the many types of footprints on the walking trails which reveal a whole new perspective into the world of nature. A truly authentic wildlife experience, Ceylon Wild Safaris combines stylish luxury with immersive wilderness into a truly unforgettable experience.

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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