The serenity of uda walawe
Popular Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka
SRI LANKA (eTN) - A recent visit to the popular Uda Walawe National Park (UWNP) in the southeastern region of Sri Lanka saw the park quite dry, with the beginning of the long drought period. Most of the smaller water holes were bone dry, and animals were scarce and not so easy to spot. The park has many large water holes or tanks (wewes) strewn around, which is why the park boasts possibly of a total population of some 700 or more elephant (on-going research of Dr. Shermin de Silva).
We came across a small star tortoise (Geochelone elegans), a greatly sought-after, but protected, animal, slowing crossing the main road. I instructed the tracker to stop the jeep, and we gently carried the small fellow to the side, into the grass, lest he is accidentally run over by a careless driver.
Amidst the thicket we saw a parked bulldozer, which had been brought in to repair some of the roads. I wondered what the elephant must be thinking of this “large growling animal” who had invaded their territory!
We drove to the eastern end of the park and saw the picturesque mau ara catchment area. A new park bungalow was to be built here, but the plans had been shelved, I understood. However, there was no sign of elephant or any other wildlife.
On reaching back to the main road, my son Dimitri spotted two elephant near the thekke wewe (the teak forest water hole), and we quickly backtracked there. And weren’t we lucky. There were two males, one the more senior of the two, and the other a younger companion, who had come down to the water to quench their thirst. For the next half hour, we watched the two majestic animals drinking, spraying themselves with water and mud bathing. They were well aware of our presence, but were quite relaxed. We did manage to get some good photographs between the two of us. The Sri Lankan elephant is a distinct sub-species of the Asian variety (elephans maximus maximus).
Eventually we arrived at the Seenuggala bungalow where we were booked to stay the night. The park has 5 bungalows for overnight stay with basic facilities, including running water, bathrooms, and solar-powered lights, and a bungalow keeper cum cook, who will prepare the meals. All provisions have to be purchased and taken in and then brought to us at these bungalows at UWNP, which have become our retreat and refuge, to get away from the hustle, bustle, and stress of the city. The food tastes better, the stars at night seem brighter, the earthy-smelling air more invigorating, and above all the silence… punctuated only by the sounds of the jungle… it is very difficult to articulate these feelings in words.
Most of the bungalows overlook a large water hole, tank, or wewe, and to sit outside and just watch the bird life and other smaller animals is just bliss. Often, if one is lucky, you can have a grandstand view of a herd of elephant coming down to water on the opposite bank. A few months ago when we were here at Seenuggala, one bull decided to come visit us, and at 6:00 am, as we woke, we were greeted by this massive bull elephant looking at us amusedly, just a few meters away from the veranda.
All the bungalows have their own semi-tame animals who have got acclimatized to visitors somewhat. Once upon a time there was “Seenuggalaya,” a massive bull elephant who frequented this bungalow to pick up tid bits. Thimbiriyamankada, another bungalow in the park, has “Edward,” the resident wild boar… and this time we found that our friend “Timothy,” the giant squirrel at Seenuggala, had become much bolder, checking out even the dining table.
The area around the bungalow is teeming with insects, dragonflies, butterflies, and birds, and is a photographer’s dream. You don’t need hides nor watch tower… you just need to perch on a bough and have adequate patience, and you will be richly rewarded.
Water and fish equals kingfishers… so Seenuggala bungalow has many kingfishers that more than adequately satisfy their appetite right through the day. Sri Lanka has seven species of kingfishers, four of which can be seen in the Seenuggala wewe. A White-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) spent a long time very close to the bungalow, and we were able to get some good close-ups.
The more elusive and more agile Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) was also around, but more difficult to photograph. It is one of the smaller kingfisher species and its name “common” is really a misnomer, because in reality it is not at all common.
Wildflowers are in no short supply at UWNP, with the purple “wara” (Calotropis giantea ) being very common all over the park. It is a shrub which sprouts clusters of waxy flowers that are either white or lavender. The milky juice extracted from this plant is used as a remedy for Leprosy.
With so many water holes and many small mammals around, UWNP is abundant with raptors or birds of prey. On one of our game drives, we came across this magnificent specimen of a Grey-headed Fish Eagle (Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus) or tank eagle perched on a low branch, which enabled us to watch him for quite a while at relatively close quarters. These are very large raptors that can attack a hare or other smaller mammals and carry them off, aided by their massive 1.5-2.0 m wingspan.
On another game drive, we saw this big bull sand bathing to keep himself cool. He seems to be at the tail-end of Musth, as was evident from the stain on his face between the ear and eye. Musth is a periodic or seasonal condition in bull elephant, characterized by highly-aggressive behavior, accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones – testosterone levels - which can be as much as 60-100 times higher than normal. During this time, they secrete a strong pungent smelling viscous liquid from their temporal glands.
At Godawiddagala, we saw a big herd of elephant in a mighty hurry to get across the river to the other side. There was a lot of splashing, pushing, shoving, and trumpeting. They were certainly not frightened but somehow seemed want to get to the other side quickly.
On our final drive, returning to the bungalow in the fading light of the evening, we came across a large herd which had just finished watering at our Seenuggala wewe and were now crossing the road. (The darker water stain on their lower legs indicated that they recently watered.) A particular mother and calf seem to be quite calm as we passed very close to them, punctuating the serenity of Uda Walawe National Park.