Home to Sri Lanka’s ‘big three’, elephant, leopard and sloth bear, Yala is the island’s second largest national park, where big skies and big crowds come as part of the package, and patience is a virtue.
One teenager sneaks up on another, rears up and ducks his companion clean under the water. His victim spins round and pushes his tormentor, who loses his footing and disappears momentarily under the surface. A female lazily flicks her trunk, administering an admonishing cuff round the ear. Chastened, the boisterous youths take their rough-housing to the other side of the wewa, or tank – a manmade water-hole that serves as an oasis in the arid, thorny scrub of the park. On the water’s edge a baby – no more than six months old – trembles visibly, bracing herself. Her mother gives her a gentle nudge and she nervously takes to the shallow water. Watching elephants at play, it is hard not to anthropomorphize. Their joy is palpable as they lounge and frolic in the cooling waters, trumpeting and spraying water over each others’ backs. It is a joy that often manifests in what looks suspiciously like a broad grin. All the usual family dynamics are present; characters are strong and easy to identify. Of course, witnessing elephants bathe is itself a rare treat and one to cherish.
We are in Ruhuna West National Park, popularly known as Yala, where the Sri Lankan ‘big three’ of elephant, sloth bear and leopard co-habitat in almost 400 square miles of predominantly thorny scrub forest and open grassland, studded with tanks; punctuated by rocky outcrops that rise to some 50 metres in places. The park is lined with golden sand beaches to the south east and also supports other habitats, including brackish lagoons and mangrove marshland. Yala has been a protected sanctuary for over a century and is home to around 6,000 elephants; 400 leopards – the greatest density of leopard in the world – and an unknown number of the rare Indian sloth bear. All the ‘big three’ in Sri Lanka are, in fact, considered sub-species in their own right and wander freely across the park’s four open blocks and the strict reserve that forms block 5. We visitors are not so lucky and are restricted to the block into which we enter. The bulk of viewing takes place in Block 1, where leopard density is more than matched by the density of jeeps here to see them. A quieter experience can be found when other blocks are open to the public, although, paradoxically, a combination of a far lesser habituation to the presence of jeeps and a lesser familiarity with the animal’s habits on the part of the drivers means that, while you may encounter fewer jeeps, you may also encounter less game.
Wildlife viewing in Yala is poles apart from its more familiar counterpart in Africa, where much of the wildlife is laid out on a plate. Here, the hunt is on. A typical game drive starts just before dawn, when the park gates open, or at around 2.30, in the stultifying heat of the mid-afternoon. The gates close promptly at nightfall. As elsewhere in the world, the best viewing tends to be early in the morning or late in the afternoon and there is rarely much to be seen in the heat of the day. A drive does not guarantee a sighting, of course, and many is the day when we have driven around, large animals nowhere to be seen, frustration mounting until, more often than not, we are rewarded for our forbearance by something quite magical. On quiet days, though, the smaller animals and astonishing variety of birdlife more than make up for any lack of the bigger, headline residents. Golden jackals and mongooses are the most likely smaller, predatory mammals to be encountered and make for interesting, characterful viewing, as they hunt and scavenge. Grey langurs sit in trees, grooming and munching leaves, while water-buffalo wallow indolently and wild boar snuffle in the background. Jewel-like bee-eaters and kingfishers dart around on dusty paths and tanks, respectively. Peacocks roost in dead trees, majestic tails streaming behind them, shimmering in the light. Most days we encounter at least one male dancing, his tail spread fan-like in all its pomp and glory. The Sri Lankan national bird – the jungle-fowl – struts self-importantly, like a superbly vibrant cockerel, males scrapping noisily in the shadows of the thorny scrub bushes. Hornbills clatter overhead. Aptly named painted storks make a colorful addition to the watery vistas, while open-bills; wooly-necks; lesser adjutants and, for the very lucky, the endangered black-necked make up the stork quotient. Raptors abound, brahiminy kites; serpent and changeable hawk eagles are most common, often pestering the spotted pelicans that swim in lazy circles in the larger tanks. Beautiful barbets, orioles and paradise fly-catchers are here in their droves, as well as sunbirds a plenty and numerous eye-catchingly bright pigeons.
Back to the action, and our driver takes a call that a leopard has gone to ground in a culvert under the sun-baked, red earth track. The race is on. We arrive to find no less than 10 other jeeps lined up in anticipation. All eyes are on the mouth of the tunnel. Time ticks by and one by one the other jeeps give up. Finally, only three remain, as, he emerges, proud and majestic, his sleek flank catching the afternoon sun. Excitement runs high and the post-adrenaline rush lingers as we move off to continue the search. A little while later, our driver pulls alongside a friend’s jeep to boast of our leopard sighting. His friend laughs back and asks his passenger to show us photos of a young female with cubs playing, right out in the open. Jealous doesn’t even begin to cover it. The good-natured competition between the young drivers, as well as their astonishing eye and encyclopedic knowledge of the park’s wildlife, is a real feature of a trip to Yala.
Still tingling from our leopard sighting, we head back to the bungalow. The wildlife department operates several bungalows inside the park, which can be booked (by telephone or in person only) for $75 per person per night. Staying in the park does present some logistical difficulties, in that one must bring all supplies for the entire trip. The market at Tissa has everything you need, but without refrigeration in the bungalows, it is up to you to supply ice and ice boxes and a predominantly vegetarian diet is both safer and easier. A nearby fish-canning plant, which the jeep drivers all know, provides ice and a semi-itinerant fishing village on the shores of the park itself sells fish and, if you are lucky, also lobster. Bungalows are serviced by excellent cooks, who expertly turn out curries and rice and a fantastic breakfast, but don’t expect western cuisine. Bungalows sleep eight in two twins and camp beds on the verandah. Mosquito nets are provided, but you will need sheets and towels. Accommodation is basic, but that is part of the charm. Of course the less intrepid can stay in many nearby hotels of varying standards that have sprung up to fill the void left by the widespread devastation by the tsunami of 2001. There are also several organized camping outfits in operation at specific locations within the park.
At 5am the next day we tuck into syrupy coffee with condensed milk, ahead of our morning drive. The sun is not yet up and the boom of the surf from the nearby beach fills our ears. We leave the bungalow in the mysterious twilight of dawn and head to one of our favorite tanks, to watch the sun come up. Soon after, we encounter a tusked elephant, or tusker. Only around 10% of Asian elephant males bear tusks and Yala has a very high density of tuskers. He seems profoundly unbothered by us and, not three yards away, happily strips a tree of its bark and juicy, tender leaves, emitting a low humming sound. Soon after we encounter a young un-tusked male, well known to our driver. He was orphaned at a fairly young age, when his elderly mother got stuck in mud and died of starvation. Known to be a bit of a joker, he trumpets a mock warning, before charging us half-heartedly, trunk swinging. Understandably, we are alarmed, but our driver reassures us and before long he ambles off, raising a trunk in apparent farewell. 9am and we head to the beach to stretch our legs. A poignant monument stands on the devastated foundations of a bungalow, utterly destroyed by the tsunami. We remember the many lives – both local and tourist – lost on that terrible day and move on, our mood markedly more somber than before. At 11am, famished, we head back to the bungalow, where an enormous breakfast and more syrupy coffee waits.
All too soon, the trip is up. We have been lucky with elephants and leopard this time. The bear has proven elusive – often the case – but there is always next time. Bear often come out when the scarce rains hit and, perversely, this damp weather means leopard sightings are rarer. Far from being an either or scenario, it just gives reason to return. Sri Lanka enjoys a close relationship with its wildlife. Competition with humans is never without its problems, but the Wildlife Department remains determined to protect what is one of the country’s biggest touristic draws. A visit to Yala, arguably the jewel in the departmental crown, shows just why.
This article was originally published in Wild Travel magazine, the UK’s only magazine dedicated exclusively to global wildlife travel. To subscribe, go to www.subscriptionsave.co.uk/Lifestyle-Magazines/Wild-Travel. To order a copy of the latest issue, go to www.buyamag.co.uk/Lifestyle-Magazines/Wild-Travel
Photography by Ben Illis