Already a balmy hot day, we ensure we have enough water and our camera equipment before we go to meet the smiling and very affable Chamara Amarasinghe, Jetwing Yala hotel’s naturalist with five years service to Jetwing. Acting as the guide for our safari, he immediately furnishes me with some binoculars, and also to meet our expert driver Tharanga from Nimal Safari.
Often safaris consist of a driver who doubles as your guide and in some cases a trekker too, but Jetwing are keen to furnish you with a qualified naturalist to help you get the best out of your trip by providing you with a greater knowledge of the resident wildlife, an understanding of how animals at Yala fit into the national context, a deeper understanding of animal behaviours and some comparisons of Yala with other parks and habitats.
Home of Mammals and Birds
After a short drive and stopping for an elephant by the road gracefully dusting itself and us with a lot of dry direct, which acts as a natural sun block we arrive at the park where we stop to pay the necessary fees to get into Block 1. Block 2 being away from the maddening crowd but twice as long to get to and twice as expensive as you must hire two vehicles.
Whilst waiting I’m immediately approached by a very large black bumble-like bee with giant grey eyes which buzzes absolutely still a few feet from my face and appears to be checking me out. I half expect it to ask me for my papers before it moves on to check out the next vehicle whilst we move on and enter through the Palatupana entrance.
Yala is part of the dry zone of Sri Lanka, a total of 979km and is home to 215 bird species and 44 species of mammal as well as many diverse species of insect. Within a few minutes we have already spotted a couple more elephants with a six month old calf ambling slowly about near a watering hole or tank as they are sometimes known as a harking back to a time when parts of this park were worked by farmers prior to becoming a hunting ground and then a nature reserve in 1903 and then the national park it is now, from 1938.
The park has many other diverse features such as rangelands including grasslands, forests, sand dunes, coastal stretches along the Indian Ocean, lagoons, mangroves and chena lands, the last of which can be seen along the buffer zone of the national park and are beneficial through creating an additional habitat for grazing animals. I’m immediately struck by how gracefully these wonderful elephants move despite their great weight and slightly bow-legged gait and also how amazingly old and wise their eyes seem to look, reminding me of their incredible memories and how they never forget a face, so you better behave and not get too close.
Chamara tells us how during the mating season a male will follow a little way behind the group and with that, one immediately shows up as if on cue, following exactly the path of the others around a hundred yards behind.
Up, down and lurching.
As they lumber slowly out of sight we go on past some ‘spotted deer’ sitting peacefully in the open until a stag amongst them bolts, disappearing through some bushes and we quickly scan for signs of the well known predator. But nothing appears as we are instead treated to a wide array of beautiful birds such as the small and ubiquitous bee-eater, egrets, whistling ducks, cormorants, storks, parakeets, pelicans and many more that wade, glide or flit from place to place throughout our trip as reminders of the often effortless grace and beauty of the wild things.
With little warning the road turns into a gyroscope, thrusting us this way and that, up, down and lurching forwards then backwards. Fortunately we are in exceptionally capable hands and the driver negotiates these very rough rocky roads almost with his eyes closed and we are in such comfortable seats that lend themselves to the odd fairground bonanza.
Then a sudden stop as Tharanga’s door opens, and then he appears head down studying the ground. I peer over for a closer look to see paw prints that look familiar but much larger than what I’m used to, might we get lucky today? Further on the same thing happens and this time it’s the prints of a sloth bear, which we follow for a while before realising he ducked, or should I say went lazily, into a thicket never to return, sadly not slow enough for us and certainly not up for the frolics Chamara tells us of, when once one tried to mount the bonnet of his jeep and only slid off because he couldn’t get a good grab handle.
The park is very dry for this time of year, uncommonly so, Chamara tells us, and there is nothing to be done about it if the park is to be kept wild.
He explains that there has been a problem with the water buffalo interbreeding with farming stock so losing the wild gene combined with the fact that the farming stock has spread intrusive plant species within the park as a result. He also tells us that water buffalo are the only animals that will threaten in defense of their young, the king of Yala predators, the leopard of which there are around 30 to 40 of in Block 1. So further drought could be a problem if the watering points are reduced and dominated by the water buffalo but luckily we’re not there yet.
Lord of the Jungle
Further along we see more elephants passing by another herd of spotted deer and a mass of gray langers clambering all over a small tree like naughty children. Then I look down and right there a few feet from the wheel is a land monitor, turning its head from side to side like it was a mechanical hinge then remaining absolutely still with its prehistoric raptor-like head held proud.
So much more to Yala than the wildlife. Even the crocs are talking about it
Then it happens the highlight of our safari, we are driving up through a tree-lined forest road, fortunately at a slow speed, and out pops a leopard only about 10 yards in front of us behaving as if we simply didn’t exist. First it crosses the road nonchalantly, tail swishing in the wind, then walks a few yards down the road and semi collapses for a short rest, a lazy observance of the bushes and a quick scratch before jumping up again, ambling slowly onwards again before stopping and standing in a rather less dignified way. Held for a moment in time we see her/him defecating before moving further away and disappearing into the bush not to be seen again despite the best efforts of Tharanga to get us to the spot and then another possible exit spot in the next road. All this is over in two minutes but what a magical scene to see such a creature in the wild going about its daily business.
When I ask Chamara what have been the most extraordinary things he has seen he doesn’t have to think long before telling us a few things. He told us about a family of leopards where the male had not left his mate to bring up the three cubs and had in fact taken an active role in their upbringing over an 18 month period and was regularly seen playing with the cubs, very unusual indeed for the male of this normally very solitary species. He also told us about watching two leopards, known as the sex maniacs of Yala copulating no less than ten times over the course of one hour. What Olympiads I think.
Over all this is the best safari I’ve ever been on, made so by the professionalism, deep knowledge and enthusiasm of Chamara, the skill and professionalism of the driver that Jetwing had chosen, the diversity of wildlife we saw due to their joint experience and the sheer numbers of animals we observed in an unspoilt wonderfully varied series of habitats as we avoided following any of the other vehicles in the park.