As our jeep trundles into Hunuwilagama – the eastern entrance of Wilpattu National Park – we are greeted by a muster of peacocks, standing idly in the middle of the copper red dirt road. Flanked by dry ebony trees, the birds’ green and blue feathers glitter magnificently in the sunlight, their stoic attitude making them appear like guardians of the enchanted forest that unfolds behind them.
As we rattle on down the dusty trail, the woods reveal their other inhabitants. Diminutive barking deer emerge cautiously from the shrubbery before sprinting alongside our jeep. A mongoose curiously inspects the air. Dizzyingly colourful kingfishers weave their way through the branches of trees.
Dhanula Jayasinghe, our extremely knowledgeable 28-year-old safari tracker, tells us the animals in Wilpattu are still shy of human contact, unlike their peers in Sri Lanka’s more famous and more visited national parks such as Yala and Udawalawe.
Sprawled across 1,317km2, Wilpattu is actually Sri Lanka’s largest national park – a blend of monsoon forest and scrubland and, most uniquely, home to over 60 willu (natural lakes). Among locals, it is perhaps best known for being the landing place of Prince Vijaya in the 6th century BC. According to ancient records, Vijaya came to the island from India and established the first Sri Lankan dynasty and the Sinhala people, now the largest ethnic group in the country.
The park’s grand history was overshadowed during the Sri Lankan Civil War, which raged between 1983 and 2009. During a particularly intensive period of fighting, Wilpattu became a battleground, leading to the park’s closure to the public in 1988. It remained that way for almost two and a half decades, until it permanently reopened in March 2010.
The conflict had a devastating effect, not just on the lives of those in surrounding villages but also the park’s wildlife. As local communities suffered from the strife, they turned to poaching as a last resort. Although the lack of official pre-war surveys makes it difficult to gauge the impact on the park’s animal population, the behavioural differences have been noted.
“We have observed that Wilpattu’s animals in heavily hunted areas are very skittish,” shares Dinal Samarasinghe, the lead researcher of the most recent Sri Lankan leopard population survey. “Typically, in other parks, they would be more habituated to non-aggressive human presence.”
Yet, despite it being nearly nine years since its gates reopened, the park has remained a quiet cul de sac away from the island’s growing tourist trail. In 2016, Wilpattu received around 55,000 visitors, compared to the over 650,000 people that passed through the gates at Yala in the same 12-month period.
However, with the 10th anniversary of the end of the civil war looming, there are now significant efforts underway to rebuild the park’s standing. This is being spearheaded by groups such as Appe Kale, founded in 2012 to promote wildlife preservation in Wilpattu.
One of the founders, Suraj Goonewardene, speaks with cautious optimism about the park’s future. “As tourism increases, the animals will become more used to vehicles and the fantastic wildlife will become increasingly more visible.”
The wildlife group runs several projects, including maintaining a sprawling 16ha sanctuary along the park boundary for the animals to have a safe space to roam. They are also exploring crowdfunding as a means of building watering holes for elephants, which are currently coming outside the park and getting shot by poachers.
A more people-focused programme, which started in early 2018, is aimed at better equipping locals who want to become guides, by giving them a deeper knowledge of the park’s flora and fauna. The idea is that better knowledge will lead to a better experience for visitors. “More visitors would help us to raise awareness and funds for desperately needed projects. It would also deter poachers as more visitors would mean more patrols,” explains the softly spoken Goonewardene, an experienced Field Association Guides of Southern Africa-certified safari tracker.
Appe Kale is not alone in its efforts. Our guide Jayasinghe informs us how the Department of Wildlife Conservation has also launched a programme in 2018 to provide local guides with better English language skills.
Towards the middle of our early-morning game drive, we still haven’t spotted any of the park’s elephants. With a slightly dejected air, we head towards the banks of Lake Kumbuk for our breakfast. Turning into the parking lot, we are greeted with the view of a large male elephant already midway into his morning meal in the middle of the lake.
Using its trunk, the giant creature rips lily pads from the water’s surface, shaking them dry before greedily gulping them down. In the mild morning sun, accompanied by a soundtrack of birds chirping, it’s a spectacle one could watch for hours.
But of course, it is the chance to spot the elusive leopard – known as the king of the Sri Lankan jungles – that is still the biggest draw for most tourists to the island’s parks. Up to now, Yala National Park, in the southeast of the country, has been the most popular spot for sightings of this beautiful but endangered cat.
Yet, the ongoing Standardised Population Survey of the Sri Lankan leopard has the potential to show that the number of leopards in Wilpattu can rival that of Yala. Sponsored by the Environmental Foundation Limited, in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation of Sri Lanka, the first phase of this census was completed over several months earlier this year and has sighted 74 individual leopards in a 350 km2 area of the park. Although not a direct comparison, it does suggest that the population densities between the two parks may actually be quite similar.
Leopard numbers aside, one of the other findings of the survey is the fraught relationship between the park’s wildlife and the communities living around its edge.
Samarasinghe was alarmed by the amount of poaching that was caught on the survey’s camera traps, estimating that up to 17 Sambar deer were being killed weekly, in addition to similar numbers of boar and other deer.
“Unlike the rest of the country, where poaching is typically used for subsistence, hunting in the Wilpattu area seems to be reaching commercial levels, with the game meat being sold in the markets of Colombo,” he says. Samarasinghe, an experienced zoologist, believes a rise in tourism can offer these poachers an alternative form of income, but visitor numbers still need to increase further. In Wilpattu, the number of safari jeeps hardly goes above 50 a day even in peak season, compared to about 600 jeeps in Yala.
Indeed, some safari companies such as Gal Oya Lodge [which operates in a neighbouring park] have even started employing former poachers as guides. “Such employment gives former poachers a stable source of income,” shares Samarasinghe. “It’s also good for visitors. After all, an ex-poacher’s knowledge of the park is unrivalled.”
Despite it nearing the end of the day, Jayasinghe’s alertness doesn’t wane. It’s now 5.30pm – almost closing time for the park. As we head towards the exit, our guide spots a few jeeps crowding around a forested corner. We pull up alongside and switch off the engine. Soon enough, from behind the thick shrubbery, a young female leopard emerges. After carefully observing the strange four-wheeled creatures, she gracefully crosses the road.
There is still a lot to be understood about Wilpattu and its shy inhabitants. The process will take time. But the seclusion is part of the park’s allure – the idea that one can be a part of the rediscovery of a long-forgotten kingdom.
Places to stay near Wilpattu
A good starting place to check for available options, compare prices and book is seeksophie.com
This luxury tented safari allows you to stay close to nature and the main park entrance while enjoying home comforts such as air-conditioning and hot showers. leopardtrails.com
Wilpattu Tree House Hotel
Located right on the edge of the park, the hotel offers the ideal vantage point to catch a glimpse of the wildlife. Try to get a stay in the “tree house”, where you’ll get clear views from the second and third storeys. wilpattucorridor.lk
This eco-friendly hotel uses re-purposed shipping containers to create sustainable rooms that don’t require local resources – such as wood – from the surrounding environment. backwaterslodge.com
Sri Lanka boasts 26 national parks. Here are a few other lesser-known spots
Minneriya National Park
This park is best known for being the site of the annual Gathering, which sees hundreds of elephants drawn to the park’s reservoir during the dry season from July to October.
Bundala National Park
Located on the southern coast, it’s home to 197 bird species, 32 species of mammals and 48 species of reptiles – as well as an important area for migratory birds, like the greater flamingo.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
This Unesco World Heritage Site is the last viable area of primary tropical rainforest in the country and is home to over 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic mammals and butterflies.
Singapore Airlines flies direct to Colombo daily; SIA’s regional wing, SilkAir, flies there four times a week. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine