The tracker points out some elaborate hanging nests. These, he tells me, belong to the Weaver Bird. The nest is painstakingly built by the male. When completed, the male announces the nest to prospective females. A female will closely inspect the nest. If it is up to standard, she moves in. If not up to scratch, she passes—and shops around for a better nest. The material bird? If not successful at attracting a female, the hapless male must start all over again and build a new nest, as females refuse to look at nests that are not fresh. .
A Wildlife Traffic Jam
At Yala National Park, I team up for a safari jeep where the tracker is an ace spotter—and so is the driver. We set out at the crack of dawn, when wildlife is most active. In short order, the tracker and driver find a marsh crocodile, wild boar, mongoose, monitor lizard, several elephants, grey-headed langurs, peacocks, and a lone jackal running along the dirt track. We sight a small herd of spotted deer. But no leopards.
Spotted deer are the favorite meal for leopards—the key draw at Yala, which claims to have the greatest density of these big cats in the world. But leopards are well-camouflaged, stealthy, and prone to sleeping in caves by day--emerging to hunt at dusk. Some travelers visit Yala for five days and do not see a single leopard. Others visit Yala for half a day and see several leopards nonchalantly strolling across the track, right in front of their jeep. Luck of the draw.
As we drive deeper into Yala, surprising landscapes unfold—lotus ponds and freshwater bodies, riverine forest, lagoons, sandy beaches, thorn scrub—and towering rocky outcrops. Our tracker scans carefully at these rocky outcrops, favored by leopards when relaxing. But nothing shows up. Then a cellphone call comes in from another driver: leopard spotted! The leopard is lounging on the branch of a tree, a considerable distance from the dirt road and only visible through powerful binoculars. Word has gotten round, and jeeps jockey for the best position to sight the leopard.
This reveals an unsavory aspect of Yala: it is the most popular national park in Sri Lanka and there are simply too many jeeps vying for the best views at certain locations. One thing you do not want in a national park is a traffic jam—or in this case, a leopard jam. Yala has some rough dirt roads: if drivers race for a vantage point when a prime species is spotted, it is like riding a bucking bronco. You are not allowed to step down from a safari jeep except at designated spots, like one beachfront. And here, safari-goers pausing to picnic can create a headache, as cheeky macaques have learned to steal sandwiches and birds wait in the trees looking for scraps.
Probably due to watching too many Disney programs, some safari-goers even attempt to feed the wildlife. This practice is illegal, as it can result in some dangerous situations: the tracker tells me about one elephant that has evidently learned to beg by sticking its trunk inside a passing jeep.
Just when we have resigned ourselves to not seeing a leopard close-up, one appears. But only for a few seconds, as it makes a lightning exit from a shrub near our jeep. It has been disturbed by a sloth bear. The sloth bear is in no particular hurry to leave and wanders along the dirt road for a while. Sighting a sloth bear this close in daylight is rare, the tracker assures me.
The day's safari ride draws to a close with sightings of some spectacular bird species. High in a fig-tree, we spot a pair of Malabar Pied Hornbills gorging themselves on fruit: the male with black eyes, the female with red. This hornbill sports a flamboyant beak; it looks impossibly heavy to go aloft, but is actually hollow. And we're thrilled to sight a pair of Asian Paradise Flycatchers—the male with elegant long brown tail-feathers. It's a glorious ending to what has been a very wild day: getting thrown around on the jeep from tea-kettle to breakfast time, and seeing many diverse species along the way. The unknown monk who lectured King Tissa on compassion for all sentient beings would surely have approved.
IF YOU GO
Access inside the national parks featured is only by safari jeeps, bouncing over rough dirt roads. These tracks can swiftly turn to mud in periods of heavy rain, but predicting exact timing for the rains is proving difficult due to climate change. Do some research for drier periods in Sri Lanka. You can easily mount your own safari in Sri Lanka by assembling a small group. Safari jeep operators are easily found via guesthouses and hotels in the towns of Embilipitiya (for Udawalawe National Park) and Tissamaharama (for Bundala and Yala National Parks). A good asset on safari would be a powerful pair of binoculars--usually not provided by the operators.
The prime place to see water birds is the coastal sanctuary of Bundala National Park. Bundala is little-visited, and thus low-key and tranquil when it comes to touring by jeep.
Michael Buckley is author of several books on Tibet (listed at www.himmies.com) and filmmaker for several short documentaries about Tibet (www.WildYakFilms.com). His e-books are available through Smashwords.com. He is a frequent traveler to southeast-Asian regions.
Parahawking in Nepal by Michael Buckley
Sacred and Profane: Tantric Buddhism in the Land of the Thunder Dragon by Tony Robinson-Smith
Nomads' Land by Michael Buckley
Thai Voluntourism for All the Wrong Reasons by Gillian Kendall
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