Day 10 (1 of 2).
There are 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, covering an area of 5,734 km², or slightly less than 9% of the country. As a small nation, Sri Lanka has a diverse range of wildlife, from marine mammals to other big game. The island also has one of the highest rates of biological endemism (16% of the fauna and 23% of flowering plants are endemic) in the world. Having a chance to see Sri Lanka’s precious wildlife in its natural habitat should be a highlight for all visitors.
With several elephant and even one leopard sightings in our first drive, any wildlife that we saw in our second safari was a bonus. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant experience to venture into the open wilderness early in the morning, when the air was cool and birds were at their most active. As the day warmed up after 8am, most animals seemed to be hiding in the shade somewhere, except occasional elephants that were looking for other ways to cool themselves down. The morning safari was the final act for us before moving on to the South Coast.
Udawalawe Reservoir appeared in total tranquility at 6am.
Again our jeep passed through the Udawalawe Reservoir before entering the park.
Our morning safari began with the sighting of a golden jackal. In both Hindu and Buddhist cultures, jackals are considered an intelligent and cunning animals.
In a safari national park, one of the easiest places to spot wildlife is the vehicular path because of the lack of vegetation.
A group of birds came together for morning choir. Early morning, according to our driver, is the best time for birding.
At the top of a tree, we spotted a pair of malabar pied hornbills. Malabar pied hornbills are omnivorous. Their diet ranges from fruits to small animals and insects.
An adult female white bellied sea eagle can measure up to 90cm, with a wingspan of up to 2.2m long.
Due to their high reproductive rate, good adaptability in different environments, and the diminishing of their natural predators such as leopards, jackals, mongooses, pythons, monitor lizards and eagles because of human activities, the population of peafowls has grown rapidly throughout the island. With frequent damages to agricultural crops, the peafowls have become a headache for Sri Lankan farmers. On the other hand, peafowls have considerably cultural significance for the Buddhist and Hindu, thus a protected species in Sri Lanka despite of their impact to the farmers. For the Sinhalese, the peafowl is the third animal of the zodiac of Sri Lanka.
Endemic to the island, Sri Lankan junglefowl is the national bird of the country.
With a diet including small reptiles, amphibians, crabs, rodents and birds, white-throated kingfisher can be found throughout Asia.
In a woodland, a group of Sri Lankan axis deer were resting under the shade. As soon as they noticed our arrival, they immediately got up and walked away one by one.
Out of the dozen of so Sri Lankan axis deer, we only noticed one with horns.
Once again we bumped into a Bengal monitor lizard. The one we saw was about 1.5m long.
Of course, no visit to the Udawalawe would be completed without meeting the Sri Lankan elephants.
In both safari visits, we had seen both male and female Sri Lankan elephants of various ages and sizes.
In a group of Sri Lankan elephants, we also spotted two babies who were busy suckling milk from their mothers.
Near the end of our morning safari, we had an encounter with a large male elephant.
We saw him stopping at a water pond and splashed mud water onto his body using his trunk. According to our driver, the elephant was “applying sunscreen” with the mud. Apart from sun protection, the mud also protects him from parasite. The evaporation of the mud would also cool off his skin.
After exiting from the park, we passed by Udawalawe Reservoir one final time. This time, we were fortunate to see an Sri Lankan elephant bathing in the water.
Day 9 (4 of 4).
Udawalawe National Park is often considered to be the best place for elephant sighting outside of Africa. Advertised for 100% guaranteed elephant sighting, Udawalawe should not disappoint anyone who come for the biggest mammals on land. For other animals, especially large mammals like leopards or sloth bears, super good luck and an experienced guide/driver are probably needed for any chance of success. The park is also a fine venue for bird sightings, with both permanent and migratory species.
We didn’t have a whole lot of wild safari experience other than the Brazilian Pantanal. Unlike Pantanal in Brazil where we could choose between boat, 4×4 vehicle, or even a morning safari hike, Udawalawe National Park could only be visited by 4×4 vehicles. All 4×4 vehicles enter the park from one entrance, and most tours would start either at 6am or 2pm, and last for 4 hours. Unlike the famous Yala National Park in Southern Sri Lanka where all visitors flock to chase after the elusive leopards and as soon as one leopard is spotted all vehicles would rush to the same spot, 4×4 drivers at Udawalawe tend to disperse into different areas of the park. The first safari tour we had at Udawalawe was a afternoon drive.
Sri Lankan elephant is usually one of the first large animals to be spotted in the park.
Sri Lankan elephant is the largest of the three subspecies of Asian elephants.
Native to the island, Sri Lankan elephant has a widespread distribution in the country.
With a population of 2500 to 4000c Sri Lankan elephants have been listed endangered on IUCN’s Red List since 1986.
Oriental garden lizards are commonly found throughout much of Asia.
The oriental garden lizard can change its colours. During mating season, a male lizard changes its head and shoulders to orange or crimson, and its throat to black.
Much larger than oriental garden lizard, the Bengal monitor lizards can grow up to 175cm long.
Known by their rich colours and predominant diet of flying insects like bees and wraps, the green bee-eaters are common in the park.
Reside in India, Sri Lanka, and much of Southeast Asia, the changeable hawk eagle is also known as crest hawk due to its feature on the head. They are medium size birds of prey, and are usually solitary except in breeding periods.
The number of Indian peafowls or peacocks (male) we have seen in Udawalawe was probably ten times more than the total number of times that we had ever seen these birds in the past. Peacocks dancing, eating, running, and even flying, males, females, or juveniles, you name it, we have seen it.
The steady supply of water of the reservoir is probably the main reason why wild animals gather in Udawalawe National Park.
Even with their distinctive curved horns, no one knows for sure whether these wild water buffalos are truly wild, or if they are descendants of domestic buffaloes. With about 3,400 across the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, wild water buffalo has been listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List since 1986.
Painted storks can be found in wetlands throughout tropical Asia.
Native to the island, the endangered Sri Lankan leopard has a population of 750-900. Spotting one of the park’s 10-12 leopards was like winning the jackpot, given the reserve has 30,821 hectares of land (more than 5 times the area of Manhattan Island).
Usually live in herds, the Sri Lankan axis deer or Ceylon spotted deer once roam freely across the dry zone of the island. Now their conservation status is considered as vulnerable.
Towards the end of our tour, a curious Sri Lankan elephants followed us and get pretty close to our vehicle.
Before leaving the park, we had a unique encounter with two Sri Lankan elephants who greeted each other with their trunks and made a whole lot of sounds.
The greeting gesture of the two Sri Lankan elephants seemed friendly, as if a person was hugged by another person.
After the passionate change of the two elephants, one of the two elephants seemed to be interested in our vehicle and stayed much longer.
Near the main park exit, we spotted a curious mongoose climbing out from a drainage channel. It stayed just for a split second and dashed out of our sight.
Day 9 (3 of 4).
After the morning walk to the Little Adam’s Peak and Nine Arches Bridge, we returned to Zion View Ella Green Retreat for a quick breakfast. The car came to Zion View Ella Green Retreat to pick us up right at 10:30. We bid farewell to the two German shepherds and hopped on the car. We left Ella behind and slowly descended from the hills. Our next destination was Udawalawe, a small town between the hill country and the southern beaches. The two hour drive from Ella to Udawalawe brought us from tea plantations and green hills to grasslands, marshes and forests, the home of diverse wildlife. After world heritage historical sites and hills of tea plantations, our focus shifted once again to the natural treasure of Udawalawe National Park.
Established in 1972 as a sanctuary for wildlife displaced by the construction of Udawalawe Reservoir, the 30,821 hectares national park has become the third most visited park in the nation. With an annual rainfall of 1,500mm, the park lies at the boundary between Sri Lanka’s wet and dry zones. Within the park, there are marshes, grasslands and forests. Udawalawe is famous for its 250 or so Sri Lanka elephants. Other mammal species found in the park include Sri Lankan leopard, rusty-spotted cat, sloth bear, Sri Lanka sambar deer, Sri Lankan axis deer, wild boar, water buffalo, jackal, civet, monkey, mongoose, etc. The park is also a good venue for bird watching, and so as reptiles including lizards, crocodiles, and snakes.
Passing the Rawana Ella Falls on the Wellawaya Ella Kumbalwela Highway signified our departure from Ella.
The more we get closer to Udawalawe, the higher the chance we might see wildlife along the highway.
Domestic water buffalo are kept for their milk (curd and ghee) and rice cultivation.
Sri Lankan elephant is undoubtedly the superstar in Udawalawe, and can often be seen along the road.
Elephants are highly intelligent animals. According to our driver, some of the curious males have learnt to approach the highway fence regularly to greet tourists in exchange for easy treats like bananas.
Roadside stores near Udawalawe offer visitors a convenient stop for fruits, and perhaps have indirectly encouraged the unnatural habit of the highway approaching elephants.
Despite the popularity of the national park, the town of Udawalawe is relatively tourist-free. There is hardly any tourist souvenir shops along the main road.
Bakery tuk tuk is quite common across the country. As soon as we heard the music of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, we knew one of these mobile bread vendors must be nearby.
Our guesthouse Green View Safari Resort was at a side street across the road from R/Emb/Udawalawa Primary School.
Hidden from the dusty main road, our guesthouse for the night Green View Safari Resort was a simple little retreat.
Facility was clean and simple. The guesthouse owners arranged both the afternoon and morning safari for us.
Dinner and breakfast were included in our one-night stay at Green View Safari Resort.
To reach the national park from Udawalawe, our jeep would pass by Udawalawe Reservoir, a place of potential wildlife sighting before reaching the park entrance.
Locals came to the dam to catch the sunset.
The Udawalawe Dam separates the lush green forest on one side and the peaceful reservoir on the other.
The Udawalawe Dam provides a high ground to watch the distant scenery.
The lush green forest revealed what the area might have look like before the construction of the reservoir.
Local wildlife has adapted to the man-made environment of Udawalawe Reservoir. The water has even attracted wildlife including birds and elephants.
Beyond the reservoir, we finally arrived at the ticket office of Udawalawe National Park.
We chose Udawalawe National Park over Yala National Park was an attempt to avoid overcrowding. During our first safari visit, the entry route into the park was loaded with tourist 4×4 vehicles. Luckily, as we ventured deeper into the park, we would have the park pretty much by ourselves.