Sri Lanka Safari - Visit this wildlife jewel of an island to enjoy a private Leopard Safari in Yala National Park and Blue Whale Watching from Mirissa.
The owners of Wildlife Trails first visited Sri Lanka way back in 2002; as for the first time we looked beyond the delights of India and opened our eyes to this beautiful ‘teardrop’ of an island located of the SE coast of its massive neighbour. Could Sri Lanka live up to the colour, history and amazing wildlife we had witnessed in India since 1997? One of the biggest wildlife stories in Sri Lanka centred around the sheer size and dominance of some of the male leopards; especially those found in the world famous Yala National Park, where wildlife enthusiasts and photographers came to enjoy a spectacular Leopard Safari as part of their Sri Lanka Wildlife Holiday. However Leopards are not just found in Yala and I was lucky enough to see my first leopard (a female) lying on a rock in Udawalawe National Park. This park is more famous for its large resident Elephant population, but on an early morning drive into the park we were rewarded with a fleeting glimpse of her enjoying the first rays of morning sunshine.
Even back in 2002 it was noticable how much busier Yala was compared to Udawalawe, especially on weekends, when many of the countries middle and upper classes drive across in their own vehicles to enter the park. This is never something I like to see in National Parks, as surely it is easier to control the ‘speed of these vehicles’ and provide a better wildlife viewing experience by travelling in a purpose built safari vehicles and employing expert guides; thus putting more money into the local economy.? At Wildlife Trails we always try to avoid sending our clients to Yala on weekends and offer both deluxe jeeps and the best local english speaking naturalists to ensure our clients have the best possible Leopard Safari while staying in Yala.
Having spoken about some of the negatives, I should now balance the discussion by highlighting some of the BIG POSITIVES of a visit to Yala. Firstly, there are some amazing lodges to stay in, which really enhance you overall stay; due to their proximity to the park entrance and their high level of comfort and service. Some of them like Cinnamon Wild have a resort style feel, so inbetween the exhilerating morning and afternoon safaris, you can relax by the pool and enjoy a cold drink. Others have risen from the ashes after the terrible destruction brought by the Asian Tsunami on Boxing Day 2004; after many tears and many years the old Yala Safari Game Lodge has been rechristened as Jetwing Yala and we wish them and all their staff every success with the new opening this month.
On my very first safari into Yala on February 2002, I was struck by the sheer beauty of the park. The incredible mixture of thick green forest, shallow freshwater lakes, curvaceous, sculpted rocks and tantalising glimpses of the Indian Ocean; created a game drive like no other I had ever been on. Add to that herds of charismatic Elephants (no shyness there!), Sloth Bears with their heads down looking for food (especially April onwards when you have the fruiting trees) and a great variety of resident and migratory birds; makes it very hard to leave this wildlife Paradise. However it is the Leopards which bring most of the visitors to Yala - marvelling at the power and presence of the larger Male Leopards who dominate key territories inside the park. In contrast to India where Leopards skulk on the fringes of National Parks like Ranthambhore and Bandhavgarh, in Yala, the absence of tigers allows the Leopards to take centre stage and create the best location in the whole of Asia to photograph Leopards.
During my Sri Lanka Safari, I was lucky enough to meet the husband and wife team of Andrew Kittle and Anjali Watson who had been studying, with the financial support of Jetwing and others, about the Leopards of Yala for an entire year. For them, not the modern day scientific obssesion of ‘knocking out’ big cats and putting a huge radio collar on their heads. They instead relied much more on field craft and long days in the park observing the behaviour of many different individual leopards. This constant monitoring along with scat analysis, allowed them to build up a detailed picture of the Leopard’s daily lives in Yala. They continue their good work to this day and I would encourage anyone looking to help Leopard Conservation in Sri Lanka to contact them and see if you can help sponsor their work at the ‘Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust’, Sri Lanka.
I will discuss the many other locations I was lucky enough to visit during my 3 week trip to Sri Lanka in future blogs. However I do want to mention one more incredible wildlife experience which is easily included as an extension to your Leopard Safari at Yala - that is Blue Whale Watching from the southern tip of Sri Lanka.
One of the great initiatives which came after the terrible destruction witnessed at the end of 2004, was international NGO’s providing interest free loans or grants to coastal communities to purchase new boats - obviously many of them had been destroyed during the Tsunami. Some of these families used the money to go back to their regular fishing jobs, however a few with support from international doners, took another path which was to prove incredibly successful; an example of such an initiative was written about in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times. Friends of Wildlife Trails such as the pioneering Dr Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne had brought international attention to the whale watching opportunities present off the south coast of Sri Lanka by publishing an article in the BBC Wildlife Magazine back in 2008. Whale watching trips from Mirissa (only a few hours away from Yala by car) are now a regular component of our tours, with clients enjoying magnificent views of both Sperm and Blue Whales, as well as different species of Dolphins. I think we would all agree that a 7-10 day Sri Lanka safari which allows you to see Leopards and Blue Whales in the same tour is a very special trip indeed and one of the many reasons why you should include Sri Lanka high on the list of your next ‘must see’ wildlife locations. Check out our Sri Lanka Safaris on our Sri Lanka page - all of them can be tailor-made to your own personal specifications.