Sri Lanka fascinates me.  Because I grew up in Tamilnadu, I have a close connection.  Must go to Jaffa next.

This appeared in Discovery, the inflight magazine of Cathay Pacific.  Click on the below link

DY0115_p044_051_sri lanka wildlife_rev2

VISITORS USUALLY associate Sri Lanka with sun and surf. They think of Buddhism, tea plantations and ancient archaeological sites. For some travellers, the country’s long history as a former British colony and its subsequent civil war, which ended in 2009, come to mind. What is often overlooked – but no less worth exploring – is its intriguing

Between November and March, hundreds of dolphins (right) gather around Kalpitiya in north-western Sri Lanka. Dharshan Munidasa, a restaurateur who owns and runs restaurants in Colombo, the capital city, including Sri Lankan seafood eatery Ministry of Crab and Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi. “Even in Colombo, we get the odd wild monkey spotted somewhere.”

As a child growing up in Colombo, Munidasa would visit lakes, rivers and wildlife parks all over the island. Now he’s an avid photographer and birdwatcher. Many Colombo families drive two hours south to the beaches of Bentota, known for its turtle hatcheries. Warm ocean currents and ancient breeding patterns bring marine turtles ashore to nest.

Further south, Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery makes sure eggs laid on nearby beaches are protected until the turtles hatch. The organisation buys the eggs from fishermen who gather them at night. Owner Amarasena Fernando encourages young tourists
to pick up green turtles from tanks of water. Other tanks hold leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill and Olive Ridley species, all of which were hatched on-site, and every evening a few baby turtles are released into the water. Tourist dollars from visits to the hatchery help support their conservation.

It is not just turtles that are visible on Sri Lanka’s beaches; look towards the horizon to spot mag- nificent marine mammals. “The eastern coast has the best beaches in the country,” says Sirisena. “In Trincomalee, the seas are shallow and the sand is soft. This is where the dolphins come in June.” Dondra Point near Hikkaduwa in the south-west attracts sperm whales and blue whales, as well as spinner dolphins. The dolphins are found in differ- ent locations around the island at different times of the year. Kalpitiya, lying north of the capital and about three hours from the popular beach resort of Negombo, is where hundreds of dolphins appear from November to March.

South of Colombo, riverboat cruises near Bentota take tourists into the surrounding mangroves. Roots stretch above the water and the arching branches offer a play of shadows and sunshine. Giant squirrels scamper up the branches and vanish in an instant, while monitor lizards catch the sun, camouflaged except to trained eyes. Some tour operators stop at prawn hatcheries and fishing villages, offering tour- ists a fish pedicure for a fee. There is a “cinnamon island” where visitors can watch old men saw off the scented bark of the cinnamon tree, which is then dried, rolled and exported all over the world.

“Since Sri Lanka is small, locals have an intuitive connection with wildlife,” says Manoj Mathew, General Manager of hotel Vivanta by Taj – Bentota, Sri Lanka. “The bird life here is amazing and the mangroves are full of snakes, monitor lizards and other reptiles. You just need to know where to look.”

Further inland are animal sanctuaries such as Yala National Park with a high density of leopards– one per square kilometre in one part of the park. Although many Sri Lankan names and even its lan- guage, Sinhala, allude to lions (the word “simha” or “sinha” means lion in Sanskrit, and the common last name Raja-singhe literally means King of Lions) wild lions don’t exist in Sri Lanka. There is, however, an abundance of is leopards, elephants, toque monkeys, butterflies and birds.

“I remember my visit to Wilpattu National Park as a child,” says Maxwell Keegel, Director of the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute in Colombo. “I was about nine years old. It was the first time I saw a leopard in the wild. It actually came up to our bungalow at night. Years later I found out that Sri Lanka is home to perhaps the largest concentration of leopards.”

Elephants have been associated with the island for most of its 3,000-year history. Kings used elephants during wars, and Sri Lankan elephants, smaller than their African counterparts, played a key role in the timber trade. At Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, a popular tourist spot near Kandy, old, handicapped and orphaned elephants can be seen close up but guaranteed elephant sightings in the wild are offered at Uda Walawe and has a mix of evergreen forests and scrublands, making it an ideal grazing ground for Asian elephants. The Minneriya tank, an artificial lake built in the third century by King Mahasena, is the highlight of the park. During the rainy season, elephants come to drink at its edges.

While large land beasts are attention-grabbers, the island’s rich array of birds has long been a prime attraction for nature lovers. The best places to see tropical birds – some endemic and many migratory – are around bird sanctuaries and wetland reserves in the island’s south-east. There is something for birdwatchers to see year-round, helping Sri Lanka regain its place as a hot destination not just for beach seekers but also for wildlife watchers.

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