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The wonders of Wilpattu

Comments / 1128 Views / Saturday, 1 July 2017 00:00



By Madushka Balasuriya

In this day and age of consumerism, automation, and unprecedented apathy, for many of us questions of an existential nature inevitably arise. What have I done in the ‘x’ number of years I’ve been put on this earth? What impact have I made? What is my legacy? For Kithsiri Gunawardene though, I suspect, this couldn’t be further from the truth.001

Despite being a full-time corporate lawyer, Kithsiri spends a majority of his time studying and documenting Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity, even finding time to publish his findings on occasion. Despite this depth of interest, Kithsiri isn’t a specialist in any one area – or at least he doesn’t consider himself so. Coupling his passion for wildlife photography with a meticulous rigour in record keeping, he ensures that the entire wildlife spectrum from flora and fauna to butterflies to birds to leopards are all kept tabs on and studied in detail.

It was for these reasons that it came as little surprise when the Wildlife Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka (WNPSSL), as part of their monthly lecture series, invited him to wax lyrical about his self-professed “favourite place on Earth”. The presentation titled ‘Wilpattu: Place of Legend, History and Wildlife,’ true to its title, offered up each of those elements and then some.

“You’re parked there early in the morning, you have this cool breeze flowing across, it’s absolute still, there’s total silence except for of course the birds,” Kithsiri begins, painting a picture of complete serenity. “Then you suddenly hear the shrieking call of the Grey Langur, you hear the calls of the deer, you might – if you’re fortunate – even see the apex predator of the country, the leopard, walking out past the sand rim and drinking water. It’s an exhilarating experience to say the least.”

Indeed, of that there can be little doubt. Wilpattu is the oldest national park in Sri Lanka, and is arguably the closest you will get to an authentic wildlife experience anywhere in the world – save for maybe trekking across the Amazon Rainforest. This because the Park was shielded from the public for some 25 years during the war and only reopened in 2010.  As a result with three complete ecosystems – forest, wetlands, and coastal and marine – still successfully coexisting within the park there is something for everyone.


For the history buffs

It is said that on 543 BC, Prince Vijaya and his men arrived from North India and landed in Tambapanni on the North West Coast of Sri Lanka close to Kudirimale Point, a place that still exists within the Wilpattu National Park. 

With ‘Kudiri’ meaning ‘horse’ in Tamil, Kithsiri explains that the mountain had always for “whatever reason” been associated with horses.

“Legend has it that this area of Sri Lanka was governed by the Malabar Kings and Queens, and there was a beautiful Queen that traded pearls for horses at Kudirimale point. It is also believed that her palace that was built at Kudirimale Point was destroyed by a tsunami or cyclone and lies buried below,” he says, recounting the origins of its name.

Scattered within the park meanwhile are ancient ruins and artefacts of constructions dating back to these times gone by.

“Pottery left behind are remnants of a grand civilisation of years ago; 20 odd burial urns and clay pots have been recovered and it is estimated that about 8,000 are buried around Wilpattu. For a graveyard of that nature to be found, this particular area would have been quite active in terms of human civilisation.

“You begin to then realise that while it is an important place for wildlife, it is also an important place when you think of history in terms of even the early Iron Age.”


Leopard watch

Where the joy of Wilpattu really lies though is in its wildlife, and Kithsiri is a veritable encyclopaedia on that front. Leopards are presently listed as endangered, he notes, adding that there are nine subspecies; Sri Lanka is home to the panthera pardus kotiya, and in Wilpattu alone 47 of them have been sighted.

To keep track of them Kithsiri created his own website (www.wilpattu.com), where he puts up pictures of any leopards he has spotted. The photos are taken from a variety of angles to help better identify them and for posterity.

“Leopards don’t change their spots,” he quips. “It’s like a fingerprint. If you have a photograph of a leopard and if you photograph the same leopard on different sides, with modern technology it’s a pretty easy thing to identify them.”

Kithsiri strives to take six standard photos whenever possible – the front of the face, two sides of the face, the flanks and the tail – after which he pins the location he spotted the leopards on Google maps. The pictures are the posted on the site along with any comments or relevant notes.

The site is so cleanly organised that you can search and view each leopard individually and by name (all which have been given by Kithsiri), but what is truly impressive about it is that it also simultaneously serves as a platform for other Wilpattu enthusiasts to share their own work and experiences.

“There are 49 regular contributors to the site. What is of great importance is that many of the people that are here [on the site], they’re not the likes of you and me in Colombo. These are guys from Wilpattu, young men, safari drivers, so on and so forth.”

And each of these contributors have their own web page to post their pictures and sightings online, which can be akin to gold dust to many of them.

“In a sense I’ve created a website which is not only mine, but it belongs to all those young people around the area. And those guys are quite thrilled with the fact that they’re able to tell their clients, ‘look these are my photos, they are on my site.’”

Kithsiri believes this feeling of community and sharing is crucial in helping locals develop a shared identity with Wilpattu, because, as he says, it is the people living near the park who will have the most effective say in what goes on there.

“Every two of three days, when I go home, I receive images of leopards and, for my interest, I get to know the movements of leopards to a great extent and I supply them back with any information I have on the animals. That is something I’m extremely happy to share and talk about.

“At the end of the day places like Wilpattu, Sinharaja, and Yala, they will be there for a long time, and people living around those national parks will begin to take a greater interest in those parks.”


Teeming with wildlifejh

While the leopards may take the spotlight, Wilpattu is also home to a variety of other wildlife. Kithsiri is quick to refute the notion that there are no elephants in the park, noting that there are several large areas with herds of elephants, and even a couple of tuskers.

June is also a great month to catch a sighting of the elusive sloth bears. With “sweet treats” such as the fruit from ‘weera’ and ‘palu’ fruit in season, the bears congregate on and around the trees, gorging themselves on one of their favourite treats.

“June is the time the sloth bears have their picnic. Palu is a fruit that is quite sweet and the bears gorge themselves on the ripe berries that fall, or they climb the trees that eat them. After a while these fruits start fermenting inside their bellies, and that gives them a nice high. Bears get this chance only once a year and they ‘put’ to fall! If you’re lucky enough you’ll see a few of them hanging around on the roads in Wilpattu.”

There’s also something for the bird lovers out there, an area in which Kithsiri is also rather proficient having released an A/Level book on birds endemic to Sri Lanka. Towards the end of his presentation he shows a photograph of a stone plover, standing over what seem to be rocks but are actually eggs. In the next photo it shows the creature sitting on the eggs to incubate them and seemingly opening up the feathers around its breast area to form a cage around the eggs. Such a fascinating and rare occurrence, Kithsiri says, was only available to him through sheer patience.

“These are little things that Mother Nature has provided. Now if you go in a jeep and you’re alerting the driver to just go fast, you will not see these. I stayed for about four hours to get this sequence, where even though I had read about this had never observed it. 

“It’s a very wary bird, so when I saw this guy nesting, I thought ‘okay fine to hell with the leopards and the bears’ and I was quite pleased in the end.”


Woes of Wilpattu

Along with the cornucopia of wildlife, Wilpattu also hosts a vast array of flora and fauna, as well the distinction of having living in its ecosystem the largest species of scorpion in the world. Safe to say, it should be on everyone’s bucket list.

However, all of that is now under threat due to human intervention. In the few years since reopening after the war, irreparable damage has already been caused to the park’s ecosystems, with allegations of deforestation and illegal construction work rife. Kithsiri was at a pains to ensure that his words were not taken out of context for fear of coming across as discriminatory towards any race of religion, but extended a heartfelt plea for those engaged in these destructive practices to reconsider their actions.

“The national park does not belong to a particular race or religion, it is a national asset. As a nation as people we really have to consider that there is such little forest cover left in this country, are we go in to those ecosystems and destroy them?”

The main grievances lay with the over 1,000 hectares of land being utilised for illegal settlements; litigation has been filed on the matter alleging that 1,500 families have been illegally settled in the cleared area, with former Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen allegedly involved in mobilising deforestation and establishing settlements under the pretext of resettling internally-displaced people. 

Meanwhile, environmentalists also argue against the expansion of the Pallekandal Catholic Church located in a locality within the park “teeming with elephants”. According to the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the church has built nine new constructions in the past three years without DWC permission.

Kithsiri urged influential members in the audience to not stand idly by as travesties such as this go on unpunished.

“All of you who are gathered here, you are all opinion leaders, you all hold positions of leadership in society. When it comes to matters of nature and conservation speak up. You will have the courage and the will in your corporate office, in your boardroom to voice and say, ‘this is something very serious, you need to take cognisance of this, and you cannot allow some of these places to disappear’. It’s our job to make it so.”

So follow Kithsiri’s lead and help save Wilpattu National Park, and maybe those pesky existential questions will stop cropping up.

Pix courtesy Kithsiri Gunawardene


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