Most people know that Sri Lanka is the post-1972 name for Ceylon, the large island off the southeast coast of India. But most people – myself included before this trip – probably don’t know much more than that about this fascinating country and its ancient culture. For two weeks in late September/early October, I had the chance to visit and learn more.
Our guide, Anselm de Silva
My three travelling companions were Paul, a herpetologist who worked for 25 years at the Houston Zoo; his wife Barbara, formerly head of the zoo’s primate section; and Lynn, who currently works in the primate section. My interests are in plants and insects – so the trip had a broad biological orientation. Our in-country guide was Anselm De Silva, a herpetologist and professor who has written many books about the reptiles and amphibians of Sri Lanka. He put together quite an itinerary for us natural history geeks, taking in seasonal forest, dry forest, cloud forest, a huge botanical garden, but also some famous archeological sites, a tea picking operation and processing factory, and the bustling city of Kandy, one of the country’s former capitals.
Things I learned about Sri Lanka…one, it has an incredibly ancient (and violent) history. We visited several ancient archeological sites, including Anuradhapura, which reminded me very much of Tikal in the Peten area of Guatemala: both are ancient metropoli that were abandoned and subsequently covered by jungle. Both flourished during the same (long) time period: about 400 BC to 1000 or so AD. Both were mainly religious sites (Buddhist and Hindu, in the case of Anuradhapura; polytheistic in the case of TIkal) with many temples and extensive living quarters for the monks and/or priests of the religious class. The architecture, carvings, and other art work found in the two sites are amazingly similar.
Polonnaruwa is another historical site we explored – it dates back to the time of William the Conqueror. The nearby fortress city of Sirigira was also impressive. Like some of their counterparts in the New World (Tikal, Palenque, etc.), these archeological sites in Sri Lanka are great for seeing wildlife. Macaques and langurs ran about the ruins, lizards basked on the ancient brickwork, and exotic birds flew among the trees.
Elephants bathing at Yala National Park
In addition to its archeological riches, I learned that Sri Lanka has protected about 8% of its land area in 15 impressive national parks and other reserves (over 100 protected areas in all). We visited just a few of them. My favorite was Ruhunu or Yala, the largest park in the country, comprising over 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) of dry forest on the southeast coast. Visitors to Yala are only allowed to travel safari-style with a driver and guide; there are too many large and potentially dangerous animals to let people wander on their own. It was the end of the dry season, so the shrinking water holes were the best place to see wildlife. We had hoped to see leopards, as Yala has the highest concentration of these animals of anywhere in the world – but we missed on this one. However, we saw dozens of elephants, axis deer, water buffalo, wild pigs, crocodiles, along with langurs and macaques, mongooses, a variety of lizards, and dozens of birds.
In Bundala, another large park along the southern coast that was mostly lagoons and swamps, we saw many of the same animals but also many water birds – herons, egrets, storks, flamingos, lapwings, stilts, etc., etc. Our best views of elephants was at Minneriya, where we watched two bull elephants in must mingle with a large herd of cows and youngsters, while in the distance a pair of jackals yipped back and forth, and spectacular Brahminy kites flew overhead. Wild peacocks and jungle fowl (national bird of Sri Lanka – ancestor of the domesticated chicken) were everywhere in all these parks. Flying foxes (giant fruit bats) were everywhere, hanging chittering in the trees by day, flying off en masse in the evenings. They were spectacular! Sadly, we noticed many caught (electrocuted) in electrical lines, especially near roost areas.
I learned that tea, coconuts, rubber, fish, coffee, and spices are all major export crops in Sri Lanka. We had a chance to spend a couple of days in the refreshingly cool tea-growing area in the central mountainous area. The plantations themselves – hills covered with carefully pruned tea bushes, coral bean (Erythrina) or other trees providing some shade – looked and felt very much like the coffee-growing areas of Costa Rica’s central plateau.