by Madubashini Jayawardena
It was a long journey; we (eleven of us )set off from Eco-v office at 4.30 a.m on Friday on 30th April and reached our destination around 2.30 p.m. Our destination was Lahugala Kitulana National Park.
This monsoon forest lies in the basin of Heda Oya, 16 km inland from the coastal town Pottuvil in Eastern Province. The Pottuvil-Monaragala trunk road runs through the south eastern sector of the Park.
Officers of the Lahugala office of the Department of Wildlife Conservation of Sri Lanka warmly welcomed us. They served us a steaming cup of tea and we served them biscuits. So we had a tea party-discussion under the shade of a huge Mango tree. Park warden Mr. Gajaweera briefed us the history and the current situation of the park.
Lahugala-Kitulana National Park which is the smallest national park in Sri Lanka spreads on 1554 hectares. This area was declared as a sanctuary on 1st of July 1966 and was upgraded to a National Park on 31st October 1980. For last thirty odd years it was closed for visitors due to the insecure situation of the area caused by terrorists’ activities. As the civil war ended last year and country came back to normal phase of life the Park was reopened for visitors on 30th January 2010.
The park’s terrain is mainly flat with rocky outcrops here and there. Three tanks Lahugala Maha wewa, Kitulana tank and Sengamuwa tank are inside the park. They drain in to Heda Oya which is the southern boundary of the park. The northern boundary is Karanda Oya.
Existence of tanks reveals another facet of the area. During King Kavantissa’s era this was a fertile agricultural region. Magul Maha Vihara, the nearby archaeological site which was built on the occasion of King Kavantissa’s and Vihara Maha Devi’s matrimonial ceremony reveals the rich cultural heritage of the area. There is much folklore as well.
Lying in the dry zone, the vegetation surrounding the tanks is dry mixed evergreen forest with scrubs. Dominant trees species include Weera (Drypetes sepiaria), Palu (Manikara hexandra), Halmilla (Berrya cardifiolia), Milla (Vites pinnata), Satin (Chloroxylon swietena) and Ehela (Cassia fistula). Beru (Sacciopelsis interrupta) a tall reedy type grass is in abundance in tanks. The Beru grass, one of the favourite foods of elephants (Elephas maximus) attracts herds of large number of elephants to these tanks. According the park warden Mr. Gajaweera, sometimes over 150 elephants per herd have been recorded. Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), Toque macaque (Macaca sinica), Common Langur (Presbyteis entellus), spotted deer (Axis axis ceylonensis), Sambar (Cervus unicolor), Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and Black-naped hare (Lepus nigricollis) are also included in the list of mammals. Although the park is well known for its sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) population, a proper census has not been done for last thirty years.
The forest helps to maintain and protect the water catchment area of the tanks and rivers. These water sources are the centre of life. They provide food and water for animals as well as human. Many people are rice farmers who depend on water from the tanks. For wild elephants that go towards Panama through Lahugala, this forest serves as an elephant pass as it prevents forest fragmentation. Economically Lahugala forest is important to the people in the area. It helps to improve agriculture and tourist industries thus providing direct and indirect employment opportunities. According to Wildlife officers, Naturalists and Guides are some examples for direct employment. Selling their agricultural produce, providing local food and lodging to visitors are some examples for indirect employment opportunities. When people of the area realise the economical aspect of conserving the forest they will take the lead to protect the forest.
At present, hunting and deforestation are the main threats to the park. Since there weren’t any proper studies or censes of flora and fauna for last thirty years, wildlife authorities are still in the process of planning and implementing strategies for conservation. For an initiation wildlife officers carry on awareness programmes. Their target group is school children, as they believe it will be more effective to train children than adults for the long term conservation of the forest. At present awareness programmes are carried out through children’s vegetarian societies. Members of these societies resist consuming game meat. School Environmental Brigades also plays a vital role in spreading the message of conservation.
After discussion we set off to get the first experience through the jungle. Mr. Gajaweera and Mr. Warnaweera of Ampara office accompanied us to the Lahugala Maha wewa tank. Few huge crocodiles were floating peacefully. At 16.40 hrs with an overcastted sky, bird life around the tank was not as rich as we expected. But we managed to list out 22 species easily.
1. Grey breasted fish eagle (Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus) perched on a dead tree and flew away as we were getting down from our vehicle.
2. Four Black headed ibises (Threskiornis melanocephalus) flew over us perhaps to their roost.
3. Crested tree swift (Hemiprocne coronata) perched on a high branch scanning its surrounding.
4. Sri Lanka Hanging parrot (Loriculus beryllinus) was in such a hurry if not its call we would have missed it.
5. A pair of Little Green Bee Eaters (Merops orientalis) was displaying their acrobatic skills one after the other.
6. Cooing Spotted dove (Stigmatopelia chinensis) tried to harmonize with the
7. Brown headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica)’s call which was echoing through the evening air.
8. Pop- pop- pop , Pop- pop- pop, went on Crimson fronted barbet (Megalaima rubricapillus)
9. Rose ringed parakeets ( Psittacula krameri) and
10. Alexandrine parakeets (Psittacula eupatria) were trying to settle down in their communal roost.
11. Under the Parrots’ tree an intermediate egret (Mesophoyx intermedia) stood on one leg.
12. Pheasant tail Jacanas’ (Hydrophasianus chirugus) meowing was heard among the white lotus flowers.
13. A group of lesser whistling ducks (Dendrocygna javanica) circled over head before disappearing over trees.
14. A Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) hovered over water and then dashed to a reed bed.
15. Displaying their V shaped flight pattern, a flock of Indian cormorants (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis) flew north.
16. Some Indian Pond Herons (Ardeola grayii) stood still among some reeds.
17. A common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) dashed away giving its usual shrill call. If not its call, it could have disappeared without being noticed.
18. A flock of dark fronted babblers (Rhopocichla atriceps) were feeding in the undergrowth; they seemed to be moving along with us.
19. Some long tail feathers of Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) were scattered under a large tree. Perhaps the owner had faced the law of the jungle!
20. Common Mynahs (Acridotheres tristis) were heading to their roost.
21. Two Purple herons (Ardea purpurea) stood tall in the water among Beru grass.
22. “Did-he-do it” call of the Red wattle Lapwing (Vanellus malarbaricus) shrilled through the air.
Yes he did it. Nanda was the first to spot some marks on each tree bark. Barks of trees were damaged at a certain height from the ground. We inquired Mr. Gajaweera. He took us to such damaged tree and explained the “Work of Porcupines”. This led to yet another discussion. How such observations can be used in scientific studies i.e. Population & distribution studies, behavioural studies etc., were widely discussed. Other than the birds there were some frogs for those who were interested in amphibian fauna.
We climbed a hillock. It had a rocky face; a flat boulder with a slope of approximately 45 degrees and about 100m in width. On the other side of it was a flat land. Mr. Gajaweera showed us some ruins of a Pagoda (Dagabo). According to him they have found many evidences of an ancient monastery.
A faint sound of branches being break, which was familiar only to a trained ear of a wildlife officer made Mr. Gajaweera to decide that all of us should return to the base. We took a different route to our vehicle as not to disturb the Jumbo who was probably feeding.
On our way to the vehicle Mr. Gajaweera showed us a trail made by a snake. Most of us did not notice it until he showed the trial to us. May be the snake has gone to the nearby water hole from its ‘ant hill’ home. There was an ant hill too which completed that theory.
We came back to our base. The person who was supposed to cook our meals did not turn in. His absence led us to another fun filled experience. That was to cook our own food; a group activity, in which none of us had mastered. But all of us participated enthusiastically.
Before dinner we discussed the day’s events, our observations, how to analyse and utilize them, dos and don’ts as there were some new faces it was necessary to brief Eco-V ethics and also the programme for the following day. Wildlife officers willingly shared some of their experiences.
Officers’ quarters next door which belonged to the Department of Forest Conservation was vacated during that week end. It was our ‘home’ as during night we had the building all by ourselves. Throughout the night call of Jerdon’s Nightjars’ (Caprimulgus atripennis) were heard (amidst the heavy snoring that vibrate our home!).
1st May 2010
Day started early but with a bad news. Mr. Gajaweera’s father who was critically ill has passed away. He has been asking for his eldest son. But his son who put his duty before all his other responsibilities was staying with us and planning the programmes of conservation. Mr. Gajaweera senior had to leave this world without seeing his son.
We left our base at 5.43 a.m. and drive through the thick forest. Wildlife officers Mr. Warnaweera and Nimal accompanied us. Here and there golden sky was visible through the canopy. Soft rays of the morning sun filtered through the mist. Sri Lanka Brown-capped Babbler (Pellorneum fuscocapillus) was calling “pret-ty dear”. Faint sound of breaking branches was heard indicating that some elephants are still feeding. As we travelled further in, we heard the call of Sri Lanka Jungle fowl (Gallus lafayetti) and the orange breasted blue fly catcher (Cyornis tickelliae) was also in its vocals.
At 5.54 hr. we reached Kitulana tank. That was another bank of the same tank that we went to, on the day before. An elephant hurried away out of sight as our vehicle approached. We climbed on to a large rock that stood invitingly. The view we got from the top of that rock was fantastic.
For the first time in my life I saw the moon setting over the Kitulana tank. Behind me soft rays of the rising sun filtered through the trees. During our 2 hr 30 min stay, we managed to list out 31 species
1. White Browed Bulbul (Pycnonotus luteolus)
2. Lesser whistling ducks (Dendrocygna javanica)
3. Pheasant tail Jacana (Hydrophasianus chirugus)
4. Indian Pond Herons (Ardeola grayii)
5. Eurasian Spoon bill (Platalea leucorodia)
6. Purple heron (Ardea purpurea)
7. Greater coucal (Centropus sinensis) (call)
8. Sri Lanka Hanging parrot (Loriculus beryllinus)
9. Black –crowned Night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)
10. Crimson fronted barbet (Megalaima rubricapillus)
11. Black headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus)
12. Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) (call)
13. Red-rumped swallow (Hirundo daurica)
14. Brown headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica)
15. White breasted waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)
16. White throated king fisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)
17. Stork billed kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis)
18. Intermediate egret (Mesophoyx intermedia)
19. Whiskered turn (Chlidonias hybrida)
20. Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
21. Common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
22. Common Mynahs (Acridotheres tristis)
23. Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria)
24. Rose ringed parakeets ( Psittacula krameri)
25. Black-naped oriole (Oriolus xanthornus)
26. Spotted dove (Stigmatopelia chinensis)
27. Purple Swamphen ( Porphyrio porphyrio)
28. Jungle crow (Corvus levaillantii)
29. Little cormorant (Phalacrocorax niger)
30. Sky lark (Alauda gulgula)
31. Jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum)
The most interesting sight was the Jungle Owlet (Glaucidium radiatum). At first we heard its call loud and clear and very near. But we couldn’t identify the bird. After much effort we were able to spot it and that was a real treat.
A work shop for the students from three schools in the area was scheduled at the Lahugala wildlife office. When we returned to the base, students were waiting for us. After a quick breakfast we started the workshop. Harsha conducted the programme and we all supported him. All the children were members of School Environmental Brigades. They together with their two teachers actively participated throughout the programme. The programme included a lecture on Bio diversity, some activities like caterpillar game, and discussions.
At the end of the programme, presenting a poster of Pelican conservation project, Harsha asked whether they have seen the bird and where. Anonymous answer we got was ‘Yes, seen at the zoo’. But some weeks ago wild life officers had treated a Pelican that was critically ill due to lack of food! We felt that for us there is so much to do.
We prepared our lunch. Mr. Warnaweera suggested that we leave around 3.00 p.m. to go to Magul Maha Vihara and then to Heda Oya. He said that we can bathe in it if we want. So after lunch off we went. Magul Maha Vihara is a historically important site restored and maintained by the Department of Archaeology.
The king Datusena has built this temple during the period of 453 -473. According to an ancient stone-scripture Princess Wiharamahadevi, wife of Gampola Buvanekabahu IV (1341-1351) and Dedhigama Parakramabahu V (1344-1359) has reconstructed this in 14th centuary. A shrine room (Prathima gruhaya) pagoda (Dagabo) and a Sabbath house (Uposthagaraya) can be seen among the restored ruins. Later this temple has been called as Ruhunu Maha Vihara.
Off from the main road it was impossible to drive to Heda Oya, the rivulet that flows approximately 500m far from the main road. We got down from our vehicle and walked along a slippery, muddy trail through the jungle. The evening was bit gloomy. Through the thick canopy under such a low light it was not good enough for birding. Heda Oya, the southern boundary of the Park flowed peacefully. Its water level was not high nor torrent, so there were some sandy patches in the middle of the water way. While dipped in water, time is not an important factor at all. We turned back after one and half hours. On our way back to the main road, we heard a familiar bird call. Through the shadowy canopy we were able to see a silhouette of a large drongo, probably a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus).
On our return journey, we went to Lahugala tank again. It was yet another side of the tank in the vicinity of the main road. We walked along the bank of the tank. It was around 17.30 hrs the elephants were coming for a dip in the water. Leisurely walking, feeding on Beru and other grass, ‘talking’ to each other with various gestures they came in small groups. Some groups entered to the water from the other side of tank. There was an elephant with a septic wound on the knee area of her left leg. Though she limped, she was able to keep up with the herd. With an up lifted trunk one elephant played in deep water. It was a pleasure to watch them without chains but, the thought of the practical threats that wild elephants usually face made me shudder.
It was 17.55 hr when we went to Sengamuwa tank. As we were walking along the bank we saw a roost of Chestnut headed bee-eaters (Merops apiaster). Over 45 bee-eaters were there. In small flocks they flew above the tree in a circle, settled down, then after few minutes again flew in a circle; this activity was going on even when we returned from the tank.
Sengamuwa tank was ready to go to sleep. That was the first thought that came to my mind when I saw it. Covered with a blanket of lotus and other water plants, all the roosting trees were full of egrets, cormorants, pond herons and other sleepy birds the tank reflected the vary last rays of the sun.
Even in the twilight, walking along the bank of the tank we listed 20 bird species.
1. Chestnut headed bee-eaters (Merops apiaster)
2. Brahminy kite (Haliastur Indus)
3. Oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster)
4. Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus)
5. Common Mynahs (Acridotheres tristis)
6. Brown headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica)
7. Lesser whistling ducks (Dendrocygna javanica)
8. Pheasant tail Jacana (Hydrophasianus chirugus)
9. Indian Pond Herons (Ardeola grayii)
10. Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) (call)
11. Purple heron (Ardea purpurea)
12. White throated king fisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)
13. Black –crowned Night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)
14. Coppersmith barbet (Megalaima haemacephala)
15. Rose ringed parakeets ( Psittacula krameri)
16. Jungle crow (Corvus levaillantii)
17. Little cormorant (Phalacrocorax niger
18. Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis)
19. Grey heron (Ardea cinerea)
20. Asian Open bill (Anastomus oscitans)
During the dinner as we were discussing the programme for the following day Mr. Warnaweera suggest that we can go to Panama or even to Kumana National park. Panama is a small village 16 km from Pottuvil. So if time permits we would be able to go up to Kumana. All of us were eager to go to Kumana sanctuary even for a very brief visit
2nd May 2010
Early in the morning we prepared our lunch. We were planning to take the lunch with us but to get a light breakfast at Pottuvil.
Wildlife officers informed us that at Pottuvil there are places where we can eat hot hoppers or roti. After breakfast we headed to Kumana. There is only one entrance to the park from Panama through Kudumbigala sanctuary. Earlier Kumana Sanctuary was named as Yala East National Park. Through Kudumbigala Sanctuary it was not a smooth drive. There were several security check points as well.
At 8.20 hr. it was a sunny morning at Horawakanda, a water body where we recorded:-
1. Painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala)
2. Spot-billed Pelican (Pelecannus philippensis)
3. Eurasian Spoon bill (Platalea leucorodia)
4. Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
5. Black headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus)
6. Intermediate egret (Mesophoyx intermedia)
While driving through Kudumbigala sanctuary the best treat we got was a pair of Lesser Adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus) at proximity of the road.
From Okanda entrance we entered to Kumana Sanctuary with a Guide. On a Maa-dan (Syzygium cumini) tree a Changeable Hawk Eagle (Spizaetus cirrhatus) was sitting in its eyrie gently preening. Even at 9.20hrs, the sun was very hot but the majestic raptor was not bothered. From Okanda to Kumana villu the rough road ran close to the sea. So eventually we had to cross or pass by many small lagoons. On our left was semi arid scrub jungle. Time to time through the vegetation the blue sea appeared and disappeared. On the right side other than the scrub jungle there were fairly large areas of dense forest.
Baaguray was the largest lagoon we passed. Some Painted storks (Mycteria leucocephala) were feeding in the shallow water. Two Yellow-wattled Lapwings (Vanellus malarbaricus) were running after some ‘live’ food on the sandy marsh. On our right the spotted deer (Axis axis ceylonensis) that was feeding on freshly grown grass, slowly walked back to the forest cover.
Next water body we came across was Thunmulla tank. There were Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus), Black headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus), Oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster) and lesser whistling ducks (Dendrocygna javanica).
Andarakala lagoon, Itikala lagoon and Yaakala Lagoon were not as large as Baaguray lagoon.
At Andarakala lagoon we saw nine Spot-billed Pelicans (Pelecannus philippensis), Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) and Intermediate egrets (Mesophoyx intermedia). A Great Thick-Knee (Esacus recurvirostris) was standing very close to the road at Itikala lagoon. It was 10.58 hr when we passed the Yaakala lagoon. Two Spot-billed Pelicans (Pelecannus philippensis) were floating and there were whiskered turns (Chlidonias hybrida), White winged turns (Chlidonias leucopterus) and little turns (Srerna albifrons) too. All turns were in breeding plumage.
We reached Kumana Villu at 11.04 hrs; a Villu is a marshy land that cannot be cultivated. Spot-billed Pelicans (Pelecannus philippensis) and Painted storks (Mycteria leucocephala) were nesting. Some Little Green Bee Eaters (Merops orientalis) were somersaulting after their prey, displaying their usual acrobatic skills. Although there were so much to observe, we had to travel approximately 390 km back to Colombo. We had spent 15 minutes Kumana villu. Promising ourselves that we would return to Kumana very soon, we started our return journey. On our way we saw some spotted deer. They were feeding leisurely in a grassy patch. They observed us for a few seconds before fleeing to the forest.
For a bath in the eastern sea, one of the best places is Arugam Bay. We had a dip in the blue basin to our hearts’ content, had our lunch under coconut palms and started our journey back home.
This was the first field excursion with duration of more than one day. To be frank, it was a trial and a challenge. We missed Kanchana a lot. Without Harsha’s energetic organising skills and leadership it would not become a happy and useful journey. So here is a BIG ‘THANK YOU’ to Harsha for a mission well done and to Kanchana for giving the vision to Harsha and to all of us.