Sri Lanka Nature
Ruhunu National Park

Dr. H. I. E. Katugaha
Photographs by the author
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Nestling in the South-Eastern corner of Sri Lanka is Yala. Justly famous for its elephants that never fail to thrill the thousands of visitors that flock to this small jungle paradise. A large number of mammals, birds and reptiles can be seen. The elephant, leopard and bear form the big three at Yala but deer, buffalo, langur, macaque, jackal, giant squirrels, crocodiles and mongoose can always be seen. Over 250 varieties of birds have been recorded in the park. The reptiles, other than for the crocodiles are rarely encountered.

The Ruhunu National Park lies in what was for centuries the flourishing Ruhunu civilization. It was the heart of independent Lanka, which was never subject to foreign domination till the British rule in 1815. After the decline of the Ruhunu civilization the "jungle tide" rolled over, burying the temples, tanks and of course the once fertile fields in secondary jungle. The ruins of these temples and evidence of a hydraulic civilization are seen even today.

It was around 1900 that the area that is Yala Block 1 became a game sanctuary under the Game Protection Ordinance and administered by the Game & Fauna Protection Society. However this south eastern corner of our land was once a Resident Sportsmen’s Reserve kept for the shooting pleasure of the British who ruled our land.

On the 25th February 1938 Yala Block 1 was declared a National Park. Part of Block 11 was declared a Strict Natural Reserve. Block 111 & Yala East were Intermediate Zones where controlled shooting was allowed. The Forest Department administered these reserves. The Department of Wildlife became a reality only after Ceylon gained independence in 1948. Mr. C. W. Nicholas became the first Warden of Wildlife in 1949.

It was in 1950, as a schoolboy, that I first set foot in Yala. I well remember that morning when my uncle, the late Sam Elapata Dissawe, took me by my hand and we walked across the Buttuwa plains to get close enough to a lone bull elephant, to take a picture. The main road was but a jungle track in those days and there was only one more that took us to the old Buttuwa Bungalow. To get to other spots we had to park the vehicle on the main track and walk.

There were only two bungalows then, Yala & Buttuwa. Palatupana was reserved for the staff. But Pattiyawala was then outside the park and Uncle Sam made it his campsite among the Palu trees that are seen even today. It was my good fortune to be out camping at Pattiyawala for two weeks every school holiday, to follow in his footsteps as we walked in the jungle learning from him the ways of the jungle and its inhabitants.

The trackers in those times knew the jungle & its inhabitants very well. It was great to be out with trackers like Pinoris & Robo Singho who excelled in showing us tracks and teaching us how to interpret them. They always carried an axe or katty, which came in handy both in clearing the jungle as we walked or to be used in defense.

On one occasion while at Siyambalagaswala we were surrounded by a herd of elephants. We were seated under a massive tamarind tree that we see even today by the waterhole. As it was getting late I became anxious because we had to walk to the vehicle before we could get to camp. Uncle Sam pointed to a stout stick that was lying close by and made me tap the tree that we were under. I had to do it only four times before the elephants moved away. On our way back Uncle Sam said "Babo, wild elephants will move away from unnatural sounds". We got back to camp safely.

Four-wheel drive vehicles and telephoto lenses had not invaded Yala in those days and we had to get close to animals to get any reasonable picture. The trackers were very good and made use of all jungle craft to take us close to the animals. It was a wonderful experience to be out with them. I must pay a tribute to the fine trackers of the earlier times. Sahideen, (Halreen) was absolutely fearless when it came to elephants. He is sadly no more. Packer Deen, Sahib Deen, Mansoor, who was killed by an elephant he was trying to save after tranquilizing, Appusingho, Diyonis, Edirisinghe & Piyadasa of Piyadasa Road fame, were all men of character and very fine jungle men. Quite a contrast to the "Guides" of today who merely sit in the vehicle and only tell us to turn left or right.

We did not see many elephants in those days as we do today. Mainly since we had to walk we covered less area on a round. The lone bulls were aggressive and prone to charge. The herds moved away as soon as they got the dreaded scent of man. Their concern was to protect the young and move off. To see a wild tusker was my dream and it took me twelve long years before I saw my first tusker at Yala.

As the park became more popular the "Stay In Your Vehicle Rule" was introduced in the early fifties. This was the beginning of the vast changes that took place in the park. New roads were made and along with this more Bungalows were put up. New & better roads made it possible for more people to visit the park and the steady rise in number of visitors made the park even more popular.

It was during the time that Mr. Lyn de Alwis was Warden of the Wildlife Department that the park really blossomed. A better network of roads and better accommodation. Most of all a dedicated and disciplined staff which made all the difference.

We began to see more animals as we now covered a wider area of the park during our rounds. The animals too slowly realized that the slow moving vehicle was no threat to them. The most obvious changes in behaviour were seen in the case of the elephants. The once aggressive lone makes left the vehicles alone and were soon seen walking past vehicles with hardly a glance. Even the herds lost their fear and soon got accustomed to vehicles. It was lovely to be surrounded by a herd of elephants and be "in the herd". If you left the elephants alone they certainly left you alone and went about their way. This was the situation till about the mid eighties. What is the situation today? Thanks to other parks being closed there is a rush at Yala. Often we saw more vehicles on our rounds than animals. The herds are provoked and prevented from getting to water by rows of vehicles that drive up to them.

It won’t be long before some one is hurt. Now the females in the herd are getting aggressive. One or two females now come charging at vehicles when a herd is provoked. That is the natural reaction in defense of the young. Some vehicles have already been attacked but soon it may well turn out to be a common occurrence. It is imperative that visitors are not allowed to harass the elephants for a "few dollars more".

What of the tuskers? Even after spending two weeks of every school holidays camping in Yala it took me twelve years to see my first tusker. In the 1950 Administration Report of the Department of Wildlife, the Warden states that only two tuskers were reported in the park for the year. No doubt that most of the adult tuskers had paid with their lives during the shooting days of the British Raj.

During the last fifty years, thanks to the protection given, I am happy to note that the tusker population has shown an increase. Today there are said to be eighteen to twenty tuskers in the park. If one spends three to five days in Yala today, especially during February to March, you have every chance of seeing more than one tusker. No account on Yala can be complete without mention of some famous tuskers that have graced the park.

I will begin with Raja; not a very big animal but which had lovely tusks that were big, long and symmetrical. He was a favourite of our late President Premadasa who made it a point to go looking for him. He died in the late seventies and his body was found close to the old Buttuwa Bungalow. He had no injuries. The first of the famous cross tuskers was the Walaskema tusker of Yala Block 11. His habit of visiting this waterhole regularly certainly led to his demise. Beautiful pictures of this tusker appear in the early issues of the Loris, taken by Max Hemple. Village legend has it that the person who shot the wonderful tusker died soon after from snakebite.

Maha Poottuwa appeared suddenly in Block 1 in the late fifties and soon made a name for himself by charging at vehicles on sight. He became the most photographed tusker in the park. He quietened down as years went by and allowed us liberties. Many who visited the park have his picture adorning their walls even today. Last seen in the early nineties in a poor physical condition. His right tusk crossed over the left. Podi Poottuwa was the next to come. Grew up to be a fine tusker with the left tusk crossing over the right. Sadly he was shot just outside the park boundary at Pattiyawala. Today there is one large cross tusker in Yala. Very much like Podi Poottuwa with his left tusk crossing over his right. A fine animal, with a long tail and a full tuft, nearly touching the ground. Today there are a few large tuskers in Yala. Thilak, Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan to name just three. It is heartening to see many juvenile tuskers.

It is one thing to write about the increase in the tusker population in Yala but quite another matter to effectively protect them. Whenever they are seen close to the park boundaries they have to be driven well into the park by the park authorities. That is their only chance of survival.

Leopards too have shown an increase in their population during the last fifty years. During the early walking days we were lucky indeed to see a leopard. Four or five walking in the jungle is not the best way to go after leopard. Often he sees us first and moves off before we could come anywhere near. They too got used to vehicular traffic and we saw more of them as the years went by, but the present day rush of vehicles seems to be making them more cautious and now they tend to run away. The leopard that comes to Vepandeniya rock made his appearance only after the jungle was cleared by the Department so creating the plain we see today. He made his appearance after the deer came to the plain to feed. Today all passing vehicles stop at the rock to look for leopard. Being a territorial animal he can be seen early morning and late evening. I have often seen bear at this spot. Piyadasa Road, Jamburagala, Heen Wewa & the Thalgasmankada track to the Meda Para are favourite leopard areas.

Wherever human activity begins, the bear is the first animal to retreat. As the numbers visiting the park increased the bear became retiring and today, thanks to the influx of so many visitors, bear has become nearly nocturnal in Yala. Their numbers too have shown an increase from the fifties though it is less apparent. During the Palu season they are more commonly encountered even during the day. After a good shower of rain they come out to break into termite mounds in search of the grubs & termites and they are so busy that they seldom take notice of visitors who can get close to them.

Back in those walking days we did not go looking for bear, but did see quite a few of them. Today in the safety of a vehicle it is wonderful to be able to watch a bear at close quarters. They are now seen early morning or late evening. Though they can be met with anywhere the reputed bear areas are, Jamburagala, Wel Mal Kema, Heen Wewa and Piyadasa Road.

Of the animals that have shown a decrease in numbers the most noticeable has been the deer. In the fifties large herds of deer numbering over a hundred animals were a common sight especially at Buttuwa, Gonalabba and Gonagala. In the evening returning to camp we sometimes had to push our way through these large herds of deer. Up to about the seventies a large herd was seen at Gonagala but we do not see these large herds today. The increase in the leopard population in Yala cannot account for this rather drastic drop in the deer population. To my knowledge there has been no epidemic disease that affected the deer. We must not forget that a white deer has been seen in Yala in the late fifties. He was seen in the Andunnoruwa, Yala and Gonalabba area and had been photographed by many visitors who have been lucky to have seen this animal. Sam Elapata Dissawa was the first to report this white deer. We saw this deer at the turn off to Thalgasmankada and immediately turned back to report it to the office.

Sambhur too have shown a decrease in numbers but not as drastic as that of deer. In the fifties before the sand bar at Uraniya was breached, the plain we see today, was a marsh. Mangroves were growing here. In this marsh, we could see around twenty to thirty Sambhur at any time of the day. Today we see none but we do see deer and sometimes elephants. Gonalabba & Gonagala were other areas that we were sure to see sambhur. Only a few are seen today. They have become nearly nocturnal in their behaviour.

Wild Boar were always seen in large numbers till swine fever nearly exterminated them in 1988. It took ten years for the population to recover from this and they are quite plentiful today.

When it comes to reptiles, the crocodile takes the pride of place in Yala. They can always be seen and the park has some monsters at Andunnoruwa and at Katagamuwa. If you are after crocodiles go during the drought. One rarely comes across snakes as their natural enemies keep the numbers down. But one does come across pythons. What we do have in Sri Lanka is the Reticulated Python reputedly the largest snake in the world.

There are lots of animals to see in the park other than the big three. Grey Langur and Giant Squirrels can be seen sporting among the branches overhead. The Macaques are seen closer to the river. The mongoose often runs across the road as one drives along and his cousin, the larger Stripe Necked Mongoose can some times be seen hurrying back into the shrubs.

It was the late Mr. A. H. E. Molamure, uncle Huppi as we called him, who introduced me to bird watching in 1952. He showed me the first pair of Black-Necked Storks at Buttuwa. Since I have always looked for them and I am happy to write that I have always seen them at this spot or at Gonalabba. Over the years I have seen several juveniles at this spot but no nest of the Black-Necked Stork has yet been found in Sri Lanka. Over two hundred and forty varieties of birds have been recorded in the park making it a bird watchers paradise especially during the migratory season. The rare Red-Faced Malkoha has been seen along the river and the Rufous Woodpecker can always be seen at Thalgasmankada. We hardly saw any Flamingo in the park during those early times but since the 1990s they have been regular visitors to the Lagoons & Salterns at Palatupana.

Yala today

Today in Yala we see more vehicles than animals. Even the few we do see are surrounded by vehicles that keep trying to get closer to them. This cannot be helped at the moment as Wilpattu, Gal Oya, Kumana and Yala Block 11 are closed to the public thanks to the terrorist threat. We are left with only Yala Block 1, Udawalawe & Wasgamuwa.

Nearly all the problems in the park are due to over visitation. The network of roads is good. Now some of the bungalows have been repaired and are available to the public, there is a severe shortage of staff and staff facilities.

Yala Block I 14100.6 ha

Yala Block II 9930.8 ha (not open)

Yala Block III 40775.9 ha (not open)

Yala Block IV 26418.0 ha (considered not safe)

Yala Block V 6656.0 ha (not open)

Block two is not roaded, though there is a bridge to get across the river we are not allowed to go across owing to the terrorist threat. No one has gone across for several years.

Block IV was open to the public and roads were being repaired. One bungalow has been put up but sadly since 1999 after a terrorist attack at the entrance and along the road, it is not considered a safe venture to go into the Block IV. It is therefore only Block I we are left with. Even here almost all the bungalows were set alight by the terrorists and we are able to go in today thanks to the good work done by the Sri Lankan Army. Even in year 2000 the army repulsed a rebel group that tried to infiltrate into the park.

Block IV has to be developed and made safe to enter if we are to ease the congestion in Block I. There is a move to close all bungalows in the park. I think that is certainly not the solution to the problems in the park. Discipline must be maintained and closing a bungalow is not the answer. They should not be closed till at least alternative accommodation is available outside the park. Do no throw the nature-loving public out to be at the mercy of hoteliers.

There is no better way to enjoy the wilds than to camp out in the jungle. Are the campsites too to be done away with? We hope not. Having been camping out at Yala since 1950 I can only pray that this opportunity will not be denied to the public. If it has to be done, will alternative campsites be provided? If so where? Not in tourist village we hope.

Yala today even in the over crowded condition offers a nature lover ample opportunities to enjoy the beauties that nature has endowed. Even if you miss out on the elephant, leopard and bear, there is so much more to see and enjoy. Look at the birds and the smaller animals that are there. There are none so blind than those that refuse to see. Remember that Yala has so much more to offer you, if you will only pause to look and enjoy.