Wildlife in Sri Lanka

By Jessica Sutton

Jessica Sutton is a 2nd-year University of Ottawa student in Environmental Studies and Biology. This fall, Jessica is volunteering with the OFNC through the Community Service Learning (CSL) program.

On a rainy night late last month, Jeewa Mendis treated us to the videos and photos she took during a 2-month trip to Sri Lanka last winter with her husband. Her videos, accompanied by beautiful Sri Lankan music, showcased the wildlife inhabiting Sri Lankan National Parks and Reserves. Their tours of most parks were made in the jeep of a guide, a requirement to protect visitors from the wildlife. Being confined to a jeep was no obstacle to capturing beautiful images and dramatic footage of creatures great and small.

Sri Lanka is one of the smallest, yet most biologically diverse countries in Asia – 1 of 25 biological hotspots around the world. Sri Lanka has numerous endemic species. Of the 111 freshwater fish species, 95 are endemic. There are 94 species of mammals, 24 of which are endemic – and the list goes on! There are also many migratory species that winter on Sri Lanka, an island only 22 miles southeast from the coast of India.

Sri Lankan terrestrial ecosystems are largely wet evergreen, dry thorn forests, wetlands, grasslands and rivers. The coastal ecosystems consist of sea-grass beds and coral reefs, lagoons, and swamps. The country has shown extreme resilience in terms of ecological preservation. Today, the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife has declared 13% of the land (8500km2) as protected area in the form of National Parks and Reserves.

Mihintale Wildlife Sanctuary
Established in the 3rd century BC, this was the first wildlife sanctuary in the ancient world. When the Sri Lankan king became a Buddhist, he declared the 999.6 hectares of land to be protected area.

Wildlife featured in this video included:
Birds: White-breasted Kingfisher, Common Iora
Butterflies: Tawny coaster, Common sailor, Danaid eggfly
Primates: Toque macaque (an endemic species), Dry-zone purple-faced langur
Mammals: Grizzled giant squirrel

Wilpattuwa National Park
Initially a sanctuary in 1905, the 131 693 hectares of land was established as a National Park in 1938. It is the largest and oldest National Park in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, it has opened and closed several times throughout the years for reasons spanning from natural disasters to those political in nature. Despite this, the park has maintained 31 species of mammals and 137 species of birds (3 endemic and 23 winter migratory).

Several birds were featured in this video including:
Woolly-necked Stork, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Grey-headed fish eagle, Oriental Darter, Black-capped Kingfisher, Black-tailed Godwit (migrant), Marsh Sandpiper, Painted Stork, Common Emerald Dove, Grey Heron, Common ringed plover (migrant), Blue-tailed and Chestnut-headed bee-eaters, Sri Lankan jungle fowl (endemic, Sri Lankan national bird)


Mugger crocodiles and soft-shelled turtles were also shown in the video. A mother elephant and her baby were also featured – the mother showed signs of a healed bullet wound on her side, evidence that elephant poaching is still a very real problem. Jeewa also captured footage of the endangered Sri Lankan leopard hunting its prey – the barking deer.

Horton Plains National Park
In 1969, this area was established as a Reserve, and in 1988 was declared a National Park. Between 1831 and 1948, prior to becoming a protected area, an estimated 12-14 000 elephants disappeared due to hunting. In fact, it is believed that during this time, one army Major killed 1500 elephants alone. Many others were shot for sport.

Several endemic species were featured in this video:
Birds: Dull-blue flycatcher, Orange-billed babbler, Sri Lanka white-eye
Primates: Montane purple-faced langur

Horton Plains is the only National Park in Sri Lanka where you are allowed to walk. Jeewa’s video “Eagles in Flight” begins with a few seconds of a Crested Serpent eagle, then a Black eagle soaring over the hills at Horton Plains National Park, and then a brahminy kite (or Red-backed sea-eagle). 

Adam’s Peak Wilderness Sanctuary
This sanctuary was established in 1940, and has since become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adam’s Peak is a religious place for Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists alike. Located 2243 m above sea level, the area is home to a wide range of species, many of which are endemic. In fact, 21 of the 91 bird species are endemic, and 5 of the 13 species of mammals found on the site are, too.

Yala National Park
The area that is now Yala National Park was established as a wildlife sanctuary in 1900, and upgraded to a National Park in 1938. The land is over 97 880 hectares large, and was once a hunting ground for elite individuals while Sri Lanka was under British rule. In 2004, a tsunami damaged a great portion of land that is still recovering. A combination of these factors has made Yala National Park one of the most strictly managed nature reserves. The park is divided into five blocks, of which two are open to the public and one is solely dedicated to research.

The video from this national park was filmed in late January/ early February. Despite the fact that it was winter in Sri Lanka, the diversity was immense!

Featured in this video were:
Birds: Barn Swallows, Small Minivit, Painted Stork, Indian Pitta (migrant), Crested Serpent Eagle, Common Kingfisher, Malabar Pied Hornbill
Mammals: black-naped hare, jackals, wild buffalo, elephants, leopards (Yala has the highest population of leopards in the world)

Along with the wild buffalo, elephants with young are considered the most dangerous animals in Yala. When mother elephants feel threatened, they flap their ears and stomp their feet in the sand. Footage included a mother elephant approaching a tour jeep while flapping her ears – the video ended before anything too dramatic took place!

If you are interested in seeing some of the scenery and wildlife in Sri Lanka, check out Jeewa’s YouTube channel: Greenbunting.

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