Wilpattu:Land of Lakes

Located on the North-Western coast of the country, Wilpattuis the largest National Park in Sri Lanka. It covers an area of 131,693 hectares of dry lowland forest with a unique cluster of water bodies referred to as “Villus” which are naturally formed rain fed lakes. The area was declared a sanctuary in 1905 and upgraded to a national park on the 25th of February 1938.

Legend has it that an Indian prince by the name of Vijaya arrived in the Island with 700 of his followers in the 5th century BC and landed at ‘Mahathiththa’ or ‘Manthota’ now known as Mannar. When he touched the ground and looked at his palms, they were copper in colour. Thus he named the island ‘Thambapanni’ meaning copper-coloured palms.It is believed that they may have in fact landed between Puttalam and Mannar where even now copper-coloured beaches are found in the country. He later met a beautiful maiden named Kuveni who was a queen of the tribe ‘Yaksha’ and married her. His followers alsomarried local women.Vijaya became the first ever ruler of the island. It is widely believed that this union gave rise to the modern Sinhalese race. Ruins found withinWilpattu National Park, even though popularly calledKuveni’s palace, are in fact those of an ancient monastery. The archaeologists who examined the rows of stone pillars, stupa mounds and bricks in the area have confirmed that the ruins are in fact those of an ancient monastery and are thus correctly referred to in old literature as Kuveni’s Temple.

Travelling from Colombo the 182km distance to the park will take about three anda half hours. It is prudent to take the Colombo-Katunayakeexpressway to exit the city, the A3 Highway from Katunayake to Puttalam and proceed 42km thereafter on the A12, Puttalam- Anuradhapura Highway until you reach the large signboard and turn off to the left at ThimbiriWewa. This 8km road takes you to the park office located at Hunuwilagama.

Wilpattu is an excellent park to observe many species of mammals including the top predator of the country the Sri Lankan Leopard Pantheraparduskotiya. The subspecies that is found in the country is endemic. Even though early mornings and late evenings are the best times to observe them, it is not unusual to seeleopards during different times of the day including midday. The author is engaged in recording the fauna and flora of the park including the study of leopards by individually identifying them based on their unique spot/rosette patterns. As at the date of this article twenty-seven leopards have been recorded and notes on each of them including maps on their area of occurrence can be found under the link “Leopards of Wilpattu” on his web site www.wilpattu.com.

Many other species of mammals can also be observed here which include the Sloth Bear, Sambar, Spotted Deer, Barking Deer and the Ruddy Mongoose. A

number of mammal species, which are endemic to the island, can also be seen at Wilpattu and they include the Golden Palm Civet, Northern Mouse Deer or White-spotted Chevrotainas well as the north-central dry zone subspecies of the endemic Purple-faced Leaf Monkey.

Wilpattu has always been less famed for the sighting of Elephants, although gatherings of 90-100 animals as well as majestic tuskers are recorded in the park during the dry season from July to September. During most of the year the elephants generally frequent the less visited western side of the park including Pomparrippu and PeriyaVillu. However lone bull elephants can be seen throughout the year feeding on the vegetation at the main cluster of frequently visited Villus.

Wilpattu is also a paradise for resident as well as migrant species of birds. The commonly seen migrants include the Indian Paradise Flycatcher, Asiatic Golden Plover, Orange-headed Ground Thrush,Indian Pitta,Black-tailed Godwit, Indian Blue Chat, and Pintail Snipe.

The resident bird species include the lowland race babaultiof the endemic Brown-capped Babbler,the dry zone race siccatus of the Black-fronted Babbler,the race jerdoni of the Little Ringed Ploverresident in the dry lowlands, the endemic Ceylon Grey Hornbill,Pompadour Green Pigeon, Black-capped Bulbul,all the fourcolour forms of the Golden-backed Woodpecker,Racket-tailed Drongo, White-bellied Sea Eagleand the Forest Eagle-Owlcommonly referred to as the “Devil Bird”.

The most commonly seen reptile in the park is the Land Monitor.However there are many species of interesting reptiles that inhabit the park including the Mugger Crocodile,Star Tortoise,Flapshell Turtle, Agamid Lizardsand many species of snakes including the endemic Sri Lankan Flying Snake, Forsten’s Cat Snake, Indian Cobra and the Indian Rock Python.

The Common Garden Lizardis the commonest agamid lizard seen in the park. The Green Garden Lizardas well as the endemic Painted-lipped Lizardcan be seen less frequently in the well-wooded areas. The ground dwelling endemic Lowland Kangaroo Lizard can be seen among the leaf litter in tall forest areas of the park. The Fan-throated Lizardis mostly active during the midday heat in the sandy areas of the park.

Wilpattu is an important habitat where the rarely seen Sri LankanChamaeleonoccurs in good numbers.

This park offers many delights to the keen lepidopterist as well. Many species of butterflies can be observed in the park at the end of the rainy season. The white butterfly with a concave forewing margin that is seen gathered close to puddles of water and which is preyed upon by all the Bee-eaters is theendemic Lesser Albatross. The other species found in the park include the Blue Mormon, Banded Peacock, Common JayMonkey Puzzle, Blue Wanderer and the Red Spot Duke.

Dense forest and tall shrubs cover more than 70% of the park. The commonly seen tree and shrub species include Palu (Ceylon Ironwood), Weera, Ma-Dan(Jambolan Plum)the fruits of which are favoured by the Sloth Bear, Burutha (Satinwood),Kaluwara (Ebony) Thimbiri(Gaub Tree), IlaPattha (Black Ebony),Korakaha (Blue Mist, Radaliya (Indian Zebrawood) and Kumbuk (Arjuna) that grows near the water bodies.

The picturesque endless carpets of small white bulbs seen on vast areas around most Villus after the rains are formed by a species of KokMota (Pipe-worts) and the large patches of beautiful purple flowers are BimSavan (Horsefly’s Eye). The other wild flowers seen in the park include Wellangiriya(Ceylon Caper), Firecracker Flower,Indian Cadaba, Ceylon Spider Lily and Ceylon Osbeckia.

So far the author has observed 9 species of wild orchids in the park. The beautiful Yellow flowers of the Vanda spathulatacan be observed between September to January. The flower spikes grow straight up from the top most branches of tall bushes. The flowers of the more easily seen Vanda tessellata can also be found between September and January mostly on the trunks of the Palu trees. The purple as well as the rare pinkish red flowers of this species have been observed in the park. The ground Orchid Habenariaplantaginea referred to as “Narilatha”and the rare Habenariaroxberghii have also been recorded from the park. The spectacular white flowers of the leafless orchid Vanilla walkeriae can also be observed at many localities including Maradanmaduwa, BorupanWila, KumbukWila as well as ThimbiriWila between May and June.

This article contains some of the fauna and flora that can be observed during a visit to Wilpattu national park. Comprehensive lists and descriptions of species observed and photographed by the author, as at the date of this article, are included in the web site www.wilpattu.com, which is updated regularly.

By - Kithsiri Gunawardena

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