Family Magazine

Sri Lanka’s Wild Side

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem


Traveling Sri Lanka’s interior meant some long days on the road (or railway tracks). Between that, and the likelihood of many “educational” stops, we thought the best way to end our adventures on a high note with potentially templed-out kids was to splurge on a safari. This isn’t a big country- the land area is similar to West Virginia- but it has the greatest biodiversity density in Asia, including the truly exotic, the beautiful and endangered, and a high proportion of endemic species. We especially hoped for a glimpse of the endangered Sri Lankan leopard. So we took a slightly circuitous path back to Trinco via Wilpattu National Park


This strategy succeeded beyond our expectations: in hindsight, the safari stands out as a family favorite. It was a long day- starting before dawn from our guest house, and returning after dark- but captured us for the duration. Our guide’s English wasn’t great, but it was sufficient, and he was a terrific tracker. He’d show us prints or scat near the road (samples from a sloth bear, below!) and pick out creatures in the landscape we never would have seen without his help: the HUGE owl up in the branches of one tree, a family of elephants on the far side of a grassland clearing, a flock of hornbills over the canopy.

sloth bear

He was a skillful driver, too, taking our 4WD skillfully through some rough terrain. We did nearly get stuck in the muddy shallows of a watering hold at one point but he got us unstuck. He earned big points for evading the water buffalo bull that charged alongside us, cutting across the front of the jeep and back again in an effort to…well, I’m not sure, but it might have had something to do with the cute water buffalo cow on the other side!


Among the first creatures we saw was a jackal. A JACKAL. Maybe we should have been a little more prepared but somehow this wasn’t even on my radar for possible sightings and it just floored me. He- she?- was glorious in the golden light of the very early morning.


Did you know peacocks are endemic only to Sri Lanka and India? Nope, I didn’t either. And I was at least as surprised to earn that even with those crazy tails, they can fly pretty high up into a tree for a perch.


Wilpattu is a birders paradise. Beautiful birds of so many shapes and sizes and colors. Yeah, descriptive.


It was the action around us that kept us on our toes. Like the cheeky monkey that stole Ceilydh’s bananas. Or the crocodile that slid into the water right next to us, to move away from the jeep- and on top of another (invisible, submerged) croc that was not happy about being disturbed. Or the dusty road under a low canopy that was filled with white butterflies; it was like driving under cherry trees or jacarandas in the spring, with countless fluttering petals dancing for kilometers over the dirt track.


And just as the afternoon was cooling towards dusk, it happened. We had barely dared to hope we might see one of the dwindling population of Sri Lanka’s leopards, but there in the underbrush- and then crossing RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR JEEP, was one of these breathtaking creatures. I might have teared up a little (don’t laugh! I had good company!)

Dusk fell as we headed back toward the gateway to the park to depart, hornbills in a dead tree watching our exit, wishing we had days to linger.


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