I’m padding through the jungle, big vines tumbling from branches overhead and leaves creating a soft path beneath my bare feet. I shouldn’t really be walking without shoes; it breaks every rule in the health and safety book, but it feels natural and earthy.
The undulating path we are following dives abruptly between two towering grey boulders upon which a leopard was recently sighted. Sadly, he’s not there today and we creep through, emerging from the dim light onto the soft sand bed of Gal Oya, reduced to a relative trickle during the current dry season.
“Come over here,” says Damien, my guide, in a loud whisper as we scramble up another huge boulder. Gal Oya means ‘rocky river’ and it’s like Jurassic Park; I feel so small and insignificant. Damien hands me a pair of binoculars and gestures to look over the grassy bank in front on to the shores of the vast Gal Oya Lake, stretching endlessly in front of us.
“What do you see?” he asks softly, eyes twinkling. I see elephants and count three or four, assuming they are the young males we have seen over the past few days, ostracised from the main herd during their teenage years.
“Look again,” Damien urges, his grin widening with delight at what he has found for me – a herd of 30, perhaps 40 elephants and calves of various sizes ambling along, carelessly and gloriously wild.
This is what I have come to see and my heart beats hard in my chest as I watch them meandering on the shore, spraying themselves with water and snatching tufts of grasses with delightfully inquisitive trunks. I watch for what seems like hours until a quick glance at the time shows that, at 4.30pm, it is not long until dark. Night falls rapidly here in the tropics and we must be out of Gal Oya National Park by 6 pm.
As we make our way back along the path and Damien stops to point out a green forest lizard, a flame-backed woodpecker and yet more grey langur monkeys swinging excitedly overhead. He smiles when I mistake a group of stout and spiky cycads for pineapples, patiently explaining that they are, in fact, living fossils that grow less than an inch per year.
The Gal Oya Park comprises 100 sq miles (259 sq km) of lake and forest – a peaceful, secluded wildlife paradise that remains almost entirely untouched thanks to its remote location. It took seven hours to drive here from Colombo but the journey was worth it. The lodge, where I am staying and where Damien is head naturalist, specialises in environmentally responsible tourism.
It works closely with a British travel company that provides safari experiences in partnership with conservation groups which educate clients on the threats to local wildlife and ways of preserving their natural habitat.
For the past three days, I’ve been learning just that: Exploring the local area and 20 acres of private forest that surround the lodge. One morning we head out just after sunrise, watching tiny bush quails and barred button quails go about their business, walking past pumpkin fields scattered with peacocks, trees decorated with baya weaver bird nests.
One afternoon we join a boat safari across Gal Oya Lake, sipping cardamom-infused masala chai and eating home-made shortbread packed by the lodge’s wonderful chefs while driving slowly through the park as Damien explains the bird and mammal life in intricate detail.
Damien cares passionately about his surroundings, studying dragon flies and running a snake awareness programme in an attempt to halt the unnecessary killing of harmless serpents by villagers – conservation work encouraged by his employers, Tim Edwards and Sangjay Choegyal.
Tim and Sangjay grew up in Nepal and opened the now nine-room lodge in August 2014, constructing each of the rooms from locally sourced, natural materials and often incorporating trees into the open-air living areas to minimise impact on the environment. “We’re aware of our responsibility,” says Tim, “and we make a lot of effort in engaging with the local community and teaching them the importance of conservation. One of the first things we did was hire local poachers, not only to give them an alternative income but also to make a direct impact on that section of the community. They have unparalleled knowledge of the surrounding jungles and have been an invaluable source of expertise.”
Teaching the community about the importance of conservation is vital if Sri Lanka’s rich and diverse flora and fauna is to remain intact. The country has one of the highest proportions of endemic species in the world, but urbanisation, tourism and human intervention by farming are taking their toll.
The influx of tourists that began in 2009 after the civil war ended surged to a new high in 2016, reaching more than two million. Many are flocking to national parks to see Sri Lanka’s wildlife, and Yala National Park, the closest park to Colombo, with the highest concentration of leopards per square mile in the world, has seen a similar surge in visitor numbers.
This popularity has come at a price. Talk to the more sympathetic operators in the 378 sq mile (979 sq km) park and you’ll hear stories of elephants attacking safari jeeps and leopards being run over. After years of war and the effects of the 2004 tsunami, locals are keen to capitalise on this soaring revenue stream and are offering safaris to tourists. Competition is high, and the situation can best be described as chaos.
Yala is split into five areas or ‘blocks’, with most heading to block one, which can take an hour to get into at peak viewing time (sunrise). During my visit to block one, I am horrified to see 20 or so jeeps jostling for pole position as a (usually nocturnal) sloth bear slowly crosses a rough dirt road. Drivers communicate by mobile phone, tipping each other off when there is a good sighting. In his effort to reach the bear before other jeeps, our driver hurtles at 50 kilometres per hour (10 km per hour faster than the speed limit) past a water hole where elephants are swimming, flamingos wading and buffaloes wallowing. The poor bear, when we finally spy him through the fug of exhaust fumes, is so lifeless and accustomed to the traffic and crowds that we might as well be in a zoo.
On our way back to the hotel that night, the same driver rounds a bend too fast and hits a dog – a story I later relate to Dee Jayantha, a Sri Lankan vet, who buries her head in her hands. Dee is head of the Sri Lankan branch of Elemotion Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded to improve the lives of Asian elephants. Elemotion is fighting to protect Sri Lanka’s rapidly changing ecosystem and improve the often conflicting relationship between humans and elephants, as well as other wildlife. The organisation is running driver awareness programmes with jeep owners, as well as working with park wardens to put in place regulations for tourists.
“Our first objective is to protect elephants, but we are educating local people around the park about the importance of wildlife conservation,” says Dee who, like others I meet in Sri Lanka, describes the situation in Yala as ‘chaos’. “If you get in a jeep and it goes too fast, insist the driver slows down,” she urges.
Elemotion is also pushing the government to promote blocks two, three, four and five to tourists. When I visit block five, I find it a complete contrast to the brash and overcrowded block one. While a leopard sighting still eludes me, I have up-close-and-personal encounters with a herd of elephant, buffaloes and a multitude of eagles from the grey-headed fish eagle to the serpent eagle, sitting statuesque on the branch of an ebony tree. We spot palm squirrels scampering around and the scratch marks of a leopard on a neralu tree.
Compared to Yala, Udawalawe, Wilpattu National Parks, Gal Oya remains relatively unexplored with very few safari operators. Those that do take tourists into the park continue to put the wildlife’s welfare first.