Wasgamuwa: In the heart of wilderness | Sunday Observer

Wasgamuwa: In the heart of wilderness

15 October, 2017
A herd of elephants emerge from the jungle
A herd of elephants emerge from the jungle

The Dry Zone plains of the Wasgamuwa wildlife sanctuary where gentle giants roam, birds find refuge and sloth bear crawl, is a great place for nature lovers and wildlife photographers who search for a mystical setting in the wilderness.

The time was 11 in the morning, a couple of weeks ago. My friend, photojournalist Susantha Wijegunasekara and I were in the heart of the Wasgamuwa wildlife sanctuary, having driven six hours on the Ratnapura-Badulla-Mahiyangana highway. The safari camp-site had been booked in advance, and we drove through the darkness and there was a nip in the air as we made a comfortable journey with Susantha’s trusty 4DR5 Mitsubishi four wheeler, a favourite of serious off-roaders.

Dawn broke, lighting up the landscape, just as we were nearing Bandarawela. We stopped at Badulla and had a warm cup of tea and later bought some food that would see us through two days. We continued our journey passing Migahakivula, Mahiyanganaya and crossing the Nippon Bridge over the Mahaweli Ganga at Wilgamuwa. We reached the entrance at Handungamuwa of the Wasgamuwa wildlife sanctuary around 11 am. Our objective was to get up close to these fascinating, unusual, yet, charming sloth bear and elephants that thrive in Wasgamuwa.

The Wasgamuwa wildlife sanctuary in the North Central Province is fenced in by the mighty Mahaweli Ganga in the East and the Amban Ganga, a tributary of the Mahaweli River in the West. The park spans 39,322 hectares, while its vegetative features belong to a typical-mixed evergreen Dry Zone forest. The highest elevation of the National Park is ‘Sudu Kanda’ (White Mountain) on the western boundary, which is 470 metres high. The soil of the Park contains quartz and marble.

The Wasgamuwa wildlife sanctuary is home to the sloth bear and a large number of wild elephants and many other mammals and birds. The name of the sanctuary ‘Wasgamuwa’ may have originated from the Sinhala words ‘Walas Gamuwa’ meaning ‘bear gathering’.

The sanctuary was declared to protect and offer refuge for the displaced wild animals during the Mahaweli Development Scheme in 1984 although it was designated as a strict nature reserve way back in 1938.

Where to stay

For the discerning traveller who wants to spend a night in the wilderness, there are several options within the park. There are three wildlife bungalows at Kadurupitiya, Mahaweli and Wawul Ebe. For the more adventurous traveller, there are five camps-sites: Mahaweli Ganga I and II, Medapitiya I and II, Ulpathhatha, Hatharaman Handiya and Waulebe.

During the north-east monsoon, the park has numerous shallow water bodies that become a home to numerous bird species, including, painted storks that breed here and a number of ducks and waders. Colourful water lilies that blossom in the tanks make for a mesmerizing sight. Unfortunately, at the time we visited, the sanctuary had experienced a severe drought and all the water bodies were dry.

We set up camp at Mahaweli Ganga I camp site, which lies 12 kilometres from the main entrance, on the bank of the Mahaweli Ganga and spent couple of days on the eastern edge of the sanctuary. The dried up rocky formation river-bed of the Mahaweli Ganga was visible from our camp. We watched as wild elephants crossed the river bed to the other side in search of food during the night.

On the first day, we had a great start with our experienced tracker, Jayarathna, rocking back in the slow moving jeep, all eyes for anything that moved behind the bushes. On either side of the track was dry grassland dotted with patches of bush and forest. We also passed numerous little waterholes dotted with herons, painted storks and serpent eagles. Their neighbours, the wild buffaloes, rock like and large, were standing close to the waterhole, soaked in the mud. We noticed a fish eagle that suddenly took to the skies flapping its wings in a flurry of movement.

Morning and evening are the best times to spot the animals in the sanctuary. We spotted herds of spotted deer and the endemic ‘Wali Kukula’ (jungle fowl) along with a lonely mugger crocodile sunbathing on the bank of a marshy waterhole.

As a first time visitor to the sanctuary, I was keen to spot more animals. On our way, a few metres away, near a waterhole stood a mother and baby elephant busy bathing in muddy water, happily trumpeting as the water splashed on them.

Suddenly, Jayaratna, our tracker pointed eastwards shouting, “halt” and we followed his gaze into the distance. Sure enough we saw a lone ‘Bahuru Manawa’, the endangered lesser adjutant stork, the heaviest bird in Sri Lanka. This was one of our first important sightings on day one. It patiently waited for us to gleefully finish clicking. Shortly afterwards, a herd of spotted deer posed nearby for a close-up.

Majestic sight

On the track, Susantha bounced on the jeep, slowing down to watch an occasional peacock or grey-headed fish eagle. Within seconds we were surrounded by wild elephants, both, young and old, peacefully going about their daily routines. Jayaratna asked Susantha to drive further up, turn right, drive to the open grassland and halt the engine. Minutes later, we saw the spectacle instantly. Right in front of us were more wild elephants, this time even more than we could count. Indeed, we stopped in our tracks taking in the majestic sight right before our eyes.

On the second day morning session we ventured into the ‘Sudu Kanda’ a rocky mountain range in the western boundary of the sanctuary, home to the elusive sloth bear. The morning dawned and the Wasgamuwa forest looked absolutely stunning, wearing a fresh coat of colours and shining in the morning sun. The forest canopy with huge trees became a full grown forest as we went in search of the sloth bear. It dawned on us that we were probably the only visitors up so early in the jungles as we drove around 45 kilometres along the safari route to Sudu Kanda, which is rarely visited by casual travellers to the sanctuary. But, we couldn’t spot any bears except for their footprints. We had to be lucky to spot them, Jayaratna says.

On the evening of the second day, our tracker took us on a different track to the tank and again we encountered large troops of elephants. A hefty couple of females crossed the track in front of us, a little one in their midst for protection. On the other side three more stood in line dining on the abundant grass. It was a busy day in elephant territory, all its occupants enjoying the evening.

Watching the sunset over a tank in Wasgamuwa could be the stuff of fairly-tales: as the sun went down turning the distant water to gold; eagles and peacocks formed silhouetted images on dead trees against the setting sun. An enormous flock of painted storks kept its distance when we attempted to get closer, to take photographs.

On our final day, we headed deep into the forest. At one point, the track literally ends; after that, it’s one vast cracked hole, an off roader’s paradise. As our jeep zoomed across the open landscape into the middle of nowhere, we wondered how the tracker Jayaratna knew where he was going, and more importantly, how he was going to find his way back. There is a real thrill in this for city-slickers: no traffic except a few safari jeeps full of visitors, no road, no rules, no speed limit and certainly nobody honking.

We cleaned our camp site destroying all left over plastic and polythene wrappers before we left the site and retreated from the wild elephant territory relishing our luck at spotting a large number of wild elephants at close range in a couple of fascinating days.