Friday, January 18, 2019

The Last Mammoths on Earth- Big Tuskers of Africa


In Sri Lanka the term tusker is synonymous with any male elephant carrying ivory, be it large or small. Seeing a tusker in Sri Lanka is indeed a rarity, as only a small percentage of males on the island carry the genes to produce tusks. But in the continent of Africa it is very different, as the African Elephant, in both Savannah species (Loxodonta Africana) and the Forest Elephant (Loxodonta Cyclotis) the male and female animals carry ivory. The bulls invariably are bigger and in turn carry larger heavier tusks. But an average elephant is not referred to as a tusker in Africa, this moniker is rather given to very special bulls who are at the peak of genetic superiority and physical condition, enabling them to grow large heavy ivory which weight at least 45 kg per side, and at times almost touch the ground. 

The sight of a giant bull with amazing shafts of ivory is a sight to behold, as usually the males with the best genetic stock tend to have this trait, and hence are physically impressive specimens. Around two to three centuries ago such majestic bulls were found throughout the continent, these were the prime breeding bulls and most desired by females to father their calves and carry on their genes to the next generation. Sadly with the onset of the white explorers came trophy and ivory hunting.  Invariably the prime target were the elephants with the biggest tusks. This systematic selection of hunting was practiced not only by the big game hunters but also ivory traders such as Tippu Tip who was a powerful ivory and slave trader from Zanzibar. It was one of his slaves who killed a bull with the largest pair of tusks in the world. Shot in the foothills of Mount Killimajaro, this bull carried a pair of ivory ,one weighing 107 KG and the other 102 KG. 

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Killimanjaro Bulls Tusks- Photo credits- A.C Gomes & Co

Later with the independence of many African nations, mass scale slaughter was rampant which further cut down on the population of big tuskers. By the latter part of the last century only a handful of true “Big Tuskers” remained. Historically these bulls were found in certain regions of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique all in the South of the continent, as well as in the East African regions of Kenya and Tanzania along with certain regions of the Congo, namely the Lado Enclave which was known as the prime hunting grounds for giant ivory by the Big Game Hunters of old. Historically, elephant populations in Botswana and Namibia never produced big tuskers of significance, as this is also depending on the type of food and nutrition the elephants have in their habitat.

In South Africa, in the 1970’s there were seven bull tuskers with immense ivory over 50KG per pair in Kruger National Park. These majestic bulls were dubbed the “Magnificent Seven” by the then Chief Warden Dr U de V Piennar as an example of successful conservation work. These legendary tuskers roamed the various regions of this gigantic park and passed on their genes onto the next generation. Some of these famous tuskers are Mafunyane, Shawu, Joao, Shingwedzi and Ndluthamithi. Some of whose ivory are still on display at the Elephant Hall in Letaba Rest Camp. 

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Mafunyane, one of the Magnifficent Seven. Photo Credits- Anthony Martin Hall

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Elephant Hall in Letaba, Kruger Natinoal Park

Letaba Elephant Hall re-opening-Kruger-Court SANParks-2

Elephant hall in Letaba, Kruger National Park

These giants all died by the end of the 1980’s but thereafter their decedents roamed the park, with equally magnificent specimens such as Tshokwane who famously gored and almost killed wildlife photographer Daryll Balfour, Duke who was arguably one of the most handsome with symmetrical ivory, and Mabarule who suffered for many years with severe arthritis which was discovered later from his bones and was assumed to have been in intense pain most of his adult life, and yet even these legendary bulls are no more. A new generation of up and coming tuskers are recorded, but are yet to match the might and majesty of the giants of old. 

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Tschokwane of Kruger National Park taken while charging and almost killed the photographer Daryl Balfour. Photo credits- Daryl Balfour

In Zimbabwe, there was the famous Chura Bull from Matusadona National Park in the shores of Lake Kariba, who was also featured in the Clint Eastwood movie “White Hunter, Black Heart” in 1990.

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Chura Bull who starred in the Clint Eastwood movie- White Hunter Black Heart  Photo Credits- Chris Worden

Moving onto East Africa, the most famous tusker of old would have to be Ahmed from Kenya. He was arguably the most famous tusker in the world at one time and declared a living monument by the then President Jomo Kenyatta and provided two guards to protect him around the clock. Ahmed roamed the forests and plains of Marsabit National Park and was known more by reputation rather than sight. He had the most magnificent pair of tusks which were beautifully symmetrical. Born in 1919 he passed away in 1974 at the age of 55 years. His massive tusks weighed 67 KG each and his skeleton and ivory is on display even now at the Kenya National Museum in Nairobi. 

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Ahmed the mighty tusker of Marsabit National Park, Kenya. Arguably the most famous elephant in Africa. Photo Credit - Mohamed Amin

Looking at the current day and age the fate of these big tuskers is very bleak. Around a decade ago there were an estimated 40 such magnificent bulls roaming around the plains of the African Continent. Right now less than half of that number remain and are disappearing rapidly. Most elephants now carry small ivory and in some parks have evolved without tusks as well, which gives a biological advantage in areas ravaged by poaching. The demand for ivory is ever increasing, especially in the China and now due to the lack of big bulls with large ivory even young elephants with very small tusks are killed, all to create lifeless trinkets which are worthless in comparison to the animal who carried them.

Out of the places known to contain such massive tuskers, Tsavo and Amboseli come to light. Tsavo is Kenya’s largest national park and is a giant tract of land of approximately 21,000 square Kilometers, which is estimated to contain over 12,000 elephants in its eco system. Out of which a small handful of bulls are “Big Tuskers” with giant ivory. Sadly some of the most well-known iconic bulls have fallen prey to poachers, mainly those who cross from the Somali border. Bulls such as Satao and Satao 2 both fell to the poison arrow of poachers. Protecting these bulls is a herculean and almost impossible given the land extent, but is yet carried out tirelessly by the Tsavo Trust which is a field based NGO, with constant monitoring and action to protect these last remaining giants. Unfortunately it seems like a losing battle but yet they continue to fight on.

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Satao, Tsavo's most iconic tusker who was brutally killed in 2014- Photo credits- Tsavo Trust

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Butchered body of Satao. Photo Credit- Tsavo Trust

Amboseli National Park which is a much smaller eco system but yet historically linked to Tsavo via the Chyullu Hills is home to the most studied wild elephants in the world. Research pioneered by Dr Cynthia Moss in 1972, provided detailed findings on elephant biology, behavior and society. She systematically named and identified every individual elephant and their families and has records and data of elephant families spanning many generations. Another well-known researcher and scientist Dr Joyce Pool who started working with Dr Cynthia Moss and was fundamental in discovering the phenomenon of musth which was once thought to be a condition only Asian Elephant bull’s went through, but concluded as present in African Elephants as well. Dionysus was one of the most famous bulls during the late 80’s and 90’s had beautiful wide swept ivory and was also featured in the documentary Echo and the Elephants. Presently there are three known big tuskers in the park. The most famous of which is Tim, who is from the “T” family and son of Trista named by Dr Cynthia Moss, and is arguably the most famous elephant in Kenya at the moment. His left tusk is long and reaches the ground, while is right tusk is short and curved inwards giving him a unique appearance. He is also a massive animal and towers above his fellow bulls and is estimated to measure 3.4-3.5 Meters at the shoulder and weigh almost 6 Tons. The other two living bulls are Craig and Tolstoy who is by blood Tim’s uncle but is younger than Tim by two years and shorter in stature. Craig looks almost identical to Tim in tusk shape, but is shorter in stature and is thought to share the same father despite being from different mothers. Amboseli being next to the Tanzanian border and on the foothills of the great mountain Killimanjaro means these bulls might even be descendants carrying the genes of the giant bull shot on the slopes of this great mountain and who holds the record for heaviest tusks to date.

Mount Killimanjaro, seen from Amboseli National Park. Photo by Rajiv Welikala

My lifelong dream has always been to photograph one of these iconic African Big Tuskers. With this dream in mind I set off to Kenya in 2016 with high hopes of catching a glimpse of one of these last mammoths of the Africa of old. I knew time was running out and it is a matter of time that we will no longer have such awe inspiring animals left on our planet, and hence it was imperative that I somehow see one before it is too late. Little did I know it was going to prove harder than I imagined to find Tim who I desired to see the most. With information received from various sources that Tim is in the park during the time of my visit as he was in musth, I set off from Nairobi on a long an uncertain journey to Amboseli. The park was initially overwhelming, for someone who has never been to Africa before, the sight of such abundance of wildlife is astounding. Elephants are everywhere and found in their droves, from the many herds scattered across the park to lone bulls feeding in the marshes. On my first day itself I managed to identify Craig who was feeding deep in the marshes close to Ol Tukai. It was very far away, but I was able to identify him from his torn ear and shape of tusks. I was very happy at seeing him, and yet yearned to see his bigger and more majestic counterpart in Tim. The days passed by as we kept searching the park for this elusive bull. This is easier said than done, and I literally scanned and observed every single elephant I could see in a 360 degree radius in order to identify if he was Tim. One the third day at around 10.30 PM when the sun was very bright, I caught a herd which was far away in the swampy marshes. The light was very harsh and hence it was very hard to focus, but I noticed a gigantic bull trailing the herd and from the shape of ivory I immediately identified who he was. Unfortunately they were so far away and deep in the swamps that we were unable to get close enough even for a decent photograph. Extremely disappointed I headed back to the lodge to wait till the light gets better by afternoon and hopefully catch a hold of him. But when we returned a few hours later he was nowhere to be seen. I scanned the whole area in vain and must have observed around 100 elephants one by one and yet couldn’t identify Tim. The days passed and I had made up my mind that I will not unfortunately see Tim, and was trying to convince myself to be content with seeing Craig. On the last day of our tour, on the last morning safari, we set out in the park, with no real hopes of seeing Tim, but rather maybe to try and find some lions. As the light was getting better, I noticed a herd of elephants in the distance, and for what it’s worth told my driver to stop the van so that I can scan and check the herd out. To my disbelief there he was! Tim, the mighty bull who I was chasing all this time, grazing peacefully and following the herd of females and calves. He towered above the rest and was quietly following the herd while keeping a distance. My heart was pounding as he approached us slowly, my hands were shaking and I was barely able to keep them steady to keep firing camera. His true stature and might was evident as he was mere meters from our van as he towered above us. Paying no heed to our presence this mighty bull with the most magnificent ivory I have ever seen, peacefully crossed the road in front of our vehicle and continued on his way towards the marshes and the herd. It took me a good hour or more to bring my adrenaline down, and I felt jittery with excitement for the entire day knowing I had fulfilled the biggest dream of my life. Also deep down I felt a sense of sadness that this maybe the last of a noble line of giants who will cease to exist in the coming generations, all because of the greed and negligence of man. 

Tim from Amboseli. Photo Credits- Rajiv Welikala

Craig from Amboseli. Photo Credit- Rajiv Welikala


Big Tuskers are a remnant of an Africa of old and of days gone by, and sadly will end up as nothing more than a part of old tales and legends of a time once upon a time when mammoths roamed the earth.

Tim with other elephants in Amboseli . Photo Credits- Rajiv Welikala


Bibliography

Africa Geographic Magazine. (2019). Africa's Big Tuskers - Africa Geographic Magazine. [online] 

Available at: https://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-96/africas-big-tuskers/

Africa Geographic Magazine. (2019). The silent giants of Tsavo - Africa Geographic Magazine. [online] 

Available at: https://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-119/silent-giants-tsavo/

Africa Geographic Magazine. (2019). R.I.P SATAO 2 - Africa Geographic Magazine. [online] 

Available at: https://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-141/rip-satao-2/

Alberts, E. (2019). People Just Killed One Of The Last 25 'Big Tusker' Elephants. [online] 

The Dodo. Available at: https://www.thedodo.com/in-the-wild/big-tusker-elephant-killed-kenya

BBC News. (2019). Rare 'giant tusker' elephant killed. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-39188184

Bosman, P. and Hall-Martin, A. (1994). The magnificent seven and the other great tuskers of the Kruger National Park. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau.

Capstick, P. (2013). The last ivory hunter. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Gilbert, N. (2010). African elephants are two distinct species. Nature.
Marais, J. and Hadaway, D. (2012). Great tuskers of Africa. Cape Town: Penguin Books.

Poole, J. and Moss, C. (1981). Musth in the African elephant, Loxodonta africana. Nature, 292(5826), pp.830-831.

Tuskersofafrica.com. (2019). Tuskers of Africa. [online] Available at: http://www.tuskersofafrica.com/

Ward, R. (1986). Rowland Ward's records of big game. San Antonio, Tex. (9601 Broadway, Suite 201, San Antonio 78217): Rowland Ward Publications.







Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Bison tracking in Poland

The Wisent, or European Bison. Very little is known about this enigmatic mega herbivore. Many Sri Lankans wouldn't even know there was bison in Europe. But this is the largest land animal in Europe and has been roaming the dark forests of the continent for millennia. This is proven with the many cave paintings by our ancient ancestors depicting hunting bison.

With a bull standing 5-6 feet at the shoulder with a weight of 800-1000 kg these are truly majestic giants. Sadly the amazing species almost faced extinction in the wild. In 1919 the last wild Wisent was shot, and only a scattered population remained in zoos. Genetic studies proved that only 6 of the captive Wisent were suitable for breeding. These survivors became the ancestors of the now surviving wild Wisent. After two bulls were successfully released in the Bialowieza Forest in 1952 and followed by two cows the following year, in 1957 the first European bison was born in the wild.

Today there are over 3,000 wild European Bison scattered across the continent. Seeing such a magnificent animal in the wild was always my dream. My goal is to witness and photograph the great mega fauna of this planet, and hence the Wisent or European Bison was the top of my list.

Bialowieza is one of the last European primeval forests and a massive expanse of woods spreading between Poland and Belarus. This is an immense forest expanding to over 141,885 hectares, and one of the last refuges for mega fauna such as Bison, Moose, Red Deer and predators such as Wolf and Eurasian Lynx.




There are over 600 Bison living in this forest eco system, but as they are mainly forest animals, it is not very easy to find them. I was heading to Poland on a work assignment, and as usual I read up about the wildlife to be seen in this country, with little expectation of finding any mega fauna. But to my surprise I read up about Bialowieza and immediately made my plans to visit this forest after my work is done.

I wrote to many experts and photographers in the area, and all confirmed that April may not be the best time to see them, and that its not easy to find these giants out in the open. But given that I am already in the country I decided to make plans and give it a shot.

Hence after a stressful week of travelling to many cities such as Poznan, Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk, I finally was ready to head to the far East to seek my quarry the giant European Bison.

I was joined by my Polish friends Adam and Kasia, who met up with me at 10.00 am on Saturday to take me all the way to the forest. En-route we passed many charming villages and countrysides. Poland has a whole has alot of forest cover, and hence we passed many forest patches along the way. Our discussion were about the bison, and even Kasia confirmed that despite the fact that she has visited the area many times she has never seen a wild bison. Hence we were quite pessimistic on our journey, but nevertheless wanted to enjoy nature and have a good time.

Reach the town of Hajnowka, we turned off towards the village of Bialowieza, which passes the ancient forest on both sides. En-route Adam wanted to visit a local zoo which housed few of the wildlife specimens in enclosures. I was not too keen, but as he was interested we obliged and went ahead. As with all zoo's we were presented with large enclosures of wildlife in enclosures, sitting in one place, and not looking too healthy. This was not what I had come to seen and hence we did a quick round and headed back out.

En-route I jokingly told Kasha "what if we see bison by the side of the road in the forest" and to which she replied saying "its never going to happen". It didnt take us 10 mins after this conversation, when I noticed some cyclists who have stopped their bicycles and were taking photos of something in the forest with their phones. Then I saw through the trees there was a bison grazing in the forest. I shouted out to Adam to stop the car at once, and I jumped out, and ran to the boot to grab my gear, and walking into the forest towards the cyclists.

When I reached there, my hands were shaking with excitement, I was finally face to face with a real Wild European Bison ! I started clicking away, and I was only around 20-30 meters from this bull. The light was abit harsh as he was out in the open, and the bison was a young bull which hasn't fully matured. He looked at us, and then started rubbing his head and horns on a tree stump. After taking my pictures, I noticed another bison much deeper in the forest. From the darker coat I realized this was a much bigger animal, and also the forest looked much nicer for photography, hence I slowly walked my self around the forest, and deeper inwards to get a nice angle to see this giant.





What I was facing was a fully matured bull, which a gigantic structure and large horns, exactly how I had imagined these animals. A majestic behemoth fitting the role of "King of the Woods". This giant bull was easily 5.5-6 feet at the shoulder and would have weighed between 800-1000 KG. He looked at me head on, and the sight in front of me was amazing, the typical Bialowieza forest full of trees as a backdrop along with the newly bloomed spring flowers on the ground, which gave an almost mystical picture for my camera. I started clicking away, trying to ensure I get as much of the habitat as well. The bull kept watching me, and after about 5-10 minutes, I decided to slowly walk backwards, not to startle it, as we have to remember these are wild animals and can turn aggressive. My heart was racing, and my adrenaline pumping, this was an amazing sighting which was beyond my wildest expectations, and especially so early into the trip. Our car stopping along with the cyclists brought more attention and an increasing number of people were coming to see this spectacle, mainly to see the first bison which was more out in the open. After around 15 minutes more, both animals slowly made their way deeper into the forest.







I was overjoyed and elated, and in utter disbelief in what I had just experienced. I still couldn't fathom that I was so lucky to see these bison, so close to the roadside and even before we had officially reached the town and started our tour with the wildlife guide. We reached the Bialowieza town thereafter and checked into our hotel, before meeting up with our wildlife expert and guide Pawel. He was very knowledgeable and had a deep understanding of the forest. We discussed for over an hour about Bialowieza before heading out with him to cover some of the main areas of the forest. We passed many meadows, where we looked out for more bison as well as other wildlife. Unfortunately we didn't spot much except some roe deer and a lesser spotted eagle far away. I wasn't worried at all , as I had achieved the main target of the trip, and hence discussed on plans to come in a different season and spend more days exploring this unique forest.

The next day we explored the many historical and cultural places in this town. I read that Bialowieza was the chosen hunting reserve for the Russian Tsars who even had an imperial palace in this area. Many of the guest houses and motels are old hunting lodges, with charming decor and memorabilia. There are some amazing restaurants serving some amazing polish food. The forest trails and pathways are many in this area and being the weekend attracted many Polish and foreign visitors to this region.

The bison, known as Zubr in Polish is iconic in this area, with many places, drinks and monuments in its name. The most famous was the Polish vodka Zubrowka, and beer named Zubr which are very popular in this area.

The famous Bison Grass Polish Vodka
And the Zubr Beer ! Zubr means Bison in Polish

Celebrating my sighting with Adam

And Amazing Food !!!

Traditional Polish Dumplings called Pierogi




Even in the capital city, there are many emblems of the bison used in corporate such as banks, which shows who deep the Bison is etched in Polish culture.


Statue of an European Bison in Bialowieza which was cast in St Petersberg Russia, in commemoration of the hunt by the Russian Tzar. 

With our Wildlife Guide Pawel



At the old Railway station by the Carska restaurant. The restaurant is located in an old building of the railway station "Bialowieza Towarowa" built in 1903 for the Tsar Nicholas II. Character and the interior comprised by original furniture of that period, are referring to tzarist times.



I will return back to this amazing land hopefully to spend more time and explore this amazing European wilderness.


















Friday, March 30, 2018

The Ultimate Island Safari in Sri Lanka


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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Meeting Gajaba the legendary Tusker


My story with Gajaba the mighty tusker found in the North Central region of the country , starts over 5 years ago, with a random video clip seen on facebook of this gigantic specimen of an elephant patrolling a lake bed along with a herd of elephants. The bull was significantly taller than all the elephants around, and I was amazed at the sheer size and majesty of this elephant.
 
 

 I spend many months trying to get more details about him, and befriended a local in the area named Bandara who would end up becoming a very close friend and ally in conservation of elephants in this area.

 Sadly elephants in the area are found outside national parks, and in and among human habitats. They are in eternal conflicts with people and there are major casualties on both sides. People as well are struggling to eke out a living farming and the elephants who have nowhere else to go, are tempted by the nutritious crops which are grown by the villagers and will raid them at night. A single harvest of a poor villagers will be eaten in one night, hence it is not a surprise that people retaliate. At its most basic, the elephants are chased away by large fire crackers issued by the Department of Wildlife, but some people take it to the next level and using rudimentary shotguns will attempt to harm the elephants, which at most cases end up with grievous injuries, which maim but do not kill. This makes the situation worse and these enraged elephants will be even more aggressive and dangerous. In much worse cases the young would fall victim to homemade explosives such as Hakka Pattas which are originally intended for wild boar but unsuspecting young elephants are easy prey and many a young animal are found either killed or with shattered jaws. Another means of harm for elephants are the large unprotected agricultural wells. Both adult and young elephants fall into these dangerous pits which are without any walls and in worse cases the elephant either drown or are permanently injured beyond recovery. Another sad state which I have observed I these areas are when the herds come out to drink at local lakes and tanks, which are generally bordering forest, how some youth whom tent in the lake area having alcohol, going over and chasing the elephants and panicking the herds just for the kicks. this is harmful I that not only do the poor animals have no means of drinking water peacefully but the panicked animals will run amuck on another village., hence no good would come of this, but it is happening on a daily basis and something I have seen in my own eyes.

 

The tusker whom I am writing about, was hence found in an area of such turmoil, hence from the onset I know my search is not going to be easy. My search began in 2013, and after news of him coming out to the open in the dry season, I started travelling to this region on a regular basis. Usually we hired a jeep from a nearby national park, and traverse the many village roads, lakes and abandoned chena cultivations, asking for information where the elephants were last seen, and if any noises can be heard from the forest such as breaking branches which are a clear sign of the pachyderms being nearby. But even if there were elephants nearby there is no guarantee that the tusker in question will be there. There are hundreds of elephants in this region, and to pinpoint this particular tusker is like finding a needle in a haystack. Despite all the obstacles ahead of me, I never gave up. I travelled so often in search of him that I have lost count. I do remember many an occasion where I have risked my own life to try and find this amazing bull. I can remember the time when we walked into a reed bed in search of him, and were hidden among the reeds where the herd of elephants surrounded us. We remained silent and calm until they went into the forest, but I realized this was too close for comfort and a risk I shouldn’t have taken.

 My first sighting in 2013
 Gajaba Running into the forest after seeing us in 2013
 My first sighting in 2013

But the yearning to see and photograph this magnificent bull kept me going. On one fateful day, we got news that he has been sighted on a lakebed and hence I took leave and immediately made our way to the area alone with a few other elephant enthusiasts. We waited for quite some time and at around 5 PM the herd started gradually coming out into the open. The elephants kept pouring out, from young calves to adolescent bulls trying to get the attention to the females as well as mature bull elephants. There were over 100 elephants in this herd, and around5-6 tuskers, of various sizes. This is a very rare occasion as only a few of the males in Sri Lanka have ivory. But my patience was wearing thin, and it was getting dark and we were about to walk back when we were told from some others nearby that the tusker is slowly coming out into the open. We waiting and out he came, but it was so dark my camera back them was unable to capture anything significant. But the bull was magnificent, which amazing muscular body and log tusks. He walked parallel to us, and as soon as he came in front of us, he stopped, turned towards us, gave a good look and ran back in. He is very shy by nature and this is the reason he has survived so log without getting killed. I was nevertheless in awe, and amazed at finally seeing him, but of course wasn't 100 percent happy as the images I wanted didn't materialize. I was determined to see him again, and hence continued on my quest for many years to come. But so many times I either missed him by a few minutes or was a little too early and hence this mythical tusker kept evading me for all these years.

 

Finally in 2016, I went once more, with a blind hope that I had since 2013, with the sense that I will see this magnificent bull tusker, perhaps the last of his kind in terms of genetics producing such a large physique.

 
We went into a massive lake bed, hoping he would show up there. There were few elephants out in the open, but the big bull was nowhere to be seen, then we got a call from Danasiri, one of my trusty trackers that he’s in a lake closely. hence using our hired jeep we traversed via bumpy roads and made our own path sometimes over abandoned paddy fields etc to finally make it to the lake. And there he was in the edge partially hidden it he forest. He was with a few younger elephants. and after we came there, he went inside the forest. We waited patiently and after a few minutes the bull slowly stepped out. His full size and majesty was out for everyone to see. The local villagers having baths in the lake were equally amazed by the tuskers size and majestic appearance as he was strutting around clearly in full musth. He was showing particular interest in a female, but she was so small, and was almost half his size. If she is in heat he will continue to follow her till he gets the chance to mate with her. This was finally the moment where all my years of travelling and suffering with thousands upon thousands of rupees spent are rewarded with this amazing sighting which I will never forget for the rest of my life.
 




 

After many hours spend admiring this spectacle, we decided to head back home, full of memories and the small hope that this bull will continue to paws on his genera and remained free to roam the lands of Lanka till his drying day.














Wednesday, August 9, 2017

An unforgettable weekend in Yala

It was March 2017, and the season when most past pupils from my alma mater S.Thomas College and our rival school Royal College, get together for 3 days in what is the oldest cricket match on record which has been played since 1879. A time when men from all walks of life, from students to corporate CEO's get together in a large stadium for 3 days of meeting old friends, music, drinking and occasional brawls. 

This year (like most years of late), I decided not to go, and preferred to spend this weekend in the wilds. I have not had a change to visit Yala National Park for quite some time and a joke among my friends was about my bad luck with leopard sightings in the last few years. It was almost like a curse that I end up coming back empty handed from most of my ventures. 

With this in mind, I headed out to Yala for a quick weekend tour along with my good friend, colleague and fellow wildlife photographer Riaz and his wife Nidaal. 

Given the distance from Colombo to Yala was over 4 hours,, we decided not to lose too much sleep trying to race against the clock to catch th e morning 6 o clock safari but rather target the afternoon game drive. Hence we left at a leisurely pace, and added abit of work, given that we are both travel agents, inspected a few properties in the area. We chose to enter from the Katagamuwa gate instead of the main Palatupana entrance as we felt this would be less crowded and would invariable be better for sightings. 

At around 2.30 PM our safari jeep and driver Sumudhu arrived at our guest house and we ventured beyond the gates of Yala, without any expectations, just the simple enjoyment of being back in the wilds after a long time. As soon as we entered we turned off into a new road which has been cut out recently, and to my surprise for the next 30 min or so there were no other jeeps in sight. I was relishing being back in the wild. 

All of a sudden Sumudhu came to a halt, and I briefly noticed a large male leopard slinking into the bush in front of us. We drove up and peered through the thicket, and noticed the leopard walking deeper into the bush. After waiting for around 10-15 minutes, we decided to drive up ahead and wait it out for sometime before returning to the spot, given that with our experience of leopards, if we give them some time they tend to come back to the road. Hence we drove all the way to Darshana Wewa a manmade tank in the end of the road, and waited for around 15 minutes before turning back. 

While passing Modera Gala a large rocky outcrop by the side of the road, our jeep drive spotted a leopard on the edge high up on the rock, just seated, completely oblivious of our presence. After around 5 minutes we noticed a massive head appear from another corner, and realized that this was a male and female leopard who were clearly a mating couple. The leopard we had seen earlier on the road was the male, who had walked up to the rock and joined his female companion. The male was a magnificent specimen, and I was thrilled to see this couple together. We were the only vehicles around, and after what seemed like a long time filling up my CF card on my camera with images of the couple, the male got up, walked towards the female and started mating. The position was such that the view was blocked from us unfortunately. Yet we were thrilled to have witnessed this sight and Sumudhu assured us that the couple would move positions and keep mating for the next few hours. We waited patiently and as he predicted they did move their position and moved along the rock. Once again the male mounted but a small tree blocked our view. 

 The female leopard we initially saw. Notice the head of the male behind the rock on the right

The magnificent Male Leopard

By this time there were two more jeeps witnessing this spectacle. We predicted the couple would reach a certain boulder, and strategically parked our jeep expecting their arrival. Our anticipation paid off, and after around 30 min the female climbed the boulder, and the male followed suit. This was an amazing location as this gave myself and Riaz an amazing perspective in perfect light, with the rocky outcrop as a background for this amazing, rare scene. The couple kept mating around 6-7 times until it was time for us to leave to catch the 6.30 PM exit time from the gate. We left with a sense of triumph and disbelief at our luck, since both of us, and especially myself have not had any good leopard sightings for quite some time, and I was blessed to have witnessed such an amazing encounter which some may never witness during their entire lifetime. 







Thinking back, I am glad that I spend my weekend in the wilds, rather than in Colombo, which if I have done so, I would have missed a sighting of a lifetime. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Afternoon Full of Surprises

Today was a very goomy day, with overcast clouds etc. I was at home, being a Saturday, and as usual there was a long power cut. There was nothing to do at home, and after about 2 hours was getting ever so boring. So I decided to go out, and what better place than our usual neighborhood haunt Thalangama Lake.

It was afternoon, and usually I dont go during that time, due to the harsh lighting conditions and the heat, but being over cast today it was ok.



Initially while entering the small, lonely road I noticed a squirrel jumping up and down, and wondered why it looked so alarmed. Then noticed a Keelback Snake trying to cross the road. It was interesting to see the squirrels all coming and making a scene, but not really attacking the snake. After a while the snake crossed the road and went into a bush.




During this scuffle, I also noticed a Dark Fronted Babbler on a bush, but couldnt take a shot.


Thereafter moving to the open area I noticed a common kingfisher on a small stick in the water. The lighting was bad, and not ideal, but I thought I could get an interesting action shot. After waiting over 20 minutes the bird flew to the water and came back during which time I got a good shot of it landing.




Thereafter I moved ahead, and while doing so , met a friend of mine. We were having a chat, when I noticed from the corner of my eye a bird in the reeds. It was none other than the rare and elusive Slaty Breasted Rail. A very shy and elusive bird who is quite rare and only a handful seen in Sri Lanka. I was very lucky, and managed to get some images before it went back into the reeds.

So all in all not a bad day out in the small piece of nature we call Thalangama Lake.