Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tuskers, Villages and Cool Packets

I have been planning a trip to Galgamuwa for quite some time.I am desperately trying to find the big tusker I encountered  last year in the vicinity. The last time I couldn't get such great pictures as the light was very low when he turned up. I am hoping that I can get some stunning shots of this majestic giant this time around. With the glimmer of hope tha tI might get lucy this time I headed off to Galgamuwa with my friend Raveendra on a Saturday morning. The drive was very quick and easy as we used Raveendra's driver Kumara AKA corporal who was a very smooth driver and we slept all they way. Reaching the town at 6.30 am we met up with our jeep driver Samantha from Wilpattu who would stay with us during the next two days. Being a former soldier I trusted Samantha's resolve and bravery and felt confident going into the field with him around.

We reached our friend Bandara's house and met his newborn baby boy for the first time. I was really happy to see my friend taking the leap and now a proud dad. We headed straight towards Meegelewa to where the tusker and his herd was last seen. Reaching Bongamuwa we came across a trail where the herd has crossed into a small forest patch. From the signs it seems the herd had come out to cross the road but something has disturbed them and they had doubled back into the forest. The spoor was fresh and we knew they aren't far away. Driving along the road we came to Kathnoruwa wewa. We were told that the big guy was seen on the far corner of the lake. The issue is the whole lake is surrounded by tall reeds and there is no real path around the lake. After scanning the area we were met by Danasiri one of our field guides who works on elephant conservation with CCR a conservation organization working on finding a solution for the Human Elephant conflict. Suddenly Bandara said there was an elephant on the far corner. Getting our gear ready we headed towards this sighting hoping that the whole herd would come out for a drink. The path was not easy as the trail was littered with thorns and mud. There were elephant droppings everywhere, and there was a real danger that an elephant could charge us from anywhere. After observing we didn't see anything, and as the place was dangerous we decided to walk back to the road.

Danasiri's brother Yasaratne who lives near Kathnoruwa hosted us for lunch. We had a simple yet delicious meal of Thambapu haal (boiled rice husks rather than polished which is what the villagers in the area have), it is more nutritious and tasty. We had this along with lake fish, dhal and aguna kola mallum. Both Danasiri and Yasaratne have been very kind in hosting us and we were honored to be their guests.

 Danasiri and Yasarathna who helped us to find the elephants

Danasiri and myself walking back after tracking the elephants

The rest of the day we drove to all the possible areas looking for signs of the herd, but no sign until late eavening. We came across sound of a large elephant feeding in the bushed beside an electric fence in Andarawewa. Peering through the dense bushes we got a small glint of ivory which confirmed that this was our tusker. Only problem was that we couldn't see him at all. Predicting he would come out with the herd to the Andarawewa lake we drove towards the bund. There were many people from the village who came to bathe and wash their clothes from the lake. Also there were many young boys who had come to see the elephants. The light on the other side of the late was perfect, but unfortunately the elephants never showed up. We headed back to Galgamuwa with the hope that wew ould be more successful the next day.

Andarawewa where we waited for the elephants to come. The light was perfect

We stayed at the GAlgamuwa Rest House, which in infact managed by some private owners. The rest house was an old colonial building which as been modified with air conditioning and other comforts. The place has only three rooms hence one needs to book early. The food was amazing and dinner was a treat. Tired but yet excited of the day to come we slept soundly.

 Juvenile Shikra photographed at Bandara's garden
 Brahminy Kite at Andarawewa
Grey Heron at Galgamuwa

Early morning the next day we were treated to a feast for breakfast of string hoppers, fish, dhal and pol sambol which was a meal fit for a king. After having our fill we left the resthouse for Bandara's house. We decided to try and locate the crossed tusker in that area who is suffering from a very bad leg injury due to a gunshot wound trigged by a trip wire. The leg has been badly swollen and the treatments over the 6 months has been very irregular. I wanted to see the tusker to guage his current situation and possible try and do something to relieve his pain.

This tusker is a regular in the village and often treated with a mild indifference and at times with fondness by the villagers. Being partially blind this old tusker spends his days wandering the forests and chena's in the village feeding on whatever he can find.

After driving along some lakes in the village, we got information that the tusker is hiding in a forest patch just beyond the lake. Bandara went ahead to check and came back with a confirmation that the tusker is there.
 On the lookout for the tusker. Samantha, myself and Kumara

Ready with my gear

We walked towards Bandara and saw a massive silhouette of the tusker. We got on to a ridge which gave us a good view, and as if he knew we were coming the old tusker came out into the open and started spraying himself in mud. The back left leg of the tusker is badly infected and swollen. He is clearly in pain and this wound has made him lose his condition, now he is but a shadow of his old self. He has lost a lot of weight and his bones are sticking out in comparison to his size in my last encounter last year. After mud bathing for several minutes he slowly walked back into the bushes. his condition was very bad and its very disheartening to know that despite 6 months the responsible parties haven't done anything adequate to save his life. If we lose this majestic tusker not only will it be one less tusker in our land but also a loss of a national treasure which needs to be protected. One of the young boys told me that people come in white vans with guns looking for this tusker. Being concerned they used to give wrong directions.

 Notice the injured leg

 Note the massive weight loss as his spine is showing

With a heavy heart we left the tusker to feed in peace and headed back towards Kathnoruwa to find the big tusker.

While walking back to the jeep

We spent a few hours just waiting in the hot sun. The heat was unbearable but we found a miraculous remedy in the village boutique. The cool packet or ice packet also known as the bema packed in the village. These flavored packets of ice are a cheap and tasty relief from the heat. My favorite is the one branded Malki which is vanilla milk frozen in a packet. It is sheer bliss to have this during the heat of the day and best of all it is only 5 Rupees !!! Also this brought me back to childhood where we used to buy these after school.

By late afternoon we got a call from Danasiri and his brother Yasaratne that some of the elephants have come out from the other side of the lake. In haste we drove to a temple by the lakeside where we parked our jeep and needed to head on foot. The trail was dangerous and full of mana grass and reeds which deterred Raveendra from attempting. I went along with Danasiri and Samantha. This was a tough trail where there was no path but rather we had to walk through dense scrub until we reached the reeds. We saw the elephants about 50m ahead but something spooked the herd and they all ran for cover. We took cover and waited for them to come out again, but to no avail.  We decided to head back to the lake bund. By this time we were starving and wanted to have lunch. But being a remote village there was no place to buy rice. Therefore we improvised and Samantha suggested we buy some bread as well as some canned fish, tomatoes, onions, green chillies and he would make something. What he came out with was absolutely delicious and we thoroughly enjoyed the salad/fish along with the bread.

 Malki Cool Packet- A treat during hot days. Only 5 Rupees
A relief for a hot day- Malki Cool Packet

Samantha preparing our lunch of our version of "Tuna Salad" with canned Mackerel, Tomatoes,  Onions, Green Chillies, Margerine and Village bread (Ros Paan)

By late evening we parked ourselves on the Kathnoruwa bund and waited. While dozing off suddenly Samantha spotted the big tusker appearing on the far corner of the lake, only for a moment before he disappeared into the forest again. He is very shy and easily spooked which can be the reason for his survival. We spoke to many villagers about the elephant issue and they said that their crops are raided very night by this herd and very little is done from the government to help them. We noticed the electric fences which are set up all around don't work and this is a big question mark as these villagers are left helpless. until the paddy is cut this season they are at the mercy of the elephants who are in turn left with no choice but to raid due to lack of food and habitat. A never ending problem to which there seems no end. desperate times call for desperate measures and some villagers take the law into their own hands and shoot at these elephants to protect the crops. This results in terrible wounds and at times death to these giants. But this is a problem which needs to be sorted from higher up and we cannot blame the villager for protecting his livelihood.

Saying our goodbyes we left Galgamuwa and on the way stopped at the Pol Athu Bath Kade a wayside shop for dinner in Ambanpola. The cook Raja made us the most amazing kottu which is by far the best I have had.

 Pol Athu Bath Kadey of Ambanpola- Best Kottu I have had
Raja the kottu chef

I hope that  can be lucky next time in seeing this elephant herd and also try to persuade those responsible to take action in treating the crossed tusker.

Great trip, great time and awesome cool packets :) !!!!!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

My First Wildlife Photography Workshop

I have been planning on doing a worshop for beginners on wildlife photography for some time, and finally I managed to do something about it. I planned for a program in August where I will take 4-5 persons out into the jungle and teach them how to effectively take wildlife photographs.

I was very keen to pass my knowledge to others and this was the best way to do it. So I organized the program for a 1 night stay at Wilpattu National Park.

I got 5 confirmed seats and made arrangements to leave on 16th August. I arrange accommodation at Dolosmahe Rest which is my regular stay outside the park. this small but clean lodging provides A/C accommodation at an affordable rate.

The first batch of my workshop were Asith, Kalana, Buddhilini, Praveen and Ashan. We left early morning on Saturday to reach Dolosmahe for breakfast. Athula the owner prepared a scrumptious meal of Kiri Bath (milk rice), fish curry and eggs. After we have eaten our fill I presented a lecture on camera basics and wildlife photography. I wanted to go through areas of photography ethics, exposure, composition, as well as different techniques, styles. I presented with examples where the group could easily understand what I was talking about.

After the session and a good lunch we headed off into the park. Right when we were on top of Percy Bendhi wewa, buddhilini said elephant and we turned to our right to find an elephant charging right at us. It was so quick we didn't have time to take any photos, the ele did a mock run and turned back and ran into the forest. Due to the severe dry season a lot of birds were gathering at the waters edge to quench their thirst. We spotted a Shama drinking water along with the Common Iora and Red Vented Bulbul.

I wanted the group to use the techniques learnt at the lecture in practice and to get exposure, focusing and composition right. This ensured that we had never-ending number of subjects to choose from. The crested serpent eagles known to perch on low hanging branches were a perfect subject as well as the many spotted deer.

By late eavening while driving out of the park we came across a large sloth bear by the roadside, but due to low light it was hard to take a good shot.

That night back at Dolosmahe I taught the group how to properly post process their shots using Adobe Lightroom. The most important thing is to not over process them and make them look unnatural.

Up early next morning, the park got its first rain in many months. despite the constant drizzle we decide to go in. Getting wet in the process we drove all the way to Mahapatessa in the hope of seeing "prince" the bold leopard who is seen quite often. But we were not so lucky. but we did see many painted storks in the villu lining up to eat the fish after the rains.

Patrolling the villus we stopped at Iriyakkulam Villu to photograph some white bellied sea eagles , when suddenly my driver Milinda spotted a leopard far out in the villu. We were amazed that he could see such a thing, because it was barely visible to us. After about a minute the leopard got up and walked into the forest. We entered the forest bit on the road which leads to Mahapatesse when I noticed the leopard approaching through the foliage. Waiting in anticipation, we got a good view of the big cat crossing the road. Thereafter it walked along the trail looking up at the Grey Langurs. It was lean and seemed hungry and was surely on the prowl. After crossing the road in front of us one more time he disappeared from view.

The rest of the day we were photographing what ever we could find and on our way out came across a very large bull elephant.

The day was successful and the group had taken some great pictures.

This was a successful end to a great workshop and one of many to come.

Watch out for the September Elephant Photography Session !!!!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Day with Ballzy- The Forward Bear of Yala

I had not made any plans this weekend, but a phone call with my good friend Riaz on a Thursday morning convinced me to join him on a quick weekend trip to Yala. This was also a good chance for me to look for options of accommodation which I hope to use for some future projects I am trying to work out.

 Therefore with quick plans, we decided that we would leave at 7.30 pm on Friday night. I searched online and came on a guest house named Katagamuwa Rest which seemed a decent place, and after further inquiry with the owner Mr. Mahindanada I was happy enough with the place to place a booking for two nights. We booked a chalet which had two double beds and A/C for a very reasonable rate.

With last moment packing done after work I left home as planned at 7.30 pm. Deciding to use the expressway upto Matara and thereafter Yala via Hambantota, this was a route which I have not taken before, as my normal route was via Ratnapura.

It was so refreshing to go on such a peaceful route. This forever would be my preferred route to Yala. The road from Matara upto Tangalle was a little tricky with small winding roads, and encountered many a slow Three Wheeler which we had to struggle to overtake. The journey after Tangalle was pretty smooth, and the Hambantota road towards Weerawila was massive just like the Southern Expressway. While driving on this road, we suddenly saw few vehicles reversing here and there up front. My guess was it was to do with elephants and my I was right, the people were panicking and backing up their vehicles, even massive tipper trucks. We were warned not to approach as there were 15 elephants on the road. We were more curious and drove ahead and saw a herd of 10 more likely were feeding on the roadside. Without any problem we drove past the peaceful herd. The others watching may have got flabbergasted as a tiny Honda Civic drove past this herd when a massive tipper truck wouldn’t. The thing about elephants is that you need to observe their behavior, and we did not wait long enough to aggravate them and simply drove past them at a careful pace.

Driving upto Kataragama we took the Situlpawwa road to reach Katagamuwa where we would be staying the night. We were greeted by an old lady who was the caretaker of Katagamuwa rest. The rooms were much larger than we expected and very spacious. The toilets were very clean and massive as well. This was absolutely worth every penny and I can recommend this place to anyone.

 Having only few hours to sleep, we woke up early the next morning and after a quick tea we headed towards the entrance with our trusty driver Amare.

The plan was to find a suitable waterhole and stay put for the whole day. Being the height of the dry season, we thought this was the best plan as all animals have to come to the water. My main target was bear, as I didn’t get proper photos during my last trip to Wilpattu, I was very keen to get some decent shots. For me personally I find bears absolutely fascinating and interesting, and I am always on the lookout for some good bear shots.

Reaching the park entrance on time, we were the second to get in. As usual it was a mad race inside the park and all the jeeps were scrambling with each other to get ahead. This is so unlike the jeeps in Wilpattu where they never do this, but accepting this as reality we went along. Reaching the waterhole we positioned ourselves for the best view and settled down.

There is a sense of enjoyment to be had in lying in wait in the wilderness in anticipation for wildlife to come. After several hours we got word from passing jeeps of a bear seen up ahead. AS our plan was to stay put, we did not venture out to find him. After about an hour of waiting, we saw a few jeeps pausing at a bend ahead. A few minutes later the bear appeared and came walking towards us. This poor fellow was limping very badly. This intial session got ruined as I had accidently changed the aperture setting to F22 and ended up ruining my shots. Disappointed but unwilling to give up just yet, I waited for the bear to approach the water. To our surprise not only did he drink but always played in the water. He opened his mouth wide and was splashing water everywhere. After this he got in the mud and started splashing about. He was seated like a human would and gave me such joy to see such a rare and interesting sight. After several minutes he walked back towards us and started foraging for Palu berries right next to our jeep. I could simply reach out and touch him as he was that close. After several minutes he walked back into the forest.  

 The waterhole that we spent the whole day observing
 Myself next to Ballzy
 Myself next to Ballzy
Riaz next to Ballzy
After several hours in wait, we observed many animals come to the waterhole to drink, especially the ruddy mongoose. Other species we observed were grey langur, spotted deer and wild buffalo along with wild boar.

By 5.00 pm we suddenly glimpsed a leopard walking past the water hole. Afterwards we noticed a large boar walking in the same direction. Using my lens to get a closer view of the boar, suddenly I saw the leopard getting startled and climbing a tree. Several minutes passed and the word spread and soon the jeeps came pouring in, and along with this came the same Sloth Bear, limping away he started foraging again. After a severe traffic block we ended up leaving the park at 6.30 pm. The sighting of the bear was amazing and I managed to get some of the best photographs of Sloth Bear. He is named Ballzy due to his unusually large appendages. Fully accustomed to the vehicles and people this bear is like prince the leopard in Wilpattu, completely oblivious to human presence. I am not sure if it’s a good thing or bad, but I did notice that despite his injury or disability he seems to be a healthy bear.


Todays morning drive was quite uneventful. After few hours in waiting we decided to leave the waterhold and drive around. Unfortunately this was our undoing as a leopard had arrived and quenched its thirst at the waterhole.. Despite driving around to several locations with no result. We decided to call it a day.

I came back home today elated about my sighting with Ballzy the forward bear of Yala. This is definitely the best photographs of a sloth bear I have ever seen, and I hope that he continues to live a long and healthy life.


You can check out Katagamuwa Rest on the below link


or call + 94 75 9222223, + 94 75 9222225

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Meeting Wasantha the old tusker of Wilpattu after 10 years

It was 2003, when I was the President of the S.Thomas College, Wildlife Society. Wilpattu National Park had opened after many years. We were some of the first people to venture into this park which was closed for the public for so long due to the war. We were given permission to camp on the bungalow premises of Kokmotte. With a big bus in tow we reached the park gate, from where we were taken inside in around 5 jeeps. After a hard day of setting up camp, there was no bliss other than relaxing in the cool waters of the Moderagam Aru which flowed next to the bungalow. While having a good bath, I got a message through a tracker that the park warden Mr. Wasantha Pushpananda wanted to meet myself and my master in charge Mr Nirmal. I was annoyed as this was the first time I ventured into this park and was keen to do my first safari.

 Group photo of the Wildlife Society at Wilpattu in 2003

With reluctance we went back to the park office which was quite far away. We were greeted by a wiry man who introduced himself as the park warden. Few minutes of chatting to him and we realized that this was a man on a mission. He was determined to bring the park back to its former glory. He wanted the boys to get involved in a development project that will help the park. After a quick discussion, he got in a single cab and drove into the park saying he needs to supervise some workers. We were amazed that there still are government employees who are determined to do a good job. Mr Pushpananda was such a man, and Wilpattu was fortunate to have him as its warden. After going to the boutique to buy some provisions, we went back into the park. Driving upto Percy Bendhi wewa we came across a large elephant with his head inside the bushes. After awhile his head came out to reveal two large tusks. I was flabbergasted, yet managed to keep my nerve and fire some shots with my old Canon EOS 888 film camera. After a brief few seconds the tusker went back into the cover of the forest from once it came.

Wasantha photographed in 2003 with my old film camera
Amazed and feeling really lucky we went back to camp. None of the other boys believed us until I processed the images and showed them once we got back home. This sighting remained in my mind for a very long time. Yet since this day there were no recorded sightings or photographs of this majestic tusker.

Years went by and after the park opened in 2010 I started being a regular visitor once again. During these trips I heard many stories from villagers of a tusker who comes to chena's outside the park with massive ivory and none like they have ever seen before. These stories kept going until I made a few attempts of my own, one where we got ourselves in a bit of a pickle when we were on a village bund with elephants around 50 strong were a mere few feet from us.

Despite the attempts we never saw this mysterious tusker who was said to have 3 feet long tusks and seemed to be blind.

Then in 2014 I got news from a very close contact that the tusker is out again, and seen by one of my friends as well. He managed to get some photos, and during this time word went out of his presence which brought many wildlife photographers to the location to find him. Unfortunately during this weekend I was stuck in Colombo and had no way of going over to find him.

During the course of the week, I got regular updates that he was sighted, and finally made arrangements to leave on Friday night and try our luck on Saturday. I was picked up from office by Raveendra and we drove all the way to Wilpattu after work. After a good drink we had a comfortable nights sleep at Dolosmahe Rest run by Athula. With very reasonable rates this small and humble guest house has got A/C rooms which are spotless clean and good food.

Early morning the next day we went to the area of the tusker hoping to find him. But no luck, and ended up finding two three toed kingfisher instead. But they were too shy and too fast for a good photograph. Returning to the guest house, we ventured back once again after lunch.

After getting our helpers to spread out to all corners of this vast area we waited in a central spot. We were later joined by veteran photographers and friends Namal and Gehan. At around 5.00 pm we got the call that the tusker was found about 2 km away.

Taking a chance we started walking that way, knowing very well that we may miss seeing him as he might move off by the time we get there. Not being the fittest didn't help as I had to carry my lens and tripod along. Reaching a small chena we waited there hoping the tusker would come out of the tree line.

We were asked to move back and wait in order to not alarm him, and arrive he did, he was the same tusker I had seen 10 years ago. He was walking around 100m parallel to where we were, and I had to use my extender to get a shot, but with the light fading fast it was hard to get a really sharp shot. I didn't want to alarm him hence we all waited at a distance giving him freedom to move.

After passing us he disappeared into the jungle. Happy that I finally saw him we walked back to our vehicles.

I did not get the shots which I wanted but was happy to see this tusker after 10 years and to know that he is still alive and well despite all the dangers before him. One thing I noticed is that he is either partially or fully blind.

I named him "Wasantha" after the park warden who was brutally murdered by the LTTE in 2006. This was a rare example of a great champion for wildlife coming from the department and it was fitting to name this tusker after him.

May he roam the rest of his days in peace.