Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tribute to a Montane Wilderness

The highlands of Sri Lanka hold a special mystery. The cold sweeping cloud forests envelop an ancient land which is a stark contrast to the dry zone scrub jungles of the lowlands. Long ago the entire hills of the region were covered in jungle, where vast arrays of wildlife including elephant and bear roamed.  The British colonials cleared most of this land for plantations and killed off all the elephants and bear for sport.
The remnants of these forests are limited to areas such as Horton Plains National Park and the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. These are small islets surrounded by a sea of human habitation. Some of the species found in these forests are endemic to this area alone.
 Black Bul Bul
Eurasian Blackbird
After many years I paid homage to Horton Plains during the a weekend in 2013. Driving slowly along the misty road we stopped at the famous pool which is by the road side to try our luck in finding the legendary Arrenga or Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, but to no avail. We did see many other species like the endemic Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Greater Flame back woodpecker, Sri Lanka white eye, Scimitar Babbler, Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl. The car park at the former Far Inn Hotel I was treated to a very close encounter with the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler. This rare and endemic bird had a nest close by and I spent hours photographing its behavior.

 Tob and Bottom-Sri Lanka Bush Warbler

One of the most iconic animals of the plains is the Sambhur which is the largest deer species found in Sri Lanka. These majestic elk are found throughout the park, and some have sadly been accustomed to eating garbage, thanks to the scores of irresponsible visitors.

The only predator of these giant deer is the leopard. These elusive felines are seen once in a while, especially between the ticketing office and the Farr Inn entrance.  We missed a sighting by around 20 minutes as we stopped on our way out to photograph some sambhur.  A vehicle passing us had come across a large male crossing the road close to the ticketing office.


One of the less charismatic, but very rare and endemic species found here is a type of shrimp named Caridina singhalensis which is now restricted to only 10km of a stream in the park.

The traditional tourist trail is from the park entrance to Worlds End which is a sheer precipice with a 870m drop which is in the southern boundary of the park. Another attraction on the way is Bakers Falls which is a waterfall formed by Belihul Oya. Besides these well-known trails an interesting hike is to climb Kirigalpotta, the second highest peak in Sri Lanka which is 2,388m above sea level. The trail to Thotupola Kanda, the third highest peak is another interesting trail. Legend has it that king Ravana of old landed his flying machine the “Dandu Monara” on this peak hence the name “Thotupola” which means landing point. This is a very short but interesting trail close to the ticketing office. Most of the leopard sightings have been reported from this area, and walking along the misty trail we came across the endemic rhino-horned lizard.

 Dull Blue Flycatcher

A truly unique and mystical land, Horton Plains National Park is like no other, and its unique and fragile habitats simply take your breath away. May this last remnant of the cloud forests of our country be preserved and remain as a natural wonder for generations to come.

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