Saturday, November 26, 2016

My first venture into Wilpattu August-2003

Wilpattu in a place which I fell in love with more recently. At present it is my favorite national park.  The primary reason for not visiting the wonderful place earlier is because park was closed during most of my childhood, and was opened up to the public only in 2002 during the ceasefire agreement between the government and the LTTE. I have heard so much about this park from my parents as well as many older folk who talk of Wilpattu as the ultimate national park back then. As many would have remembered the park was world famous for its leopards, and a sighting was almost guaranteed many years ago. The more hardcore wildlife veterans always talk of Wilpattu rather than Yala as the preferred safari destination.

 Rohan Uncles Jeep in the Villu's
Flat tyre on the way

I had the opportunity to visit this legendary park for the first time during the August holidays of 2003. The park was newly opened and run my one of the most daring men I have ever come across, the late Mr. Wasantha Pushpanandha who was the park warden at the time. I was the Wildlife Society President back then, and we received special permission from Mr. Pushpananda to camp on the premises of the then abandoned Kokmotte Bungalow. This was a completely different park from what I was used to. Unlike the scrub lands of Yala, this was a forest with large to medium evergreen trees. The road to Kokmotte seemed endless, and after a few flat tyres we reached our destination.

Kokmotte Bungalow

Happy after changing the tyre- Malik, Romesh and Mahesh Sir

 Kokmotte was a bungalow like nothing I have ever seen. It has a unique design which is seen nowhere else in Sri Lanka. The entire structure is built of wood and is built on a form of stilts. The building frame was intact, but the interior was destroyed due to vandalism and neglect. The park was closed for many years after a terrorist attack in (mention Year and date). For campers like us, this was heaven, and we took to the place immediately. The cool waters of the Moderagam Aru were very tempting, and after finishing all the chores we all spent a good few hours in these waters. Close to the time for the evening safari, I was given a message that Mr. Pushpananda wanted to meet myself and Nirmal Sir to discuss a project we were planning. I was very upset as I will be missing my first safari, but as I was the President it was my duty to represent the society and the school. Thus with regret I headed for the park office along with Nirmal Sir, Rohan Uncle and my quarter master Ashan Fernando.

 the boys at Kali Villu- Romesh, Gihan, Virantha, Jehan, Ashan, Malik
 at the abandoned Kali Villu Bungalow- Myself, Charith, Naveen
Myself with Rohan Uncle

 The warden was a wiry tough man, who seemed determined to bring the park back to its former glory. He was very enthusiastic, and keen that we school boys get involved in a project to help develop the park. Sadly he was killed by the LTTE a few years later. Wildlife of Sri Lanka lost a great champion that day. 

After our discussion and with some provisions which we missed out we headed back to the camp. When we reached Percy Bendhi Wewa close to the entrance, Rohan Uncle suddenly hit the brakes. There was a large elephant on the road, with its head in the bushes. I could also see a female elephant further down the road.  We noticed a peculiar large object in the elephant’s mouth and at first thought it to be a large branch of a tree. When he brought his head out into the open we realized that they were not branch but two large shafts of ivory. This was a tusker! And a massive one at that. I hastily managed to capture a few images from my film camera a Canon EOS 888, before he slipped back into the jungle without a trace. We were in shock, and we never expected to see a tusker in Wilpattu, and so close to the entrance as well. I felt so fortunate and lucky that I had forgone the park safari and headed to the entrance. In jubilation we headed back to the camp. Back at Kokmotte nobody believed when we told them what we encountered. Back then due to a lack of digital camera’s I had to wait till I developed the film to prove what I saw. 10 years later I would see this tusker once again outside Wilpattu. I named him "Wasantha" after the late park warden. We walked several kilometers to find him, and the sighting brought me great joy to know he was still alive. But he was quite old and seemed blind or partially blind. Sadly few weeks later we got news that some poacher has killed him and tried to sell his ivory. I was devastated, and extremely upset. This is the sad reality about tuskers, and how peoples greed ends up destroying all that is majestic and magnifficent in our wilds. 

 Wasantha the Tusker
 Wasantha the Tusker
 Wasantha the Tusker
Wasantha the Tusker

The next two days we saw nothing, not even a proper bird sighting other than a bold crested hawk eagle at Kali Villu, who refused to move out of the road. The rest of the boys were complaining and frustrated that they have not been as lucky as a few of us. Despite the lack of sightings we had a very good time at camp, bathing and relaxing, and overall was an excellent first impression, especially for us lucky few with the tusker sighting. 

 Nirmal Sir
 Nirmal Sir at the Park Entrance
 At Kali Villu- Sisira, Hafiz, our bus driver, Gihan and myself
Group photo at Kokmotte

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