- This article first appeared in The Sunday Island of 1st February 2015
In the 1980s, the Uda Walawe National Park was hardly known apart from a few wildlife enthusiasts who had learned that it was a place of elephants, especially during the months of drought. It was no wonder. There were just 25Kms of road, the elephants were shy and aggressive when encountered, and the six foot plus high Mana Grass (Guinea B) that dominated the plains meant that even elephants were hard to observe.
When David Jayaweera was appointed as Warden of the Park, he embarked on a mission to expand the road network, and increased them to 72Kms in distance. Even then, very few visited the Park. Quite often a week’s takings would be less than Rs. 1, 000.00! This despite the fact that elephants are to be seen here all year round, and during the months of drought, in numbers that match the now well-known Minneriya Gathering. In an evening, groups of elephants, sometimes numbering over 200, would wander out from the then stands of Teak that bordered the Uda Walawe Reservoir, and meander down to the shrinking waters of the reservoir, feeding on the grasses of its exposed bed. This was quite a sight especially to the fortunate few who would endure the paucity of facilities available, just to see such sights, undisturbed.
At the time, there were no hotels in Uda Walawe. It had nothing more than a cluster of small shops at the RT Junction, just before the Uda Walawe Dam. The nearest hotel was in Embilipitiya, to which poor roads ensured almost an hour’s drive. The Park had a couple of bungalows, Sinuggala and Weheragolla, and the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society had its Circuit Bungalow just outside the Park. Provisions had to be brought from either Colombo or Ratnapura, and the nearest Fuel Station was in Godakawela, an hour’s drive away on the Ratnapura Road or from Embilipitiya, about the same time in the other direction. Extra fuel and water had to be taken in cans.
A few individuals had jeeps for hire, but most owners /drivers had other jobs as well, the lack of visitation hardly making this lucrative means of earning a living.
Thirty years has made a huge difference to Uda Walawe. David Jayaweera’s extension of the road system within the Park meant that more of its areas became accessible to the visitor, who realized that there were more than just elephants in the Park. It is one of the best places to see a variety of Birds of Prey (Raptors), the reservoir and waterholes attract a host of waders and other water birds, and a large number of migrant species are drawn to this refuge, during the season. There had always been elephants; a large number of them, but very few sightings of other big animals. In addition, there were the domestic buffalo and cattle who are illegally grazed in the park, and whose number now seriously threaten its future. There had been a few sightings of leopard, in areas close to the river, and the last authentic recording of a bear was in 1972, by the legendary Lyn De Alwis, at Weheragolla (pers. comm.).
Today people visit Uda Walawe not just to see elephants. The past few months have seen them queuing up to see a leopardess and her two cubs who regularly appear on a nearby rock, in the early mornings and late evenings, to delight the onlookers with their play. The park is also host to all of the smaller cats – the Fishing Cat, Jungle Cat and Rusty Spotted Cat – who are seen with increased frequency. Deer have increased in number, though Sambhur remain elusive. Alas, there have been no further sightings of bear, though they are reported to thrive across the border of the Park in the Bogahapattiya Proposed Forest Reserve.
Today, the Uda Walawe National Park is a popular place of visit for wildlife enthusiasts and others interested in seeing a National Park and its wild inhabitants. A large number of tourists visit the Park throughout the year and there have been days when over Rs. 1 Million has been taken at the gate! The Park has five bungalows and an equal number of campsites, all well patronized. In addition, its network of roads has been increased considerably.
No longer is the place called Uda Walawe a collection of small shops at the junction. It boasts numerous hotels and Guest Houses, including one hotel of star grade. Its shops have increased in number and scope. There are fuel stations and supermarkets in the near vicinity in fact it lacks nothing that is required for a comfortable stay close to the wilderness.
There is a fleet of jeeps available for hire, with drivers who have intimate knowledge of the Park and have yet to develop the range of abusive driving techniques that plague the visitor to Yala. In fact, being mostly local, they appreciate the role the Park and its animals play in giving them a livelihood. A few years ago, when there was a politically motivated initiative to illegally annexure the Dahaiyagala Habitat Corridor, vital for the movement of the Park’s animals, the jeep drivers led the local resistance to it.
The present prosperity of Uda Walawe is SOLELY due to the National Park! Visitors, both local and foreign, are drawn there to see its animals and its wilderness. If there were no Park, there would be no hotels, shops or fleets of jeeps. As such, it is important that the National Park is protected and preserved.
Today, Uda Walawe, and the other protected areas of Sri Lanka, are under threat. At Uda Walawe poaching, illegal encroachment and the illegal grazing of cattle and buffalo, the latter with political sponsorship, are a serious threat to the Park. It is alleged that there are close to 30,000 buffalo in the Park and in the last two years the Mana Grass, vital food for the elephants, has not grown. Elephants feed off the top of the Mana fronds leaving the roots intact. Cattle and buffalo feed from the root. If proof were needed of this, it can be seen in the areas around the Park Office, which are protected by electric fencing. Buffalo and cattle cannot enter and a thick growth of Mana is seen. In addition, controlled fires are necessary for the healthy regeneration of Mana…that is if it is not too late!
This is not just true for Uda Walawe, but for all the protected areas of Sri Lanka. The wild places and wild creatures of this country, apart from being of cultural, aesthetic and environmental value, are also of immense economic potential if protected and managed correctly. Our Protected Areas have the ability to generate large amounts of foreign exchange for the country. Visitors, however, will only come to see wild creatures in their pristine habitats, and not remnant pocketed species held under environmental and habitat stress. This is a resource that can be preserved for future generation for thousands of years. We need to ensure their continued survival.
– Rohan Wijesinha