Our van filled with 19 jostling college students, their harried professor, his wife, and their two daughters traveled toward the Yala National Park, a reserve on the South East coast of Sri Lanka. The park was set aside as a wildlife reserve in 1900, but was, ironically, used by wealthy British as a hunting ground, a practice that thankfully stopped after British rule ended. After a long, bumpy trip we arrived at our destination and traversed many more dusty roads within the park. Although our focus was outside of our vans towards the horizon in hopes of seeing wildlife, we came across a lot of action on the road itself. We witnessed brightly hued birds taking dirt baths in the sandy passageways as well as a number of snakes basking in the sun. We glimpsed spotted deer drinking from green roadside pools, their ears snapping to attention and eyes warily following us as we passed.
Water buffalo lazily lounged in muddy ponds, a group of heads appearing above the surface with only the occasional rump. Their curved horns were the only thing on their body not sagging in the heat and they were unimpressed with our passing vehicles and hardly registered our presence through their barely opened eyes.
Monkeys were everywhere – swinging, preening, squatting and playing in the trees and along the road. We did not see any of the elusive leopards despite the large number of eyes straining to catch a glimpse. When we travel to Sri Lanka in 2017, Yala is one of our most anticipated destinations. With the highest density of leopards on the planet, we hope to be lucky enough to spy one of the phantom felines.
Our caravan did spot wild elephants which was thrilling to me. I had grown accustomed to seeing the mammoth creatures along roads hauling construction materials, but these were small, wild herds. Sri Lankan elephants are the largest of the three subspecies of the Asian elephant which are native to the island. Asian elephants are smaller than the African elephant and darker in color. Females rarely have tusks or only grow very small ones. Our guide pointed out the lack of pigmentation on some of the trunks and ears. I had noticed the pink areas especially on the trunks of some of the work elephants and had sadly assumed it was due to constant rubbing of the area, but our guide informed us that these elephants often lose pigmentation as they age. We exited our vehicles when he saw a group of elephants in the distance, but we were not allowed to get at all close to them. Numerous Sri Lankans, he said, die each year from dangerous elephants, a problem that has only increased as their habitat shrinks and risky human-elephant interactions become more frequent. We watched as the pachyderms wandered among the trees at the edge of the beach. A group of three individuals sauntered side by side occasionally pushing each other with powerful shoulders like a group of teenagers joking with each other. One larger female slightly apart from the group seemed obsessed with an itch behind her ear and violently used a denuded tree as a scratching post. Even from our relative distance we could see the base of the tree move each time she bumped it –the roots struggling to keep it in the ground.
After the elephants wandered off we made our way to the beach they had vacated. After a very hot day in the van, I left my shoes behind and waded into the water. “Don’t get all wet,” my mother warned me. The guide was lecturing the students on the many ancient man made reservoirs in the area as I walked along the shore. Suddenly a larger than expected wave knocked me off balance and I ended up on my backside in the ocean. My mother said nothing, but gave me one of those maternal “I told you so” looks. “It feels good,” I lied. “Refreshing.” Because it is hard to admit when your parent is right, I did not complain that the soggy ride to our guest house was very uncomfortable.
In 2004, areas of the park, like many coastal regions of Sri Lanka, were devastated by the massive December 26th tsunami that hit parts of Asia. The giant wave swept inland killing and injuring many in its path. However, in the aftermath of the horrible event, animals from the park were repeatedly found unharmed. With such massive destruction, locals anticipated finding many animal carcasses, but only two water buffalo were known to have perished in the tsunami. Elephants and birds were seen fleeing to higher ground up to an hour before the waves hit the beach, a testament many believe, to their superior senses.
If you are interested in a haunting memoir of that day in 2004 and its aftermath, read Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala. It is a painful, personal story of the writer who was vacationing in Yala with her family when the wave struck. The book is beautifully written but raw with emotion as she lost her husband, two sons and parents – her entire family instantly erased by the seismic sea wave.