What a fantastic place Sri Lanka is for seeing many of the wild animals of
the Indian Sub-continent! This island-country off the southeastern coast
of India is home to Asian elephants, leopards, monkeys, mongoose, sloth bears,
jackals, Sambar and chital deer, water buffalo and wild boars. Reptiles
and amphibians include crocodiles and venomous snakes such as kraits, vipers
and cobras, plus
the more friendly geckos, frogs, and lizards.
Birdlife is extraordinary (and we've given birds their own web pages).
Unfortunately, of the more than 80 species of mammals in Sri Lanka, at least
22 are threatened with extinction. Habitat destruction by deforestation
and water pollution is the main threat to these animals. The on-going civil war
has led to more destruction especially in the north where rebels have poached
animals for food.
Elephant Rock & wetlands in Yala National Park
As we traveled by rail and road throughout the Sri Lankan hills and along the
coast we saw troops of wild macaque monkeys, numerous birds (especially water
birds in the marshes), working elephants in the fields, and domesticated water
buffalo. The best animal viewing, however, was in Yala National Park on
the southeastern coast of the country. One of about 10 major national
parks, Yala is particularly accessible to travelers and has not had the problem
with poaching that some of the more northern parks have had due to the on-going
civil war. Visitors to the parks contribute much-needed revenue and play a
vital role in helping spread the word about the Sri Lanka's vast and varied
Birding is excellent in the hills, and around
the lagoons, marshes and waterways of the coast, and certainly in Yala National
Park with its dry scrub, rivers, and wetlands.
Photos were all taken in Yala National Park by Amanda Hacking, unless
otherwise noted. All text and photographs are
Largest, and perhaps best known of the Sri Lankan wildlife is the Asian
Elephant Elephus maximus. The Asian elephant differs
from its cousin, the African elephant, in several ways: the Asian is
smaller, with shorter ears, a single (not double) "finger" at the end of
the trunk, a more rounded back, and 4 nails, instead of 3, on its hind
feet. It also has a personality that allows it to be domesticated.
That is not to say that when a wild elephant chooses to cross your path
in a park you don't get out of its way -- you do! Even in a big
vehicle! Sir Lankan elephants don't carry a lot of ivory: most
females and many of the males have no tusks at all. Asian elephants live
in groups of about 10 animals led by older female. Young males are
banished from the group to fend for themselves, although they often form
small bachelor herds.
Their are 2 subspecies in the country: Elephus maximus maximus
(the Ceylon elephant) and Elephus maximus vilaliya (the Ceylon
marsh elephant) and both are listed as endangered. It is estimated
that there are perhaps 2500 wild elephants in the country now, as
opposed to over 12,000 in 1900. Most live in 7 of the 10 major
national parks. Wild elephants that venture into farmlands can
sometimes be transported to the parks to live.
subspecies are listed by the World Conservation Union as threatened.
Leopard hiding behind brush
Leopard stalking a water-buffalo, but he didn't try very hard
At about 5pm, just an hour before sunset, we were rewarded with a sighting of
a Sri Lankan Leopard Pantera pardus kotika in Yala National Park.
With only about 35 leopards here, it was
quite thrilling! We first saw him (or her) in the bushes by the side of
the road where another 4WD vehicle had stopped. We tried to get a photo,
but couldn't. The leopard began walking west through the bush, and then,
before the other vehicles moved, our driver backed up and took a side track
hoping to intersect the leopard on its path. He was right on! We
watched as this beautiful animal hid in the bushes (left), keeping us in view,
then ambled across the dirt road to the edge of a pond. Spotting a water
buffalo ahead, it put on a burst of speed (photo right), but didn't pursue for
long. Instead, it decided to climb a huge tree and drape itself over the
branches, four legs and long tail swinging freely. Then, with a bit of
hesitation but skill it descended the tree head first and walked sedately back
into the brush. Fantastic! We had over a half an hour of leopard watching!
Sri Lanka's leopards are endemic to the island and are listed by the World
Conservation Union as threatened.
A Golden Jackal blends into the grassland.
Photo by Chris Hacking, Yala National Park
|We were busy watching a herd of wild water buffalo in an open
grassland in the late afternoon in Yala National Park when someone said,
"What's that?" Walking across the grass were two small dog-like
animals that blended in so well we had to blink to be sure they were
there. The Golden Jackal Canis aureus is usually
nocturnal, and may hunt alone or in
packs to take down Chital deer. How lucky we were to see these
shy, wily creatures on our day-time visit to the park. Visitors who
sleep at one of the park bungalows may hear the jackals calling as they
gather in packs for hunting. Jackals are opportunistic hunters
taking mammals, insects, birds, frogs, small deer and carrion.
A Jackal checks a bush for small prey.
Photo by Amanda Hacking
|Even seen from afar, the brown, shaggy bulky body of the Sambar
Deer Cerbus unicolor stag (right) is unmistakable.
Here, a stag with antlers rests in a field in Yala National Park.
Active at night, the deer are often seen resting near water during the
day. Males develop antlers each year prior to rutting season in
November or December. They perform ritualistic fights with other
males. Mature females, called hinds, lead groups of 10 to 20 deer.
These large deer stand 1 to 1.5m (40 to 63in) at the shoulder and can
weigh up to 270 kg (600 lbs).
Adult male Chital deer travel with the herd.
|Sri Lanka's other deer is the graceful, light reddish-brown and
white-spotted Chital Deer aka Axis Deer Axis axis.
These lovely animals look like big versions of Bambi -- in other words
they look like large fawns of deer from the Americas! The Chital deer
congregate in groups of 20 of 30 animals but unlike the Sambar Deer, the
group usually includes 2 or more adult males (see left). They tend
to graze in open forest or on the edges of forest and grassland.
Lovely spotted Chital Deer in Yala NP
||Trotting about the edges of marshes and across fields, families of
Wild Boars Sus scrofa are a common sight in the national
parks of Sri Lanka. These animals are similar to the European wild
boars, but less hairy. Both males and females can carry short,
strong tusks which they use for defense and for digging. Boars are
omnivorous, eating roots, nuts, fruits and even small animals.
They can weigh over 150 kg (330 lbs).
This macaque watched us
eating lunch. (Photo Chris Hacking)
|Omnipresent in Sri Lanka are the inquisitive, playful,
always-hungry, opportunistic Red Faced Macaques Macaca spp.
They can be found around homes, temples, shopping centers, roadsides and
in their more natural state in the wildlife sanctuaries. Like
other macaques, these monkeys have differentiated thumbs, cheek pouches
for storing food and hardened bare patches on their rumps called
callosities. Red Faced Macaques adults can grow to about 1m (39in)
long with a tail of equal length which they use for balance and as a
fifth limb to help when climbing or walking tree limbs or wires.
They have reddish faces and and overall tan/cream colored fur with
pointed black ears. Macaques are omnivorous and can be found near
garbage dumps or begging junk food from drivers by the road. In
the wild they eat leaves, berries and small animals. Living in
troops ranging from a few to many animals, both the males and females
have important roles such as keeping watch or caring for the young,
depending on their dominance. Often while the females care for
newborns males will watch over the older youth.
with humans has led these intelligent animals
to mimic human behavior and to become brazen in snatching food, hats,
cameras and other unattended items. A bite by a macaque can be
quite dangerous not only for bacteria but the possibility of rabies.
It is best to guard your food and personal items closely when around the
monkeys but if they start to take food, do not snatch it away or tease
Near sunset the flying foxes take flight
for a night of fruit & nectar feeding
Screeching and chattering, Sri Lanka's Indian Flying Foxes
Cynopterus marginatus (probably) make a racket in the trees overhead
in the hills near Kandy. Known as "flying foxes" for their lovely
fox-like faces and light brown fur, they take on a more ominous look
when then wrap themselves in their black, shiny wings or take flight
like someone's worst Dracula nightmare overhead. But these bats
are not blood-suckers. They are fruit-eating bats who use their
acute eye-sight to find food. (Most Old World Fruit Bats use
vision, not echolocation for direction finding.) The Indian Flying
Foxes have a wingspan of about 1.2m (47in) and they roost during the day
high in the trees, taking flight in late afternoon for a night-time of
fruit hunting. They are not protected internationally, which they
should be as they are hunted for food, destroyed as pests in
farmland, and sometimes kept as pets in cages. Many tropical plants such
as bananas, cloves, mangoes, breadfruit, cashew nuts survive due to
pollination or seed droppings from the bats.
A camp of roosting flying foxes in the
Botanic Garden near Kandy.
|The Indian Mongoose Herpestes edwardsi is a sleek,
fast-moving predator. Hunting either alone or occasionally in
pairs, the mongoose eats birds, snakes, eggs, frogs, small mammals and
even fruit. Mongoose hunt by either day or night, and can usually
be seen as they run, or almost slither across a road or other open
space. They have a thick coat of speckled gray hair, a long muzzle and
tail, and a mouth full of strong, sharp teeth. They do attack even
the most poisonous of snakes such as the cobra, but they are not immune
to the venom. Instead they use incredible agility to avoid being
bitten. They live about 7 to 12 years and have litters of up to four
An Indian mongoose rapidly crossing a dirt road
As their name implies, Water Buffalo spend
a lot of time in the water.
|Not nearly as ferocious as their African cousin, the Cape Buffalo,
Sri Lanka's Water Buffalo Bubalus bubalis can still be
dangerous when provoked. With their wide, splayed hooves good for
walking in marshes and mud, they can be found just about anywhere there
is water. These animals have been domesticated throughout Asia,
and for millennia have been used for plowing and milk production. They
can attain 1.8m (6 feet) at the shoulder, and are larger and more
powerful than cattle. Water buffalo co-exist happily with several small birds
such as the cattle egrets (right) and some small herons which hitch rides
on their backs and remove ticks from their skin. (Photo right, Christopher Hacking)
A cattle egret perches atop a buffalo
To the right is an unidentified little green lizard we found in the
Botanical Garden near Kandy. Anyone know what it is, or anything
about it? We have no ID book for small reptiles.
Not so hard to
ID, though, is the large Mugger or Swamp Crocodile
Crocodylus palustris (left) which can be found, if you look
closely, on the edges of lakes, marshes and wetlands throughout the
country. Blending easily into the brown mud or grasslands, this
inland crocodile spends part of its day in the freshwater and part in
the sun. Not as large as the Indo-Pacific or Saltwater crocodile
which inhabits the sea coasts of Australia and Asia, the Mugger is still
a formidable predator. Swamp crocodiles feed on birds, amphibians,
and small mammals such as young deer.
During mating season they become quite sociable and you might see a
lot of them draped all over each other. Apparently they are
capable of traveling long distances to find water if their current pond
or marsh dries up. They're not something you'd want to stroll
along the road with!
Ambling across the red dirt road in Yala National Park was one very large
reptile, which we quickly identified as Sri Lanka's Land Monitor
(not yet sure of the Latin name). There are about 30 species
of monitors, including the world's largest, the Komodo Dragon of Indonesia.
Smaller than the Komodo, Sri Lanka's monitor can climb trees. All monitors run
fast in pursuit of prey, which include small mammals, reptiles, insects, birds and carrion.
A long split tongue (visible in the photo to the left, by Jon Hacking) is used to
sense/smell prey. We estimated the length of this monitor to be about 2m (6.5ft).
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