The yet-undiscovered wilderness of Wasgamuwa and its ancient battlefield

 

RIAZ CADER

 
Right in the foothills of the Knuckles Ranges, south of Polonnaruwa and North of Matale in a remote corner of Sri Lanka lies Wasgamuwa, one of Sri Lanka’s least explored national parks. It was my first visit to Wasgamuwa since January 2008, second overall and I was very eager to see what I could encounter this time around. I was accompanied by Reza Ghany, Rinosh Nasar, Dilanka Jinadasa and Sashini Abeygunawardene who undertook this trip with me on the long Vesak weekend this May.


 

Birdlife at Kadurupitiya Wewa

 
Entering the park around 3:30 pm, you approach the picturesque Kadurupitiya Wewa on your right which was abundant with waterbirds; Black-headed Ibis were numerous in their breeding plumage baring a red patch on the inner edge of the underwing, perched on the dead branches of trees; Little and Indian Cormorants, Lesser-whistling Teal, Purple Heron, Spot-billed Pelicans and a Common Kingfisher were also observed as we entered the park, marking a good start to proceedings.
 

Elephants are the star attraction :

 

Elephants are the star attraction in Wasgamuwa with an estimated 150 believed to reside within the reserve. It didn’t take too long for our first elephant encounter and within about thirty minutes, we approached a herd of about seven including a small calf. Over the two days, we clocked up sightings of 50+ elephants; including some fantastic views of mothers and their young feeding in the open plains, elephants at water bathing themselves in mud; lone bulls roaming around and the occasional individual in musth, the term used to describe a male elephant in breeding condition, who were mingling with the members of the herd in search of receptive females.
 

Apart from the elephants

 
Apart from the elephants, Buffalo were plentiful; Spotted Deer and Wildboar were seen but not in the large numbers encountered in Yala or Wilpattu along with troops of Toque Macaques and Grey Langur. Mugger Crocodile were also seen around the waterholes including a particularly large individual lying on a log basking in the early morning sun. Leopard and Sloth Bear too are found in these jungles, however are seldom seen during daylight hours.

The birdlife is spectacular as Wasgamuwa has a mixture of forested riverine habitat as the park borders the mighty Mahaweli, Sri Lanka’s longest river, scrub vegetation, grassland and is also located in close proximity to the Knuckles mountain ranges enabling a wide array of species to survive. Peacock and Ceylon Junglefowl are plentiful. Barred-button Quail can be found regularly along the dirt tracks, Green Imperial Pigeon, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Little Green and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Sri Lanka Paradise Flycatcher, Lesser Adjutant and Asian Openbill were among the numerous avian species observed.


 

Remote and Wild

 
Wasgamuwa also struck me as being a remarkable location for observing raptors; our three game drives yielded eight species which included White-breasted Sea Eagle, Grey-headed Fishing Eagle of which we had an excellent up-close sighting, Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle, Shikra, Black-shouldered Kite and Brahminy Kite. Upon departing the park on the morning of the 8th May, a mere five minutes outside the entrance, we were treated with an unusually up-close sighting of the Black Eagle, Sri Lanka’s largest bird of prey which can get up to 80 cm in length distinguished with finger like wing-tips and completely black plumage apart from a yellow beak. Despite being notoriously difficult to observe at close range, this particular individual soared majestically right above the vehicle for about five minutes enabling me to get some up-close shots.
 

Historic Battleground

 
During a safari to Wasgamuwa, a visit to Yudagana Pitiya is a must, which is a site steeped in history and is believed to be the ancient battleground where King Dutugemunu defeated King Elara in the 2nd Century BC. The area can be characterised with small rocks scattered across the open plains where the wildlife continues to roam free to this date.

Wasgamuwa is not yet overrun by large numbers of visitors due to its remoteness. This combined with its picturesque setting provides the ultimate wilderness experience where one can take the time to observe and photograph its wildlife with minimal disturbance. The golden light in the late afternoon as the sun begins to set against the dried yellow grass on the open plains, enables some of the best conditions in Sri Lanka for photographing the Asian Elephant in the wild. The large numbers of elephants, a dazzling array of avian species combined with the other wildlife ensures that there is never a dull moment and it won’t be too long before I return to re-explore the wilds of Wasgamuwa once more.

 

Quick Facts:

 

• Getting there: Wasgamuwa is situated 225 km from Colombo. Access is possible either travelling from Kurunegala to Dambulla and heading towards Galwela onto Hettipola or via Kandy passing Hadawaka and Matale.

 

• Accommodation: Options are currently limited due to its remoteness. Dunvilla Cottage, Wasgamuwa Safari Village and Willys Safari Hotel are some of the options available.

 

• When should I visit? Elephant sightings occur year-round and are expected to peak during the dry-season from around June through to September. Afternoon safaris tend to be more suitable for elephant watching as they prefer to avoid being out in the open during the heat of the day. For keen birders, November to March would be the best time of year to visit when migrant species can be encountered along with the residents and close to a 150 species including 8 endemics have been recorded.

 


Riaz Cader is Assistant Manager – Nature & Community Projects at Jetwing Hotels and on and off-the-job continues to visit Sri Lanka’s wild places to pursue his passion of wildlife photography. Riaz is a self-trained photographer and uses a Canon EOS 7D body predominantly with a Canon 100-400mmL series lens for wildlife images along with a Canon 24-105mm L series lens and Sigma 10-20mm wide angle lenses for landscapes and portraits.

Riaz Cader can be found on facebook and  flickr 

 

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  1. yudaganapitiyata yana para kiyanawada

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