Camera Traps Disclose High Density of Leopard in Wilpattu National Park

A long term project in camera trapping in Sri Lanka began in Wilpattu National Park (WNP) in 2018, with the aim of estimating population density, structure and threats of carnivores within the boundaries of the park, namely Leopard.

Over the last decade, camera traps and the candid images and videos that they produce have been featured in countless documentaries, are widely shared on social media and have been the focus of conservation efforts in establishing populations of animals in the wild. A long term project in camera trapping in Sri Lanka began in Wilpattu National Park (WNP) in 2018, with the aim of estimating population density, structure and threats of carnivores within the boundaries of the park, namely Leopard.

Continue reading “Camera Traps Disclose High Density of Leopard in Wilpattu National Park”

WNPS: 126 years of wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka

Now in its 126th year, we look back at the Society’s immense contribution towards Sri Lanka’s wildlife and nature conservation, with insights from WNPS General Secretary Jehan CanagaRetna.

First established in 1894 as the Ceylon Game Protection Society with the sole purpose of reporting on laws relating to the protection of game, the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) is the world’s 3rd oldest functioning civil society. Continue reading “WNPS: 126 years of wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka”

Part II on Sri Lanka’s Crocodiles: Behavioral traits of an apex predator

The temperament between the two species has been known to vary; while Mugger crocodiles have been observed to show a lighter temperament (due to being more social), the Saltwater crocodile has been observed to display a more aggressive temperament, owing to its territorial nature. Both crocodylians however, are known to be man-eaters.

Picking up from our last piece on Sri Lankan crocodylians, the following blog shares insights to the traits of our apex reptilian predator in hunting its prey and attacks on humans. Having existed virtually unchanged for the past 100 million years, the Saltwater (‘salties’) and Marsh (‘Mugger’) crocodiles that are found in Sri Lanka have been identified over recent years to display traits distinct to each species.  Continue reading “Part II on Sri Lanka’s Crocodiles: Behavioral traits of an apex predator”

Sri Lanka’s Crocodiles: insights to Marsh and Saltwater Crocodiles

Often referred to as the closest living creature from the period of dinosaurs, crocodiles date back some 230 million years, and have existed virtually unchanged for the past 65 million years. Lead researcher Dinal Samarasinghe gives us insights in the first of our series covering these ancient reptiles.

Often referred to as the closest living creature from the period of dinosaurs, crocodiles date back some 230 million years, and have existed virtually unchanged for the past 65 million years. Leading crocodile researcher Dinal Samarasinghe gives us insights in the first of our series covering these ancient reptiles.

Continue reading “Sri Lanka’s Crocodiles: insights to Marsh and Saltwater Crocodiles”

ROAMING LONERS: INSIGHTS TO MALE ELEPHANT BEHAVIOR IN SRI LANKA

Two male elephants in Yala, named Humpy and Nelum, shadow each other over a period of months, but are careful to not make any contact or acknowledgement of the other. They turn up in the same grasslands and water holes, yet it’s as if a purposeful avoidance of the other is in place.

The first in a 12-part series touching on the unique characteristics of the island’s nomadic land giants.

IMG_0358
A tusker approaches two bull elephants, what happens next is intriguing

With tourists in their thousands flocking to Minneriya to catch sight of the great elephant gathering, we wrapped up September by taking the alternative route, like we usually do, seeking out the land’s largest mammals at lesser known Kaudella and Kala Wewa National Parks, the latter of which is home to the island’s highest density of tuskers.

We had the privilege of having Environmental Scientist and Elephant Ethologist Sumith Pilapitiya with us, and the following piece sheds some interesting insights to characteristics of high ranking Asian male elephants.

Kalawewa
Built in 307 B.C., Kala Wewa is a wonder of primeval hydraulic engineering set against the magical and stunning backdrop of the Ritigala Mountain Range.

Breaking away 

Male Elephants are non-confrontational beings if unprovoked, adhering to a strict code of a natural hierarchical order to maintain the peace, and, they are wanderers from adolescence. Branching out between the ages of 12 to 15 years, a young male elephant begins a lifelong journey, largely alone or in temporary male groups, except when a female is in estrus when he mingles with a herd, which take him from one mate to the next, with the main objective of fathering as many offspring as it possibly can in its 60 or 70-year life span.

Friend or Foe?

Two male elephants in Yala, named Humpy and Nelum, shadow each other over a period of months, but are careful to not make any contact or acknowledgement of the other. They turn up in the same grasslands and water holes, yet it’s as if a purposeful avoidance of the other is in place. Pilapitiya is certain of a history between the two, perhaps a past relationship or a family link, but as far as evidence goes, they remain complete strangers who share the same landscape.

IMG_0335
The bull swims away from his friend, leaving him to spar with the tusker in musth in the waters of Kala Wewa in the Kala Wewa National Park. Bull elephants, especially when confronted with another in musth, opt to back away than risk a confrontation.

FACT: 

  • The probability of a male elephant in musth raiding agricultural crops is greatly reduced (despite the bull’s testosterone hike of 5-6 times the norm) as its focus shifts from food, to finding a mate.

Ancient rules apply today 

Pilapitiya’s research confirms that abiding by the ancient structures of hierarchy, allows only the strongest and most experienced males to dominate lower ranking bulls which gives them a distinct advantage during mating.  The dominance hierarchy among males can be overturned, occasionally, if a lower ranking bull in musth challenges a higher ranking non-musth bull.  These confrontations can sometimes end in death of a bull. This was evident in Yala National Park recently, when a high ranking, but non-musth tusker named Thilak was gored to death by a lower ranking single tusker in musth.

The state of musth confers an advantage during mating as estrus females prefer to be mated by large musth bulls. The musth male guards the estrus female and mates with her several times during her estrus period of four to six days. Towards the end of her estrus, the bull loses interest in her and moves on in search of the next receptive female, leaving the female to raise the calf by herself with help from her herd. “Males leaving their natal herd and their ‘loner’ behavior,” Pilapitiya speculates, “is nature’s way of limiting inbreeding.”

But that isn’t to say male elephants spend their non-musth time in complete solitude; It’s a good a time as any to catch up with male peers; sparring only with other males, especially those known to them, akin to old mates meeting at the bar, as seen in bull herds, as the males we caught on camera in Kala Wewa.

Life as an elephant – simple as breathing, hard as death, the joy and the sadness of being alive. Nothing was ever easy for them. But nothing was ever as strong, either. 

ABOUT SUMITH PILAPITIYA

Sumith Pilapitiya was formally Lead Environmental Specialist for the South Asia Region of the World Bank and former Director General of Wildlife Conservation in Sri Lanka. He has personal research interests in elephant conservation and addressing the human elephant conflict and has been working on elephant social behavior in Yala National Park and the surrounding landscape. 

 

 

Rare Sightings;the Thick-billed Flowerpecker

Here’s a throwback to a rare August sighting; a Thick-billed Flowerpecker feeding her hungry newborns some over ripened pallu.

edit 2
Sweet palu is a favorite among Thick Billed Flowerpeckers

Here’s a throwback to a rare August sighting; a Thick-billed Flowerpecker feeding her hungry newborns some over ripened pallu. A resident all across tropical southern Asia, from north eastern India to East Timor, these short and stout birds forage and nest at great heights, sometimes as high as 15 meters in the forest canopy, which make sightings incredibly rare. Continue reading “Rare Sightings;the Thick-billed Flowerpecker”

Rock Chicks – with a twist!

Wildlife is our business, but this special sighting took even us by surprise!

On an evening walk in a sleepy corner of Sri Lanka’s east coast, south of the popular surfing town Arugambay, we came across a birders’ dream! ! A pair of recently-hatched chicks on Crocodile Rock … read on to see which species!

While commercial tourism [with the great tunnel-vision that it is known for] promotes Arugambay is a “surfing destination”, its proximity to wildlife and sites of archeological significance are often overlooked (maybe just as well!) 🙂

We often do a guided a walk to explore the area surrounding our beach bungalow Kudakalliya, a few clicks south of Arugambay and away from the busy area of the town.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0021.JPG
Kudakalliya Bungalow overlooks a little estuary teeming with wildlife. Look closely to see one of the wild elephants who visit us !

That evening, we were exploring the mass of rocks and lagoons around “Crocodile Rock” which sits directly opposite our bungalow. The rock complex is flanked by beach, the ocean, a brackish water estuary and paddy fields. The combination results in some phenomenal biodiversity!

A walk on crocodile rock is usually an exercise of hypothesising and piecing together the history of this area, which appears to hold fascinating tales of ancient civilisation. A simple example of which is the series of steps cut out into the rock (with meticulous workmanship mind you).

KK Greater Thick Knee-2
Fascinating archeological site – these steps are centuries old. Who lived here? Geographically in the middle of nowhere, but archeologically this rock is flanked by a gorgeous beach, an estuary, fed by inland fresh water and jungle. Whoever lived here had perfected the art of chilling 🙂 

The captivating vistas that merges the gold, blue, green and golden hues of paddy, jungle, beach and waterways keep you staring out over the horizon at the best of times, and amidst our guides’ chatter about the history of this area and how people may have lived here and what they may have done here centuries ago, we almost missed this pair of Great Thick-knee (Great Stone Plover) chicks, hidden beautifully with the contours and colours of the rock!!

KK Greater Thick Knee-1
Cute! If you like your baby birds packing attitude 🙂

They were huddled together quietly trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves while preserving the last of the warmth of the rock as the sun on another stunning Arugambay evening.  The mother was probably out scouring for some grub before nightfall and would return shortly so we quickly left them, undisturbed.

KK Greater Thick Knee-3
Camouflaged too well for most predators…

Hmmmm who lived here?

Unlike mammals, baby birds can look quite different to their grown up plumage – below is an adult Great Thick-knee at our Kulu Safaris campsite, one of the best accommodation options on the border of Yala National Park.

 

https://www.instagram.com/p/BU4QtVtFNxa/?taken-by=shehanrama

Kudakalliya is the ideal location for the adventure seeker with a discerning taste for wildlife. A relaxed beach holiday that is enriched with wildlife at your door-step, Kumana National Park within an hour’s drive away, and the world famous Arugambay surf town a few doors down is quite compelling 🙂 But by law, we have to provide the disclaimer that once you spend a few days here, off-grid, in the company of waves, elephants, birds and spicy Sri Lankan food, there is a high risk of saying “F*&%-it” to your urban life 🙂

We look forward to receiving those who dare!

Kulu KK Stills WM BR-11
View from our bungalow – a pair of wild bull elephants begin their evening supper on the fodder of an off-season paddy field. 

 

2 Leopard Cubs, a Log, and An Afternoon in the Presence of the Heirs of the Jungle

A pictorial essay of just one of the amazing leopard sightings we have been treated to in February and March this year.

The opening of “Block 5” of the Yala National Park a couple of years ago was a much welcome addition to Sri Lanka’s wildlife offering, and much needed diversification from the often crowded Block 1.  The wildlife has been rich, with great sightings of rare migrant birds, small herds of elephants, plenty of deer, and other interesting mammals. However, this block has been one of the best places to see leopards in Sri Lanka (arguably in the world?!?!), and recently we were treated to a special afternoon with two comfortable and relaxed cats.

Kulu Feb 2017 2Leo Formatted-1
Mom and 2 of her cubs wander out into the open for all to see

The sighting
On a quiet afternoon drive while on safari with our guests last month, we came across an amazing leopard sighting — two cubs from the celebrated litter who have becomes the stars of this sector of Yala were out to play.  These 2 cubs were being observed by another safari jeep when we pulled up, but we kept our distance and they didn’t pay us much attention.

The two sub-adult cubs were briefly joined by a third leopard, who resembled their mother at that distance. With the same stealth that she had appeared to check the location of the cubs and give them notice on where she expects to find them later, she slunk away quietly in a sheer act of genius — as the two clubs were playing in the open, the jungle’s attention was on them. This would give her a great opportunity to spring an ambush from the flank. (Similar to the clip below!):

Watching sub-adult cubs always raises several contrasting emotions. At this age (about one and a half years old), they are still playful, a tad clumsy and extremely animated — especially if they have siblings to play-fight with. But it is also an awkward age for them because they soon will be independent (in about six months’ time) and will have to start charting their own path of life and solidify their own territory. Staying true to their age, they stalked and ambushed each other, and also displayed a lot of affection to each other that drew many heartfelt “awwww”s from the guests in our jeep 🙂

Kulu Feb 2017 2Leo Formatted-3
Tail up means playtime and hunting is left to mom

These cubs have become one of the key attractions of Block 5 and are often spotted in this quadrant of the park (which we conclude is their mother’s territory), mainly in the afternoon. This particular sighting lasted for approx. 30 minutes and we were lucky to have good light to document this experience.

Block 5 has a perfect environment for Leopards to give birth to 2 or 3 cubs (while less rare in Africa, Yala’s female leopards have littered multiple cubs quite frequently in the recent past), as the pray density is large with one of the largest herds of spotted Deer we have seen in a very long time in ANY of the National Parks. This is mainly due to the fact that during the war, the road from Sella Kataragama to Buttala was cleared on either side for approx. 100 meters (as well as the road thru Block 5 to the weheragala Dam) for security reasons — due to the risk of ambush. This opened up large tracts of grass land for the herbivores and currently the 100 meter gap is being maintained by DWC from the Galge Entrance until the Weheragala Dam.

Sunset over a waterhole in Yala National Park – Block 5:

This also habituated the deer population in this sector because it was close to the road, as there was a reasonable amount of traffic to and from the dam. From the cleared jungle area emerged a lush tract of grass on which deer now graze in abundance. The lower threat of poaching due to both the presence of military until recently, as well as visibility also helped both prey and predator thrive.

Kulu Feb 2017 2Leo Formatted-4
One of the world’s most lethal hunters looking quite comical and playful 

Sightings of very shy Leopards in this part the park were seen in open areas, especially while they were hunting (which is quite rare for Sri Lankan national parks).  We noticed in the past 3 years that the Leopards in Yala Block 5 have become distinctly more habituated to vehicular traffic much faster than in Block 1. Two key reasons we suspect are: 1) While Block 1 claims to host some of the highest leopard density in the world, it is also arguably some of the highest vehicle density for any National Park in the world! Hence, the disturbance rate to animals is higher. 2). Block 1 consists of heavier and thicker vegetation, which means most sightings are at a close proximity to the leopards; Block 5 features more open areas and fewer roads, so visitors can observe undisturbed leopard behaviour for longer (quality sightings) from outside the cats’ comfort zone.

Feb 2017 Leo Sighting iv-6
A leopard stalking prey at the base of the dam (perfect golden light too!)

Feb 2017 Leo Sighting iv-7
One of our guests tracking its movements through binoculars

The  area of the recent sighting was at the base of the Weheragala Dam. The lower road that runs parallel to the dam is constantly wet and slightly water logged due to the ground water seepage from the water collected in the dam. There are many tall trees that we see dead — most were felled during the construction of the dam, and some have died due to excess water.

This grass is again found only in this section of the park and possibly its thriving due to the constant moisture and wetness from the reservoir. The buffalos seem to like the grass; however we seldom see smaller herbivores nor elephants feeding on this grass. This phenomenon is worth a bit of research.

Kulu Feb 2017 2Leo Formatted-5
The highlight of any holiday would be an afternoon spent with such beautiful animals

The cubs commandeered a log as their prop of choice for the evening, and continued their shenanigans as the light faded. We eventually had to leave the cubs as darkness was falling and we had to exit the park. We hoped that the mom had a successful hunt that evening and the cubs were able to feed.

Leopard sightings in the first quarter of this year (2017) have been off to a flying start – please follow us on Instagram  @kulu_safaris to keep up with the latest sightings and snippets on interesting animal behaviour that we have observed.

Kulu’s Yala Camp has been a Birdwatcher’s Dream this January

21 Species including 7 migrants in the space of a few hours – a great morning of birdwatching at our very own campsite by the Yala National Park.

Recently (January 2017), we took a morning off from a typical game drive, and hung back at camp with one of our guests to enjoy the calm and tranquility of waking up with the birds. Kulu Safaris’ camp is located on the fringe of Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, famed for its leopard sightings.  Yala is home to not just wildlife, but a rich spectrum of birdlife as well.  The nature of commercial activity in the park has not won Yala as a birdwatcher’s paradise in Sri Lanka (yet!). But to the keen birdwatcher, a little treasure of a birding destination awaits.

Since most of the other guests were on game drives that day, there was very little human activity on our 6-acre property of regenerating forest-land, on which we offer 6 semi-luxury tents. Dawn broke over a chilly January morning, and the strong mocha-pot coffee was gulped down. As our last Land Cruiser  made its way out of camp, the only audible sounds was the chirping of birdcalls. Dressed in our khakis and equipped with cameras and binoculars, we stealthily took a gander through the many wooded path ways that snake in and around camp.

We eventually slipped beyond the camp fence and onto the dry lake-bed  in front of camp. Due to the drought, we recorded a very different portfolio of birds, compared to the usual visitors that would have comprised of teals, terns, plovers, storks and waders.

In a 6-hour span, we were able to photograph 21 species of birds, of which 7 were winter migrants. Migrants typically visit us from November through around March. Other migrants who were around, but escaped our lens included the Indian Pitta, Yellow Wagtail, and Brahminy Starling.

Below is a quick photo essay of our sightings from that special morning, this January. Follow our Instagram account @kulu_safaris to stay up to date of all our sightings.

Please write to us at safari@kulusafaris.com with any questions.

Enjoy!

kulu-camp-birds-jan17-sr-wm-1
Red-vented Bulbul (resident)

kulu-camp-birds-jan17-sr-wm-2
Purple Sunbird (resident)

kulu-camp-birds-jan17-sr-wm-40
Purple-rumped Sunbird (resident)

kulu-ch-bee-eater-feb-3-wm-br
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater (uncommon resident)

img_20170126_193932
Ever the entertainer: Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Winter migrant)

A pair of Small Minivets (male and female) (uncommon residents) add a some flashes of striking colour.

Two very special guests – winter visitors, both at camp, made the decision to hang back at camp totally worth it! An Orange-headed Thrush, and what we suspect is a pale-morph Booted Eagle.

kulu-camp-birds-jan17-sr-wm-18
Orange-headed Thrush (rare winter migrant)

img_20170126_193824
Pale-morph Booted Eagle (very rare winter migrant)

kulu-camp-birds-jan17-sr-wm-29
Brown Shrike / Philippine Shrike

kulu-camp-birds-jan17-sr-wm-6
Barn Swallow (Hirundo Rustica) Common winter migrant

kulu-camp-birds-jan17-sr-wm-39
Sri Lanka Woodshrike (resident)

kulu-camp-birds-jan17-sr-wm-28
Grey-bellied Cuckoo (uncommon winter migrant)

img_20170126_193954
White-browed Bulbul

 

kulu-camp-birds-jan17-sr-wm-35
Asian Paradise-flycatcher (common resident)

kulu-camp-birds-jan17-sr-wm-33
White-browed Fantail (common resident)

kulu-camp-birds-jan17-sr-wm-12
Blythe’s Pipit (Regular winter migrant)

Kulu Camp Birds Jan17 SR WM-41.jpg
Common Tailorbird (common resident)

A Hawk-eagle caught what may have been a giant squirrel and invited himself over for lunch …

img_20170126_193852
Common Iora (common resident)

Of course, the best part of birdwatching is sitting back with a beverage 🙂

And, complete list of birds that you may see in Sri Lanka is found in our Field Notebook that can be found in each tent.

Kulu Safaris Campsite in Yala is a great base for the avid birder and wildlife observer, who enjoys an experiential twist to their holiday in Sri Lanka. Visit http://www.kulusafaris.com or write to us at safari@kulusafaris.com to insure about your next birding visit!

Sri Lanka’s Migrant Birding Season Begins!

Kulu’s guide Ramani is looking forward to this year’s migrant birding season in Yala National Park! Here’s what to expect:

The annual journey of migrant birds to Sri Lanka is now in effect!  It typically starts around mid-August during the start of the Northern Autumn and extends into April.

Approximately 200 bird species can be expected to fly in from Northern India, Siberia, Scandinavia and Western Europe. But not all our visitors are from the North. Some pelagic species of seabirds like Shearwaters, Petrels, and Noddies migrate to Sri Lankan waters from Southern Oceanic islands during the southern hemisphere’s winter (March-October).

These seasonal migrations which are thousands of miles long have captured man’s curiosity and awe for millennia. Birds migrate for various reasons, and many of which are complex and not fully understood. The simpler explanations include ease of sourcing food, safe breeding grounds, and favourable weather.

The specific routes they take may be genetically programmed or learned to varying degrees. Many (but not all) take the same routes to return home.

And not all birds return after the winter. The immature birds of many wader species spend the 2nd year of their life in Sri Lanka, instead of immediately returning to their breeding grounds. They leave for breeding when they have reached maturity the following year.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BFc3VW_o0Tn/?taken-by=shehanrama

Yala National Park is well suited to host a broad array of birds because of its diverse ecology. During migrant season, Yala is home to a long list of visiting waders, shorebirds and forest birds so make sure to keep a look out on your game drive. Especially around water holes and lagoons.

dodo-guide-kids-jan16
A Kulu guide does a birding walk with some kids at camp

The location of our camp in Yala makes it a great place for bird watching as well! The lake in front of camp fills up with the November rains and birdlife in and around your tent is plenty! This is great for kids because we can keep them occupied with birding and nature walks 🙂

You can enjoy a great view of some of these migrants from the deck of your tent or sit out by the water in the morning and watch these vibrantly coloured bombers whizz by while you sip your coffee. Commons winter visitors at camp include Blue Tailed Bee Eaters, Indian Pitta, Forest Wagtail, Brown Shrike, and the Bhahminy Myna. We’ll also be on the lookout for waders once the lake in front of camp fills up. Heading out on the water early morning, in one of our kayaks with a pair of binoculars is a great way observe birds!

During game drives, we will be scouring the waterholes and marshlands in Yala for a host of waders and shorebirds that include several species of duck (Gargany, Pintail and Teal), Plovers, Stints, Sandpipers and Terns. We’ll also be on the lookout for the famous Combed Duck who returned to Sri Lanka in 2012, after 80 years in exile 🙂

Whichever you choose, migrant season has begun and we look forward to hosting our winter visitors on your annual trek to Sri Lanka 🙂

Kulu Safaris guide Ramani is one of the most passionate birders on our team of guides. Shas been involved in bird research projects in the past, and has had some great exposure to the nuances of bird behaviour and their habits. Ramani has also worked with some ornithological experts during their research projects in Sri Lanka. 

kulu-pair-seated-lake-view-solitude-jan16-wm-br
Bird watching is a great way to disconnect from the grid and spend time with nature