Destinations: Willpattu

Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu National Park is among the oldest and most important of protected areas in Sri Lanka. Being 131,693 hectares in extent it is also the largest, although visitors can only tour some 25% at present. The area was designated a sanctuary in 1905 and upgraded to a national park in 1938. The main physical feature of the park is the villus, or lakes, that dot the landscape. Indeed, the name of the area, Wilpattu (Villu-pattu), means Land of Lakes. A villu is a basin-like depression in the earth containing rainwater that is peculiar to this part of the island. Large flocks of water birds and herds of wild animals come to the villus to quench their thirst – cautiously, however, for these lakes are also the home of crocodiles. Another striking feature, though confined to certain sections of the park, is the copper-red soil, after which Vijaya named the island Tambapanni, (copper-coloured).Much legend and history is associated with the park and its immediate surroundings. Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhalese race, is said to have landed at Kudramalai, at the northernmost point of the park, in 543 BC. Kudramalai boasted an ancient civilization and was the location of the palace of the intriguing Princess Alliarasany. A subject of Emperor Claudius who was blown off course by the monsoon visited the city in 47AD. When the winds were favourable he left for home taking with him possibly the first ambassadors to leave the shores of the island, certainly the first to leave for Rome. This was during the time of Pliny, who writes of a large settlement at Kudramalai visited by Roman sailors.The best time to visit Wilpattu is between February and October.

Flora

There is salt grass and low scrub adjacent to the beach. Just inland is a belt of low scrub. Further inland still is monsoon forest with tall species such as burutha or satinwood (Chloroxylon swietenia), kaluwara or ebony (Diospyros ebenum), and palu (Manilkara hexandra) – the fruits of which are prized by the park’s sloth bears. Some 75% of the park is dense forest or scrub.

Fauna

A total of 31 species of mammal have been recorded, including the elephant (Elephas maximus), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), leopard (Panthera pardus) water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), and spotted deer (Axis axis ceylonensis).

Avifauna

The villus support a variety of resident and migratory waterfowl, including large breeding populations of painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala) an open-billed stork (Anastomus oscitans). Other wetland species include garganey (Anas querquedula), northern pintail (Anas acuta),
lesser whistling-duck (Dendrocygna javanica), Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus), and purple heron (Ardea purpurea).In the vicinity of the villus can be found the little tern (Sterna albifrons), gull-billed tern (Gelochelidon nilotica), whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybridus), great stone-curlew (Esacus recurvirostris), and red-wattled lapwing (vanellus indicus).

 

Among the more noticeable forest or scrub birds are the greater racquet-tailed drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus), Asian paradise flycatcher (Tersiphone paradisi), crimson-breasted barbet (Megalaima haemacephala), brown-headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica), Malabar pied hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus), kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), and nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus).

Common raptors include crested serpent eagle (Spilornis cheela), white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) and crested hawk eagle (Spizaetus cirrhatus).

Reptiles to be found at Wilpattu include freshwater turtles, such as the common terrapin (Melanochelys trijuga) and soft terrapin (Lissemys puctata), in most of the larger villus. The star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) is common in the grasslands. Then there is the Sri Lanka swamp crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) and the cobra (Naja naja).

Also found here is Sri Lanka’s largest snake, the python (Python molurus pimbura). If you are lucky you might see one of the most spectacular sights of the predatory world – a python in the process of swallowing a deer. There are claims that pythons from 20 – 30 feet in length exist – or once existed – on the island, putting them in the zoological category of giant snakes.