Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
joins British High Commissioner Dr. Peter Hayes and his
family in Yala
2009 was going to be a very busy month for the Jetwing
Eco Holidays team. This month, we will be attending the
British Bird Fair for the 9th consecutive year. We would
need to re-visit some of the key wildlife tourism sites
prior to the Bird Fair with the office based operations
team to ground truth the current situation.
the sites themselves as well as the facilities in terms
of access, safari jeeps and boats, quality of
accommodation can change significantly within the course
of a year. A tour operator needs also to be like a
travel guide writer and make regular field visits to
stay in touch.
is especially true of wildlife tourism where site
factors can be complex and vary from the state of a
footpath to a dragonfly watching pond to keeping pace
with the shifting territories of leopards in Yala. An
experienced tourism operations executive team, Ganga
Weerasinghe, had joined us. But as he was new to
wildlife tourism he had to be brought up to speed
Talangama Wetland, Sinharaja, Kithulgala, Horton Plains,
Uda Walawe, Yala and Bundala were on the list of
essential sites to be covered in a span of a few weeks
in July and August.
Travel advisory relaxed
July 3, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)
relaxed the travel advisory which had previously advised
against travel to Block 1 of Yala (Ruhunu National
Park). This meant that once again travel insurance
covered British travellers to Yala. Other European
countries would hopefully follow suit and relax their
travel advisories in a similar way.
could then once again become a site of core business to
in-bound tour operators such as Jetwing Eco Holidays as
well as almost every tour operator in Sri Lanka who
included a game drive in Yala as part of a round trip
itinerary. Our guides visit Yala almost every few weeks.
However, it had been a few months since I had last been
to Yala with my operations team.
was with Shyamalee Tudawe the editor of Hi magazine,
when we went on leopard safari in March 2009. The
removal of the FCO advisory, a new member of staff and
the forthcoming Bird Fair meant there was a new urgency
to visit Yala and to be familiar first hand with the new
British High Commissioner Dr. Peter Hayes and his wife
Kirsty had planned a private family holiday with their
two children with two nights at Thimbrimankada Bungalow
inside Uda Walawe National Park and two nights at the
Yala Village Hotel close to the
They had very kindly invited me to join them.
A memorable day
fitted in perfectly with my plans to take new boy Ganga
on a rapid ground recce and we joined them for a
memorable day at Uda Walawe. We must have encountered
over 70-80 elephants, most of them in small family
groups throughout the day. The most memorable was when a
family group arrived at the lake in front of the
bungalow preceded by a single, large bull.
bull entered the water first, walked towards us, faced
us squarely and returned to the family where I presume
it was consorting with a receptive female. The family
arrived and drank and covered themselves in cooling mud.
Other family groups began to arrive in the noon day heat
with one family’s departure at the lake overlapping with
the arrival of another. Forty or more elephants cooled
off and accepted our presence under the shade of a
South-west Monsoon winds gusted and buffeted the exposed
bungalow and the Hayes decided to cut one night short at
Uda Walawe and we set out for an extra night in Yala.
The Elephant Reach Hotel and the Yala Village Hotel
supported the visit by my team. At the Yala Village
Hotel, Chitral Jayatilake the wildlife photographer
staged an illustrated talk followed by an atmospheric
dinner held outdoors.
engaged in five game drives, four of which were with Dr.
Peter Hayes. This gave us a very good grasp of the
ground situation. There were a few key changes which
have now come about. Visitors are once again allowed to
travel to all areas of Block 1. I also found the local
jeep drivers and guides are totally relaxed in
traversing all areas of Block 1.
Entry and exit times
Secondly there is a far more sensible arrangement in
terms of the entry and exit times for visitors. Tickets
are issued from 5.30 a.m which means that even outside
visitors (as opposed to those staying in inside park
bungalows) are also able have a chance of encountering
adult leopards in the morning who may be scent marking
their territories before closing off a night of
is especially important because of the work done to
brand Yala for its leopards. This work was begun by
Jetwing Hotels and Jetwing Eco Holidays and subsequently
continued by John Keells Hotels. Yala has now become one
of the premier destinations, if not the leading
destination in the world for dedicated leopard safaris.
safari vehicles are also allowed to leave the park at
6.30 p.m at dusk. This time may be revised to fit in
with the length of day. But at the time of our visit, it
meant that we could stay on late enough to watch a
mature male atop Kotigala come down and start patrolling
its territory in the evening.
rigid departure time of 6 p.m would have meant certain
aspects of leopard behaviour would not be available for
viewing by those not staying inside the park bungalows.
The park bungalows were not available for bookings at
the time of our visit and it may be several months
before they are vacated by the army and refurbished for
Patrolling goes on
not see army foot patrols within the park as on my
previous visit. The patrolling goes on, in the early and
late hours, discreetly to avoid giving negative signals
to visitors. Security at the entrance remains tight with
the group leader needing to fill in a form with his
identification and summary details on the demographics
of his group. Blank forms can be taken away and filled
However, when the Yala rush happens as is inevitable, I
can imagine delays unless multiple counters are set up
for screening. The security was reassuringly thorough.
They asked me to open my lens trunk for a 600 mm lens
and a hard case for a video, just to check on what is
being taken into the park.
park was very dry at the time of our visit as the
previous monsoons had failed. The Department of Wildlife
Conservation (DWLC) has over the last few years adopted
an active or interventionist approach to conservation
and maintained water at key water holes by regularly
topping up with water a series of concrete lined ‘bowls’
within the water holes.
Leopard sightings had been phenomenal since July and
fortunately there was no change during our three days in
the park. Much of the action centered around a mother
and her male and female cubs, which I estimate to be
just over a year. The two cubs are seen mainly at three
water holes, Kohomombagaswala, Siyambalagaswala and
Palugaswala No 1.
line drawn from Walmalkema to Palugaswala No 1 will form
a line from North-west to South-east connecting four
water holes which are within a 3 km line. On this line
we had the two cubs, male and female and a mature male
atop a rock at Walmal Kema. Others have had sighting of
the mother and two cubs making it four individual
leopards in a remarkably concentrated area.
A fleeting glimpse
first evening we were treated to a one hour viewing of
the male cub which approached the water hole and rolled
about in the sand. It was intrigued by the arrival of a
Ruddy Mongoose, but clearly had not yet learnt to hunt.
The mongoose took refuge under a fallen log whilst the
cub attempted to sniff it out. A lapse of concentration
by the leopard saw the mongoose bolting for cover.
after, the male cub climbed atop a fallen log. A large
male wild pig appeared and seemingly oblivious to the
leopard 20 meters away wallowed in the mud and left. The
cub was clearly intimidated by the wild boar. It then
approached the water to drink and snarled repeatedly at
the submerged, patrolling crocodiles. There were large
crocodiles in the water which were large enough to drag
in an elephant.
next morning we had a fleeting glimpse of a leopard
crossing the road where the main road branches off to
Uraniya. In the evening we headed to Kotigala as there
had been reports of a leopard climbing the rock. We
arrived to find a leopard being admired by several
safari vehicles. Leopards have becomes used to the
attention of safari vehicles and many tolerate them. It
has become easier and easier to take good photographs of
Photographers are now even finding that leopards are
consuming their kills besides the road without dragging
them away. This only helps to reinforce Sri Lanka as the
mature male atop Kotigala must have stayed over half an
hour to an adoring audience before it yawned, stretched
and ambled off the summit to merge a hundred meters away
and crossed the road. The British High Commissioner had
three individual leopards on three out of four game
drives. My score card read four individual leopards on
four out of five game drives between July 24. Inspired
by my text updates, Frederica Jansz visited Yala on July
25 and saw three leopards and a Sloth Bear in the
Patanangala area on one morning game drive.
not always this easy. I always advise people that there
is a 90 per cent chance of seeing leopards if you
undertake five game drives. This is a safe statistic
although there are periods when one or more sets of cubs
are performing and leopards seem so easy to see.
Hayes family and the Jetwing Eco Holidays team had
wonderful experiences in Yala. One morning we staked out
Rakinawala, one of the larger water holes. From 6.45 a.m
to 8.30 a.m we watched as a procession of mammals and
birds came into to the water to drink. A few hundred
Spotted Deer must have drunk demonstrating the density
of the prey, which enables such a high concentration of
leopards to be found.
often cite the statistic given to me by the late Ravi
Samarasinha that in this area of the park there can be
on average one leopard per square kilometre. This
statistic certainly ties in with what keen leopard
photographers have observed empirically. It is of course
not true of the entire protected area complex which
spans 1,200 square kilometers.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is CEO of Jetwing Eco
Holidays. He is a British Banker and Chartered
Accountant turned wildlife celebrity (firstname.lastname@example.org,
Post war: Hayes sees much hope
Dr. Peter Hayes
By Ashok Ferrey
Black stone walls of random rubble and the sibilant hiss
of stainless steel doors closing silently behind you.
Terrazzo floors the colour and translucence of melted
butter. And everywhere the sound of water, flowing round
and round in its inexorable way, carrying with it just
the faintest whiff of danger...
You could be forgiven for imagining I had just been
airdropped into the impregnable country fortress of some
reclusive arms dealer, a sort of Sri Lankan Dr. No. But
no, I am here to meet that other Doctor, the genial
Peter Hayes, British High Commissioner in Colombo.
Q: Peter, you have been here for one and a half years
now and there has been something of a change of pace
from before. Are you a quiet person?
No. My approach is this: I start off by trying to
understand the country I am in, by listening more than
talking. Not only to politicians and religious leaders,
but to ordinary people as well. I feel that it’s a
respectful approach to building a solid relationship.
Contrary to all the stories you hear, 99 per cent of
people have a warm regard for Britain. I like to think
of myself as an honest friend, who doesn’t always agree
with you but is always consistent, and doesn’t say one
thing to one person and another to someone else.
Q: Last month you lifted the travel advisory, and now
British tourists are no longer advised to keep off
certain parts of the country.
Trinco, Arugam Bay and Yala are now very much back
on. The rest of the East we would advise people to visit
only if they have work there; and the North is still
no-go. This opening up process is a gradual one, not
something you would expect to happen overnight.
Q: Will there be a huge influx of tourists from the UK?
Apart from India, UK has the biggest number of visitors
to Sri Lanka. This year I believe there were 96,000.
There is a time delay — people in England have already
booked their winter holidays — so I would expect the
increase to take place next year.
Q: You yourself were in Yala last weekend?
Indeed. We had an amazing time! The trackers did a
marvellous job and we saw four leopards — two very good
sightings. One leopard was sitting on the far side of a
water hole, on a log. He chased a mongoose and then a
wild pig, and at one stage came down to the water and
snarled at what must have been a crocodile in the water.
We were able to watch for about half an hour!
Q: However are you still advising all British Nationals
to beware of terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka?
Yes we are. We do believe there is still a certain
degree of threat and so — yes, we are still compelled to
warn them. Sri Lanka is still listed amongst countries
where there is a possibility of a terrorist attack.
Q: Did you also go to Hambantota?
I had already visited it. There’s a huge amount of
work going on there. We too are involved in
infrastructure projects, building bridges. Not just
flyovers but actual bridges, connecting rural
communities with each other. I am struck by the amazing
diversity of the South, and the tremendous scope for
development. There is a moment of opportunity here that
must not be missed. Learning from the mistakes we all
made in the past, one can hopefully develop these areas
in an environmentally sustainable way.
Q: In the one and a half years you have been here, have
you seen a change in the attitudes of us Sri Lankans?
Certainly since the end of the war I’ve seen a huge
upsurge of hope about the future. This hope has to be
developed upon. We need to leave the conflict behind and
work towards a new beginning. From the UK’s point of
view, our job is to help make this happen.
Q: Tell me about this amazing building — it’s just been
shortlisted for the Lubetkin Prize hasn’t it?
We were in there with the Bird’s Nest and the Water
Cube. It’s not often a government building can claim
such an honour — the prize went to the Bird’s Nest, of
course, but still!
building is a very good example of a joint effort (the
UK architect was Richard Murphy, in collaboration with
Sri Lanka’s Milroy and Arosh Perera), and as you can see
they have incorporated a lot of what may be termed Bawa
features — courtyards and walkways and reflecting
Q: And of course you don’t have far to go to work now,
since you live next door. You have two young kids (of
five and three). This must be the first time there have
been such young children at the residence. Has that
presented a challenge?
There’ve never been children this age before! So
we’ve had to raise the railings on the stairs and
balcony and so on. But my children have settled in very
well. For instance, we tend to have rice and curry when
we eat at home, and my son Jasper asks for “hot curry” —
he loves it!
Q: Your wife Kirsty has a previous connection to Sri
Lanka, doesn’t she?
Kirsty’s grandfather was born here — they were lawyers
with the family firm Liesching and Lee. The firm still
exists, though it is not now theirs. Her other relations
were the Layards (as in Layards Road and Layards
Broadway). There’s also a Layard’s Parakeet, so they
were naturalists too!
Q: And you’ve been doing work on your garden?
With the help of Ruk Rakaganno we’ve been planting a lot
of indigenous trees in the garden. The President himself
planted an Ironwood Tree (Na Gaha) when he visited. It’s
amazing how the birdlife has increased as a result — we
now even have a kingfisher.
Q: And finally, I understand there’s a kitten currently
quartered in your bedroom!
We have lots of pets — two dogs (that we got from the
Rescue when we were in Washington), rabbits, the odd
turtle that appears in the pond, and of course the
snakes that the dogs drag into the house half-dead! Last
week we adopted a stray kitten from Embark. It hasn’t
been introduced to the dogs yet. Till then it’s in the
bedroom, I’m afraid!”