Sunday, March 6, 2011

Living treasures of Udawalawe

After a four-hour drive from Colombo via Rathnapura, Pelmadulla and Udawalawe junction, you can reach the sixth largest animal sanctuary of Sri Lanka - the Udawalawe National Park. The park encloses an area of 30,821 hectares, and is bordered by the Southern and Uva provinces. When the Udawalawe reservoir was constructed, many animals lost their natural habitats. As a result, in 1972 this area was declared as a national park.
Another reason for Udawalawe to be considered for elephant reservation, was to ensure the availability of water, from the Udawalwe reservoir and Mau Ara basin, even in the driest periods. This park is a popular travel destination among locals as well as foreigners, and is open throughout the year.
Elephants are a common sight in Udawalawe. They can be observed at any time of the day. Rehabilitated elephants from the Elephant transit home are released primarily to the Park. Besides the elephants, recent investigations have recorded 21 species of fish, 12 species of amphibians, 18 species of snakes, 15 species of tetra pod reptiles, 184 species of birds and 39 species of mammals. "Excepting for bears almost all varieties of dry zone animals live here," a volunteer guard of the park, L.D. Mahesh said. There are many water buffaloes all around the park. Spotted and barking deer, jackal, wild boar, and grey and striped necked mongoose are some of the fascinating animals found in the park. It is said that leopards, jungle and fishing cats have been spotted; however, their sightings are very rare.
"The park is famous for birds as well," said Mahesh. "The numbers of bird varieties are almost equal to Kumana, a bird lover can find many birds here, " he added. The Crested serpent eagle, white-billed sea eagle, painted stork, Blue face Malkoha, Lanka Junglefowl, and warblers are some of the bird varieties seen at the park.
The vegetation of the park also plays an important role. Out of the recorded plant species, three are endemic and one is considered as threatened. The bio-diversity of the park is quite high, despite the much-degraded vegetation cover. There are pockets of natural Intermediate Zone forest, stripes of Riparian forests and some pockets where Natural Succession is advancing.
All these amount to significant biodiversity pockets. The main tree species found in the forest area are the Satin, Milla, Ebony and Ehala. Riverine forests dominated by Kumbuk & Mandora, Mana, Illuk, and Daminiya are found in grasslands and scrublands. At the time of the park declaration, there were many settlements inside the area concerned, and a major part of the Park was cleared for shifting cultivation. Most of the high forest was practically destroyed. What remained of the forest was the forest areas associated with Rock Knob Plains and shallow soil areas that were unsuitable for agriculture.
Other than going on a safari, visitors can also stay in one of the five bungalows or go camping at one of the four camping sites. At all these sites, a guide will be there for you to instruct on safety precautions, rules and regulations in the park. These bungalows and campsites can be booked through the Department of Wildlife Conservation head office.Visitors need to comply with some rules. As we all know, the Udawalawe National Park is home to many animals. These animals love to live in peace.
Keeping quiet and not using any musical instruments when you are in the park is definitely a superb practice. Using plastics and polythene is also prohibited. Something Very important is not to feed these animals. Whatever the rule is, many people feed the elephants who found along the Uda Walawe- Thanamalwila road. We counted 10elephants in a morning and seven elephants in an evening.
"These elephants stand near the electric fence all day. They hardly go into the jungle seeking for food," said Piyadasa, a villager. These elephants become very excited when any person walks towards them. "Despite the boards stating that elephants should not be fed, people still continue to feed these elephants, bananas and other fruits," he added.
However, we noticed that these boards were not visible from the road and some were even discoloured. When inquired from the Department, an officer said they would look into the matter. When people go on a safari, every vehicle is sent along with a tour guide who is trained by the Department. The guide knows all the rules and regulations that visitors need to abide by. "If a visitor spots a group which not obeying these rules if they are shouting or feeding the animals, they can make a complaint at the gate giving the vehicle number of the offending party.
Then the Department would restrict the vehicle from entering the park premises. The tour guide will also be penalised. If it is a department guide, he will face the penalty and a volunteer guide will lose his licence," an officer from the Department of Wildlife Conservation said. "One of the main problems we have is the buffaloes and bulls. There are so many inside the park. They eat greater part of the grasslands, leaving elephants in hunger," officer explained further. Another problem the department faces is wildfires. Sometimes these fires starts with a little cigarette butt or a matchstick destroying a huge area. Fire belts have been created to avoid such fires from spreading over to a greater portion of the park.
These are strips of lands where forest cover has been removed. In other words, what we use as roads are the fire belts. In addition, well-trained wildlife officers can successfully handle an emergency like this. As responsible citizens, we also have a duty. These are treasures of our country.
Therefore, it is necessary to comply with the rules of the Department. Let us protect the forest and animals for future generations!

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