Singharaja – Endemic Birds and Inquisitive Young People

I wanted to spend the last full day of my Sri Lankan holidays in one of the many nature reserves to learn more about the country’s biodiversity and to take photos. I would have loved to visit Yala National Park with its incredible wildlife again, which I had already been to with my brother just before the 2004 tsunami. However, the distance to get there was too great, so that I preferred to settle for something easier to reach. Singharaja Rainforest Reserve in the southwestern part of Sri Lanka sounded the most tempting, as it was said to be the last pristine stretch of rainforest on the island and to host many endemic birds and plants. I had arranged a car and driver, who would safely take me from Nuwara Eliya to Singharaja’s western entrance, and had also booked my accommodation in Martin’s Lodge, a simple but very popular place right next to the park entrance, which I reached after 7 long hours in the car and a steep climb up from the rangers’ office. The guide taking me there used his chance efficiently and persuaded me to book him as a guide that same evening as well as on the following day. He was nice alright but annoyed me by flicking his cigarette butts on the ground and being a bit too curious. Since my time was limited though and I didn’t want to argue, I settled with him. That same evening we went out on a quick birding tour, we saw and heard several species, and I gained a better feeling for the rainforest.

The next day was packed with nature experiences. In the morning we climbed up one of the peaks in Singharaja, allowing me to see the unlimited rainforest canopy from the top, as well as little frogs, colourful lizards and huge spiders. In the afternoon, we went bird-watching and again saw and heard several species: drongos, flycatchers, magpies, sunbirds, parakeets, mynas, junglefowl etc., many of which can only be found in Sri Lanka. The giants of the forest mainly comprise the Dipterocarpaceae, a tree family I had already encountered in Vietnam’s rainforests. One of the species was a Nawada tree, which also reached great dimensions and was said to be hundreds of years old. Singharaja was unusually dry, however. It hadn’t rained for a few weeks, many leaves were dead and the undergrowth sparse. “Normally you can’t see very far, as the vegetation is so lush and dense”, my guide explained. Hopefully the rain starts setting in soon again, as the ecosystem with its intricate network of relationships wouldn’t function properly without it anymore.

The dearest memories I have of my Singharaja visit do not involve the beautiful birds and reptiles, however, but incredibly interesting people. During my two nights at the lodge, I became acquainted with a local tour guide, Amila, and his Swedish guest, Andreas, who just seemed to know every living thing in the forest and ticked off the birds they had seen on a long list. It was a joy to see them so devoted to their bird species, and I was reminded of a hilarious newspaper article I once read about super-keen birders and their excitement when seeing a rare but dull-grey-brown bird (an LBJ, a “little brown job”)… Rahula was another great inspiration. Based at the Zoology Department of the University of Colombo and as part of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka, he conducts regular field trips and rainforest interpretation sessions for local school children and has visited Singharaja many times. It was wonderful discussing environmental awareness programmes with him, as a lot of our interests overlapped and we could share some experiences. At the time when I was in Singharaja, he and his colleagues were conducting a three day field trip with children from northern Sri Lanka’s Polonnaruva – the first time for the young people to be in a rainforest and see pitcher plants, Blue Magpies, tree ferns and orb spiders. It was also one of the first times for them to be with a “tourist”, so they all inspected me from a distance, watched silently as I ate my dinner and secretly took pictures of me. A brave young girl finally took a deep breath and approached me, asking me all sorts of questions about what I do and where I come from and, having received the answers, acknowledged them with the typical headshake that always makes me smile. This made the others more confident, too, so that by the time we were ready for departure I was being interviewed by several inquisitive youths.

Rahula and his colleagues kindly offered me a free ride back to Colombo this morning, he showed me his workplace and made sure I got on the right taxi to the city centre. A wonderful acquaintance! Because of the political instability in the region, all car passengers got frequently checked along the road by policemen, but luckily I never had to show them my passport or other documents. It is sad to see so many armed men in the streets and to recognise that the tourist flow to this beautiful corner of the world has almost ceased because of the war in the north. I do hope that Sri Lanka finds its way out of this crisis soon and continues to attract travellers to its many natural and cultural wonders.

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