Wild moments at Ridiyagama | Daily News


Wild moments at Ridiyagama

Sri Lanka is blessed with so much forest cover, supplemented by rivers and lagoons. Last Thursday morning, I set out with my schoolmate Gunashantha to explore and appreciate the bountiful display of wildlife at the Ridiyagama Safari Park. The massive 500-acre park is run by the National Zoological Gardens Department. Travelling from Colombo, we decided to take the Expressway. We made our exit at Sooriyawewa.

The lush green scenery on either side of this highway is a refreshing start for the day. The drive took us exactly three hours saving much time. The safari park is a short distance from the main road. At the entrance, you can see a massive wooden signboard. You have to park and inform the officer on duty of the number of persons. There were many children with their parents.

Once inside the first gate you have two options – to travel in a bus (there are a few) or book a jeep at a reasonable cost of Rs. 2,000. We chose to ride the jeep and were blessed to have a knowledgeable guide named Neil. I must mention that the park’s courteous security staff did an excellent job in crowd control, offering everyone time to choose their travel mode. The buses and few jeeps are carefully spaced out so that the aura of the wild is not disturbed by lines of intruding vehicles as in some other wildlife parks and reserves. The waiting areas were spacious and clean. I also noticed a large outdoor area with tables and chairs and a long row of taps where families can sit down and eat, enjoying the cool breeze. After the long Covid- 19 containment curfew, this was a welcome adventure.

I was given to understand that this massive park opened in 2016, and is being steadily developed. Out of the 500 acres at present, 200 acres are being used. The plan has envisaged nine zones for separate wildlife and at present four zones are operational. We boarded the jeep which had been made secure with protective iron railings. I positioned myself ready to capture these stimulating wild encounters. Our first zone was made up of many mammals. There was a robust herd of spotted deer chilling out under some trees. Neil pointed out a blackbuck, a majestic deer with dominant horns. It is found in India, Nepal and Pakistan.

A few feet away some peacocks dazzled us with their magnificent feathers. I must mention that the road inside is rugged and dusty at some points, deliberately kept like this to sustain the natural terrain within the park. Some zebras were spotted and one male stood out from the group. Gunashantha pointed towards a large camel. I was not expecting to see a camel. In fact there were two. The jeep passed a patch of muddy road and we came across a solitary animal chewing on some leaves. I realized this was a guanaco, a camelid native of South America closely related to the llama. The young animals are called chulengos. These animals weigh between 90 and 140 kilogrammes. They vary in colour from light brown to dark cinnamon brown. The animal is double coated with coarse hair.

We were in for another surprise when I spotted one of the African Big Five - the Cape buffalo. This is a formidable animal that has the physical disposition and willpower to challenge and attack a lion. The Sri Lankan buffalo is a smaller species and their horns grow from the side of their head. For the huge Cape buffalo their horns grow from the top centre on their heads forming a bone shield. Another distinct feature is their sturdy thick legs.

It was around 4.20 pm and I noticed the park staff driving around in a double cab. It was feeding time for some of the animals. Neil updated us saying that all the animals at Ridiyagama are monitored daily for any sign of injury or illness. The park has its own team of veterinarians. A group of wild boar were running about, some covered in mud. A mud bath helps to cool off on a hot day.

The freedom to roam in the wild is the essence of this park, in comparison to the Zoo at Dehiwela. Peacocks were perched on branches. I spotted a large Rhea Bird; it looks similar to the ostrich. It is a flightless bird. Neil announced that we were about to enter the 54-acre elephant zone. There were many clusters of elephants. The rays of sunlight were directly on the elephants and I could not find a clear angle, without a disruptive shadow for my photograph. Away from this herd was a solitary male. This was the African elephant originally from the Dehiwela Zoo. His tusks were quite impressive and he was walking about. He stopped, looked at the jeep and moved away. But I must say he was not impressive as our beloved Nadungamuwe Raja, who is a regal elephant with such an imposing body structure. From here we drove towards the Bengal Tiger Zone. The access gate to this section is manned by two guards. CCTV is mounted on both pillars.

Each vehicle is checked in after the automatic gate slides open and shuts once we drive inside. This is to ensure that these mighty predators don’t wander into other sections of the park. Out of the six Bengal tigers, we spotted four. The other two were probably resting under the cover of the trees. One tiger walked alongside the jeep; it was awesome to be so close to the jungle’s feared predator.

After enjoying these golden moments, Neil declared that we were going to enter the Lion Zone, the final zone on the safari. Once again, the gates were automatically opened and closed by alert guards. Within minutes, we spotted one male lion seated alone. This lion with a full mane is called Chandi. He had fathered a healthy cub. This lion cub was given to the Sinha Regiment of the Army as their mascot. I was privileged to visit the Ambepussa Camp and actually pet this lion named Cougar, when he was 10 months old.

As the jeep moved forward, we came across four healthy lions - three males and one female. The male lions held their position as they do in the wild. However, the ‘mother’ lion was curious and came close to the jeep. We held our breath. She put her head on the rear tyre and sniffed, eyeing us. Wow, this was a cherished minute. Within seconds, she walked away and sat on the sand, still looking at us. The safari takes about one hour. It is worth every minute. The Ridiyagama Park is a ‘must visit’ venue for all animal lovers.