Lahugala and bold leopards

That morning we got on our scooters and went to the village for breakfast. Coming back for a bath in the tank was always refreshing. Our lunch over we did have a short snooze, leaving Sammy on the lookout for elephants, It was not till 2 pm that the elephants began to come to the tank. The first to arrive were solitary bulls, six of whom arrived from different spots and waded into the tank. That evening the herds came late, and by 5.30 pm there were over 50 elephants out in the tank. Depending on where the herds were, we walked up to the nearest tree and observed them, feeling quite safe. (Walking in the park was allowed in those days.)

One afternoon, Mr.Peter Jayawardena, who was the Wildlife Department’s ranger stationed at Lahugala, took us for a walk along the bund. Hearing a noise he led us into the jungle. There in a clearing were three elephants lying flat and sleeping. The noise that we heard was their snoring. They were soon joined by another that came up to them, laid himself down and then slept. After a while Mr. Jayawardena clapped. The four elephants were up instantly and crashed away into the jungle. It was amazing to see such large animals get up and run so quickly. The jungle was soon silent.

At the time Lahugala was an elephant reserve, and the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society took the Irrigation Department’s old Bungalow on lease. It was renovated and made comfortable. The late Mr. Noel de Costa was responsible for getting the place into a satisfactory condition. Thereafter we were able to book the bungalow and stay in it in comfort. We had only to take our food and bedding with us.

During those days it was a common sight to see people walk into the jungle with guns and many dogs at their heel. Gunshots were heard every night. Venison was freely available at the bazaar. Poaching was rampant.

It has been my good fortune to see two leopards at Lahugala. One was on the road leading to the bungalow late one evening when we were returning from Kithulana. The other walked past the bungalow one night just as we were about to retire for the night, A bear came along the road one night and hooted, and we watched him by moonlight. Had he not made a sound we would never have seen him. Deer and wild boar were not seen in those early days, and no doubt poaching was responsible for this scarcity. Every night we heard gunshots..

Lahugala has always been a bird watcher’s paradise. The tank is a fine rendezvous for storks, herons, waders, and other water birds. The surrounding jungle abounds with birds. A pair of grey-headed fishing eagles had a nest on a tall tree close to the sluice. They carefully tended their nest every year. A pair of brown fish owls nested close by. Many raptorials were seen over the tank at all times. I have seen one black-necked stork in the 1970’s and several adjutant storks. The thrill was to spot the beautiful red-faced malkoha or the racquet-tailed drongo. On a short walk along the track leading to Heda Oya, one would invariably see the red-faced malkoha. In fact we named it Malkoha Lane. It was not uncommon to see them in groups of four to six.

It was during the time I was at Badulla that I was able to really explore Lahugala and its surroundings. One afternoon there were two bull elephants feeding by the sluice. Getting close to them, keeping behind the bund, I took photographs, but one of them suddenly charged. He could not have seen me and the wind was in my favour. I ducked down on the blind side of the bund and lay flat among some large granite blocks that were thankfully there. The bull elephant came up the bund and to my relief ran along it. Had I run in panic on that day I would not be writing this article.

I picked up my field glasses and went back to see what his problem was, this time from a very safe distance. He had suppurating gunshot wounds on both his hind legs, and his left ear was torn. Many other swellings on his body and head only proved how many times he had been shot at. Naturally he hated man. I informed the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of this troublesome bull elephant, so that they could inform other occupants who came to this place to be careful of this animal.

Several months later I was at Lahugala with my family. Late one evening we met the elephant on the main road. A herd was feeding below the culvert and he was coming along to join the group. I was able to take a picture of him as he was crossing the culvert. While we were watching the herd I noticed that he was quickly moving parallel to us. and was trying to come in front of us. We moved ahead and waited for him. Sure enough he came to the road and immediately charged us. This time we were in a jeep and had no difficulty in avoiding his aggressive behaviour. He charged us three times on that day.

This bull elephant became quite a menace. He would wait quietly by the road and suddenly charge at any passing vehicle. Buses were his favourite targets. Three months later I was informed that he was shot. I drove down to verify if it was the same animal. It was truly the same troublesome bull, which was shot and had fallen in a chena close to Kithulana Tank. Birds were picking up dead maggots from his wounds. He had 23 wounds on the left side of his body and eight on his head. Finally he was at rest.

Lahugala was next declared a national park. The area began to be patrolled and it was at last getting the protection that it so richly deserved. It was in the late 1970’s that I saw the first herd of deer come out to feed. Wild boar soon made their presence felt.

One morning while I was seated on the rock, I met Appuhamy who came with a katty (a cutting blade with a long handle) on his ample shoulder. Having heard that I had come all the way to watch elephants, he took me to his chena, which was close to the Sengamuwa tank. To my horror I saw that his entire chena was devastated, having been trampled by a large number of elephants that had passed through. All his labour was lost in one night.

“You will see them at Lahugala today.” he said sadly. I gave him most of the cash I had with me and asked him about compensation. “Sir, I will get my money but I will have to give bribes in return; otherwise it will take months, perhaps even a year.” It is one thing for us to talk of conservation of the elephant from our homes and offices; while it is quite another matter for the poor cultivator. I told him it was a known fact that elephants come to Lahugala during that time of the year.

“True Sir, I would have harvested my crop by now, but the rains were delayed and so I planted late.” As I sat on the rock that evening and watched elephants pouring out of the jungle to my right, Appuhamy’s saying that I would see elephants at Lahugala that day kept ringing in my ears. As many as 186 elephants with four tuskers came to the tank. A herd of over a hundred elephants would have walked across his cultivation.

The conditions at the park improved rapidly, thanks to a dedicated staff that was stationed there. Being a small park it was easy to patrol. Poaching decreased. We began to see small herds of deer grazing close to the tank. I even saw a few sambhur.

There are many places of historical interest that one could visit while staying at Lahugala. One such place is Habutagala, where many ancient ruins, which include a forty-foot reclining statue of Lord Buddha in a cave, are found. Treasure hunters have dug into the statue. There is a small dagoba and several pillars to be seen. The most interesting features are Lord Buddha’s footprint carved in stone and an ancient stone inscription. These ruins belong to the Ruhunu period. Northern terrorists have attacked the village of Hulanuge twice.

Magul Maha Viharaya too is worthy of a visit. Situated close to Lahugala bazaar, it has several stone pillars and foundations. During the 1970’s, a unique moonstone was unearthed at this spot. It was in a fine state of preservation. Four of the elephants in the row of these animals carved on stone were dressed and had a rider on each. No other moonstone yet discovered anywhere in the country had this feature. Here again we find a small dagoba, a shrine room and a foundation of some structure with beautifully carved lions round its base.

More on jungle treks:…

Ancient stone inscriptions can also be seen. When conservation is completed some more interesting finds are likely to be found at this place.

Nilagiri Maha Seya is still covered in jungle. One has to cross Heda Oya and travel south along a jungle path to get there. We were warned to be extra careful and to make a loud noise when walking along, as there was a reputation for the presence of bears, in addition to the ever-present elephants. The walk was rewarding. The jungle was cool and had plenty of bird life to keep us occupied. My late brother, Upali, and Dr. Mahi Kottegoda accompanied me on all archaeological and nature-watching trips to the area. Kotte, as we called him, was an ardent bird watcher.

Nilagiri Maha Seya was in complete ruin. It was huge, with massive trees growing even at the summit. We were told that it was much bigger than the famous Tissamaharama dagoba. A large cylindrical stone kotha (crown of a Buddhist dagoba) was seen fallen at the very top of the dagoba, which resembled a hill covered in jungle.

A beautifully carved Bodhisatva statue is found at Mudu Maha Viharaya at Panama. This carving is in crystalline limestone and is really well done.

Lahugala became more and more popular. The Society bungalow was almost always occupied. Deer and wild boar were seen every day. Elephants were the main draw. One could see them every day of the year. A resident population of about 12 to 20 elephants never failed to appear. During the drought the numbers increased to about a hundred to 200 elephants. If we did not see them at Lahugala, we found them at Kithulana or Sengamuwa tanks.

Arugam Bay is only 12 miles away. It was a common practice to go there for the morning sea bath and bring back seafood for lunch. Then, followed by a well-earned siesta, we would wait for the elephants in the evening.

At ten past five, trumpeting announced the arrival of the herds as 32 elephants of different sizes ran to the water. They spread out in a line, had their drink and ran back to the jungle. They did not feed. It was obvious to us that they had arrived after a long walk. While we were wondering what had disturbed them, a large female, obviously the matriarch, led the 32 back to water. They were followed by over 80 more, who came out nearly in single file and waded into the tank. We counted them as they came out. We were seated on the rock in front of the bungalow.

Our friend Sammy whispered in my ear that more were coming. Sure enough another group came out to our left and walked over the bund to get into the tank. There were over 40 in this group. The two groups mingled freely and we saw a line of elephants across the Lahugala tank, a fabulous sight indeed. The bull elephants kept moving from one group to another testing the females for receptivity. One young female squealed and ran away from a bull. A larger one, probably the mother, came running to the bull and began stroking him around his ears. The bull immediately turned and began testing her.

We next noticed a huge bull elephant, which was the biggest in the gathering, coming along the bund. He made straight to the herds. Two smaller bulls took to their heels and left the herd to the big bull. Later in the evening when the elephants were leaving the tank, he was there by our rock with two female elephants. Yes, he was ready for a night of love.

It has been my good fortune to see six different tuskers at Lahugala. Two were really big ones, but sadly this gathering of over a 100 had none. I have observed mating of elephants at Lahugala on three occasions, too far for effective photography.

Up to about 1985 there was peace and tranquillity, then the terrorists began to attack the humble jungle villages. Soon the bungalow, the office of the Wildlife Department and the staff quarters were torched. The army soon moved in. One could still go past Lahugala on the way to the east coast at one’s own risk. The area was considered risky, and no one would dare to stay in the area.

The army is there and elephants still come to the tank. The small national park remains in mute silence. The deer and wild boar are no longer seen in daylight. Even elephants have been shot at. We can only hope that the interim cessation of hostilities will lead to permanent peace once again and we would be able to visit these places to enjoy what nature has bestowed so generously.

Reference: Trimen, Henry (1898). A hand-book to the flora of Ceylon, vol 3, p 216, Dulau & Co, London.


(Excerpted from Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka edited by CG Uragoda)


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