People flock to Sri Lanka for many reasons. Some want the beaches, with the perfect white sands that look exactly like the pictures in the catalogues. Some want the hill country, with its plethora of great walking tracks and endless tea plantations. Some want the history, that dates back hundreds of years and the ruins, temples and stupas still stand today to prove it. However, something people perhaps forget is that Sri Lanka is also one of the best places in the entire world to see native animals in their natural habitat.
Although the island is small, the opportunities to see native wildlife are booming. If there was one thing I wanted to tick off my bucket-list while I was in Sri Lanka, it was to go on safari!
I researched long and hard over which National Park to visit. In fact, there are many areas across the country where you can see animals unique to Sri Lanka on safari. But after researching four different national parks (Yala, Udawalawe, Minneriya, Kaudulla), I was stuck on what to choose. Some had really bad reviews on TripAdvisor, with many people commenting that there were too many jeeps, huge queues at the entrance, and their safaris became more like a race against the other jeeps to spot the animals first. Some advised that the drivers went too close to the animals or deliberately tried to disturb them – venturing off the tracks – in order to get good photo material for their passengers.
That’s not something I wanted to support.
Then I came across Kumana National Park. It’s smaller and less visited than the other national parks, and also sees a lot less tourists. Located on the East Coast, it was closed for 18 years due to terrorist activity by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) and only reopened in 2003. Previously named Yala East, this National Park shares a border with Yala National Park, and so has many of the same inhabitants as its neighbour, but without such a high number of tourists. Because of its lagoons, it’s one of the best places in Sri Lanka for birdwatching. Plus, it has continuous 5 star reviews on TripAdvisor.
I was sold!
I’m always cautious when choosing a tour operator when activities involve animals; I want to make sure I’m supporting sustainable/responsible tourism options and that the animals’ wellbeing is at the forefront of the company’s interests.
EcoWave does exactly that.
EcoWave are committed to promoting responsible and sustainable tourism. The organisation began life as the EcoWave Outlet, a shop that is situated in Arugam Bay and sells local organic spices and produce, and handmade gifts and souvenirs – all provided by local communities. They also run incredible hands-on cooking classes! Their second project was EcoWave Travels, a tour operator that runs excursions in the area and all over Sri Lanka. By choosing EcoWave, I knew we were helping local communities rather than large, for profit companies.
EcoWave offer great safari trips at competitive prices and don’t scrimp on quality. With EcoWave, you’ll receive:
- Comfortable jeeps with forward-facing seats and cushioned chairs. Tip: Don’t choose a provider that offers jeeps with inward facing seats – you won’t be able to see a thing!
- Breakfast: A traditional Sri Lankan breakfast was included in our trip
- Knowledgeable guide: Our guide Thushara was so knowledgable about the animals and the park – he answered every one of my endless questions!
- Responsible eco-tour: Our driver drove slowly and only waited long enough that we could take a photo, moving on quickly so as not to disturb the animals.
- 4+ hours in the jeep on safari in the National Park
- The peace of mind that you are supporting local communities
- Lunch at Crocodile Reach, a local restaurant
Safari in Kumana National Park
We set off for the National Park at 5:30am and spent a total of four hours in the National Park. Although Panama is the closest village to the park, it takes around 45 minutes to reach the entrance as the roads are very bumpy and unsealed. However, you’re likely to spot some of the endemic wildlife before you even reach the gates! We saw an elephant having his breakfast grass en route to the park.
Elephants are what everyone wants to see on safari and your chances of spotting one in Kumana National Park are quite high! The elephants in Kumana National Park are Asian elephants that don’t have tusks – in fact, only 7% of male Sri Lankan elephants have tusks. We saw a total of four elephants on our trip, including the one outside the entrance.
I asked why the elephants we saw were all alone. Thushara replied that the reason they were by themselves is because they are male elephants; females prefer to stay in a group. They tend to stay with their mothers until they are around three years old, when they prefer to hang out in solitude.
I was fascinated by the way they graze. They stand in the swampy marshes and pick up the grass with their trunks before swinging it around in the water – washing it before they eat it!
While poaching is no longer a great concern due to the elephants not having tusks, I was shocked to find that elephants are occasionally killed by farmers or locals to protect their crops and houses. Whilst walls and even electric fences are put up to keep them out, this doesn’t always stop the gentle giants from roaming into the wrong place… this makes me sad because humans are invading the elephants’ space, not the other way around.
Also commonly found in the park are mugger crocodiles, a species that is globally vulnerable. We saw a few of them either resting on the river banks or lurking in the water – ask your driver to stop by the mangroves to see if you can spot one. They can grow up to 5 metres in length but the ones we saw were around 2 metres long.
Mugger crocodiles wait for their prey to come to them, not the other way around. The croc below is resting with his mouth wide open which we were told is because the birds will clean his teeth! However I imagine he will snap his mouth shut while they’re at work!
You’re pretty much guaranteed to see water buffalo on your trip to Kumana National Park – there are so many of them! We were surprised to learn that water buffalo in Sri Lanka are actually endangered. We saw them strolling about, bathing in the water and wallowing in the mud. They cake themselves in it to cool down in the heat. We were even lucky enough to see a calf drinking its mother’s milk!
Other animals we saw while on safari with EcoWave included deer, rabbits, a wild fox, a number of wild pigs, a mongoose (he was too quick to snap a photo of!)
The Sri Lankan Axis Deer (also known as the spotted deer) are important prey for leopards. They graze in small packs when they feel it’s safe. In the mornings, leopards can be found in the treetops or on tall rocks where they can get a good view. We didn’t manage to spot any leopards during our visit unfortunately; it’s very rare to spot one.
Kumana National Park is renowned for its birdlife; in fact, it is one of the most important bird nesting and breeding grounds in the country. Herons, kingfishers, storks and huge numbers of smaller birds can be found in the park. April to July sees an influx of birds as this is the migratory season, and around 255 species of birds can be found in the park during this time.
The best place to birdwatch is at the Birds Information Centre, where there is a tower that overlooks a huge lagoon – it’s over 200 hectares in size! At the bottom there is a small room displaying information about the National Park, and you can climb the stairs to the lookout, where there are boards providing information about the different species of birds in the park (naturally I took photos of all the boards!)
We stopped for breakfast by the lagoon, sitting on a few tree-stumps that have been fashioned into a picnic area. Breakfast was a simple, traditional Sri Lankan affair: milk rice with green beans and onion spices. Considering it’s very different to what I would normally eat first thing in the morning, it’s really delicious and certainly keeps you full!
Okanda Murugan Kovil & the beach
After breakfast, we began the drive back to the park entrance, stopping to snap the wildlife en route. Just outside of the gates to the National Park lies a small temple named the Okanda Murugan Kovil. This is a Hindu temple, easily recognisable because of its red and white striped walls outside; a feature that is present with almost all Hindu temples in Sri Lanka. The inside is brightly decorated and there were paper decorations hanging from the ceiling.
Slightly further along the road is the beach. This is a popular spot for fishermen, many of whom have temporary ‘houses’ close to the sea, where they rest and store their belongings for extended fishing trips. It’s a beautiful, secluded spot with no other tourists, but unfortunately the weather had turned a little gloomy.
Lunch at Crocodile Reach
With our safari and sightseeing over, we stopped by the Crocodile Reach Ecohut and Restaurant for lunch. This is a small, family-run business with plans to eventually extend the restaurant into a guesthouse and we could already see it will be a lovely, peaceful place to stay. They offer incredible homemade Sri Lankan food; we had rice and curry for lunch with an assortment of four different curries, including jackfruit (my favourite!)
I hadn’t even heard of jackfruit before I went to Sri Lanka but now I can’t get enough of it! Jackfruits are as big as watermelons and are covered in a prickly skin. Their fruit can be used in curries, cutlets or eaten raw, depending on the maturity of it. In curry, the fruit has a similar texture to pork and is incredibly tasty – the perfect vegetarian option!
Just across from the restaurant there is a small lake where you can see crocodiles all year round – in the high season there will be 6-7 of them; we saw two crocs lazing on the bank by the water.
Where to stay: Panama
Nope, I don’t mean you have to fly to Central America!
Panama is a small village on the east coast and is the gateway to Kumana National Park, being the closest town to it. Many of the local people who provide fresh produce and create the beautiful handmade gifts at the EcoWave Outlet live in Panama. Besides a couple of guesthouses, there isn’t much in Panama for tourists – but that’s what attracted us to it. You can wander around the village, stopping by the small lagoon where you may spot crocodiles, and the locals will smile and wave at you, welcoming you into their village.
Many people stay in Arugam Bay, underestimating the length of the drive to Kumana National Park in the early morning. Get in touch with EcoWave to organise a homestay in Panama for you. You’ll have a comfortable stay with a local family (in your own private room), and your meals will be included. It’s a great way to help local communities. EcoWave will pick you up in the morning to take you on safari.
We had a wonderful time on safari with EcoWave and felt we had a genuine local experience as we visited places we wouldn’t have otherwise gone to if we had organised a safari with a different tour operator. I was so pleased we chose to do our safari with a responsible tour operator and it was great to know we were helping local communities too.
Visit ecowavetravels.lk to organise your visit to Kumana National Park today.
Have you been on safari in Sri Lanka? Visit the EcoWave website to book your trip to Kumana National Park!
Thanks for reading & happy travels!
Disclosure: James and I received a complimentary one night stay in a homestay with dinner, a safari trip with breakfast, a visit to the Okanda Murugan Kovil and beach, and lunch at the Crocodile Reach Restaurant in exchange for writing this post and providing coverage of these services on Spin the Windrose’s social media channels. All opinions are my honest encounters of my experience with EcoWave Travels on 26 and 27 March 2017. I would like to thank EcoWave Travels for the opportunity to work with them.