Monday, 11 April 2016 11:35

A Walk on the Wild Side: Hurulu Eco Park

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Located a few metres away from the Habarana railway station, along the Dambulla- Trincomalee road, lies a sign board that reads 'Hurulu Eco Park'. In a region where natural parks, wildlife reserves and protected areas are not scarce, this naturally aroused my interest and curiosity.


Despite the presence of the much larger Minneriya-Kaudulla forest reserve in close proximity, Hurulu Eco Park is no second-rate attraction, as the number of visitors thronging at the gate clearly showed. Hopping into a trusty old 4x4 jeep, I wasted no time in sneaking along the dirt tracks, whose dust had settled thanks to the monsoon rains which had descended a few days earlier. With a modest entrance fee, the ride was certainly worth it, as the experiences that followed clearly show.

The North Central jungles of Sri Lanka are a world of their own. In addition to their historical significance, thanks to the countless archaeological ruins spread throughout, the dense shrubs are also where a variety of fauna have chosen to call home. More than any other single species, the elephant has particularly taken a dominant stand within these woods, virtually making its unmistakable silhouette the trademark of the central jungles. Moving though the bushes, it was worth pausing for a few minutes to catch a glimpse of many a herd, who seemed totally oblivious to the fact that an army of safari-goers had their eyes glued on the elephants, cameras clicking, lying silent in an effort to make as little disturbance as possible for the giants of the jungle. The matriarch was clearly the dominant one, taking many pains to protect a newborn elephant calf, who was probably experiencing this patch of the jungle for the first time in his life. The others did not waste time in plucking out teak saplings, spraying a healthy coat of mud on the skin and going about their usual business.

The park is apparently home to a few hundred elephants that chose this as an alternative stopover before crossing on to the much larger Minneriya-Kaudulla forest reserve which is not far away

Part of the Hurulu Forest Reserve, the park made its way into Sri Lanka's list of wildlife reserves in 2008, when it was felt that it was best to open part of it to the public rather than keeping it closed altogether. It spans approximately 10,000 hectares spreading westwards from the Dambulla-Trincomalee main road towards the tributaries of the Hurulu Wewa reservoir. The park is apparently home to a few hundred elephants that chose this as an alternative stopover before crossing on to the much larger Minneriya-Kaudulla forest reserve which is not far away. Apparently, the Hurulu Eco Park is blessed with almost all types of animals seen in forest reserves in Sri Lanka, including the elusive leopard.

The rains had fed the streams healthily, causing them to often flow over the causeways constructed to cross them. When my jeep was able to push through, the waters opened up to show a beautiful shady experience. Schools of freshwater fish of various species were seen hurrying up and down the chilly waters.

The occasional sight of the crested hawk -eagle (also known as changeable hawk-eagle, Nisaetus cirrhatus ceylanensis) was another magnet for the relentless enthusiasts criss-crossing the dirt tracks. The elusive bird remains well camouflaged in the dried branches with its gaze fixed downwards, scanning the forest below for his next target. The fanned crest never fails to add to the beauty of this bird, whose sight was a personal first for me.

Despite the overwhelming presence of blady grass (Iluk / Imperata cylindrica) and guinea grass (Panicum maximum), which are considered invasive weeds but have become useful sources of food for elephants, the forest is decorated with a number of dry zone large trees, such as satinwood (Chloroxylon swietenia -Burutha ), palu (Manilkara hexandra) and ebony (Diospyros ebenum). Mingling perfectly in this dry zone evergreen forest, it was not surprising to see large flocks of parrots hurrying away with their chorus of chirps as the safari jeeps closed in.

Like in many parks, the Hurulu Eco Park offers some unique spots to stretch one's legs and enjoy a panoramic view of the dense and lush jungles. The rocky outcrops offer the perfect safe haven but the occasional find of dried elephant dung told us that it was not only visitors who found this spot useful. To all safari goers this was certainly a welcome break and they would take turns in savouring the view from the top.

Another similar outpost has been constructed to give a better experience. A sturdily built observation hut gives yet another unique panoramic view of the Hurulu Eco Park, where the wind sweeps across your cheeks. It boasts a magnificent view that brings the gigantic Kaudulla and Minneriya tanks into sight, and the ghostly image of Ritigala breaking through the evening mist was one worth savouring. It wasn't surprising to see cameras of various calibres being pointed in all directions since the beauty and awe that this place holds is certainly worth treasuring for a lifetime.

A tip when visiting the Hurulu Eco Park: check the season. Elephants are frequently found only when the plains at Minneriya-Kaudulla are either inaccessible due to flooding or excessively dry. A monsoon rain will also definitely spoil any chances of wildlife spotting. Though travelling is done in open jeeps, be careful not to get too close to any of the wild animals. It is expressly forbidden by law. A visit in the early morning or after lunch would save the sunburn and of course midday is not a time when animals prefer to walk about. Don't forget the sunscreen and a hearty supply of drinking water. To ensure visitors' safety, the maximum number of visitors per vehicle has been restricted to eight. With careful planning, great timing and above all a sense of enthusiasm, a trip to Hurulu Eco Park is one you will not want to miss.

Words and Photographs Shyam Ranasinghe

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