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Malaka Rodrigo reports
Prince Vijaya landed on the north-western coast of Sri Lanka in 543 BC and met Kuveni, the Yakkha princess of the area. Thambapanni – the beach with copper sand and Kali Villu where Kuweni had her palace are located inside the park boundaries of Wilpattu.
These areas of historic significance will soon be accessible to the public as the Wilpattu National Park that has been closed for many years reopens to the public in a few months.
“De-mining in Wilpattu National Park is currently being carried out by the Security Forces. As soon as we get the security clearance; my Department will start rehabilitation work in the park,” said Ananda Wijesuriya, Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).
The DWC will first focus on rehabilitating the road network inside the park and then look at developing visitor facilities, he said.
Located adjoining the troubled areas of Wanni and Mannar, Wilpattu had been in the clutches of the LTTE for many years. The park was first closed in 1985 due to the armed conflict and after the ceasefire negotiations in 2002, was reopened in May 2003.
Two tragic incidents resulted in its closure again. In the first incident, a jeep carrying a group of wildlife lovers was blown up in a landmine in May 2006. Among the group was prominent author Nihal De Silva who wrote the Gratiaen Prize winning novel “Road from Elephant Pass”.
The second tragic incident in March 2007 cost the life of Wilpattu’s own park warden Wasantha Pushpananda who was ambushed and killed by the LTTE while on an inspection tour with a team of security forces.
The Park has remained closed since then and the DWC is cautious not to open it until it gets the all-clear. The camping sites will be the first to open for the public once the basic facilities are set up, a DWC official said. Most of the Wilpattu camping sites are located near serene villus.
Wilpattu is also famous for its circuit bungalows that overlook the villus. There are seven lodges, located at Maradanmaduwa, Pannikar Villu, Kalli Villu, Mena Villu, Thala Villu, Manikkapola Uttu and Kokmottai, all in need of extensive repair. A few are currently occupied by the Armed Forces, who provide security to the park.
A vigilant herd of Wilpattu deer
Wilpattu has always been a fantastic experience for wildlife lovers, its key attraction being its leopards. Before the park closed, Wilpattu was ‘the place’ to see leopards. It is believed Wilpattu national park has more leopards than Yala, but this can be clarified only after proper research.
The park also has a large population of elephants who are bigger in size, perhaps by feeding on the nutrient-rich vegetation of the villus. So the ecotourism value of Wilpattu is also huge.
Wilpattu has a large diversity of ecosystems, but its most unique feature is the presence of many natural lakes or “villus” with fresh or brackish water that had given the park its name. Though they look like lakes, these ‘villus’ are flat basin-like fault depressions on the earth’s surface containing purely rain water. Two of these ‘villus’ are saline.
Another equally striking feature, though confined to certain sections of the park is the copper red, loamy soils. The western sector of the park with deeply forested areas and thorny bushes is reminiscent of Yala National Park.
Elephant, sloth bear, sambur, spotted deer are some of the 31 mammalian species that can be easily seen in the Wilpattu national park. The bird diversity within the park is high. Recent research recorded 137 species of birds where 51% out of the breeding resident species of the island had been seen within the park boundaries. The monitor lizard, Mugger crocodile, Common cobra, Indian python and several species of tortoise are among the reptiles that can be found in the Wilpattu villus.
Wilpattu’s cultural heritage too is worth exploring. The ruins of an ancient building found in Kali Villu is believed to be the ruins of Kuveni’s palace. Another ancient love story unveiled 2000 years ago between Saliya – the son of Dutugemunu and Asoka mala has a background of Maradanmaduwa located within the national park. Ruins of pre-Vijayan periods too have been found from the area. Historians believe that Kudrimalai was a famous port in ancient times.
Wilpattu is one of the oldest national parks of the country. It was first declared as a sanctuary in 1905 and its conservation status was elevated to that of a National Park in 1938. Areas to the north were also declared as Wilpattu Sanctuary in 1947 and remain an extension to the National Park.
At present, the park is controlled by the security forces and the DWC presence is restricted to an office near the entrance, but wildlife officers are readying to take up the challenge to protect Wilpattu’s diverse wildlife. “We will do a full assessment of the status of the park before we start operations. We are keen on opening it to the general public,” a wildlife official said.
How to reach Wilpattu
The National Park lies on the northwest coast, 30 km west of Anuradhapura and spans the border between the North Western Province and North Central Province. Wilpattu North that was declared a sanctuary in 1947 is entirely in the Northern Province. The National Park borders the Moderagam Aru in the south, Kala Oya in the north and the sea on the west.
The easiest way to reach Wilpattu from Colombo is via Negombo, Chilaw and Puttalam. The turn-off is at the little hamlet of Thimbiriwewa at the 28th milepost along the Puttalam/Anuradhapura road.