Bill Oddie's most excellent adventure in Sri Lanka

On assignment for BBC Wildlife Magazine, Bill Oddie gives blood to the rainforest, meets some familiar feathered friends, experiences the ‘Rainforest Rainbow’ and has four game drives in which to find a leopard…

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Let’s face it, there aren’t many more endearing sights than a baby elephant slurping milk from a baby elephant-sized bottle. The only thing that seemed a little heavy-handed was the way the bloke holding the bottle persuaded the youngster that it had had enough by belting it over the head with a metal meat hook.
 
I have been assured by mahouts in India that a whack on the neck with an iron spike is no more alarming to an elephant than a pat on the cheek would be to us, but I have never got used to it.
 
Leopard spotting
 
Eventually, the young elephants will leave the transit home and be returned to the main part of Udawalawe, which is where we decided to go next. We were soon rewarded with the lovely – and not common – sight of a big tusker.
 
Not all male Indian elephants acquire tusks (whereas both male and female Africans do), but this one was seriously well-endowed. And cool. Literally, as he paddled daintily across a lily-spangled lake, and metaphorically, as he exuded that quintessential elephant combination of power and peacefulness. Our trip’s first highlight. On to the next...
 
Four is the magic number
 
There are no tigers in Sri Lanka, but there are lots of leopards. The best place to look for them – not only in Sri Lanka but arguably the world – is Yala National Park, and we had been promised that if we went on four game drives, we would see one.
 
Our first drive was a good introduction to the park. Unlike Africa, it was not miles of flat grasslands studded with the occasional tree and teeming with nervous ungulates feeding warily. There is a palpable tension in Africa that I didn’t sense in Yala.
 
The landscape was more benign, with horizons broken by huge rocky outcrops shaped like loaves of bread. There were lots of trees, large areas of scrub and plenty of water. Of course the weather does vary seasonally, but when I was there in early August, recent rains had left lots of marshes and lakes.
 
Wildlife parade
 
Here we found buffalos, wild pigs, crocodiles and spotted deer. A half-submerged tree provided a perch for bee-eaters and kingfishers, while parading along the shoreline was a cavalcade of painted storks, jungle fowl (like farmyard chickens but prettier) and wild peacocks.
 
Standing on a sandbank, looking like an Elephant-Man version of a stone curlew, was the unflatteringly named greater thick-knee. In the distance shimmered sand dunes and, beyond them, were the white-capped emerald waves of the Indian Ocean. What a view! What more could one ask for? Hmmm, how about a leopard?

 

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