Sri Lanka’s Big Five

Sri Lanka has her own ‘Big Five’. The wonder of Asia, the pearl of the Indian Ocean has so much bio diversity and was renowned as one of the twenty five bio diversity hotspots in the world. Areas that carry an unusually high number of endemic species worldwide are referred to as biodiversity hotspots. Sri Lanka, with the Western Ghats of India, is endowed with a rich biodiversity and considered, one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world. The species diversity of Sri Lanka shows that we have 4000 species of flowering plants, 107 species of freshwater fish, 59 species of amphibians, 174 species of reptiles, 435 species of birds, 140 species of mammals and several thousand invertebrates. Within the Asian region Sri Lanka has the highest species density for flowering plants, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. Sri Lanka also has the second highest population density of humans. Species density is the number of a particular species per 1000 sq. km. The following are the details of the percentage of each species that is endemic to the island. Fish – 41%, Amphibians – 65%, Reptiles – 52%, Birds – 10%, Mammals – 5%, Land Snails – 80%, Freshwater crabs – 100%, Flowering plants 28%.

 1. Sri Lankan Elephant

A subspecies of Asian Elephants, hold a special place in the hearts of many and this special man-animal relationship goes back millennia in Sri Lanka’s colorful history. Since Sri Lanka’s history was documented, elephants have played an immense role in all things cultural and religious. Elephants are visible in ancient palm-leaf drawings harking back to times of opulence, pageantry, rich decadence, and humbling farming roles. Even in present-day Sri Lanka, there is barely a major ceremony that happens without an elephant in attendance as most of the country’s larger Buddhist Temples tenderly care for their own resident elephant. The Gathering of Elephants in Minneriya National Park is the largest annually recurring concentration of wild elephants in the world. It is rated sixth on Lonely Planet’s Top Ten Wildlife Spectacles in the World list. It is estimated that between 300 and 500 individual elephants are regularly witnessed at this unforgettable gathering. This natural phenomenon occurs from the month of August through to the end of October. The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is one of three recognized subspecies of the Asian elephant, and native to Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan elephants are the largest subspecies reaching a shoulder height of between 2 and 3.5 m (6.6 and 11.5 ft), weigh between 2,000 and 5,500 kg (4,400 and 12,100 lb), and have 19 pairs of ribs. Their skin color is darker than of indicus and of sumatranus with larger and more distinct patches of depigmentation on ears, face, trunk and belly. Only 7% of males bear tusks. With estimated 6000 elephant population, now only 2% carries the tusks and the numbers went for 130-150. If you witnessed one in the wild, YES you are indeed a lucky person. Majority lives in Dry-Zone of the Country and a small remnant population exists in the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. Elephants are classified as mega herbivores and consume up to 150 kg (330 lb) of plant matter per day. Elephants have unique bond between Srilankan culture and with its Perahera.

2. Sri Lankan Leopard 

One of the most lithe and supple of the big cats, the Sri Lankan leopard holds a mystique like no other. Coming out of its slumber at dawn and dusk to swagger through the jungle environments, the leopard is a creature of both incredibly terrifying strength and beauty. The Sri Lankan leopard or Ceylon leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is a leopard subspecies native to Sri Lanka that was first described in 1956 by the Sri Lankan zoologist Professor Deraniyagala. The Sri Lankan leopard has a tawny or rusty yellow coat with dark spots and close-set rosettes, which are smaller than in Indian leopards. The Sri Lankan leopard used to occur in all habitats throughout the island. Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is recognized as having the highest density of wild leopards in the world. Feeling proud isn’t it? In one area of the Park, it is reported that there is one leopard per square kilometer, an incredibly high number compared to anywhere else in the world.  Unconfirmed reports indicate that between 500 – 1000 leopards reside in the wild in Sri Lanka. Like all other Leopards, Sri Lankan leopards are highly nocturnal creatures. The leopard is colloquially known as kotiya (Sinhalese: කොටියා) and chiruthai (Tamil: சிறுத்தை). The biggest leopard was reported in 1950’s from Namal Oya are which was measured as 8.8 Ft in length and 113 Kgs in weight. Usually mother leopard give birth to 2-3 cubs yet there are exceptions with records of giving birth to 3-5 cubs in the wild. After getting matured, in between age 1.5 to 2 leopard mother chases away the kids to find new territories.  Leopards are highly territorial and they mark their territories by scent marking and by claw markings. In Sri Lanka there are reports of Black Panthers (Melanistic Leopards) from Sinharaja and from Central Hills.

3. Sloth Bear

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The distinctly shaped sloth bear with its black shaggy coat and heavy build is often spotted in several of Sri Lanka’s National Parks where there is undisturbed forest growth, especially in Yala and Wilpattu. Found exclusively in the Indian Subcontinent, the sloth bear has evolved from the Eurasian Brown Bear over several millennia. Sloth Bears are insect-eating mammals and have a specially adapted lower lip and palate for gathering their food. They mainly consume termites, bee hives, and fruits, and can be heard from a distance of 100 meters (300 feet) away as they ‘slurp’ up their food. They are known to hunt smaller mammals as well. The Sri Lankan sloth bear (Melursus ursinus inornatus) is a subspecies of the sloth bear. Being omnivorous, it feeds on nuts, berries, and roots, as well as carrion and meat. One of its main staples is insects, which it removes from rotting stumps and trees with its long, hairless snout. Otherwise, it rarely kills animals. The sloth bear is sympatric with the leopard. The Sri Lankan sloth bear is highly threatened, with a population less than 1000 (the wild population may be as few as 500) in many isolated populations with population decrease. Destruction of dry-zone natural forest is its main threat, because unlike other large Sri Lankan animals, the Sri Lankan sloth bear is highly dependent on natural forests for its food source. In its native habitat of Sri Lanka, this bear is called the walaha in Sinhalese and karadi in Tamil. The villagers who lives near to wildness has experience of bear attack which is so fearsome and brutal even death can be caused by the wounds.

4. Blue Whale

img_8728-1.jpg For several years, Sri Lanka has been able to boast being the world’s top location to spot Blue Whales as well as Sperm Whales as they travel a long distance to warmer feeding grounds in the Bay of Bengal. Sri Lanka’s waters are rich in marine life, and among the most notable occurrences is the annual migratory presence of one of the world’s most magnificent sea creatures, the Blue Whale. With Sri Lanka’s most southerly point not far from the deeper waters of the continental shelf, it is possible to see these immense, yet truly graceful mammals come quite close to shore. Blue Whales are the largest animals ever to have graced this planet, and can reach in excess of 35 meters (100 feet) in length, making them true giants of the ocean. Their color has been described as being the same color as the water: rich and deep petrol blue. Despite their incredible size, the Blue Whale will consume only krill (one of the early life stages of shrimp). A single Blue Whale could consume up to 6 tons of krill in a day. Fortunately for the whales, krill is found in abundance off Sri Lanka’s southern coast. With the meeting of warmer coastal waters and the colder waters of the deep continental shelf, a rich variety of life-giving nutrients are brought up from the oceanic depths. Krill feed on these nutrients, and the Blue Whales feed on the krill, thus keeping the ocean’s life cycle moving. And Sri Lanka holds the world biggest Blue Whale record.

5. Sperm Whale

Sri Lanka’s coastal waters are a marine biologist’s delight. Not only is its waters frequented by Blue Whales for several months of the year, it also attracts super pods of Spinner Dolphins, a very common sight. The oceanic waters surrounding Sri Lanka are rich in nutrients and therefore attract the bigger and more impressive marine giants. With the continental shelf being so close to Sri Lanka’s west coast, the meeting of the warmer and colder waters bring together a rich feast of nutrients on which the Sperm Whale feeds. Earlier reports and maps indicated that the shelf was much further out. However, according to new research, it appears that the Continental Shelf is much closer to land than was originally believed. This is the reason why Sperm Whale sightings are possible so close to Sri Lanka’s shores. The Sperm Whale lives in pods and is rarely spotted swimming solo. It has the largest brain of any animal, weighing up to 9 kilograms (20lb), and the whale itself can measure up to 20 meters (60 feet) in length. The Sperm Whale also has the largest head of any animal and is approximately one third of its length. The head will usually have visible scars and sucker marks inflicted on it by giant squid which the Whales are known to hunt and eat. Sperm Whales are the deepest divers in the cetacean family, reaching incredible depths of down to 3,200 meters (10,500 feet), but are more commonly seen around 1,200 meters (4,000) feet. They generally congregate to the ocean’s surface to breathe, but dive deep to hunt for giant squid and other prey.it is now recognized that in Sri Lanka, the best spot for Sperm Whale sightings is on the west coast off the town of Kalpitya.

Written by-

Rtr. Sethil Muhandiram

President 2018-19

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