The Change Maker | Daily News

The Change Maker

Green Turtle laying eggs
Green Turtle laying eggs

Juliet Coombe meets Jetwing Yala Safari Camp’s female ranger, Sri Lanka’s very own Indiana Jones and discovers why she had a calling for working in the wild from the moment she could walk.

Jetwing Safari Camp is situated amidst the stunning southeastern coast’s golden sand dunes, which you can enjoy the magnificent views from the new look out point of the luxury tented villa site viewing platform and rooftop restaurant. From these points, you can enjoy under the stars the untamed beauty of Yala’s buffer zone, the Indian Ocean coastal belt on one side, and the lush Vegetation of the National Park, rich with wildlife, ancient ruins, and extraordinary myths and mysteries on the other side.

Welcomed to Jetwing Yala Safari Camp by one of the rangers, Thilani which means ‘gift’ and Priyanwada, ‘nice words’, I discover within minutes of arriving that she has an incredible intellectual gift with historic information that she loves to share at every given opportunity. Over the next few days we realize Thilani is in fact the female version of Indiana Jones, growing up in the ancient forests and greatest historic sites of Sri Lanka, she has had the honour of meeting legendary professors, Dr Deraniyagala and Professor Senaka Bandaranayake throughout her father’s fascinating archaeological work. She smiles and welcomes us in with her delightful team, saying, ‘Ayubowan’ (May you live long) before introducing me to everyone, and it is clear from the off that the whole team is passionate about Yala. Simultaneously she serves a welcome drink, and highlights that even the smallest of creatures is magical and that one should not during one’s stay at Jetwing Safari Camp focus not just on the big 5, but also the 5,000 other animals that make this national park such a popular wildlife hot spot.

Thilani explains that her main objective is to introduce Yala as so much more than just a leopard lookout, by setting the historic context of this area being Sri Lanka’s most powerful Asian Kingdom, with advanced engineering and ancient water knowledge that is still used to this day more than a thousand years later. She proudly tells me that it was her father who restored the natural water fountains, fed by the rains of the rock palace of Sigriya, in 1998 and that water management is crucial in any civilised society that really understands the cycle of life. “People,” she explains, “came from the north of the country and the central highlands to Ruhuna, to hide from intruders and Indian invaders because of Yala’s strong philosophical and spiritual approach to the world they found sanctuary.”

Thilani Priyanwada Rathnayake is herself the daughter of a pre-eminent archaeologist, Premarathna Rathnayake, who, from the moment she could walk, told her about the history of the country in minute detail. Bathing as a five year old in the ancient tank systems of Polonnaruwa, he taught her not only how to swim, but also how the Great Kings built the canals and lakes that filled the paddy fields, even to this day. Her passion for history and wildlife started from the moment she could walk and is the reason she did a postgraduate diploma on Environment Management at the University of Colombo. She opted to join the award winning environmental hotel, Jetwing Yala, as one of the safari team at Jetwing Safari Camp as they clearly care about the long term future of the country and the wildlife she talks about as if each and every one of them are her friends. Yala she says is a place that is a natural extension of her interests, combining the setting of the location with its fascinating history and mysterious myths and legends that leave me wishing I had booked a week and not two nights.

Without the extensive developments, such as building the tanks, wildlife would not exist in such diversity and large numbers.

Thilani’s main aim during one’s stay long or short is to make guests relax and enjoy the glamping with the wild experience, by knowing about the range of wildlife that wander freely through it daily and the flora and fauna that gives shade and other benefits along the paths. She tells me how wild boar play outside the tents each morning, while looking for shelter beneath the decks as the heat of the day sets in, how different types of bats, like the giant fruit bat, will fly overhead at night time as you return from the safari and how cute frogs do their welcoming calls just after the sun sets.

 Here, elephants also come and go as they please including a tusker, which is why they have elephant warning signs in the sand dunes on the way to the beach and in the car park; all animals can come and go as they please including in the early morning before people get up, and sometimes return in the evening while looking for fruit.

Thilani says, “Do not be afraid, as they are very intelligent creatures and just want to enjoy Yala like we do.” At midnight, you can hear the sambar deer barking, the owls hooting and the wild dogs howling, from time to time, to warn others that there is a leopard on the prowl. Birds fly around in the early morning to say, ‘wake up, wake up’, all to the backdrop of the crashing waves on the ancient sand dunes, while the sea breeze makes the air taste of salt.”

She advises, “If the elephants come up behind you, stay still, as they react to our movements, and they do not realise their size. As soon as they are afraid they try to protect themselves, as we would, by charging if scared, so just stand your ground and they will happily amble past you.” Also, she likes to tell guests about the turtle hatcheries on the beach which are clearly marked and you can even, like on the day I arrived, see turtles, like the Green ones, laying eggs for forty five minutes, and then returning nonchalantly back into the ocean, where they surf the waves and vanish into the sea. The lifeguards then mark the area and protect it for 45 days until the babies come out, usually around the day of the full moon, as it provides the optimum amount of light for them to find their way to the water. The sand dunes also have a unique echo system, which is wonderful to observe if you stay in the hotel, as opposed to Jetwing Safari Camp, which if you book the middle floor rooms, you can enjoy both dunes and jungle in premium luxury style.

Thilani is no ordinary ranger as she says people need to understand the context of Yala “I want to talk to our guests about the whole of the animal kingdom, not just focus on the star attraction the leopard, and try to persuade people to go to Block 5 instead of Block 1, where I can show, without the disturbance of other vehicles, the two hundred different species of birds, and flowering trees.” It is a unique part of the reserve, covered on one side by the ocean and on the other side by the jungle, with manmade lakes in the middle. “For me, seeing the wasps’ nests at ground level is like looking at a beautiful painting and I try to tell guests something about the deserted ruins and how witchcraft and black magic is still very much part of day to day Sri Lankan life. I like to spread as much information as possible, from why certain trees grow in certain areas, to how flora and fauna are used in cooking and for medicinal purposes. For me, it is a fairy tale just to see a tortoise walking through flowers or monkeys in the camp, peeping through my bedroom window. It is fun to play games with them in the room as I can see they like ‘hide and seek’ like we do with their little paws hanging off the ledges. As an archaeologist’s daughter, I like to bring in the ancient history of the country and talk about the many historic sites inside the park and how they connect to the rest of the islands fascinating history. I like to reconstruct the past centuries, showing how the monks lived near the manmade lakes with nature and how the plants around them were used for medical purposes. How the Great Kings in Block 2 created open plains that show how paddy culture once existed inside these biodiversity hot spots.” On her trips, she likes to include a stop at the museum near the park entrance for people to look at a picture gallery with the names of the different animals and history of the first park warden, whose family still live close by.

For the longer staying guests, she explains, “We like to go to Block 2 with special permission and employ a tracker and go and see the canyon, where the river of gems meets the sea. It is Sri Lanka’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon with examples of Miocene animals – whales, turtles, shark, gastropods, some 23 million years ago, when this area was originally under the ocean. Walking through 23 to 5.333 million years of history is extraordinary, as leopards still circle around as they would have done for centuries. You wonder, as you see the footprints near the canyon, if they are not following us, as they are one of the most adaptable cats on the planet. Thilani says it is important to study the watering holes layers when dry to see which animals have become extinct and when. In a way, to understand our longevity requires learning about how and why other animals no longer exist, whether it be through disease, climate change, food competition or war. Being a guide in these areas means constantly researching, data gathering and sharing information with other archaeologists, anthropologists, zoologists, naturalists and of course the many visitors to the camp.

Thilani’s mission is to inspire young minds with an understanding of animal behaviour, so that they protect it for future generations by connecting with conservation and wetland projects, which is why she supports her own primary school when she has time off and development of schools in the Yala area. She believes that the more kids get involved in protecting the wildlife at rural levels and internationally, the more hope there is for the future of these unique natural reserves. The story of Yala after all is the story of humankind and understanding its history is the key to our future on this planet. Hopefully reading this you now understand why Thilani’s gift is not only ‘nice words’, but inspiring ones for future generations to be the change makers that will protect Sri Lanka’s incredible bio-diversity.

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