Wild Sri Lanka
By Mike Birkhead Associates for Terra Mater
Nowhere else on earth is the power of water to create, shape and sustain life so dazzlingly evident as on the tiny oceanic island of Sri Lanka. Rising from the waves, it is a land where not one, but two monsoons mark time. A world where rains pour down, clouds swell, rivers flow, mists dance across the skies, frosts dust the highlands and thousands of man-made lakes form a curious wonderland filled with a wildlife that is strange, beautiful and utterly unique. In this series we will delve into the land of these breathtaking creatures – from the largest mammal on earth, the blue whale, to the smallest, the etruscan shrew – and discover how, from the moment Sri Lanka fractured from the southern supercontinent of Gondwanaland and was carried by the oceans to its present home – it has been an island which has been ruled by one unstoppable force: water.
Until recently, a quarter of a century of civil war isolated Sri Lanka’s wildlife from the world. But now that war is over and Sri Lanka’s once-troubled waters are parting to reveal unseen ecological riches for the very first time.
Wild Sri Lanka is a 3-part series. Click on the programmes below to find out more:
As the sun rises over the blue waters off Sri Lanka’s southern coast, the largest mammal on earth breaks the surface. Beneath these waves lives a unique population of pygmy blue whales which feed, mate and play closer to shore in greater numbers than any other blue whale population on the planet. But the key to their existence lies hundreds of miles inland, at the top of Sri Lanka’s highest mountains. As the monsoon rains pour onto land, over a hundred rivers flow from the mountains, carrying with them nutrients which flood into the seas.
From tangled mangrove forests to pristine white-sand beaches, Sri Lanka’s coastal waters present a show of nature’s most magnificent marine mammals. As turtles lay their eggs on palm-fringed shores, Sri Lanka’s iconic stilt fishermen wait for the shoals of herring and mackerel which the changing seasons bring. And out at sea, thriving coral reefs hide ancient wrecks filled with fish, while hundreds of dolphin race among the waves. This is an oceanic island where water, above all things, rules.
In the grasses of Sri Lanka’s scrub forests, a leopard stalks his prey. Here, food is plentiful, as populations of deer feed on the grass sustained by thousands of man-made lakes. These pools of blue are the centre of life on the flats of Sri Lanka. Because, as the monsoons recede and the sun scorches an otherwise parched land, these lakes nourish the land as sloth bears, painted storks, jackals, monkeys and some of the greatest concentrations of both mugger crocodiles and elephants to be found anywhere on earth swarm to their cool embrace…
The earliest nature sanctuary on earth, this ancient hydraulic system creates a playground for the mega fauna of Sri Lanka, charismatic mammals whose abundance pays testimony to the awe-inspiring power of water over this tiny country’s rich wealth of natural history.
The forests of Sri Lanka rise above the rest of the country like islands out of the sea. Here, species found nowhere else in the world have been marooned on high forest plateaus, isolated from the rest of Sri Lanka, unable to cross from one forest patch to another. They have evolved into highly diverse, self-supporting arboreal outposts – between which bats and birds fly with messages from outside. These forests are islands within an island – to step into them is to travel to another world where life is sustained by cloud swells and dancing mists.
And as this mountainous terrain has combined with not one, but two, monsoons, a distinct microclimate has formed among these cloud-cloaked trees. Nearly half the island’s flowering plants are found here and amidst the twisted vine and creepers, rare and delicate orchids dot the landscape. Blue magpies, red-slender loris and purple-faced monkeys inhabit this strange, colourful – and ever diminishing - world. But although forest habitats are in decline thanks to the encroachment of man, one thing remains certain. As long as it has water to sustain it, life –the fabulous, curious, glorious life that flourishes on these high peaks – remains.
From the goliaths in its ocean depths to the little-known mysteries of its cloud-shrouded peaks, ‘Sri Lanka – Paradise in the Indian Ocean’ is a journey through an unseen ecological lushness found nowhere else on earth.