If you couldn’t already tell from how often I still talk about it, Sri Lanka was probably my favorite part of this recent journey. The landscapes and beaches were phenomenal, but the abundance of exotic wildlife both on land and in the ocean had me constantly enthralled. Even in urban areas, it was really easy to just stumble upon an amazing animal you’d normally only see on “Planet Earth” or in a zoo. And if you went into the wilderness and were quiet and patient enough, you might be lucky enough to find some of the more elusive and shy critters. If the other-worldly natural beauty of that incredible island wasn’t enough, the crazy variety of endemic species were constant reminders of how far from home I was.
On my first day on the island, while I explored the capital city of Colombo, I was already exposed to some amazing and terrifying creatures. The nation’s parliament building sits on an island in the middle of a large lake in a natural area made up of jungle and wetlands. It was here that I first realized that I should probably kind of pay attention to my surroundings because there were plenty of animals here that would totally eat me if I wasn’t alert. The lakeshore was crawling with cute little water monitor lizards, but also kind of teeming with crocodiles.
As a kid who grew up in a weirdly rural house in the middle of the city, I’ve always been extremely fascinated by urban wildlife. We grew up surrounded by raccoons, squirrels, foxes and even coyotes that had adapted to living in Denver’s urban setting. But in Sri Lanka it’s a whole new set of creatures that have learned to live in close quarters with people. In Sri Lanka, macaque monkeys live on your roof, huge bats fly overhead in the evening and geckos crawl on your ceiling. Like I typically do while I’m walking around, I’d often zone out and daydream while I explored, leaving myself open to be startled or outright assaulted by some crazy new animal. One day, while I was walking down a leafy sidewalk in the city of Tangalle, I jumped three feet in the air when a small, cat-like animal ran between my legs. The locals that were sitting on a nearby porch laughed hysterically at me and informed me that it was a mongoose. Another time, on a similar walk, I stepped over what I thought was a tree root. It was only when the root moved and started lumbering away into the underbrush that I realized it was actually the tail of a monitor lizard the size of a Komodo dragon. I still haven’t recovered from that experience.
Other amazing encounters happened when I immersed myself into the habitats of the local wildlife. While I was climbing Ella Rock, I stopped a few times to stalk birds that I could hear in the forest around me. Sri Lanka has a huge variety of endemic bird species, but few were as cool to see in the wild as the Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl. They make a sound that’s kind of like a rooster crowing, which makes sense because they are actually an ancestor of the domesticated chicken. While walking in the rainforest our guide showed us giant centipedes that would crawl on your arm, feeling like a thousand little needles prickling your skin. I also snorkeled a few times and saw sea turtles almost every time. I went out. Sometimes they were shy and swam away quickly and others would just chill and do their thing while you watched them. But it was always an incredible experience to swim with them.
The close interaction with wildlife in a place as heavily populated as Sri Lanka can have plenty of negative effects as well. I wasn’t able to make it on a safari while I was there, so I never saw elephants in the wild, but I did see a few chained up in the small yards around temples. It was heartbreaking to see such a huge, intelligent and majestic creature trapped in such a small area. People also often keep wild monkeys as pets for the entertainment of tourists. Growing up watching Aladdin it’s easy to get excited by the image of a monkey wearing clothes, but the reality is that these animals are meant to be free, not chained up wearing a shirt so that some human can make money. Sri Lanka also has the highest number of snake deaths per square mile of any country on earth – nearly 800 people per year. But I did get to see a family that devotes their lives to helping fix the problem. A small snake farm between Weligama and Matara in the south of the island raises snakes to provide anti-venom to farmers and other locals who are bit. It was very cool to see all the snakes they raised, but even more impactful to hear about the difference the family makes.
This vast array of wildlife and huge diversity of habitats was an amazing way to start out my trip and definitely set me up on my current path towards becoming a conservation biologist. I’m extremely excited to keep learning about how humans interact with nature in urban and heavily touristic environments and I hope I can help make a difference in minimizing our impact while still getting to marvel at the amazing nature all around us.