If you are in Sri Lanka head-on to Ridiyagama safari camp, it is now easy to spot most African animals that you have seen on the animal planet.
It was 11.00 AM as I was reaching my destination, and it was very warm and sunny, I felt the scorching heat as soon as I got down the vehicle. I travelled to the dry zone of Sri Lankan in the district of Hambantota.
Sri Lanka dry zone
Depending on the rainfall the island is dividing into three climate zones namely wet zone, dry zone an arid zone, Hambantota is falling into the category of the dry zone, because it inherits a set of characters that can be discovered in this particular areas. Dry zone forest vegetation dominated by thorn bushes, less than 1500 mm yearly rainfall, frequent drought, high temperature are the main characteristics of the arid zone.
The zoo is located at the heart of the southern province dry zone, where the weather conditions show some similarities to weather of most southern African countries.
Ridiyagama safari camp is the first of its kind in Southern Asia and only one of its kind in Sri Lanka. The safari camp is a novel experience for Sri Lankan people, where they can witness a large number of African animals. Sri Lankan people do not need to travel to Africa to see African animals like lions, African elephants, Zebra anymore. Most of these Africans animals are within easy reach from any part of Sri Lanka now.
Thanks to the Ridiyagama safari camp it has never been so easy to witness African wild animals in an environment, which is similar to in Africa. It is just two-days Sri Lanka trip from Colombo and it is just a one day Sri Lanka trip from south and west coast, to see African wild animals in their natural habitat.
Animals at Ridiyagama camp are living in artificial homes that are demarcated by huge fences. All animals have a sperate cage that expands over many hectares. Safari at Ridiyagama camp is like a safari in an African jungle. However, safari camp is not included in most Sri Lanka trips at the moment and travellers need specifically ask the trip organizes to arrange a visit to the park, if the are interested.
Ridiyagama safari camp
After passing the entrance gate, where the tickets of the visitors are checked, I was directed to a queue, where a few dozens of people are eagerly waiting for their turn. Fortunately, I did not have to be in the queue for a long time, a luxury bus showed up where I was waiting. A coach that can accommodate around 50 passengers took all the people that were at the queue, all were waiting for the bus to go into the zoo.
I was on an assignment to write an article on Ridiyagama open zoo, which is the second of its kind on the island. Unlike the Pinnawala open zoo, at Ridiyagama the visitors can see the animals that not to be seen in Sri Lankan jungle-like Lions, Bengal tiger, Africa elephant, ostrich and camel. Mid-day is not the best time to see animals in the park, because animals move rarely when the heat is high. However I thought to go-ahead as I have planned, I have few other places to go afterwards.
I got into the coach and I was fortunate to receive a windows seat, therefore I can have a better look into the park, which invariably helps me to gather more information and formulate my article accurately about the park. The bus started to roll in the direction of the huge iron gate with all the seats are occupied and our guide (Chandana) welcome and greeted on behalf of the administration of the park.
In the first few words of Chandana, he called it an open zoo, however, according to my first impression, I feel it is more than a zoo and it shows many differences compared to the zoo that we encounter most of the time. Here the visitors can have a mix experience of a zoo and a sanctuary.
Animals claim much much bigger territory to roam around, compared to what they have in the zoo, while the food for animals is supplied from outside. Perhaps the lifestyle of the animals is very different than their natural home, but I think it is more like a wildlife reserve. All in all, it is far better than the zoo, where the animals are not crammed into small cages.
“This is the open zoological garden of Ridiyagama; there are five zones within the park and they are spreads over 500 acres,” said Chandana, “at the moment only 3 of the 5 zones are open to the public namely African lion zone, elephant zone, and the zone that dedicated to herbivore. With the opening of the rest of the park in the near future, the visitors will be able to spot many other African animals such as cheetah and giraffe.
In the introduction, Chandana said that the park was initially planned to occupy 50 acres, however, due to the very suitable weather and geological conditions for the animals, the extent of the park had been increased to 500 acres.
“The park was opened to the public in 2016; however we have not given any publicity on the park, due to the ongoing constructions in the park,” Said Chandana. I was surprised to hear that they have not done any publicity on the park, because a large number of local travellers was gathered while some of the visitors are still entering the site as was reaching the park.
After all, there is no surprise to see a large gathering of local people at the open zoo of Ridiyagama because the whole concept behind the park is a new and unique experience to them. In fact, it could be a novelty experience to anyone in the world, seeing native African lions and elephant thriving in Asia.
To make it more unique experience here, you see the African giant elephants living in harmony with Sri Lankan elephants in the elephant zone. I had seen African and Sri Lankan elephants (Asian elephants) in different locations, but this is the first time I see these 2 different elephant species that carrying total different genes, grazing shoulder-to-shoulder in the park.
I momentarily thought that it could be the beginning of new species of elephants, because a giant African tusker lives in harmony with a herd of Asian female elephants, according to what I have heard the females and males elephants keep a healthy distance in the jungle from each other, but at Ridiyagama safari camp they were mixed together. And there was a Sri Lankan tusker nearby too, however, it was not fully-grown according to Chandana; perhaps they will have to move either of them to a different location in the future to avoid confrontation during the mating season.
“Ninety per cent of the animals here are foreign animals, most of them are from Africa, and they have adapted to the conditions of Sri Lanka very fast and they are doing very well at the moment. We are constantly monitoring the animal behaviours and movement” Said Chandana.
Then we entered to the African lion zone, which has a fenced boundary, which is about a 30 feet tall, the movement of vehicles to the African lion zone if carefully administered, thereby wild lions do not get any single chance of going out of the park.
Four female lions were lying under a huge teak tree as we were entering their territory, the bus could move close to this small herd because they were lying close to the dusty road. “These are female lions and they were lying in the shade after having the meal, they do not move much after the meal, “said Chandana. After all, it was mid-day they might be feeling the heat too, moving in the heat increases their body temperature and makes them more tired.
Our bus departed as another 2 buses were coming on our way. After about 500 meters the bus stopped again. “Here is a male Lion, he pointed a huge male lion with mane, sitting under a bush. A child in the bus cried “a lion, king of the jungle”, “yes indeed it is the king of the jungle” this time it is our guide. The lion is sitting majestically in his territory, which is 34 acres in extent, with watchful eyes; however, he does not know that his territory is demarcated and secured with an iron fence.
The third zone we entered was reserved to animals that feed on grass and tree leaves better known as herbivores, donkey, ostrich, camel, African wild buffaloes, wild horse, hippopotamus, zebra and several other foreign animals can be spotted here.
Another big cat living in the Ridiyagama camp is the Bengal tiger, which is also foreign to Sri Lanka, We were able to get the close look into 2 Tigers and both of them are well-grown animals. One of them was resting in a cave, built in the shape of a horseshoe. The other tiger was sitting in a shallow water hall near the main road; it feels like the tiger was having a nice time and cooling himself in the water.
Unlike most other national parks, where the visitors need to rent a jeep for the safari, of course, the jeep cost around 5000 Rs, at Ridiyagama the park, the administrators provide the transport facilities in air-conditioned buses without any additional fee. passengers are fully enclosed to make sure that there are no animal attacks on human and the buses are fully air-conditioned providing a comfortable ride.
After about a 1 hour drive through the forested zoo, it seems to be visitors are very impressed with the safari in a protected vehicle. Unlike safari in a much bigger wildlife reserve like Yala, the visitors encounter animals in more frequent intervals at Ridiyagama Park, and it is very easy to spot the animals from the distance due to the flat surface on the ground. Unlike many other national parks at Ridiyagama Park, your view is not hindered due to the thick grown bushy vegetation.
This is a great opportunity to spot a large number of animals within a short period of time. You are most likely to see all animals living in the park within the 1-hour drive. Especially if you travel with kids this is an ideal safari for you, because it might be difficult to spend about 4 hours with kids in a national park like Yala national park and Wilpattu travelling all the time on labyrinthine dusty and bumpy roads while looking for wild creatures, to make it worst the jeeps are not air-conditioned and you are exposed to a cloud of all the time.