Sri Lanka had been on my wishlist to visit for a long time. Being able to see leopards, elephants, and many beautiful endemic amphibians and reptiles in a country only slightly bigger than the Netherlands is impressive.
The animals I really wanted to see and photograph in the wild are the Sri Lankan Pitviper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus), Hump-nosed Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus), Rough-horned lizard (Ceratophora aspera), Rhino-horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii), Sri Lankan Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus), Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), and Sri Lankan curries. Some very spicy targets, for only two weeks!
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
Unesco declared the Sinharaja Forest Reserve a World Heritage Site in 1989. The reserve measures about 21km east to west and 3.7km north to south. Thanks to its inaccessibility this virgin rainforest was saved from logging, and became a stronghold of many endemic animal species. On arrival we already noticed the beauty of this unique treasure, even though it was already dark.
Hiking in the forest
The owner of Sinharaja Forest Edge arranged for us that we could join the full day tour in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Early in the morning we met our guide Pasan Hemal Sampath and went into the forest. I told him what I wanted to see before we left.
Very soon Pasan spotted a Sri Lankan Pitviper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) in a tree. I was very excited, but I could not approach the snake for a good photo. I had to use a telelens because of the slope the tree was on.
At the very beginning of a trip I am always a bit nervous. I want to make good photos during a trip, but at the beginning I have nothing yet. I photograph almost everything I see. After a few good photos I calm down a bit. This nervous feeling is even stronger with hot species like the Sri Lankan Pitviper.
After many Kangaroo Lizards our guide Pasan spotted a Green Vine Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta). This slender snake with the catlike eyes is breathtaking. You don’t have to like snakes to think this is a spectacular animal.
The hike was very tough. There was a lot of elavation, it was very warm and humid (compared to the Netherlands), and we were still jetlagged. It was inconvenient sometimes, but the stunning rainforest eased the pain.
Another target species was the Hump-nosed Lizard. I was very excited when I saw the first one. It was a female. The coolest thing is that they rely on their camouflage. They don’t run away. They try to hide by moving around the tree when I was photographing them. During this hike we saw an adult female, two adult males, and a juvenile. The juveniles can easily be confused with a Kangaroo Lizard. They have the same base color and size. They do not have the vibrant colors yet like the adults, but all the other features are already there.
One of the highlights of this hike was the big waterfall. Not just because waterfalls are lovely sceneries, but also we needed to cool down. The best swimming pool you can wish for.
Going for more Hump-nosed Lizards and a viper
On the second full day in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve we had the guide to ourselves. I told him I wanted to make some better photos of Hump-nosed Lizards, and a good photo from a shorter distance of the Sri Lankan Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus).
Pasan, the guide, was very motivated to find a viper. We did not make a long hike, but we went to suitable habitats around streams to search for this “dreamsnake”.
During this search we also encountered Hump-nosed Lizards, many Kangaroo Lizards and some Green Vine Snakes.
From this moment I started using my flash by daylight. It was too dark at most places and I wanted to show more detail, sharpness, and depth of field. The results are much better than with natural light.
Showing more of the habitat of the animals is something I wanted to add to my reports. I barely made any wide-angle photos. Now that I own the Canon EF 16-35 F4 IS USM L I have no excuses. It is a great way to show what the forest looks like.
After a few hours of searching Pasan came to us very happy. He found one next to a stream. I had to get my feet wet for the photos, but the reward was big! All photos are in situ, which means that I did not touch or handle the snake to get a good photo. The way you see it, is the way that we had encountered the snake.
The snake was in ambush position, just above the stream, waiting for food such as lizards, frogs, small mammals, and birds. When a prey comes close enough, he strikes.
After some identical looking photos, the main portret, I was looking for something different. Photographing the snake from a bird’s perspective was a good move. The green with black looks even better from this angle. It is works for this snake and I don’t have anything like this in my portfolio.
Then ofcourse I wanted the wide angle photo to show the surroundings. I had to be patient. When the sun came through the canopy on the forest floor in the background I could not match the background with the snake (too overexposed). I had to wait for a cloud. The cloud came and the results are pleasing.
Around rainforest edge
Hikes are not the only way to spot wildlife. As on most trips, wildlife is also around lodges or hotels. The Sri Lankan Junglefowl (Gallus lafayettii) for example came to the Rainforest Edge everyday. Common Green Forest Lizards (Calotes calotes) were also very present.
At nighttime you are not allowed to go inside the national parks of Sri Lanka, and not just in Sinharaja Forest Reserve. You can even go to jail when you do. It is not impossible to go out at nighttime. Around lodges, hotels, and the road to the entrances of parks are good places to find amphibians and reptiles.
Kanneliya Forest Reserve
Kanneliya Forest Reserve is another biodiversity hotspot only a few hours from Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Our wildlife enthusiastic friends Dieuwertje and Jasper recommended this hotspot. This place is not very known to the big public like the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Kanneliya Forest Reserve is also not very known by mapmakers, so we had to upgrade our paper map by using a pen.
During trips I meet lots of inspiring people. Some of them do important work. I met with Vishan in Kanneliya at the Kanneliya Forest Resort.
Vishan is an important “knight” in Sri Lanka for the snakes that I love so much. Besides relocating snakes from houses to the forest (so they won’t be killed by people), he also does a lot of education about snakes. Identification of the species is important in Sri Lanka. Not just to separate venomous from non-venomous, but also to know which anti-venom you need when you get bitten. It can literally save lives!
On the first afternoon we went to his house to see some snakes. On the photos you can see captive- or temporary captive snakes used for education or to release later in the Kanneliya Forest Reserve. It was great to see and photograph some species. Of course it is much better in the wild.
Narangas Ella Falls
The trail to Narangas Ella was our first hike in Kanneliya Forest Reserve. During the hike we saw a lot of beautiful Sri Lankan Kangaroo Lizards (Otocryptis wiegmanni). After a while I only photographed them when they were in a nice pose. Like this one standing on a fallen brach like “The Lion King”.
Another familiar lizard the Hump-nosed Lizard was also a frequently seen lizard in Kanneliya Forest Reserve. This lizard never gets boring.
One male crossed the trail and then climbed up a tree. This time I could photograph the dewlap of this male!
Vishan also showed us some very beautiful amphibian species inside the bat cave. Later we also saw two of those species outside the cave.
The leeches gave this hike another dimension. In Sinharaja it had been dry for more than a week. We did not see many leeches. Only during the last night after the rain. In Kanneliya Forest Reserve it was totally different. When I was photographing animals on the forest floor I was feeding myself to the leeches. At some places you had to remove several leeches from your trousers when standing still for only a few seconds. Sometimes I even reached double digits in leeches on my body. In Sinharaja it was probably the same story if it was not so dry.
Kabbale Mountain Trail
The next day Vishan took us to the Kabbale mountain trail. A trail with much elevation, but shorter than the day before. My legs were still very tired of the previous day, but the trail was very totally worth it. The higher we got the more beautiful it became. After a while we reached the primary forest higher on the hill. We were still running for the leeches, but we got used to their presence.
When we reached a small, and almost dry, waterfall Vishan found some Sri Lanka Crevice Frogs (Nannophrys ceylonensis). They are extremely hard to photograph. When you blink your eyes you can search again, even when the frog did not move. They are so well camouflaged (or I am just blind)!
The view from the viewpoint was amazing, but the Rough-horned lizard (Ceratophora aspera) was the highlight of the hike. This lizard was one of the species I wanted to see. I did not dare to dream to see it in the wild. I have to give all the credits to Vishan for finding this, very well camouflaged, stunning male. Look at that horn, it looks amazing! This lizard deserves all the David Attenborough superlatives in the world.
While I was photographing this “dream lizard” I was using my flash to get more details in my image. For a very short moment the big leaf in the background became very bright because the sun came through. In the tropics the sun moves faster so the opportunity was very short. I turned my flash off to photograph the silhouette. The next time the sun came through it was already on another leaf. I got the moment! The photo I made is one of my personal favorite lizard photos.
The silhouette looks like a lizard with a saw on his head. Very horror-like!
Yala National Park
Our next stop was the famous Yala National Park in the southeast of Sri Lanka. Yala is a popular place to do safaris, and one of the hotspots to see the Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) . Lake View Cottage in Tissamaharama was our “basecamp” from which we did day trips . The deluxe room had the lake view. I loved this place, and I still dream about the breakfasts.
We had arranged two safaris in Yala National Park. One was a normal full day safari and the other was a special leopard safari the next day.
I wanted to see the Sri Lankan Leopard really bad. Whether you are a birder, herper (amphibians and reptiles), botanist, or even an online gamer, seeing big cats in the wild is unforgettable.
Full day safari
It can be hard seeing leopards in the wild. Some people go out searching them for days without seeing them, but we were lucky to see a beautiful male leopard within an hour. Yes only one hour! I think it was around 7.00 AM. He was sleeping on the rock. When we arrived and got a little closer he stood up, stretched, yawned, and jumped off the rock to sleep in the shade. It probably got a little bit too warm on the rock.
I had a lot of people in front of me, but we got in the right position in time. Double luck (and skills of the driver)!
If this amazing sighting of a Sri Lankan Leopard was only the beginning, what could we expect more?
Our driver and guide were a great duo. The driver was a bit older. He was like a funny uncle. The guide was of our age. He was more like a joking cousin. One time the guide told us a joke when we were looking at a chewing buffalo. He said: “Looks like he is chewing bubblegum”, and started to laugh. A little later the driver opened the window and told the same joke. Then they probably told each other that he had already made the joke, and both started to laugh again. That made the joke even better. A good atmosphere inside the jeep is part of the experience.
During a short break at the beach we saw Indian palm squirrels (Funambulus palmarum). They are very cute and not very shy. One squirrel was chasing another. A few minutes later we found out why.
Indian palm squirrels are very good at climbing trees like most squirrels. When a female is not able to climb the tree on her own, some of the male squirrels help her to get in the tree by pushing her. It took a lot of pushes before she was up in the tree. The other theory is that the one in the front was blind, and the other was assisting.
I still hear our guides giggling when they came to me asking to photograph two mating squirrels.
We enjoyed watching a group of Tufted Gray Langurs (Semnopithecus priam) from very close. It is always great to see the little monkeys play. They were little acrobats!
The monkey maffia of Yala National Park
We had lunch near the river. We had arrived first and there were no monkeys yet. While eating we saw some Toque Macaque (Macaca sinica) across the river. I was alerted by the guides and familiar with robbing macaques.
When the next group had arrived they moved to our side of the river. The other group was not very alert. An easy target for “the monkey maffia of Yala National Park”. Their grand prize was a very delicious meal.
As you can see on the photos, not all members of the “monkey maffia” look like thugs.
The guides got me excited, and then fooled by saying: “Chameleon, chameleon, chameleon!”. In most Asian countries they call agamas “chameleon”. That is confusing, because there is a real chameleon in Sri Lanka.
However it was an Oriental Garden Lizard (Calotes versicolor). A commonly seen lizard, but very beautiful.
The elephant with the five legs
In the afternoon, on the hottest moment of the day, we saw two male elephants. Male elephants live solitary and do not tolerate other males around. The two we saw were tolerant, even very passionate.
When one of them walked away, our guide had one more joke: “He has five legs!”.
At the end of our full day safari in Yala National Park we saw some commotion around a tree. Two Malabar Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros coronatus) where sitting around a hole in the tree. A third one was flying around the tree. This was the best hornbill sighting I have ever had.
After seeing the elegant beauty of the two Malabar Pied Hornbills we saw something very dramatic. Seeing a Changeable Hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) is something great to see. Seeing a Changeable Hawk-eagle eating a White-browed Fantail (Rhipidura aureola) is spectacular. Being excited turned into drama when we saw the partner of the White-browed Fantail attack the Changeable Hawk-eagle for a long time. The partner kept on striking and sitting on top of the hawk-eagle picking feathers. He did that until the hawk-eagle was finished eating his partner.
Special Leopard safari
Honestly I did not expect to see a leopard within an hour. Who does? We were extremely lucky. The next day during the special leopard safari we had low expectations and were very relaxed because there was no pressure seeing a leopard. This safari was very focussed on leopards, but for other specials we also stopped.
After a few hours we got served! Three leopards in one tree! It got very crowded, because (ofcourse) everybody wanted to see the leopards. We drove some extra rounds in the traffic jam to get this photo.
I am not fully sattisfied with the photo. The light was from behind the leopards, the leopards were in the shade, and there was a lot of dust in the air. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom helped me to get the result close to what I wanted.
Udawalawa National park
We had only two weeks, but I really wanted to visit Udawalawa National Park for the elephants and landscapes. We stayed here for only one night, and one afternoon safari. The next day we would go to Ohiya, near Horton Plains.
The weather forecast said that it would rain during the afternoon safari. A chance to make photos I have not made before.
We did not have to wait long before the first elephant. It was a male at a short distance.
The landscapes in Udawalawa are breathtaking with the dead trees in the water. Most people visit the park for the elephants, but the park is also a great location for birders. The Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) on a dead tree in the water was a characteristic photograph for Udawalawa.
It was cloudy during the whole safari, but we had to wait a little longer for the rain. When the rain came, we got the full package. We got soaked to the skin while watching and photographing a female elephant eating.
While driving in the heavy rain in Udawalawa this Toque Macaque got a smile on my face. The monkey was hiding for the rain and showed some funny faces while looking at the rain. You have to look closely to spot the monkey.
having such heavy rain after a dry period must have been great for the elephants. Everywhere inside the national park we saw elephants taking mud baths.
But sometimes they had to rub the water out of their eyes.
Elephants in the rain, elephants taking mud baths, and being soaked to the skin. It was spectacular!
Horton Plains National Park is a protected area in the central highlands of Sri Lanka and is covered by montane grassland and cloud forest.
We had only one full day in Horton Plains National Park. We decided to do the hike to World’s End. World’s End is a very nice viewing point inside the National Park. When the sky is clear you can have a very beautiful view. Under the viewpoint there is a 870 meter high cliff. The hike was a roundtrip. We decided to follow it clockwise, because most (also very loud) people went the other direction.
Yara noticed a very beautiful lizard. The Black Lipped Green Lizard (Calotes Nigrilabris) was just doing lizard things next to three girls doing a photoshoot. This resulted in two photoshoots next to each other, and I was the crazy one.
In the background you can see a part of the view at World’s End.
During this very beautiful hike we saw more Black Lipped Green Lizards. Also this very beautiful male.
Sri Lanka is home to a lot of waterfalls. Horton Plains is no exception. The waterfall was not very big, but the shape was beautiful.
One of the species I really wanted to see in Sri Lanka was the Rhino-horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii). The males have a very nice elegant horn on his head.
In Horton Plains National Park we looked for this special lizard. Yara found a female of this species. Just like I found in the literature between 1m and 2m of the ground. We looked on this location for a male (with horn), but without luck. Females have a very tiny horn. On the close-ups you can see the tiny horn.
I did see a Rhino-horned Lizard, but I have another reason to visit Sri Lanka again.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Besides the story through my camera, there are also stories behind the camera to tell.
A camera glued to my face
When I look through the photos of a trip I see myself with a camera glued to my face most of the time. There are some exceptions, like this photo of Yara, a Hump-nosed Lizard, and I. I really like the photo.
But there is still a nice collection of me with the camera glued to my face.
Up close with the monkey maffia of Yala National Park.
During our first full day safari we stopped at a remote beach in Yala National Park. A very idilic location to stop for a short break, but with a horrific history.
On the 26th of December 2004 large tsunami waves hit this remote beach in Yala National Park, killing 47 visitors that made the same stop as we did. According to the monument’s stone inscription fifteen of them were Japanese and German tourists, twenty-nine local visitors, two foreigners, and one local reported missing. A fraction of the big disaster that killed 30,000 to 35,000 people in the country.
The foundation is everything that is left of the Patangala Rest House, which is now a monument. The sculpture represents the tsunami waves that struck the area.
The guides told us that people saw animals moving more inland before the waves. After the tsunami they did not find animal corpses. As if they sensed what was coming.
I asked the guide if there is a tsunami alarm. He said no. If there is a tsunami, he would not know.
My flash setup
Many people asked me about my flash setup. It is not a big secret. I have learned from other people, and I hope I can help other people with the same passion for wildlife photography.
I used a small Canon Speedlite 270EX (only €50 second hand) and created a DIY-softbox with packing foam. You can find more details on how to make it yourself here.
On the photos you can see what it looks like. I did not use it during heavy rain, but it survived very humid conditions.
I used this setup on both my Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L IS and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. It worked!
Fruit juices is what kept us going in Sri Lanka. We loved them!
Sri Lanka is great for wildlife photographers, but also nice to relax. One of my favorite places to relax during the day was at Lake View Cottage in Tissamaharama. I loved the panoramic view!
Photographing, editing my photos, and writing a report costs a lot of time and energy. I love doing it (it is my passion), but it would be great if you ‘like’ or ‘share’ this report. Also writing a reply feels very rewarding. Also feel free to ask me for information when you are planning your trip.
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This list consists of the amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds mentioned in this report, but also the ones I had encountered but decided not to include in this report. In this report I just included the photos I really like. For some species that means that the photo was not good enough, or that I did not photograph the species.
It is also hard to find the identities of some species. I need an up to date field-guide of the frogs of Sri Lanka. I will include new species to the list when I find the identities.
- Black-spectacled Toad Duttaphrynus melanostictus
- Common Indian Treefrog Polypedates maculatus
- House Toad Duttaphrynus melanostictus
- Kanneliya Shrub Frog Pseudophilautus sordidus
- Kelaart`s Dwarf Toad Adenomus kelaartii
- Pseudophilautus sp.
- Sri Lanka Crevice Frog Nannophrys ceylonensis
- Asian House Gecko Hemidactylus frenatus
- Bengal Monitor Varanus bengalensis
- Black Lipped Green Lizard Calotes Nigrilabris
- Cnemaspis sp.
- Common Green Forest Lizard Calotes calotes
- Hump-nosed Lizard Lyriocephalus scutatus
- Mugger Crocodile Crocodylus palustris
- Oriental Garden Lizard Calotes versicolor
- Rhino-horned Lizard Ceratophora stoddartii
- Rough-horned lizard Ceratophora aspera
- Saltwater Crocodile Crocodylus porosus
- Sri Lankan Kangaroo Lizard Otocryptis wiegmanni
- Water Monitor Varanus salvator
- Boulenger’s keelback Xenochrophis asperrimus
- Dendrelaphis sp.
- Green Vine Snake Ahaetulla nasuta
- Sri Lankan Pitviper Trimeresurus trigonocephalus
- Indian Palm Squirrel Funambulus palmarum
- Sri Lankan Elephant Elephas maximus maximus
- Sri Lankan Leopard Panthera pardus kotiya
- Toque Macaque Macaca sinica
- Tufted Gray Langurs Semnopithecus priam
- Changeable Hawk-eagle Nisaetus cirrhatus
- Malabar Pied Hornbill Anthracoceros coronatus
- Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis
- Sri Lankan Junglefowl Gallus lafayettii
- White-browed Fantail Rhipidura aureola