Andrew Stone joins a safari in Sri Lanka and spots all creatures big and small.

National Park in northwest Sri Lanka. One of the country's oldest parks, it has the virtue of being among the least visited. It is only slowly reopening after the country's 30-year civil war when its bush offered cover for the warring sides.

The conflict took a toll on animal numbers, with many killed for the pot. Parts of the park remain off limits because of concerns that uncleared landmines remain.

In accessible areas, the low visitor count means that encounters with Sri Lanka's rich and diverse wildlife are guaranteed without kidney-bruising dashes along rutted tracks to check reports of elephant sightings. That can be the experience in Yala, Sri Lanka's southern and most popular park, where a 2km queue of safari jeeps forms outside the entrance by 6.30am.

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The noises in Wilpattu are more likely to come from birds than brakes. We entered the park after lunch with our guide Sameera, a committed young conservationist who tells us he was locked up when he protested against a new road into Yala, which he feared would cut across an elephant migratory track.

The Government built the road so Sameera, after five days in a lockup, moved north. Wildlife officers are compulsory for accessing all Sri Lankan national parks. It doesn't take long to realise they are also essential.

We would never have spotted the solitary leopard, recognised the soft contours of sambar deer, detected paw prints in the dust, which signalled to our driver that one of the elusive big cats had walked this way, or watched the dance of a bee-eater, a vivid small bird that eats on the wing.

Guides work in tandem with drivers. The man at the wheel scans the ground while the guide checks trees for hornbills and eagles.

At a muddy pond we stop and Sameera points to a shaded cave on the far bank. It takes a second or two but the large, sinister shape of a resting crocodile is unmistakable, lurking in the shadows for unsuspecting prey.

At another waterhole, Sameera identifies a freshwater turtle, its thick shell almost indistinguishable in the mud.

Wilpattu has elephants, but they weren't around during our three-hour visit. We did, however, encounter a herd of 40 or so at Kaudulla National Park, where billboards on nearby busy roads warn of the perils of hitting a pachyderm at high speed. Late afternoon is a good time to watch elephants emerge from the bush and head to the shallows of a large reservoir. The protective behaviour of adults around calves can be observed from a safe distance and the relationship between humans and the herd is maintained by the kilometre which separates the line-up of jeeps from the animals.
The tranquillity is upset during a second encounter with another Kaudulla herd, when one of the jeeps gets stuck in mud. The driver guns the machine, and it roars clear, to the noisy cheers of the paying guests. The elephants don't object to these parklife intruders, though the animals have been known to attack jeeps, especially when they sense food is on board.

Sir Lanka has a stunning natural world and visitors need to get to at least one national park. We managed to visit three, and each offered a distinct experience. The highlight at Yala — where the human species was dominant — was a slender golden jackal loping beside a track. We caught the tail-end of a bull elephant with a magnificent pair of tusks.

In Kaudulla, our guide, Stefan, showed us painted storks with their vivid orange beaks, openbill storks with gaps in their beaks and the decidedly ornery lesser adjutant stork, a big wading bird with a bare head and neck.

Like other Sri Lankan species, its numbers are threatened by loss of habitat and the felling of trees used for nesting.

You don't need to visit a park to come across wildlife. Returning to our hotel, our driver stopped to let a snake cross the track. He called it a polonga, though it was dark and hard to identify. But it was wise to keep our distance — of 96 snake species found in Sri Lanka, one third can kill.

The one creature that eluded our spotters was the devil bird, perhaps because it may not exist. In Sri Lankan folklore, the devil bird or ulama utters a bloodcurdling cry which portends death, as if the devil himself is in the forest. Maybe it's the one critter in a small country with abundant wildlife you wouldn't want ringing in your ears.

ANIMAL HUNT

From our jeep 200m away, the leopard resembles a clump of grass.

"There, there," gestures our guide, whose trained eye settled on the animal in a blink.
Sure enough, the shape of the creature's head is outlined along the bush edge, a Where's Wally bump shaded by thick foliage.

Squinting through field binoculars, the female's markings come into sharp focus. The animal is in repose, and while perfectly still is alert to a family of spotted deer which passes across open ground between the hunter's jungle camouflage and a waterhole.

It is mid-afternoon and the leopard, one of Sri Lanka's big five wild animals, is not interested in hunting. The elusive and threatened feline is a nocturnal stalker so the deer are able to move nervously away from the predator, who seems keener on a siesta than a snack.

The episode unfolds in Wilpattu.

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Colombo, via Singapore, with Economy Class return fares starting from $1250, for travel from May onwards. singaporeair.com

Details
HolidaysbyDesign has a 10-night Sri Lankatour, with prices starting from $2500pp.