In this relatively small island it is possible, within less than 200 km, to pass through ten or twelve different patterns of vegetation, each offering a profusion of different fruits bananas in variety, coconuts and cashnew nuts, mangoes of varied shape, size and colour, guavas, pawpaws, litchis, delicate mangosteens and breadfruit, which tastes better than it smells.
In some parts of the island are covered with huge tea plantations; elsewhere the forest, with the great trees supplies exotic woods like mahogany, ebony and teak, iron wood trees (Mesua ferrea), banyans with their ramified trunks, and the handsome breadfruit tree with its pumpkin-sized fruit, smelling when ripe like a well matured cheese. The dense equatorial forests are found only in a few areas round Ratnapura and along the banks of the rivers of southern Sri Lanka.
More than a quarter of the island, in the north and the south-east, is occupied by open forest and jungle in the Indian meaning of the word an almost impenetrable tangle of thorns, acacias, dense undergrowth and lianas bristling with poisonous spines in which the trees never exceed a height of 12 m. The vegetation of these areas, known only to pioneers, archaeologists and the government forestry service, is abundant but tends to be rather dull in colour, with the predominant grey-green of the drought loving species and the grey tints of the lichens relieved only by the dark green foliage of shiny leaved trees.
This jungle or scrub is an inhospitable world in which everything conspires to discourage penetration by man poisonous plants and thorns, venomous snakes, the ever present possibility of a perilous encounter with a bear, an elephant or a panther. Yet, deserted swampy region was once occupied by a busy and active population, as is shown by the thousands of structures bridges, artificial ponds or tanks, embankments, dams, irrigation canals of which archaeologists have discovered remains, buried under a tangle of vegetation.
The tormented history of Sri Lanka led to the abandonment in the 13th and 14th centuries of land which has been brought under cultivation areas which have now reverted to open forest and scrub. The government of Sri Lanka has plans to reclaim some of these abandoned areas by restoring the irrigation and other works which have been neglected for centuries. Since the end of the 19th century considerable progress has been made in winning back land in this way, but these efforts must continue if land is to be provided for the large numbers of small farmers who are in need of soil to till.
The government forestry service is engaged in a large reforestation programme in areas devastated until quite recently by primitive slash-and-burn cultivation (the method known in Sri Lanka as chena), and the visitor to Sri Lanka gets the impression of a well wooded country. The hilltops not covered with forest have a growth of tall grasses with hard sharp leaves and groves of huge grey-green bamboos.
In the coastal areas palms occupy a predominant place. They include the areca palm (Areca catechu), bearing the betel nuts or areca nuts which are wrapped in leaves of betel pepper and chewed, or used to make dyes; the talipot (Corypha umbraculifera), whose leaves were used until recently to make the olas, the sacred books in which Sri Lanka s history was recorded; the palm-cabbage; the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera), which yields copra, oil, palm-wine and a fibre used to make coarse textiles; and the giant of the family (up to 40 m high), the palmyra (Borassus flabelliformis), which supplies the same useful products as the coconut palm and in addition produces the coarse brown sugar known as jaggery.
Sri Lanka has a distinctive fauna of its own, which is relatively well preserved since the island has none of the large predators and also because for many centuries, under the influence of Buddhism, the people of Sri Lanka have been trained to respect all forms of animal life.
Many of the species are common to Sri Lanka and India, but there are also some distinctive types, marked by the adjective zeylanicus in their scientific names. The reptiles are well represented, with four species of land tortoises and five turtles (some of them reaching a length of 2 m), 38 lizards of varied and often brilliant colours, and two monitors, one of them 2 m long. There are two species of crocodiles, Crocodylus palustris Kimbula (locally known as the kumbula) and Crocodylus palustris Schneider.
The kimbula lives in the swamps and pools (tanks) of the coastal plains, moving from one pool to another at night. It appears to avoid man, but some consider it dangerous; it may reach a length of 4 m. The Schneider crocodile is a giant, 6 m long, which haunts the estuaries of southern Sri Lanka, from the Kalu Ganga to the Mahaweli, but sometimes goes a considerable distance up the rivers. Swimmers and canoeists must keep a wary lookout for this dangerous creature.
There are many poisonous snakes, but three species are particularly feared, the ticpolonga, the cobra and the mapila. The ticpolonga or Russell’s viper, a species found throughout southern Asia, frequents the plantations, and in Sinhalese tradition is the incarnation of deceit. The cobra or naya, on the other hand of which there are two types, one large and the other small is a subject of veneration in Sri Lanka as it is in India.
To the Brahmanists it is divine; to the Sinhalese it is a creature blessed by Buddha. These traditions are relics of an ancient cult of the Nayas which is referred to in the old Indian religious books. A cobra bite brings death by respiratory paralysis within three or four hours. The mapila or cat snake (Boiga ceylonesis), a tree dwelling snake, it is small (up to 40 cm) but also dangerous.
Among the mammals the elephant takes a leading place as king of the forests. Sri Lanka has two sub-species of the Indian elephant. The commoner of the two, Elephas indicus maximus, is easily domesticated. A sub-species peculiar to Sri Lanka, Elephas maximus Vilaliya, the swamp elephant, with broad feet suited to its habitat on the swampy banks of the Mahaweli and the marshland south of Polonnaruwa, is larger, heavier and wilder. The arts of catching, taming and training elephants are practised in Sri Lanka as they are in India.
A whole Sinhalese vocabulary was developed by the authors of the ancient treatise on “The Science of the Elephant”, the Gaja Sastra, and the mahouts know the ninety sensitive points on the elephant’s skin, the nilas, pressure on which enables them to direct the activities of these 5 or 6 ton monsters, guiding their movements and training them to carry out tasks of lifting and carrying.
The mahouts know the vulnerable spots which must be hit to kill a dangerous rogue elephant. During the rutting season the elephant’s temples secrete a perfumed liquid which has always appealed to the imagination of poets. The science of the elephant is one of the constituent elements of Sinhalese culture and a favourite theme in poetry, painting and sculpture. There are over 1000 domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka.
Other animals of the forest include the wild buffalo, a dangerous animal whose more placid cousin, the gayal, has been domesticated; the cheetah; panther, Panthera pardus Kotiya, one of the few predators on the island which will attack man; the lynx and a number of wild cats, one of which, the fishing cat, attains a considerable size; a bear peculiar to Sri Lanka, Melursus ursinus, dark-coloured, shaggy and snub-nosed; a small ruminant no bigger than a hare, Tragulus memimna, the mouse-deer; the curious flying squirrel, Pteromys petaurista (from a Greek word meaning acrobat), which can glide through the air for anything up to 40 metres; and various species of deer.
Travellers in the wooded regions will frequently encounter families of monkeys ordinary macaques; the curious white bearded macaque, Macaca albibarbatus, tall and slender, with a tail like a lion’s; wanderoos, with a face like a grotesque old man; the entellus langur or hanuman, Semnopithecus, the sacred monkey which is the prototype of the Hindu God Hanuman, with delicate arms and legs, a long tail, a white beard and a whitish yellow coat.
Among creatures of the air Sri Lanka has the very large long snouted bats known as flying foxes, which can be seen during the day suspended from the highest branches of banyans and breadfruit trees, looking like some kind of long brown fruit, and an astonishing variety of bird life, from the tiny bee-eaters, of shimmering blue or green with metallic glints, to the majestic birds of prey like the great white eagle which haunt the peaks and remote crags.
Visitors staying in the forest regions are greeted by the noisy clamour of countless birds at dawn and dusk the mingling of cries rather than songs, squawking, chattering, chuckling, croaking, cackling, cooing and cawing which regularly features in the sound track of jungle films (like the forest scenes in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, which were filmed in Sri Lanka).
The ruins of the ancient cities of Sri Lanka and the national parks are alive with brilliantly plumged birds brown mynah birds with their yellow beaks, black and orange orioles, green parrots, the Sri Lanka jungle fowl, royal pheasants and sumptuous peacocks, the hornbill or Sri Lanka toucan, and many more to which the ordinary visitor will be unable to put a name. A further touch of colour is added by the large and brilliantly hued butterflies, as big as the bee-eaters.
Visitors staying at Sigiriya or Polonnaruwa may be wakened by a sinister shriek; they can be reassured: it is merely the almost human cry of a nocturnal bird of prey, the brown forest eagle owl, Bubo nipalensis. This brief survey of the fauna of Sri Lanka, inevitably incomplete, must end with a mention of the leeches and ticks. It is possible to visit Sri Lanka without attracting the attentions of the ticks, but it is almost impossible to walk for any length of time in the damp grass of a park without collecting a few leeches. The best method of dislodging a leech is to apply the lighted end of a cigarette. The tick, which likes to establish itself in the groin or the hairy parts of the human body, can be removed by soaking it with paraffin.