Kumana National Park – formally known as Yala East National Park – is a glorious area where you can experience a wild paradise in its truest sense. I am a relative newcomer to the wildlife park of Kumana so my first trip back to the park after about 10 years was full of trepidation and excitement. In my opinion, Kumana is a dream destination in this country for all wildlife enthusiasts. It is an unspoilt park, almost completely cut off from civilisation, and one needs a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach it as the approach is difficult and the roads inside the park are in a rough condition.
Facts about Kumana
Kumana changed its name from Yala East National Park in September 2006. Kumana was closed for 18 years from 1985 to 2003 due to terrorist activity and was opened to the public about 10 years ago. It is located approximately 391km from Colombo. Situated in the Ampara district with its northern fringes belonging to Moneragala district, Kumana has some of the best camping sites in the country.
Kumbukkan Oya forms the southern boundary of the national park and flows 28km to form the Kumana estuary and Villu before it flows to the sea. Kumana Park is 18,149 hectares in extent, about 44500 square acres. Some 20 lagoons and tanks support the extensive birdlife of the national park. Kumana villu is subject to occasional inundation with seawater and the elevation in the park ranges from sea level to 300 feet. The Kumana area is part of an ancient civilisation that goes back to the 3rd century BC. Rock inscriptions belonging to the 2nd and 1st centuries BC have also been found in the region. The Kumana National Park lies on the route of the traditional annual foot pilgrimage to the Hindu temple at Kataragama. Both Tamil and Sinhalese communities take part in this pilgrimage.
Getting to Kumana from Colombo would be easiest on the A4 through Ratnapura, driving on the refreshing serenity of the Uda Walawe reservoir, passing the park on the left side to come to Thanamanvilla junction, take the left turn to Wellawaya, drive through Moneragala, Siyambala-Anduwa and end your long and interesting trip through Lahugala Park.
Coming to Pottuvil the next town which is largely inhabited by a Muslim community – it is a definite stop for some beef samosas and a general fill up of all your provisions including some cold ones! You do your shopping and drive through the busy town to Arugam Bay.
Now, this is a new town as Arugam Bay formally was the bay that surrounded Pottuvil but in the recent two or three years, the UDA has named a town after this beautiful area which is largely populated by surfers, both local and foreign – it is the surf city of our country, next to Hikkaduwa. Panama is the last point of habitation if you travel down the east coast. It is the end of the road so to speak with a mostly Sinhala majority with a minority of Tamil and Muslim.
Getting on to the dirt round of the Kumana Park which is approximately 14km can be a safari in itself. Potholes like huge craters dot the road and the tsunami damage too is evident. The road is narrow from Arugam Bay and my jeep raised an incredible amount of dust, coating our eyelashes, clothes and heads too. Travelling in an open jeep, one has to go through this experience and it is an integral part of being one with the jungle; the smells, sounds and feel which one would lose out on if one were to travel in enclosed air-conditioned comfort. One cannot forget the bum replacement surgery required once you come off this road from hell – just kidding, it is a ride worth your salt.
Kumana is renowned for its fauna and is the most important bird nesting and breeding grounds in Sri Lanka. Rare species such as black-necked stork, Lesser Adjutant, and Eurasian Spoonbill are some of the breeding inhabitants of Kumana. From April to July, over 10,000 birds migrate to the Kumana Swamp – large flocks of migratory water fowl, wading birds, Pintail Snipes migrate more than 9000 to 11,000km from Siberia to be in the warmer climate of Kumana.
Other species of birds such as Asian Open bill, Glossy Ibis, different types of Herons (Purple, Indian Pond, black crowned night heron), Egret (Great, Little, Intermediate), Spot Billed Pelican, Cormorant, Jacanas, and Whistling Ducks are some of the other migratory birds during the April to July season.
The forest here is more dense and humid than Yala or Wilpattu. Fallen Kumbuk trees, overgrown branches, thorn bushes, and muddy patches make you sweat your way through thick jungle roads. Beside the river in which a good two feet of water flows during the non-rainy season is the shrine. Pilgrims and travellers stop here, cook food from the utensils stored beside the shrine, wash them, and store them as they were and move on.
This is what I had come to see, a wild paradise in its true sense. In the marshy swamp, Kirala and Hambu trees grow which is a paradise for the migratory birds who lay their eggs amongst them. The Kumbuk trees line the river bed and the largest tree in the country from what I have been told by Uncle Shirley Perera is the “Kosgonna” which is a magnificent tree for its size, roots, circumference and height.