To readers unfamiliar with Sri Lankan wildlife, the claims Gehan sets out in the introductory chapter to Wild Sri Lanka might seem fantastical. One of the best whale-watching destinations in the world? The largest annually occurring concentration of elephants in the world? The largest “bird wave” phenomenon in the world? It seems hard to believe, of an island roughly the size of Tasmania or Ireland.
But by presenting data he has gathered over many years, and sharing personal accounts of the spectacles he has seen, the author thoroughly convinces you that Sri Lanka’s wildlife is as incredible as he purports.
The book begins with a comprehensive history of the naturalists who have made studies of the island’s flora and fauna, and makes you wonder how many species are likely still to be discovered. A detailed chart of the best time of year to see various species and spectacles is a wonderful resource with which to answer that all important question: what’s the best time of year to go?
For each of the key species or wildlife “stories” of the island – which include leopards, the “elephant gathering”, blue whales, turtles, and endemic birds, butterflies and dragonflies – he highlights practical information such as when to go and where to base yourself. And, catering for visitors like myself who are just as interested in Sri Lanka’s culture and history, he recommends other places of interest and things to do in the vicinity.
There is a particularly expansive section on whales and dolphins, with 11 pages describing the cetacean behaviour you are likely to encounter on the surface, including detailed photos.
Next, a section detailing Sri Lanka’s national parks and wildlife reserves, enabling visitors to make the most of their time at any one particular park. Suitable touring itineraries for visitors with a special interest in birds or big game are also suggested.
The chapters are punctuated with extracts of Gehan’s personal journal, which describe his own encounters with Sri Lanka’s incredible wildlife on a specific day of the year, giving a sense of what you too might hope to see in a day, if you visit the same location in the same period.
The level of information contained in the book has been perfectly pitched, in that Gehan does not presume any prior knowledge of the biology, ecology and geology he describes, while still going into enough detail to stretch those with a general understanding.
Because the quality of the safari-guiding in Sri Lanka is not as well developed as other wildlife destinations, wildlife enthusiasts should definitely be well-informed before they depart. Having recently returned from a month in Sri Lanka myself, it would have been very valuable to have read the book prior to my visit. I went armed only with two of Gehan’s other books – a field-guide to spotting birds and mammals – but these species-guides lack the context of his new Wild Sri Lanka.
As a large hardback, the new book is not one to be taken out into the field with you, but more a book to read in the planning stages of your trip, to help you succeed in viewing the wildlife in which you’re most interested, and to open your eyes to exactly what the country can offer.
Gehan’s “story”-based approach is also a god-send to a journalist like me, trying to ascertain exactly what it is that makes a destination special. And in the case of Sri Lanka, it seems to be a hell of a lot.