The topography of this comparatively new park bears little resemblance to the other two parks in Sri Lanka. It lies deep in the interior of the country in the lower foothills of the Uva province. It is 99 sq. miles in extent. Of course it has not sea frontage, lagoons or large waterholes but is still made beautiful by the low hills and shallow valleys, streams, rivers and the placid waters of the Senanayake Samudra which traces its arc like southern boundary. It is ideal country for a foot safari.
In the slopes of the hills are vast undulating parklands whose vegetation is predominantly tall, willowy grass of two species, Illuk and Mana. Emerging from this rather inhospitable tangle is a community of stocky trees, broadly spaced out. The dominant species here are Aralu, Bulu and Nelli, a famous trio in Ayurveda medicine. Then there are also Gammalu, Kahata and Ehela which are again of therapeutic value. This unique concentration of valuable trees and shrubs has given rise to the belief that this was king Dutugamunu’s gigantic arboretum cultivated to supply his army hospital. It contains specifics for anything from high blood pressure to gall stones and snake bites.
The three principal rivers whose waters have been impounded to form the Senanayake Samudra, a magnificent reservoir of 37 sq. miles traverse the park. The balabedda Oya meanders through the north, the boulder strawn Gal Oya empties itself in the west, while the Sellaka Oya comes in unobtrusively from the south west. During the north eastern monsoon or for that matter whenever it rains, baffling networks of little streams come to life, conveying the water from the hills into the rivers closest to them. These rivulets are deep but narrow and are in many places almost hidden in the grass. This drainage system is of biological importance. It is obvious that without the grass cover there will be uncontrollable erosion, the silt will be carried to the rivers and thence to the reservoir with disastrous results. In short, the Gal Oya national park is the catchment area for the Senanayake Samudra and for this reason alone it should be perpetuated. A practice now prevails among certain villagers of burning the tall grass of the damanas during the dry season to collect Aralu, Bulu and Nelli fruits and also to graze their domestic buffaloes on the short grasses that sprout with the first rains. This is a dangerous habit which has been curbed since the area became a park. After burning, the damana is called talawa.
Dominating the landscape, however are the very beautiful rock massifs, the important ones being Danigala, Nilgala and Ul hela. The Danigala range as it is called, is of historical interest as well for in its caves and on its plateau lived the Henebedda Veddas. Although this is part of the dry zone the climate is much cooler and so it came to be known as the Sithala Wanniya.
Even as I write, the topography of the Gal Oya valley keeps changing. For instance a highway now connects Mullegama with Bulupitiya and Bibile where earlier only ox drawn carts could negotiate the difficult terrain. Squatters keep burning the forest to cultivate cash crops although the soil is the poorest known. Still we are not without hope that this park will continue to afford sanctuary to retreating animals.
The Gal Oya park has always attracted elephants and fairly large herds. The perennial source of water, the availability of fodder and the ruggedness of the terrain are ideal conditions for their continued survival. They are quite easily seen during an evening’s boat ride on the Samudra. So are the buffaloes and sambhur. But spotted deer are fewer. Leopards and bears occur in fair abundance but are not usually seen unless one is prepared to track them on foot. All the other animals live in the other parks of Sri Lanka occur in Gal Oya as well. The birdlife too has its parallel here. But in addition, this is the home of the Painted Partridge, a rather rare species at the moment. It occurs in the foothill patanas. The Orange minivet, Layard’s parakeet and the Hillmyna also adorn the canopy of the wooded areas.
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