Sunday, October 24, 2010

Magnificent Horton Plains, Sri Lanka

After the three decade-old civil war in Sri Lanka has embarked on a new journey. In that new economic growth there’s no doubt that the tourism industry which had been at the receiving end of the war, is on the threshold of a new era. Sri Lanka is hopeful of attracting nearly 2.5 million tourists by 2016 and furthermore the year 2011 is named as the “Visit Sri Lanka” year. 

Sri Lanka’s national parks and other wildlife sanctuaries are very popular attraction for not only the many tourists who visit the island, but to locals as well. Among the country’s many a fascinating wildlife hotspots- Horton Plains National Park is very popular, unfortunately, not because of its rich endemic flora or fauna, but because of the World’s End - a bottomless gorge with a misty mesmerising view. 

Known as Maha Eliya (Great plain) by locals, and as Elk Plain by the British hunters, it was renamed Horton Plains after the then Governor of Ceylon, Sir Robert Wilmot Horton (1831 - 1837).Horton Plains was popular among the British planters who visited the area to hunt sambars and elephants. Renowned planter Thomas Faa constructed a hunting lodge within the plains which has now been converted to the Information Centre, and a tourist bungalow was named ‘Faa Inn’ after him. 

It contains the largest single extent of wet grasslands and dwarf forests in Sri Lanka. Due to the uniqueness of the forests contained within the Plains, they are referred to as ‘Cloud Forests’ as they have adapted to high elevation, strong winds, thick mists, high temperature during day time and high rainfall. The National Park is not only an important ecosystem. It is also a vital watershed area in the hill country. It acts as the collection and storage point of the headwaters for Belihul Oya, Agra Oya, Kiriketi Oya, Uma Oya, and Bogawantalawa Oya which are branches of three out of Sri Lanka’s most significant rivers – Mahaweli, Kelani and Walave. 

With 3,160 hectares (12.2 sq mi) in extent, it is contiguous with the Sripada Wilderness Sanctuary which lies in west. Located on the southern plateau of the central highlands, it is dominated by the country’s second highest mountain- Kirigalpotta (2,389m) to the west and the enchanting Totupolakanda (2,357m) to the north which is said to be the landing point of the Dandumonara - the legendary aircraft mentioned in the Hindu epic Ramanayana in which Sita was said to have been brought from India. Designated originally as a Wildlife Sanctuary on December 5, 1969, Horton Plains was elevated to a National Park on March 18, 1988 as it was a biodiversity hotspot. 

World heritage
In July 2010, the Horton Plains National Park, along with the adjacent Sripada Wilderness Sanctuary and Knuckles Mountain Range in the Matale District were inscribed on the World Heritage List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Although most areas in the hill country were cleared initially for sinchona, coffee and later for tea, only Horton Plains along with Thangamale and Sripada Wilderness Sanctuaries, Galwaysland National Park, Hakgala Strict Nature Reserve and a few other montane forest areas like Piduruthalagala, Mipilimaana, Kikiliyamaana, and Kande Ela, were spared, and as such, these forests are isolated forest patches today. 

Farsighted civil servants, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker had advised the colonial government to leave all forest areas above 5,000 feet untouched and undisturbed, following which an order was issued in 1873 that put a stop to clearing and felling of timber in the hill country. However, unfortunately, our own local leaders did not understand the importance of Horton Plains and the region was earmarked for potato in the 1950 and 1960s which had led to the severe degradation of the forest eco system. 

Two distinctive areas can be seen in the Park- 2,000 hectares of wet montane grasslands and 1,160 hectares of subtropical montane evergreen forests.According to the wildlife officials nearly 750 plant species distributed among 20 families have been recorded. Out of the nearly 54 woody plant species recorded from the park, half are endemic to Sri Lanka.

Twenty four species of mammals, 87 species of birds, 9 species of reptiles and 8 species of amphibians have been recorded.

Flagship species of Horton Plains
While Sambhur (Cervus unicolor) is the flagship species of the National Park and can be widely spotted. However, Leopards (Panthera pardus fusca), Bear Monkey (Trachypithecus vetulus monticola) Prionailurus viverrinus and Lutra lutra (Diya balla) also make Horton Plains their home.During the flowering season of Nelu trees (Strobilanthes) it is said that elephants used to climb mountains and gather in the thousands at Horton Plains. Although hill country variety of pachyderms (Elephus maximus) had been wide-spread in Horton Plains as well as in then Ceylon’s central highlands, eccentric hunters such as Maj. Thomas Roger, who had shot nearly 1,400 elephants, had driven them into extinction. (It is thought that he was killed by lightening as a punishment from god and it is said that lightening still strikes his tombstone located at the Nuwara Eliya cemetery) 

Horton Plains is most probably the only national park where visitors don’t have to travel in a vehicle and are allowed to hike along the nature tracks. But that, at times, has become a big disadvantage. Commenting on the site, the Park Warden of Horton Plains National Park said, “Although Horton Plains used to attract a large number of visitors every year, there has been a slight decline in the number of local visitors and has seen a surge of foreign tourists after national parks in the North and East were opened to visitors.” 

He added that ‘although we expect the number of local visitors to increase that could bear a threat to the environment of Horton Plains as locals appear to care less about our environment. So, we appeal to all visitors to be mindful of our environment and to safeguard it so as to pass it down to our children. The Department will introduce a spot fining scheme and in the very near future we will be authorised to fine any offenders on the spot,the warden warned.

Do’s & Don’ts
Visiting hours are from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. So, be there on time avoid disappointments. Plus, birds are in abundance, and if you are lucky enough, you might be able to see below clearly from World’s end.
Take the right hand side route in Horton Plains. It’s the easiest.
Try to avoid wearing slippers or sandals. Deck shoes are the most suitable.
Take enough water as the entire hike takes around four hours to finish (nearly 8 km's).
Do not stay away from designated hike paths.
Don’t pluck flowers, leaves, branches, remove plants or animals, and mutilate trees. Its illegal and you might end up in courts.
Do not feed / harm animals or disturb their breeding sites.
Don’t come drunk or don’t bring alcohol into Wildlife Parks. Bringing alcohol or cigarettes are not allowed.
Don’t drop garbage, polythene, plastic, bottles, and wrappers inside the Park.
Don’t start fires inside.
Do not write on name-boards.
Do not disturb other visitors.

How to get there:
Horton Plains is located from Nuwara Eliya. There are three routes to the Plains.
  • Nuwara Eliya- via Ambewela, Pattipola (32 kilometres)
  • Haputale- via Welimada, Boralanda, Ohiya (38 kilometres)
  • Nuwara Eliya- via Hakgala, Ambewela, Pattipola (38 kilometres)

  • Great World’s End
  • Little World’s End
  • Baker’s fall

Attractions: (nearby)
  • Hakgala Strict Nature Reserve 

Horton Plains 

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