We take 5 with Kithmini Wickramarachchi – a Senior Ranger at Wild Coast Tented Lodge in Sri Lanka.
Tell us a little bit about you. Where were you raised and what did you want to be when you “grew up”?
My name is Kithmini Wickramarachchi, or Keith in short, and I grew up in the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. Ever since I was a child, I always wanted to learn about animals and nature but I didn’t have the slightest idea that I would one day get to work with them.
Since I was a child, I wanted to do something different and I used to dream about a job where I didn’t have to confine myself within four walls. One day, while taking a walk through a wildlife sanctuary near my home, I wondered how phenomenal it would be to work in a place covered with trees and animals, and since then, I drove towards that. I did all my academics related to environmental studies, which helped me get closer to my dream. Finally, I got an opportunity to work in nature as a guide at a tented camp.
A ranger at Wild Coast Tented Lodge sounds to us like one of the best and most interesting jobs in the world. How long have you worked there and how did you land the dream job?
It is truly an amazing job for any animal lover or nature enthusiast. I have been working as a ranger (field guide) for seven years now and have been with Wild Coast Lodge for almost two years as a Senior Ranger.
It’s been a long journey. In Sri Lanka, being a ranger is not as famous or prestigious as it is in Africa, so we don’t see many professionally-qualified field guides here.
After seven years of straight study, I wanted to find work where I’d be surrounded by tranquillity and the first job I got was to work as a naturalist. Day by day I learned about new things, and after five years working with various organisations related to nature and wildlife tourism, I heard from a friend that Wild Coast Tented Lodge had an opening. I thought about giving it a go and the rest is history!
Take us through an average working day for you?
Rangers usually have a long day, but it’s completely stress free and that’s mainly because every member of our ranger team does something that we love doing so we don’t feel stress that much. On a busy day, we’ll wake up around 4.30 am to get ready and dressed. Thereafter, we start doing our pre-safari checks. Usually we head out for the morning safari at around 5.45 am. This trip will go for about two-and-a-half to three hours, after which we come back to the lodge around 9.30 – 10.00 am for breakfast.
From 10.15 – 12.00 pm we have ranger meetings. This is where all the rangers gather around and talk about their their drives, guest details and preferences, any hiccups, plans for the rest of the day, and confirm drives for the afternoon. Around 12.00 pm we all have lunch together and then a short break. We prepare for our afternoon drive at around 2.30 pm and return to the lodge around 6.15 pm for sun-downers on the beach. This gives us a chance to meet other guests, compare notes of sightings, and finish a great day of safari on a fun note. We confirm the next day’s logistics and plans by 8.30 pm and then head back to our staff cafeteria for dinner.
You’re obviously a fan of animals. Do you have a favourite? If so, which one and why?
Being a fan of animals is one of the main requirements of being a ranger. When I was studying, I used to do lots of research on “creepy crawlies” and I practised as a herpetologist – a person who studies snakes and amphibians – so I do love reptiles and frogs. I also did some research on scorpions and I find them really fascinating.
But to be honest, I don’t have one favourite animal. I love all living things equally and I find them all very fascinating. When you see an elephant or a leopard on a drive, yes it is always a thrill, but for me if I see a dung beetle rolling its ball of dung for 10 minutes, it’s as equally exciting as seeing a leopard on a tree!
What has been your most memorable experience during your time at Wild Coast Tented Lodge?
Well. This is a really hard question for me to answer because life in the bush is never dull! There was the time one of my fellow rangers and I were followed by a leopard while we were walking in the bush to set up camera traps. Then there was a time we came across a large bull elephant while we were on a nature walk with guests – exciting, but you have to be extra cautious with guests who may be seeing an elephant for the first time. It’s important to read the animal’s behaviour while keeping your guests calm at the same time.
But perhaps my top memory would be the time I had a standoff with a bull elephant in the lodge. We don’t have any fences around the lodge so animals are free to walk around and they often use it as a crossing point. The elephant in question is our dearest friend, fondly named Short Tail – a bull elephant of about 40-45 years old. Usually he has a very calm personality but during “musth” period he can be bit testy. Musth is the time when bull elephants are ready to mate and because their hormones are raging, they can become aggressive.
When Short Tail was in musth last year, he wanted to check the bar for fruits, but as a responsible safari lodge we do not feed any wildlife. Short Tail was bit annoyed by that, so he decided to walk into the bar and have a look around for himself. I was the senior and most experienced ranger at the time so I walked up to him and stood between him and the bar entrance.
Elephants are very intelligent beings so Short Tail realised that I wasn’t granting him permission to walk in and he was bit unhappy about it. While this was happening, one of our other rangers took a photograph of me looking straight him straight in the eye, him looking at me, and us having a standoff. Of course nothing else happened since Short Tail came back to his senses and went back to chew on the ironwood branches… but that was one of the closest times I’ve ever been to an elephant on foot.
Every role has its own challenges. What is something that challenges you in your job?
Any role that involves managing human expectations or animals can be challenging – but managing both at the same time is sometimes more art than science! Wildlife can be unpredictable. In a national park, a place dedicated for animals to be free, you try your best to predict their behaviour and where they might be found based on your experience and understanding of those animals. But there is always a chance that your guesses may be off.
When your intuition pays off, it’s always good. Your guests are satisfied and you have a ball on the drive; but if your call didn’t pay off then it can be bit unfulfilling. Most of the guests that go on safaris understand these conditions, however there are days that leave everyone (including us as rangers) unsatisfied. We are passionate about giving our guests the best safari experience in Sri Lanka but unfortunately the only predictable thing about wild animals is their unpredictability, so you simply have to shrug it off and try your best on the next drive.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful destination. What about the country resonates most strongly with you?
From a zoologist’s perspective I would say the biodiversity of Sri Lanka would be the most interesting aspect for me. The fact that within this small land mass such a rich diversity of species can be found has always fascinated me. And the ability to encounter different topographies within a few kilometres is also a very interesting quality.
From a tourist’s perspective Sri Lanka has something to offer everyone. We have 26 declared national parks all over the country and a massive amount of animal diversity.
If you are interested in culture, then it’s one of the best places in the world to visit, with a history running all the way to 4th century BC. If it’s food, then Sri Lanka is one of the best countries for vegans and vegetarians to visit, while others will definitely enjoy our fresh seafood. And if you want the beach, then it’s an island surrounded by the sea where the sun is shining almost all the time!
If you could tell travellers planning to visit Sri Lanka and Wild Coast Tented Lodge in the future one thing, what would it be?
If you are planning to visit Wild Coast Tented Lodge, then the only thing that we would ask is that you come and stay with us for minimum three nights. That will give you three safaris where the ranger team will be able to showcase each and every aspect of Yala National Park and the diversity of Sri Lanka – from the common butterfly to the majestic Sri Lankan elephant.
Furthermore you’ll be able to spend time with us and learn about the rural lifestyle of people local to the area, get a nice taste of our culture, and even visit a hidden Buddhist monastery complex located within the Yala National Park. If you want some exercise, then we can always go for the nature walk around the property or in the bush, or one of our rangers can take you cycling around the buffer zone of the park.
What do you think other safaris around the world could learn from those offered in Yala National Park through Resplendent Ceylon?
Safaris in Sri Lanka is a very new concept and we are still improving our product to compete with safari giants from some African countries. However, we have an edge in how we can couple a rich cultural and local experience with a wilderness experience. We attract many guests who have visited Africa and they are always amazed by our abundance of different ecosystems within close proximity of each other. Because they have yet to experience a Sri Lankan safari experience, we curate it according to what we have and what we see and this gives us an advantage.
Resplendent Ceylon always helps us to achieve this by keeping us educated, exposing us to new possibilities and allowing us to grow better as rangers and as human beings. The freedom they provide us is one of the key things, I would say. We consider rangers as interpreters between nature and humans, and to do this successfully, you need to have a free hand.
If there were one animal that sums up your character, what would it be and why?
Well, my first choice would be a crocodile. I know it’s weird but crocodiles are actually amazing creatures, they are the apex predators in their ecosystem, very successful when it comes to adaptations, can stay without food for a good 45 – 60 days, and they can stay underwater for 15-25 minutes. Crocodiles can eat anything (they have one of the strongest digestive fluids among animals), can survive on the land as well as in the water. There are records of crocodiles walking more than 20 kilometres to relocate from one waterhole to another. A croc also has the ability to survive in salt water, so doesn’t have to worry about sea levels rising. A perfect predator. But of course being a dolphin or an elephant wouldn’t be bad too I guess – my teammates may have very different opinions though!