The largest surviving tract of undisturbed lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka, Sinharaja is one of the island’s outstanding natural wonders and a biodiverse treasure box of global significance (recognized by its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989). This is the archetypal rainforest as you’ve always imagined it: the air thick with humidity (approaching ninety percent in places) and alive with the incessant noise of birds, cicadas and other invisible creatures; the ground choked with a dense understorey of exotic ferns and snaking lianas wrapped around the base of towering tropical hardwoods, rising towards the forest canopy high overhead.
According to tradition, Sinharaja was formerly a royal reserve (as suggested by its name, meaning “Lion King”). The first attempts to conserve it were made as far back as 1840, when it became property of the British Crown. Logging began in 1971, until being banned in the face of national protests in 1977, when the area was declared a national reserve. Sinharaja is now safely protected under UNESCO auspices, using a system whereby inhabitants of the twenty-odd villages which surround the reserve have the right to limited use of the forest’s resources, including tapping kitul palms for jaggery and collecting rattan for building.
Sinharaja stretches for almost 30km across the wet zone at the southern edges of the hill country, enveloping a series of switchback hills and valleys ranging in altitude from just 300m up to 1170m. To the north and south, the reserve is bounded by two sizeable rivers, the Kalu Ganga and the Gin Ganga, which cut picturesque, waterfall-studded courses through the trees.
A staggering 830 of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of flora and fauna are found in Sinharaja, including myriad birds, reptiles and insects, while no less than sixty percent of the reserve’s trees are endemic too. The reserve’s most common mammal is the purple-faced langur monkey, while you might also encounter three species of squirrel – the dusky-striped jungle squirrel, flame-striped jungle squirrel and western giant squirrel – along with mongooses. Less common, and very rarely sighted, are leopards, rusty spotted cats, fishing-cats and civets. There’s also a rich reptile population, including 21 of Sri Lanka’s 45 endemic species, among them rare snakes and frogs. Many of the reserve’s bountiful population of insects are yet to be classified, although you’re likely to see various colourful spiders and enormous butterflies, while giant millipedes are also common.
Sinharaja has one of Sri Lanka’s richest bird populations: 21 of the country’s 26 endemic species have been recorded here (although some can only be seen in the reserve’s difficult-to-reach eastern fringes). The density of the forest and the fact that its birds largely inhabit the topmost part of the canopy means that actually seeing them can be tricky, especially if entering via the Mederipitiya entrance, where the forest is particularly thick – as ever, a good guide (see Birds of different feathers) is of the essence.