Mariella Frostrup: exploring Sri Lanka’s wildlife with kids

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Creatures large and small were to be the defining feature of Sri Lanka, as we discovered 10 days before we were due to fly out. Dan, our 11-year-old, who’s big on research, announced he wouldn’t be joining us on holiday because the country was overrun with spitting cobras.

We tried to assuage his fears but clearing our throats noisily whenever he was in ‘spitting’ distance wasn’t, I admit, the most supportive of responses.

Thankfully, he rallied and 10 days later, as I followed him down a pitch-dark jungle path with only a red-beamed head-torch for weaponry, I reflected on how nice it must be to be a child, where yesterday’s terror is so easily transformed into today’s adventure.

Mariella Frostrup

Elephants at Yala National Park

We were on the lookout for the endangered slender grey lori, a nocturnal, tail-less relation of the chimpanzee, but every snap and crunch of a twig on the path suggested creepy creatures far less friendly!

The night-time tour was the brainchild of the resident naturalist, Chaminda Jayasekara at Jetwing Vil Uyana, the pioneering ecolodge we were staying at, who in 2008 had stumbled on a community of these rare, shy, mammals, and plans for six new huts were scrapped in favour of another protected habitat.

Three go wild in a safari jeep at Yala

In a bad news world, this small oasis offers a welcome blast of positivity, highlighting how protected habitats can entice back wildlife, encourage sustainable tourism and inspire the next generation to care about the dwindling animal kingdom.

Bird species alone at the lodge had increased from 26 species to 140. Cormorants and herons, kingfishers and tiny sunbirds busied themselves around us all day. At night, we’d find the these cartoon-esque yellow, orange and green birds snuggled up on branches, precariously balanced and fast asleep, surely not the safest of combinations!

Our other companions at this pioneering ecolodge were river crocodiles and wild cats, including the elusive fishing cat, a nocturnal hunter and relative of the leopard but as cuddly looking as your average moggie. Later in the trip, we visited the wildlife reserve of Yala National Park and the early risers in the family were handsomely rewarded.

Dad and daughter wrinkled their noses at the 5am wake-up call, leaving Dan and I to clamber into the safari jeep before sunrise. As the rising sun warmed our weary bodies, we sat watching a pair of leopards on a tree branch and felt decidedly smug.

Mariella at Jetwing Vil Uyana

In two weeks away, we’d had so many amazing encounters with the animal kingdom; seen pythons slither across the road in front of us, had naughty monkeys steal our snacks, fallen in love with a sloth bear ambling along a forest path and watched crocodiles sunbathing.

The greatest pleasure, however, awaited us back home when a couple of evenings after our return, I found both kids busily engaged in sketching Sri Lankan wildlife for a project they’d been set at school. Welcome proof that travel, even in the age of Google, really can broaden the mind. 

The lowdown: Sri Lanka

Cox & Kings offers a nine-day/seven-night tailor-made private tour of Sri Lanka from £2,745 per adult and £2,365 per child based on a family of four, including international flights, transfers and breakfast.

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