Few places are a canvas for traveler’s fantasies quite like Sri Lanka. Although the island country has long been associated with crumbling Dutch forts and empty beaches, the civil war, which ran between 1983 and 2009, has seen it largely avoid attention from a tourist invasion. Unlike nearby India (ground zero for Eat Pray Love devotees) Sri Lanka retains an air of mystique.
Wild Sri Lanka, a three-part National Geographic documentary series that airs on SBS on 28 October, is less interested in this version of Sri Lanka as an unspoiled tropical playground than it is in zoning in on the natural rhythms of one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. The first episode introduces viewers to a cast of leopards, elephants and jackals that play larger-than-life characters in an age-old, primal drama. Here are five times it reminded me that nature is so much smarter than we give it credit for and that pausing to appreciate its majesty will blow you away every time.
The next-level landscape
Glossy jungles. Sprawling plains. Reservoirs and lakes, devised in the 4th century BC by the Ancient Sinhalese, to preserve the monsoon rains. The best nature documentaries let audiences vicariously experience the thrill of exploring a landscape that’s a world away from tourist brochures while opening their eyes to things they don’t know. Wild Sri Lanka, which combines clever cinematography with intelligent narration that — amazingly enough — avoids the colonial clichés that often haunt the genre makes you feel like you’re camping out, witnessing langur monkeys swing from branches and honey buzzards circle rock formations in search of breakfast, firsthand.
The reign of the Sri Lankan leopard
Indian leopards compete for prey with tigers and its relatives in Africa regularly fight off lions but in Sri Lanka, which is separated from the subcontinent by a series of shoals known as Adam’s Bridge, these powerful cats have free reign. Although Wild Sri Lanka follows a Sri Lankan leopard as it stalks antelope like a villain from a horror movie, it also makes you instantly sad that these otherworldly creatures — hunted for their striking coats — are an endangered species on the road to becoming extinct.
Nature’s precise take on an alarm system
One of the most compelling aspects of Wild Sri Lanka is its ability to highlight the connections that spring up between animals and the fact that they communicate in a language that’s inaudible to the human ear. If you’re not moved by the scene in which antelopes, monkeys and storks rally together to warn each other that there’s a leopard fast approaching, then you’re a tougher person than me.
The awe-inspiring elephant matriarchy
Sri Lanka has no shortage of natural spectacles but few can top “The Gathering” — a centuries-old occurrence that sees hundreds of Sri Lankan elephants congregate around an ancient reservoir in the north-central part of the country during the dry season to mate, play and feast on new grass. But the fact that these elephant herds are matriarchies, composed of an openly affectionate group of aunts, mothers and daughters who share rather than compete over resources, is just as astonishing.
The strange parallels between monkeys and humans
Sri Lanka’s lowlands are home to dozens of species of monkey including the tree-dwelling tufted grey langur. Watching these monkeys pluck fruit from trees, grin at each other and fuss over their young with the same level of obsession as freshly minted human parents is a startling reminder that people and animals aren’t as different as we’d like to think.
Wild Sri Lanka premieres on SBS at 7.30 pm on Friday 28 October.