Conservationists / Entreprenuers / The Sunday Times

Yohan Weerasuriya: A love letter to the wilderness

The grass is alive. It’s after dark in Sigiriya and a full moon swims through a sea of stars above us. On my head I wear a headlamp masked by red tape (to protect the sensitive eyes of animals we encounter) and a pair of outsized wellington boots (to protect me from any irate reptiles out for a night-time slither). When I turn the headlamp on the ground beneath my feet, the field around us is aglow with tiny red dots – each is an eye reflecting my light. Sajith Buddhika Withanage Don, Back of Beyond’s in-house naturalist, leans down and shows me a small spider nestled in its web.

In the branches above the grey slender loris are calling. Their dextrous hands and feet are perfect for plucking fruit, and their enormous eyes, wide as saucers in the dark, greedily drink in the moonlight.

These creatures are tiny, and prone to freezing in place when threatened – becoming effectively invisible in the process. Luckily, we have with us the man dubbed ‘lorisge thaththa’ or the father of the loris. 42-year-old Gamagedera Ananda has worked for Back of Beyond’s founder Yohan Weerasuriya for many years now and has an uncanny gift for finding the loris in the dark. He points out the slender-limbed primates, as Sajith explains they were once common in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, as forest habitat has shrunk, so has their population. Yet, at Back of Beyond in Pidurangala, you don’t have to go much further than a few steps to find yourself in the company of a loris.

It isn’t an accident. All these properties focus on conservation, and Yohan has long been interested in the space where eco-tourism, nature conservation and sustainable agriculture meet. Before he began working for Yohan, Ananda says that like most locals he didn’t know much about conservation, and certainly he knew even less about the loris. “No one understood what Yohan was trying to do and at first we all dismissed him,” he says. “But now we have become more serious about conservation. Many now understand it can also be a source of income.”

Yohan might blush to hear it, but Ananda’s change of heart is a beautiful testament to what Back of Beyond has accomplished since they opened their doors in 2007. They began with Jungle Hideaway in Pidurangala, where Yohan built his first treehouse –he wanted to recreate his own childhood, where his father, the renowned photographer Nihal Fernando, constructed a treehouse in their home on Skelton Road, Colombo 5. It was from Nihal that Yohan inherited this deep love for this island.

“My father never wanted to travel overseas because he said it would take five lifetimes just to explore Sri Lanka.”

Yohan Weerasuirya

Today, Back of Beyond has many treehouses to offer guests, and perhaps the most beautiful are at their property in Dehigaha Ela, bordered by a gurgling stream and encased in an envelope of wild, dense forest. Leopards and elephants come to visit, and otters leave fish bones and other debris from their feasts on the banks of a pond in the clearing.

At Dehigaha Ela one of the most rewarding things you can do is take a walk. Sajith leads us into the forest, reading paw prints and scat to identify which animals have passed through. He picks up fresh elephant dung, and explains how it can be a good source of water in the unlikely situation you’re dying of thirst. He shows us how to use vines to clamber up rocks and get the best view of the forest cloaked hills, and points out the motion-sensor activated cameras they’ve installed to help researchers studying animals in this area.

“There is so much to do in this tiny country,” Yohan says, tramping along. He is utterly relaxed, yet his quiet eyes don’t seem to miss much. “My father never wanted to travel overseas because he said it would take five lifetimes just to explore Sri Lanka.”

Back of Beyond is this promise made real: visitors here are taken out into the fields, the forests, the lakes; shown the Mee tree that sends its roots deep, and its branches high above the forest floor; you’re led to the stream where the fish nibble your feet and given thambili cooled by the rushing water to quench your thirst. You’ll walk alongside the tracks of elephants that visited while you slept, and the dark cave in which bats sleep as you trek through their forest. From a boat at sunset, you’ll be offered the most perfect view of Pidurangala and Sigiriya side by side. It’s a kind of magic, and even if you’ve grown up on this island, you’re not immune.

Yohan didn’t stumble across this spectacular view of Sigiriya and Pidurangala by accident. He’s spent years patiently exploring the area and found this reservoir on one of those trips. They collaborated with local fishermen to offer this ‘magical boat ride’ which is really a unique water safari thanks to the hundreds of birds all around .

When it’s time for dinner, torches light the way along the borders of a paddy field, guiding you to a table and a personal chef: wine and hot cheese kottu never tasted so good.

These experiences are what make Back of Beyond so exceptional in a country crowded with wonderful tourist offerings. For Yohan, it’s all about getting people to fall in love with the wild again. He is a pragmatic conservationist – he recognizes the value in tourism, the necessity for sustainable agriculture models, and the importance of protecting our forests and wildlife and he works hard to reconcile these often diverging interests. One way is through Back of Beyond’s Nature Conservancy Project, which is designed to improve forest cover on Back of Beyond’s property as well as land leased from the Forest Department through strategic tree planting as well as ‘assisted natural re-generation’ (ANR). Yohan explains that it will not only help the local community and Sri Lanka at large through increasing forest cover on the island, it will also help to mitigate the human-elephant-conflict in the area.

You can see another aspect of their work at the organic farm at Dehigaha Ela where they have converted what was once slash and burn farmland into organic agricultural land and now grow indigenous and heirloom varieties of local fruits and vegetables, so rare now even in regional markets.

During the pandemic and the lockdown that’s followed, Back of Beyond began selling produce from these farms as a way to support the farmers they work with. And now as the island carefully opens up again, they’ve had good news – they were awarded the TripAdvisor Traveller’s Choice award for 2020. Guests who would like to visit can take advantage of many packages on offer.

Meanwhile, you’ll find Yohan where he is most comfortable – out in the forests, where the tall trees offer the best company. He knows this is the work of a lifetime, and that the properties he manages will continue to evolve, throwing up new challenges, and fresh delights. Yohan is working toward blurring the boundaries, so that the wild lands stretch into his own, allowing people a glimpse of the beauty beyond. “I want this whole area to be a safe haven for biodiversity,” he says, looking around at the treehouses embedded in the wilderness.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on September 6, 2020. By Smriti Daniel. Pix by Suda Shanmugaraja.