Silent strike

By Chitral Jayatilake, Pic by Grace Mason

The monsoon broke late last year and a tremendous season for leopard observation ended with the late November rains. Many efforts in attracting European clients on safari to Sri Lanka were paying rich dividends as relaxed travel advisories enabled British tourists to come on safari to the Yala National Park.

The naturalist team of Yala Village Hotel was all geared up for the big occasion and at the crack of dawn on March 15, a group of 18 British tourists on a photo safari to capture leopards arrived at the park.
I had the privilege of leading this demanding photo tour with my team of naturalists at Nature Odyssey.

Rare moment: The leopard bounds up the tree with its kill while the mother buffalo watches in despair.

Four years spent together tracking Yala’s leopards has equipped them with what they need to stay ahead of this crafty carnivore though every skirmish to capture images is still a challenge we all relish.

No time wasted, five jeeps entered Yala’s gate with the first light illuminating the topmost branches of the giant Palu trees. It was Nilantha who called on the mobile., “Buttuwa wewa,” he said with excitement riddled in his voice.

It was amazing to spot both leopard cubs on a tree cuddled up perhaps awaiting their mum so early in the morning. With that brilliant start, we relentlessly kept on tracking for more leopard sightings.

Three days into the safari with six sightings in the bag, we were somewhat relaxed as 16 of the 18 photographers had captured Yala’s feline splendour on camera. We had a chat about Mr. and Mrs. Mason whose photographic fortunes had not been great so far. There were still two more park outings and it was a challenge to assist these true cat lovers to make their dreams come through.

On the 19th evening, we headed out with half the jeeps taking the Gonagala route and my cluster spanning “Uraniya loop”. At 16.45 hrs, we stalled at ‘Siyambalagaswala’ pondering our next move when Tharaka called on the radio of a leopard sighting. I headed towards the location leaving the third jeep at the assembling point awaiting instructions. An alarm call of deer caught the attention of the driver and naturalist Chandra in the third jeep. Within seconds, a leopard was sighted on the far side of the water hole watching from a palu tree.

What unfolded thereafter was a lightning strike on a mother buffalo and her calf that walked right under the tree. The unsuspecting duo approached the tree and a perfectly timed leap had the leopard taking the calf in a flash while the frantic mother tried in vain to break the leopard’s stranglehold. A minute later, the female leopard scrambled up the tree with the calf held in her jaws, displaying amazing hunting skills and the awesome strength of the big cat that is pound for pound the strongest and most cunning of them all.

Grace Mason using a Canon 300mm with a converter snapped this amazing sequence of events. Back at the Yala Village, once images were downloaded on a laptop, the magical moment stunned us all. It’s not often that one captures the ultimate struggle of life and death even at Yala. Grace’s image had frozen a moment of truth that occurs behind the shrub jungles of Yala often in silence.

Cat lovers travel the world over in search of the big cats but moments such as this are what makes a safari unforgettable.

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