Encounter with leopards: Like watching a wildlife film

In July, the British High Commission relaxed the travel advisory to Yala and during the third week I was in Yala with the British High Commissioner Dr. Peter Hayes, his wife Kirsty and their children. During the last weekend of September I returned with Tom Owen-Edmunds and Libby Southwell.

Our first half an hour into the park and the last half an hour into the park produced two amazing and memorable leopard sightings. Both were close, and provided great viewing. I suspect both were the Kohombagaswala cubs.

The first sighting was on the Uraniya Road, just before Palugaswala No. 1. We had left the Yala Village hotel and proceeded leisurely. In our first half an hour we came across a cluster of jeeps that were looking at a young male seated on a low rock. We had great views but through a thicket of Weera trees, quite atmospheric. After five minutes or so the leopard stretched and moved away.

We stopped at the tsunami memorial at Patanangala where a male House Sparrow attacked its reflection in the mirror. Tom who is a fairly keen birdwatcher ticked off the birds in a copy of John Harrrison's Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. We examined House Swifts, Crested Tree-swifts, Barn Swallows and Ceylon Swallows which hawked overhead. Near the round wala on the Meda Para we came across a female Barred Button-quail which was foraging in the dry leaf litter. Its technique was to rotate in the leaves as if was trying to make a circular depression to create nest.

We watched it for at least fifteen minutes. The role of the sexes are reversed in this bird and the female was strongly marked.

We exited the park around 12 noon and headed to the Palatupana salt pans. There was a good mix of waders including a single Ruff. Species present included Golden, Grey and Lesser Sand Plover, Common, Green, Marsh and Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Redshank, Black-winged Stilt, Great Thick-knee, etc.

The evening game drive got off to a tremendous start when five jackals visited the lake near the ticket office. At Buttuwa wewa crocodiles were concentrated into a small area. We could see at least 50 crocodiles, some enormous.

Two endangered Lesser Adjutants were in the distance. Two Black-crowned Night-herons were also out in the open. This is unusual for a bird which is nocturnal.

We took the road running past Pimburagala which comes from the far side of Wal Mal Kema. This is a very graphic landscape with sheets of rock bordered by gaunt, leafless thorn scrub. The park was very dry and almost all of the water bodies were totally dry. The evening light was wonderful. At Wal Mal Kema, the effect of the evening light on the pink hued rock was breathtaking. It was quiet and we were the only jeep and we settled in to take it all in. Into this wonderful light walked a peacock, which shimmered and dazzled in the warm but soft light.

Lal the driver and Ruwan the tracker felt that Kohombogaswala may attract one of leopards from the two cubs and the mother which frequent the area. These are the leopards I had seen in July when I had visited with the British High Commissioner and his family. Driving in I had explained to Tom and Libby that every year, Yala has one or two sets of cubs which perform for the cameras. This summer, it was the turn of the Kohombogaswala cubs.

In the afternoon, we had watched a Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) water bowser fill the water hole with water. Many of the water holes have small cemented ponds to help the animals get through the drought. It is very nice to see the DWLC continuing with interventionist conservation management. The animal populations would otherwise crash.

Just as we arrived, one of the eight vehicles parked there beckoned us. We joined them just as the female cub walked in for a drink. I started to shoot and the leopard walked to the right and began to drink. It then walked into the golden light and out of view.

After dinner we drove off towards Kirinda. We had several Black-naped Hare and nothing else. An Indian Nightjar was on the lake embankment near the hotel. The bull elephant was once again foraging outside my room, no 111, as I went in around 10.00 p.m.We took drinks on the top deck of the Yala Village Hotel and indulged in a spot of astronomy. We looked at the Milky Way and at Jupiter, the latter's planetary disc clear through binoculars.

The Saturday had been a phenomenal day with beautiful birds, many mammals, lovely landscapes and two fantastic sightings of leopard. The Sunday, was another incredible day in the park which left Libby and Tom commenting that it was on par with an African safari. In fact the whole morning felt like we were on live in a programme being aired on Nat Geo or Animal Planet.

We drove past Palugaswala No.1 to Palugaswala No. 2. A pack of six jackals were tearing at the carcass. They were nervous and fed quickly. Once or twice a Spotted Deer alarm call rang out. A more strident call rang out later followed by a distant Sambhur bellowing. A leopard was clearly on its way. The nervous jackals dispersed.

We waited and waited, but no leopard arrived. A mobile phone call came that the leopard was at Palugaswala No 1 and the rest of the vehicles sped away. Reluctantly we decided to join and drove the long loop on the one way circuit to Palugaswala No 1. One of the cubs (nearly sub-adult now) had arrived and was apparently stalking the nearly dead buffalo which was at the hole.

The cub had retired to a spot of shade on the embankment. It was like watching a wildlife film. A pair of Large-billed Crows (Jungle Crows) began to peck at the carcass.

The leopard had moved to another location and we had one more look before driving out. I did not have a leopard photography session but I had taken a very interesting repertoire of images. It is amazing what a morning at a waterhole in Yala during the peak of the dry season can yield.

(Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is CEO of Jetwing EcoHolidays)

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